Safe to Be Proud: A conversation with Chief Stephen Hunter

By Sarah Vance

Visitors to Bancroft will notice a considerable change to the former municipal office at 24 Flint Street, when they hit the scene this summer. From the outside, nothing much appears to have changed, but we all know it’s WHO is inside, that really matters and makes a difference. 

 Stephen Hunter holds hands with former Kijicho Manito Chief Catherine Cannon, Chuck Commanda, and Jerry Wilson at the traditional home of Stephen's Grandfather, at Ron and Sonya Emond's home on North Baptiste Road, in Hastings Highlands, in 2016.

Stephen Hunter holds hands with former Kijicho Manito Chief Catherine Cannon, Chuck Commanda, and Jerry Wilson at the traditional home of Stephen's Grandfather, at Ron and Sonya Emond's home on North Baptiste Road, in Hastings Highlands, in 2016.

With less than a year since he was elected Chief, Stephen Hunter, of the Kijicho Manito Madaouskarini off-reserve Algonquin band, has facilitated the decision to move his office, from Maynooth, to the former municipal site located in Bancroft. 

For some the move is rife with symbolism, but for Hunter and the band he represents, it’s just good business, with an affordable lease, and an accessible location. 

Country Roads had the chance to sit down with Chief Hunter to talk about the projects he is undertaking. 

SV: Stephen, seeing you and meeting you here in the former municipal board room, is interesting to me. I never thought I would see this …

SH: I wonder why that is? I see us (Algonquins) here. Would you like to see our leasehold agreement?

SV: No, Stephen, that’s not really what I am asking. I mean, for as long as I can remember, 24 Flint Street has been the Town Office site, do you not see a little symbolism or significance to this move? 

 Beany John shares Hoop dancing skills with students at York River Public School in Bancroft, as part of the Indigenous Education Open House, on May  3, 2018. Children from Bancroft participate.

Beany John shares Hoop dancing skills with students at York River Public School in Bancroft, as part of the Indigenous Education Open House, on May  3, 2018. Children from Bancroft participate.

SH: I do see a growing recognition and awareness of and for our band. I see some conscientious efforts being undertaken to work with our Madaouskarini band. But as far as the building goes, this is a surplus town building, and the Town of Bancroft has been really great to us. While our office was located in Maynooth, and that location has been meaningful and essential for us, we like how central this has put us. We are truly accessible. We can host large events — dinners with all our families (in the 3-Bay garage). We have a wonderful relationship with the town staff, and the workers under the employ of the town of Bancroft. We like working with them. 

SV: Do you feel it is positive for the Algonquin community to see you here at 24 Flint Street? 

SH: It is good for all communities. And really, that our community does well, and continues to do well, is inextricable from the overall value of Bancroft, and the health of North Hastings. There is a significant social and economic value to cultural tourism and we can help be a part of that, because our genealogies show our families being here since before the 1700’s. 

It’s also a very central location that will allow us to further our work with other agencies. For example, the Good Food Box, is distributed through our location here on Flint St. We couldn’t do that in Maynooth, simply because we didn’t have the space. We have a good space now. An accessible, open space, where we can accommodate many. 

 Stephen Hunter and C huck Commanda harvesting bark in Madawaska Valley, to use in traditional basket making and canoe build. 

Stephen Hunter and C huck Commanda harvesting bark in Madawaska Valley, to use in traditional basket making and canoe build. 

SV: You have been elected by your band for the role of Algonquin Negotiation Representative. Tell us about that role. 

SH: Kijicho Manito Madaouskarini is unique because there never was a treaty agreement for this area, or the area around Baptiste. So today, we are an off-reserve band, living on unceded Algonquin territory. The role and responsibility of the Algonquin Negotiation Representatives is to stand by these interests — and the interests of the Algonquins of Ontario with respect to our Traditional Territory in Ontario in the ongoing negotiations of a modern day treaty with the Governments of Canada and Ontario. Kijicho Manito is one of ten Algonquin communities in Ontario involved in the tentative land claim agreement. 

SV: What is exciting for you about having this role in your home, and with the Kijicho Manito band? 

SH: We are entering into a new forestry management program, and I am excited to be at those tables and be a part of those decisions. Kijicho Manito Madaouskarini will be an integral part of the decision making process moving forward, as the Ministry of Natural Resource develops forestry management plans. Algonquins being at the table — that’s exciting to me. 

The land is a big part of who we (Algonquins) are. We are stewards of the land and we want to be able to embrace this knowledge, of loving all living things. More importantly, we want to be able to share that openly without fear, or judgement, or negative bias. I really want to be proud of that, and I want to see others being safe to be proud of their community and of their environmental stewardship. 

SV: Where do you see the most progress happening? 

 Stephen Hunter in Bancroft, at Millennium Park, prepares to test canoe built in 2016, as part of a cultural tourism project in partnership with the Town of Bancroft.

Stephen Hunter in Bancroft, at Millennium Park, prepares to test canoe built in 2016, as part of a cultural tourism project in partnership with the Town of Bancroft.

SH: I see it in community building. In Bancroft, we build a traditional birch bark canoe, outdoors, every summer, at Millennium Park or also, at the Heritage Museum downtown. This is becoming a tradition for Chuck (Commanda) and me, over 4 weeks every summer. The conversations that we have and the people who we meet … from all over the world, is exciting. That human contact and the cultural tourism associated with that, has helped to build pride within our community; there is a growing interest in our skills and trades; and knowledge about our ways and medicines that remain largely unknown to many, are being shared by us, in our way, on our terms. 

The land is very important to our community, that we are able to express our love of the land by sharing our trades, and seeing them understood by others, holds value and we hold that value dear to our hearts. 

SV: It seems that you have accomplished a lot since you were elected, I am curious to know what aspect of your work you are most proud of. Could you speak to that?

SH: It is the repatriation of artifacts, from the shores of the river and Baptiste, that are most meaningful to me. Madeline Benoit’s basket and the little canoe that my ancestors made. Repatriating those materials that are the archives of our family histories have been very, very, important to our community, and we are tremendously appreciative of that. There have been times when our community has been fractured, dispersed, and disassociated from each other. These artifacts help us come back to a space where we can know ‘who we are.’ So they are very close to our hearts. These gestures, when our family archives are repatriated, have the significance of changing our capacities — having these ‘to hold and see’ enhances the capacities of our children and their future children. We want to see these types of materials in schools and we want to see all people ... and all children ... experiencing the living history of our land and its people. 

 Stephen Hunter on the York River tests a birch bark canoe that he made with Chuck Commanda, in 2016, at Millennium Park, as part of a community build in Bancroft.

Stephen Hunter on the York River tests a birch bark canoe that he made with Chuck Commanda, in 2016, at Millennium Park, as part of a community build in Bancroft.

SV: There have been some significant announcements lately. Can you speak to me about these? 

SH: We have received acknowledgement for all families in our region, through a partnership with Hastings County and the Ontario Early Years Centre, and the Hastings Prince Edward District School Board. 

In Maynooth we are collaborating to create our Inòdewiziwin Child and Family Centre in a classroom at the school. This is a new Algonquin infrastructure. And we are proud of that. 

In Bancroft, with York River Public School, we are working on Wisiniwin Kikinamagozi, which means eating together and learning. Also funded by the Ministry of Education, children will participate in field trips and outdoor learning, and parents won’t have to pay out-of-pocket for it. 

These projects will change the experiences of children. They will bring smiles to grandmothers. Seeing our community supporting others, is another one of those values that we can give, and that we do give, because our children, and all children, are important to us. That’s our future and we want to see that following a healthy trajectory. And thriving. We want to see our children thriving. 

SV: How can people can get involved? Can people drop into your office here? 

SH: We invite the community to be a part of our learning, and our work. We offer cultural workshops and community learning. So yes, a resounding yes. We invite that. And we hope for that. The door is open. 

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