October 16, 2017

Ghosts of Whitefish Island

via NorthernOntario.Travel

I believe in ghosts, and I know this is so because of Whitefish Island. Seven years ago I emigrated to Canada and settled in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, just across the border from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. 

Internationally, the city is best known for being the home of Roberta Bondar, who was Canada's first female astronaut; Team Jacobs, who won gold for curling at the 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi; and Essar Steel Algoma, founded in 1902, which is the second-largest steel-producer in Canada, processes 4 million tons of ore per year, and ships to destinations around the world.

Regionally, the city is best known for the world-class cross-country ski and snowshoe trails in the Hiawatha Highlands, and the Agawa Canyon train-tour, whose fall colors are second to none.

Locally, the city is best known for the St. Mary's River which drains Lake Superior starting at the end of Whitefish Bay and flows into Lake Huron, as well as its attendant locks built in 1837. The locks are large enough to accommodate ocean-going container-vessels, process more than 86 million tons of cargo every year, and by volume of traffic is the busiest lock in the entire world surpassing even the Panama Canal.

And if you're the curious sort, you might also know Sault Ste. Marie for the point of this story, Whitefish Island, a 22-acre island on the Canadian side of the St. Mary's River. Whitefish Island was an ancestral fishing station to the Anishenabek First Nation of the Great Lakes region for over 2,000 years, and was not only a seasonal settlement for tribesmen catching fish, but also a graveyard.

Since before the time that Christ was allegedly born, the Anishenabek were already transiting Whitefish Island (named for the fish they caught there), creating semi-permanent settlements on the land, and burying their dead in its dark, swampy soil; however, all of that changed between 1902 and 1913 when the railway expropriated the land, removed settlers, and relocated the graves of the dead who'd been resting there since before colonists gave the name of St. Mary to a river that for generations had been called the Bawating. The railway's claim against the land in 1902 coincides with the founding of Essar Steel Algoma. 

Since then, Whitefish Island has become a park in the Parks Canada national inventory and the island was designated a national historic site in 1981. In 1982, a land claim was filed by the Batchewana First Nation of Ojibways. After 10 years of negotiation, the tribe was paid 3.5 million dollars in damages and in 1997 Whitefish Island was reappointed as an Indian reserve.

Excepting a few trails for bicycles and hikers, Whitefish Island has been allowed to be overtaken by the wilderness. It's thick with trees, and the land and water within its boundaries have been designated off-limits to hunting and fishing. The foliage is so thick that most of the trails feel like tunnels through green with interlocking branches overhead, and little of the island is visible through this dense barrier. Given the atmosphere, you'd hardly think that a sign is necessary to know that the entire island is "look but don't touch."

Though I've lived in Sault Ste. Marie for seven years, I only found Whitefish Island two years ago. The entry to Whitefish Island is tucked away in a visitor center behind the Clergue hydro-electric station which channels the Bawating to power the city. It's not difficult to find, but if you weren't looking for it you'd definitely miss it. 

As it happens, I only ever found the entry to Whitefish Island by accident when I was walking one night. If you don't think too deeply about where you are, it's a terrific place--it's filled with all manner of trees and flowers, abounds with birds and small beasts, and is even tended by beavers who dam the river to catch the fish--but if you stop for a moment to think about the history, you might not feel as comfortable.

Whitefish Island has an uneasy feeling about it, and I'm not alone. After a number of people came to Whitefish Island to commit suicide, a permanent sign was installed complete with solar-powered batteries to provide illumination during the night to tell visitors that they're not alone and to list telephone numbers for suicide hotlines.

Every time I've visited Whitefish Island, I've felt a sense of caution about the place. If Anton LaVey were asked, he'd probably say that it has something to do with the oblique angles of the trapezoidal island and especially the International Bridge which to date has borne nearly 100 million vehicles across its span over the reserve.

If what is remembered lives, then the memory of the living who were denied use of their ancestral territory, the dead who were denied their sleep, and all those who succeeded in ending their own lives is with me as surely as if it were their own ghosts. Are the empty graves calling back bodies to lay down and fill them again?

If might makes right, then was it the right of Canadian colonists to seize the land and do with it what they would? If might makes right, would it be right for the ghosts of the past to visit unholy hell on the colonists of the present? I despair to think of what would happen to me if the tables turned and the ghosts of Whitefish Island rose up from the earth to hold me in judgement.

There's a lot that can be done to appease the ghosts of the present and the future in terms of civil- and indigenous- rights as well as sustainable living and respect for the environment. Regarding the ghosts of the past, I don't know how much can be done to appease them except to give life to their memory and—if they're real—pray that if they awake they're more merciful to me and mine than we were to them and theirs. Ghosts are real, but that doesn't mean I ever hope to meet them.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Freedom of Expression =/= Freedom from Consequences