By Xavier Kataquapit
ATTAWAPISKAT – Happy St. Patrick’s for all those who are Irish or as my friend Mike likes to say, “wishes they were”. For some reason, Aboriginal people right across Canada have mixed with the Irish from the time they made it over the Atlantic Ocean to the shores of this country. What was the attraction? Well, for one thing after some history and getting to know one another I think both cultures realized they were oppressed.
It takes one to know one would be a good way to describe the bonding of the Irish and my people. Historically my people and the Irish were close to the land and the English considered those from Ireland as pagans because they worshipped the spirits of animals and the land. They saw us in the same way. My ancestors also shared the tradition of drumming and singing with the Irish. The drum is an important part of the Irish culture and a big part of musical performances. We have always used the drum.
Irish legends include the little people and Aboriginals also had a belief in and talked about experiences with these tiny ones. The Irish because of their closeness to the land and nature incorporated many herbs and ceremonies into their culture. They believed there were spirits in the land, lakes, rivers, and trees. The English saw this belief system as a threat and considered the Irish as heathens and lesser beings as they also did to Aboriginal peoples all over the world. The English forced religion on to the Irish and of course we First Nation peoples were pushed into accepting Christian religions. We as Native people were forbidden from following our ancient traditions and culture as were the Irish.
The Irish once freely roamed their lands but they were forced by the English to give up this way of life. The lives of Irish people were severely controlled in a campaign of oppression that ended up with thousands of people starving during the great potato famine. Similarly, Native peoples across Canada were also forced to stop their nomadic way of living that followed ancient traditional movements on the land to survive with hunting and gathering. We ended up on small reservation plots of land where we had little access to food sources, our children were taken and put into the residential school system to brainwash the “Indian” out of them. We were very much left out of the loop for centuries when it came to sharing any of the wealth generated by business development on our lands. That is basically how the Irish were treated by the English a few centuries ago too.
Because the French, who came to Canada were also in conflict and were oppressed by the English, it was natural that they mixed with the Irish and my people. That is why today when you listen to the music of the James Bay coast you will hear Irish and French jigs with the fiddle, hand drum, and guitar. This mix of the cultures resulted in so many Aboriginal people today having some ancestry that is either French or Irish.
On the James Bay Coast, I am very familiar with many Native families that have mixed with the Irish and the French and it is obvious in many of the names. The same is true in many First Nation communities right across the country. To be more accurate over the centuries Aboriginal people in this country have also mixed with the Scottish, English, and Germans but mainly they bonded more freely with the Irish and the French. Musically I was always reminded of this connection when my uncle Gabe and Leo played the fiddle and their tunes definitely had an Irish and French origin. At local community events often I would hear the fiddle play as community members step danced frantically and with joy.
In towns and cities all across Northern Ontario, there are large populations with Irish heritage. I always find it easy to mix with these Irish folk. Here in Kirkland Lake, there is a large contingent with Irish roots and a few years ago I was befriended by a wonderful Irishman by the name of Phil Heneberry. He was a colourful character, full of life, quick and intelligent with an interesting story and joke to make myself and my Irish friend, Mike laugh. This winter Phil passed on and I was saddened to hear this news from a very selfish point of view because I could always count on meeting him here and there in the town. He was always ready to give a greeting with a broad smile, twinkling mischievous eyes, and kind words. I know many in the Kirkland Lake area are going to miss his magic and I am so sorry for this loss for his wife Gladys and son Myles. So, on this St. Patrick’s day I will pause for a minute to remember Phil and all those wild, amazing, talented, kind and mystical Irish people I have known and continue to meet. Erin go Bragh.