‘OK I’m just coming down Bay, I’ll be there in a few minutes!’ Laurie shouted into my cell. I’d never met her before but already she’d told me she wasn’t good with directions and neither was I. Boy was our eight hour drive to Northern Ontario going to be fun.
Twenty minutes later she arrived and I said hello to my second cousin for the first time. As we sloppily manouvered our way out of Toronto, I quickly learned we had a lot in common: she was bright, bubbly and brutally honest. We chatted non stop for the next eight hours.
I’d invited myself along on The Adventure – an outing with my great uncle and his three daughters to the spiritual haunts of our Ojibway ancestors. The Millers recruited Leonard Neveau, former chief and all round popular guy at Mattagami Reserve, to take us to a sacred peak – Masawajo (Eagle Mountain ), to view pictograms that saved the Ojibway from a Mohawk invasion and to an ancient burial ground. I was most excited about Masawajo. Leonard told us that Ojibway men, including his grandfather, used to go up there with only a partridge to eat and nothing to drink for seven days – seeking visions and spiritual connection.
I wasn’t sure what to expect.
But already, on the road to Gogama I learned more about my Ojibway ancestry than in all my thirty years. James Miller - our great, great grandfather - and factor for the Hudson’s Bay company, founded a fur trade post on Mattagami lake in the mid 19th century. He married an Ojibway woman named Hannah Neveau and that’s about all I knew.
But my great uncle and cousins had been mining for knowledge about their history for years and Laurie’s stories added personality to the past.
A local shop owner remembered Ojibway children coming into his store to buy candy. James would give them pennies to buy treats while he charmed their mothers. An early widower – Hannah died in her 40s – and the great white man on the reserve, he rarely wanted for female company.
Laurie stuck a CD in the car stereo. ‘Oh yes, I remember, at Christmas he (James) used to make a batch of homemade beer,’ a warm, scratchy voice said. It was a distant cousin and the last of the Millers to be born at the old Mattagami fur trading post. ‘We had a big party. First all of the men, then all of the women, and the children even, came into the big house for a glass of beer and a tea biscuit.’
But luckily for me I was with the Millers. Of Cree and Ojibway descent they were just granted their First Nations status and they’ve openly embraced their ‘Nish’ side.
We rolled into my uncle’s cottage as dusk settled over Minisinakwa Lake. Floating in its cold waters the next morning after a jog through town – I smiled. I was bathing in the watery highway of my ancestors – their ice rink, laundry mat and watering hole for centuries.
I’ve looked for adventure in far flung places – in Japan and England, Saigon, Mumbai, Helsinki and Bali… But little did I know that one of life’s greatest adventures was awaiting me here: in the tall pines, winding rivers and sandy white roads of Mattagami.