Wassay Gaa Bo: The Common Ground

In the Precambrian shield area of Northwestern Ontario, where the provinces of Manitoba and Ontario and the state of Minnesota share borders, is Lake of the Woods.  At its north end, the Lake drains into the Winnipeg River where waters flow on to the arctic lowlands.  The mouth of the river is dotted with several small islands, the largest of which is Tunnel Island, once known as Steep Rock Island, or Kagapekeche in Ojibway, meaning “A place to stay over”.  This unique site has been both a bridge and bottleneck for human transit through the area for millennia.

To the north east of Tunnel Island is Old Fort Island, so named because this was once the site of the Rat Portage Hudson Bay Trading Post during the fur trade era.  Prior to the Fur Trade era, the islands at the River’s mouth had been important sites of trade, commerce, and exchange of goods for thousands of years.

In recent history, these islands were part of the corporate holdings of the Kenora paper mill, the community’s primary industrial employer during the 20th Century.  In 2005, Abitibi announced it would be closing its mill in Kenora, putting 390 employees out of work and having an indirect impact on at least another 780 positions.  In doing so, the company was faced with disposing of several large parcels of heritage lands, including Tunnel and Old Fort Islands.

Given the historic and emotional significance of these lands, the mere contemplation of their disposal had, in the past, been problematic.  As early as 1999 the Town of Kenora had developed a vision for these lands to become part of a “Legacy Project” to commemorate Kenora’s status as “Forest Capital of Canada 1999”.  While the company had been prepared to entertain proposals for public use of the land, this particular initiative did not move forward at the time.  It seems that the project did not fully satisfy the company’s criteria of broad-based community benefit.

In May 2004, the location of the historic “Bigsby’s Rat Portage” between Lake of the Woods and the Winnipeg River was identified at the north end of Cameron Bay, directly across the river from Tunnel Island.  The ancient carrying place and namesake of the first European settlement had not been clearly known for many years.  It turned out to be located on unused land owned by the City of Kenora.  This was a reminder that the whole area in the vicinity of the portage, including Tunnel and Old Fort Islands, was of similar historic importance.  Remarkably, despite its location in the middle of the City of Kenora, this “legacy area” remained virtually undeveloped. 

The Rat Portage was identified as an important historic site by the City of Kenora and Grand Council Treaty #3 on September 9, 2005.  Hearkening back to their regional initiative, the leaders noted that this shared path could literally be described as actual “Common Ground.”

In January 2006, following the formal recognition of the Rat Portage historic site and the closure of the Abitibi Consolidated mill, the Grand Chief of Treaty #3 and the Mayor of Kenora confirmed their continuing commitment to the principle of shared stewardship of the Rat Portage “Common Ground” and initiated a working group to further implement the concept.  Public coverage of this cooperative effort to create a joint entity for the management of legacy lands caught the attention of senior Abitibi management, who expressed an interest in participating in a Strategic Planning Workshop with the City and Grand Council in which they begin to develop a shared approach to this land. With all legal land interests represented at this workshop, discussions broadened beyond the Rat Portage site to consider the entire legacy area at the outfall of the Lake of the Woods, and the term “Common Ground” was extended to include all lands in this area. 

In November 2006, a historic Memorandum of Understanding was signed between Abitibi Consolidated, the Mayor of Kenora, Len Compton, and the Grand Chief of Treaty #3, Ogichidaakwe Diane Kelly.  The MOU signified the intent of Abitibi Consolidated to gift an area, ultimately some 400+ acres, including the Rat Portage, Tunnel Island, Old Fort Island, and one other small, unnamed island, to a stewardship entity comprised of the Grand Council Treaty #3, the City of Kenora, and the First Nations of Obashkaandagaang, Ochiichagwe’babigo’ining, and Wauzhushk Onigum.

In March 2007 the gift transfer of Tunnel Island from Abitibi to the stewardship partners was completed, and in 2008 Old Fort Island was also transferred as a gift to the partners.  The partners created a legal entity named the Rat Portage Common Ground Conservation Organization in 2008.

Parallel to the legal processes surrounding the transfer of the Common Ground lands, since 2006 members of the stewardship working group, Anishinaabe elders and spiritual leaders from neighboring First Nations communities, and political leadership from the City of Kenora and Grand Council Treaty #3 have participated in traditional Anishinaabe ceremonies to honour the Common Ground.  Spring and Fall Feasts represent an important opportunity for partners and the public to come together, share space, food, and mutual learning while honouring the land, water, and natural environment, as well as the people who have passed through the Common Ground.

During the 2009 Spring Feast, the Anishinaabe name and Thunderbird feather for the Common Ground surfaced.  Cultural interpreter and feast drummer Vernon Copenace explained, “On the morning of May 29th 2009 a Spring Feast ceremony took place to honor and give life for the third time to Waa’ Say’ Gaa’ Bo’ known as Tunnel Island. Her name and Thunderbird feather surfaced from the ceremony and [Tunnel Island] is honored by its meaning.  Her name was passed from the Wassay’ Gezhig Grandfather Drum who sang ceremonial healing songs years ago for its people. I like to thank all the people who took part again and the new visitors for this important ceremony. Meegwetch.”