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INDIGENOUS TORONTO: Jim Dumont on Identity and Spirituality in the City

INDIGENOUS TORONTO: Jim Dumont on Identity and Spirituality in the City

Jim Dumont is an internationally renown Elder, speaker and traditional knowledge keeper, also known as the Gichi A:ya: the Elder of the Elders in the Eastern Doorway of the Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge. In 2011, Jim was awarded a Doctorate of Sacred Letters the first of its kind at the University of Sudbury for his work in establishing the Department of Native Studies and designing and delivering the Indigenous knowledge courses, and in 2015 received a Doctorate of Anishnaabe Philosophy from the 7th Generation Institute and the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium.

Erica Commanda: As Chief of the Eastern Doorway of the Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge, what inspired you to dedicate your life to learning about, practicing, and sharing the traditional philosophies and spiritual beliefs of the Anishinaabe?

Jim Dumont: I didn’t grow up with these things – with the teachings, the culture and the language. When I moved to Toronto, it was to continue school. I went to work on my master’s degree in 1967. At that time, there was no visible change happening, at least that most people could see. There was a sense of wanting to know what our ways were. At that time, `Indian’ was the word. We were searching for what being Indian meant and I became part of that movement, that questioning and searching.

There were little pockets everywhere of this growing sense of urgency to get to know who we were. We called it searching for your Indian identities. I let my hair grow long and began to pursue that. At the time, I was looking for a place in the world where I could be with Native people. In school, once I went past Grade 10, there weren’t many Native people. My life experience was filled with the erasure of Native people from my daily life and struggling to fit into the white world.

I volunteered at the Indian Friendship Centre that was on Beverley Street at the time. It was my way of being in contact with Native people. I planned and invited young Native people to go on a bus trip across the country, to visit various reserves and events. I did that for two summers in a row. After I got out of school and graduated, I became a Native youth worker at the Centre and started a newspaper called the Toronto Native Times. There was an office and a program dedicated to Native youth. The first bus trip across the country was in 1969. After visiting several Indian reserves we arrived at the Crow Agency, Montana where the first Indian Ecumenical conference was being held. There I learned about a movement that was led by Chief Robert Smallboy through Ernest Tootoosis.

Gabekanaang-ziibi-leave the canoes and go back

That’s where I got my start. I smoked a pipe for the first time. I went into a sweat lodge for the first time. I did those things I was seeking to do. The Elder, Joe Mackinaw gave me his pipe and told me to take it home with me and look for teachings amongst my people. “We’re Cree and you are Ojibwe. You say you want to find your identity, you want to find yourself. You have to do that amongst your people,” he told me. I came home after that.

I stayed in Toronto for a couple of more years. After that, I found my way into Ojibway ceremonies for the first time. These ceremonies were held in 1974 in Irons, Michigan. It was there where I heard the Ojibway prophecies for the first time. I was following the prophecy that one day, young people would be searching for their original Anishinaabe way of life. They would begin to ask questions and travel all over, searching for what was left behind somewhere along the trail. Based on that prophecy, I found my way into the whole ceremonial involvement. It was what I had been looking for all my young adult life.

I had never heard of our own creation story. But when I did, I heard the story of my life, the kind of person that I was as Anishinaabe. I never heard anything about our history, the great migration of our people, and about what it meant to Anishinaabe identity and our sacred ways. I had never heard a story that was about me.

EC: Where did you grow up and how did you end up living and working in Toronto?

JD: I grew up in Shawanaga First Nation [north of Parry Sound]. Not on the reserve — my mom married out. We grew up just across the river, on the western/northern boundary until I was 19 years old. When I went to university in Sudbury, it was my first time away from home. Then I went to Toronto to pursue a Master of Divinity Degree.

My whole identity was wrapped up in this search and I became part of the prophecies. The Prophecy of the Seventh Fire, which is a prophecy about the time that we are in now; that young people would wake up and begin to ask questions, travel all over searching, and they would be looking for something. Maybe not even something they could clearly define, but they were looking for what was left, scattered along the trail. That’s what it says in the prophecy. Things like our language, culture, stories, arts, music, and our creation story.

After I left Toronto, I lived in Wikwemikong for three years. There were fewer people on the reserve searching for these things than there were in the city. In cities, you became more conscious of what you had lost and what was missing. On the reserve, there seemed to be complacency or a resistance to thinking outside of the box. When I was in Wikwemikong, I stood out like a sore thumb. But at the same time, some young people were interested in what I was talking about.

EC: What was your involvement with the development of Anishinaabeyaadiziwin Miikana, the installation at the Barrett Centre for Technology Innovation at Humber North Campus which represents the Seven Fires of Creation that correlate with the Seven Stages of Life, as told within the story of the Anishinaabe Life Path?

JD: I’ll answer that in terms of my involvement. The details of that installation and the work behind it have to be credited to Shelley Charles, who was the Elder at the time at Humber College. She was more than an Elder who would open meetings and prayers she was a counsellor for Native students. She made her job mean something more. As a result of her involvement there, establishing Indigenous Knowledge programming and building centres she made the Indigenous presence more known in the college. It was her work that started all of those things. She became involved in architecture to design an installation at multiple levels including students, designers, staff and Elders. The installation and the details of how that was done and came to be would best be directly from her.

My involvement was to provide the Indigenous knowledge background for the installation which informed the design elements; the seven teachings, the seven grandfather principles, the seven stages of life, seven major clans of the Anishinaabe, the seven stopping places of the migration from Wabanaking to Lake Superior, and the seven prophecies talk about the history of our people.

The installation is a significant achievement in not only highlighting Indigenous teachings but creating a unique learning opportunity to share Indigenous knowledge and culture in a contemporary educational environment. Unfortunately, there isn’t anybody at Humber college now who knows the whole background, the process, the teachings and Indigenous knowledge that all of the installations are talking about. The staff are not equipped to explain and make the utmost use of it. It’s something that I think needs to be said.

Tuhbenahneequay Ancient Grove

EC: Why is it important that the Indigenous and non-Indigenous students have an understanding of the knowledge and teachings embedded in the installation?

JD: The installation helped to provide an opportunity to share our collective history and teachings informed from an Indigenous voice.

It is important to understand the historical times that Indigenous people have come through; the ’60s and 70’s ushered in an era of challenging the status quo and finding our voice, challenging the way that Native people were treated and the colonization of people in the world. In the United States, they had Wounded Knee and the American Indian Movement. In Canada, we had the Red Power movement.
This was the era during which Native studies programs were created in schools and universities. Native Studies began in Canada at Trent University in Peterborough. The next one was created at the University of Sudbury.

When I helped create the Native Studies program at the University of Sudbury, I tried to get a message out to other efforts in Native Studies that we had to build it and design it from a place of Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous knowing. We had to do Native Studies from a place inside the culture. Up to that time, everything was done from outside of the culture. Anthropologists, historians, and everybody who became involved in talking about Native people were doing it from outside the culture. They were on the outside looking into Native communities through an anthropological lens. They would then write up something about it, and get credited for it.

I was continually advocating and making a place for Indigenous knowledge, culture and creative expression in the institutes of higher education and learning. It was always my insistence that we do this from a place that was centred in our own culture, our history, our ways of life. When I created various programs of study in universities and colleges (and later in Indigenous institutes of learning) and developed a curriculum for them, I put together a core program of study based on the Indigenous world view, history, philosophy, psychology and our way of life, our family, our community, culture, and spirituality. It is especially important that those who teach about Indigenous culture, tradition and world view be Indigenous people, knowledge holders and Elders with a solid foundation in the teachings, along with vast experiential learning and practice.

Ishpaadina- high hill or a high place

For Indigenous students, it was an opportunity to learn about the Indigenous way of life, the Indigenous foundations of learning, and the distinct history and contributions of the people. For non-Indigenous students, it was awakening to the fact that while we live in a world with hundreds of years of oppression of Indigenous people, their culture, and their way of life, there are unique values, ways of seeing the world and its interconnectedness to the wholeness of creation.

We need an Indigenous foundation for everything that we do. We need to be knowledgeable of the Indigenous spirit, culture, and spiritual ways. As for non-Indigenous students, tomorrow they are going to be future political leaders [who] may influence change in Canada, so their involvement and inclusion at this time of learning is significant. The prophecy says, `for us as Indigenous people, we have to find our way back to our original way of life.’ For non-Indigenous people, they have to find a spiritual path that is in harmony with the earth and the natural world.

Gete Onigaming-the carrying place trail

EC: Why is Toronto important to Indigenous People? What is an Anishinaabe understanding of the significance of Toronto?

JD: ‘Toronto’ in its earliest use was applied to Lake Simcoe, not Lake Ontario. For Anishinaabe people, it was the center of activity, a place on higher ground. There was a spiritual meeting place for the people, which is what Spadina Road means – Ishpadinaa. It’s the higher ground, the high hill.

Historically, it was an important place of connection between the Upper Great Lakes and Lower Great Lakes. The portage trail goes from the mouth of the Humber River to the Lake Simcoe area. Lake Simcoe provided access to Central Georgian Bay, which is the access to Upper Great Lakes. It was a well-travelled route, still significant today. Toronto was a significant meeting place for people of different cultures. Today it’s a central meeting place for all kinds of Indigenous activity.

EC: Over the years, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen within the Indigenous community of Toronto and what are your hopes for future generations?

JD: I haven’t been to Toronto very much in the last number of years, so I can’t speak with authority on all the goings-on in Toronto. One of the greatest changes that I see is the sense of community, meaning that there isn’t one ‘place’ in Toronto. The Friendship Centre, which became the Native Canadian Center, was a real hub of activity, socially and culturally in Toronto. That is not the case anymore, while it is more diverse and spread out the communities themselves have seen significant growth in cultural development and Indigeneity The various centres of social activity have changed somehow in Toronto; it doesn’t seem to be as inclusive, open and accepting of people coming into the city. I noticed a greater degree of involvement and community engagement in the arts and music generally.

Zhoniaung – place of the silvery waters

EC: What should all people in Toronto understand about the Seventh Fire prophecy and teachings?

JD: We are in a time of change. It’s a time when the voices of young people will become significant in creating the change that is coming, and the change that is already here. It’s always in the spirit of hope. It creates hope. Something is happening in the world that is significant for Indigenous people. Indigenous people are going to take their place on the historical and international stage. This is happening amongst the Anishinaabe people, but it’s also happening globally.

Indigenous people have become involved in their way of thinking and doing things. One of the things that have become abundantly clear is that we are related to the environment. We are a part of a great family on this earth. As a human member of this family of creation, we have a responsibility to take care of our mother, who is the earth. To take care of creation, which includes all of the surrounding plant world, the medicines, the tree life, and the animal world.

We have to be the conscience and the voice for the natural world, including the water. This is happening everywhere. We were talking about oil, gas, pipelines, cutting down trees, the rapid extinction of significant animals in our world and how fast that is happening long before the environmental movement. We have become aware of it. Indigenous people are the voice of all of those things. It’s significant for us, for the preservation of our life, but also significant for the world. All that goes back to what the prophecies say about this time we are in; the time of the 7th Fire we have to work together towards creating change in a meaningful way that is in keeping with the way that life is on the Earth.

Chimnissing – big island

This interview is an excerpt from Coach House Book’s Indigenous Toronto: Stories That Carry This Place.

You can purchase the book at:


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About The Author

Erica Commanda

Born in Toronto, Erica Commanda (Algonquin/Ojibwe) grew up in the small community of Pikwakanagan. From there she moved across Canada living in Ottawa, Vancouver and now Toronto, working in the bar/hospitality industry, mastering the art of listening to stories from her regulars while slinging and spilling drinks (at them or to them). And now through a series of random decisions and events in life she is on a journey discovering and mastering her own knack for storytelling as Associate Editor for MUSKRAT Magazine.

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