Another powerful and revered matriarch has left this world. My dear grandmother Aileen Rice died last month, a week shy of her 87th birthday. I have struggled since her death to put into words just how monumental and important she was to her family, her community, and countless others who she touched in some way. She was a passionate advocate for Anishinaabeg everywhere, lobbying for language and tradition in spaces where authorities tried to erase culture. She fought for equal access to education for Indigenous children. She was a woman of strong faith who incorporated Anishinaabe beliefs into Christian teachings as a minister. She embodied resilience and spirit by enduring some of life’s most brutal hardships and rising up to empower everyone around her.
It’s impossible to capture in mere paragraphs the widespread impact of my grandma’s legendary life and esteemed legacy. I want to write something much more comprehensive about her renowned accomplishments and family story sometime in the future. Losing her less than a year after my grannie died has been very hard, but reflecting fondly on the amazing lives of my grandmothers has been a silver lining to the often dark clouds of the grieving process. So I’ll share just a little bit now, because I want to acknowledge and honour her in every way I can.
My grandma was affectionately known as “Auntie Soda” to generations of people from Wasauksing, Parry Sound, and well beyond. She was born on the land and was proud to live the Anishinaabe way. One of 11 children altogether, she spoke only Anishinaabemowin throughout her childhood and carried her people’s stories and teachings from an early age. She would later regale us, her grandchildren, with these treasured details of our heritage and the generations of family lines that we could draw deep into Anishinaabe territory. It was an honour to learn these stories from her.
There’s so much about her vibrant life to take pride in, especially being a part of the strong family she led. She and my grandfather married young and had five children by their late 20s. When he died in a tragic boating mishap, she was left to raise them all on her own. The oldest was seven years old and the youngest was two months. The threat of apprehension loomed constantly. Her kids – including my father – could have been taken to residential school or placed in the child welfare system. Breaking up Indigenous families and erasing culture was official Canadian policy. But somehow, she was able to resist that at every turn, and kept them all together at home.
When that threat dissipated, she took her place as an ardent advocate for equal education opportunities for Indigenous children. She became the first Anishinaabe person to serve on the nearby town’s school board. She then adopted two more children from a relative, bringing the total to seven she raised by herself. All of her kids went on to post-secondary education beginning in the 1970s, when Indigenous people were rarely considered for or seen in universities and colleges in Canada. My grandma blazed a trail that made it much less difficult for me and my cousins and peers in Wasauksing to follow.
These are just a few basic and brief highlights. There’s so much more she lived through, like losing a daughter to homicide and never seeing justice for her. She lost many more relatives to tragedy. She saw her beloved Ojibwe language gradually fade from our community. She endured her homeland in the depths of despair and abuse, but she never gave up hope that it could one day heal. All the while, she never let any of her losses or hardships define her, and she never took any shit from anyone.
My grandma is gone now, but her story is still being written. Her spirit continues to thrive in all of us who are proud to be Anishinaabe. And I’ll share more of her remarkable journey as soon as I can. Baamaapii Nookomis. Gizaagin.