This week I learned that Anishinaabe elder Lillian McGregor went on her journey to the spirit world. She passed away in late April after a long illness, and I just found out a few days ago through my mother. She was a great mentor to me and countless other young Aboriginal people who have walked the streets of Toronto. Last week the Globe and Mail published a great homage to her life and career that recounted how she moved to the city at a young age, and made it her mission in later years to help kids from First Nations become comfortable in the Big Smoke. For me and my peers, she became a vital link between two worlds, and the legacy of urban elders like her is essential in helping our youth take control of their destiny as they build a new Canada.
I first moved to Toronto in the fall of 1998 to study Journalism at Ryerson University. I was 19 years old and already had experience living away from home. I spent a year in Germany as an exchange student when I was 17. There, I expected to feel like a foreigner and adjusted as such, and my host country’s affinity for my culture made it one of the best experiences of my life. But when many Aboriginal kids move to cities for post-secondary studies, it’s like being a foreigner on their traditional lands. Therefore, they have to seek out others like them for a sense of home, and they need the guidance of elders to reassure them they’re on a good path.
That’s where Lillian came in. When I started at Ryerson, there were only about 50 other Aboriginal students out of some 14,000, and it took me a few weeks to find them. We had a small peer support group that met regularly, but we didn’t have a regular visiting elder. So we planned monthly field trips to Dodem Kanonhsa, the urban lodge on St. Clair East. We met Lillian there, who was the Elder-in-Residence at the University of Toronto. We smudged, and sat and talked most of the time. She was there to listen to us and to bring us back down to earth when the city became overwhelming. She always told us to stick together, and to make sure we went back home once in a while. She reminded us that what we were doing was good, and that our career paths would benefit our people as a whole. Although we were at a different school altogether, she assured us her door was always open at U of T for us to drop in for a visit.
I graduated from Ryerson in 2002 and moved away from Toronto in 2006. I lost touch with Lillian after that, and for that I blame myself. But her words will always be with me, and I credit her among many others for keeping me on this path as a journalist and an author. Transitioning into an urban Anishinaabe wasn’t as difficult for me as it was for others. My mother is Canadian, and I’m extremely close with the half of my relatives that are non-Native. My home community of Wasauksing is essentially right beside the town of Parry Sound. So I’ve had lots of contact with the “outside” world since birth.
But for many other youth, it’s not that easy. Sure, it’s hard for anyone from a small town or a rural community to move to the big city. But in Canada, reserves were created to exclude Aboriginal people from the rest of society. And it takes many generations to shake that imposed “outsider” mentality. Also, unlike other cultures, there are no “Little (insert name of reserve/nation)” communities in most big cities. So finding people like you can be extremely difficult, all the while trying to maneuver vast, constricting expanses of concrete, glass, noise, and strange faces.
As long as our elders are there to guide us, young Aboriginal people will forge an even greater direction in this country. More and more are moving to the cities, more confident than ever in who they are and who they’ll become. And that’s thanks to the hard work and dedication of elders like Lillian. Miigwetch, Lillian. Baamaapii.