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Celebrating Indigenous culture at inaugural Innisfil Pow Wow

By Patrick Bales, The Orillia Packet & Times

Celebrate Lake Simcoe made its triumphant return to Innisfil this year, and the seventh edition of the festival might have been its most important.

After going on hiatus in 2016, the festival came back to life Saturday, bringing with it the inaugural Innisfil Pow Wow. About 500 people came out to Innisfil Beach Park to pay tribute to the lake and celebrate Indigenous culture.

Deborah McGrath, one of the organizers, was thrilled with how the day turned out.

“Innisfil has never seen an event of this size and this nature,” she said. “This is a significant cultural celebration. This is a wonderful, wonderful event.”

The day began with a water blessing at sunrise and the fourth annual Open Water Swim. Becky Big Canoe led the sunrise ceremony and McGrath was particularly touched by her words and what they could mean for the entire community of Innisfil.

“As she was leaving the park, she said to me, 'we need ceremony; we need to understand ceremony,'” McGrath recalled. “Whether it's Indigenous culture – today, that's what we're celebrating, along with our environmental learning – or whether it's all the other diverse cultures that are here. We need to learn about each other in order to build support capacity and social understanding.”

The pow wow portion was primarily organized by the Barrie Native Friendship Centre. The goal of the Celebrate Lake Simcoe organizers was simple, said Sam Kinoshameg, the centre's executive director.

“They wanted to honour the history of the Indigenous people in the area,” she said. Organizers did that in part by bringing people to the lake and raising awareness of the water, near which so many in Innisfil live.

That includes a number of Indigenous people who have settled in the area. Marie Squires, an Ojibwe woman and member of the Serpent River First Nation now calls Stroud her home. She appreciated how the pow wow in Innisfil provided the opportunity for so many people who wouldn't otherwise be exposed to Indigenous culture to get that first-hand experience.

A pow wow in her community was long overdue, she said.

“I can't believe that they have finally broken down to show the culture of these people,” Squires said. “It's not (represented well). Even in Barrie they have grounds there, right along Kempenfelt, where the Indians did stay at one given time, way back then, and I'm sure it happened here too. They travelled this ground.”

While a reserve was not created in the south Simoce County, the area would have been populated by Huron-Wendat and Anishinaabe peoples during the pre-colonial era.

“All of the land in Canada initially was inhibited by the Indigenous people,” Kinoshameg said. "We're here, everywhere. We're all people of the land. It doesn't matter where we live or where we come from, where the First Nations community is, because that, unfortunately, was a structure of our Canadian government, that put us on certain pieces of property.”

McGrath didn't want to credit the country's sesquicentennial year as the reason for bringing the pow wow to Innisfil, but noted how the talk of reconciliation with the Indigenous population has permeated a significant portion of the 150th commemoration.

Kinoshameg also highlighted the continued need to acknowledge what was here before Confederation.

“There were people here before, even though we like to think of it as... Canada 150 and we like to think of it as a birth,” she said. “Yes, Canada has made a lot of accomplishments and we've done a lot, but there's still a lot more we have to do.”

Celebrate Lake Simcoe would like to be part of that reconciliation process going forward, by continuing to hold the pow wow in conjunction with the festival. But the pow wow was a $30,000 expense that was only able to come to fruition thanks to a grant from the Innisfil Spirit of the Community committee and other private and public sponsorships.

To make this an annual event, more corporate sponsorship is needed, she said.

“We can only do that with about $30,000,” McGrath said. “We're really hoping that we have significant corporate sponsors next year to help out.”