When Chief Edmund Metatawabin ’70 (Julian Blackburn College) left his home community of Fort Albany, Ontario, to come to Trent University in 1970, he knew there would be an adjustment. “Just trying to settle into a city and finding a place to live, dealing with finances and transportation, were all things I had to learn while also trying to figure out what being in university is all about,” said Chief Metatawabin.
In the early 1970s, Indigenous people weren’t highly represented in universities and colleges. “We knew we would not be easily accepted into the environment,” he says. At the same time, while attending high school in Kirkland Lake, he had formed his own stereotypes about city people. “I saw the women fully decorated, with makeup, hats, skirts, and high heels, so when I left to go to Peterborough, I expected to see the same thing,” said Chief Metatawabin. He laughed when recounting how he dressed up in a suit and tie on the first day, striving to fit in, only to be greeted by his professor dressed in short sleeves and jeans. “Here he was, very cool and informal, while here I was overdressed, uptight, and being intimidated by this guy,” he recalled.
Importance of learning about the experiences of others
At Trent, Chief Metatawabin enrolled in the Native Studies (now known as Indigenous Studies) program. “Trent was among the first universities to introduce Native Studies as an area of knowledge, and that’s good because you learn from it, but it’s also important to learn about the experiences of other nations, other tribes, and other people,” he said. This outlook was shaped by a chance discovery he made while working on an essay during his first year. On one of the bottom shelves in Bata Library was a copy of Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist who spent time in a concentration camp during World War II. “I picked it up and read it. That thin little book turned out to be the biggest book I’ve ever read as it showed me the importance of learning about the experiences of others that are suffering and how they move forward,” he explained. The insights from this book helped him in his path to recovery from the abuse he suffered as a young boy at St. Anne’s Residential School in Fort Albany.
Lifting the Voices of Survivors
After graduating in 1975, he lived in Alberta for five years before returning to his home community of Fort Albany – a Cree community on the shores of James Bay – where he would later become chief. In 1992 he was instrumental in organizing a conference for survivors of St. Anne’s Residential School. In 2014, he published a biography and memoir entitled Ghost River: A Chief’s Journey Through the Turbulent Waters of Native History, which documented the abuse he endured at the school and how he recovered his spirit through traditional spirituality and knowledge.
In 2018, Chief Metatawabin was named a member of the Order of Canada in recognition of his advocacy work on behalf of residential school survivors. He continues to be a voice for Indigenous people, sharing accounts of what happened in the residential school systems and on reserves, through speaking engagements at schools, universities, and other venues.
Trent University observed the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Friday, September 29 at the Durham GTA campus, and on Monday, October 2 in Peterborough to enable the campus community to fully participate in the programming and to ensure staff were available to provide support. To learn more about how Trent observed the day, please visit trentu.ca/truthandreconciliation.