‘Mystery Package’ launches historian’s excellent adventure

David McNab is having the time of his life these days and not just because he enjoys his work as a professor of native studies in York’s Atkinson School of Arts & Letters. A specialist in aboriginal history, McNab landed at York in July 2004 with a project proposal guaranteed to tickle any historian, let alone one who is also Métis.

David T. McNabRight: David McNab

The excitement began early in Sept. 2003 at the end of a gruelling five-hour meeting of the Shawanaga First Nation Council. McNab was presented with a large folio box with the words “Mystery Package” written on its side and told, “Here, David, this should keep you out of mischief for a while.” When he opened the box, what he saw raised the hair on the back of his neck and launched him on the most exciting project of his career to date. The surprise find also won him an Applied Aboriginal Research Grant of $166,349 from the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada to write about the treasure trove of materials inside.

The box contained 25 journals written between 1885 and 1928 by the Reverend William A. Elias, a teacher and Methodist preacher originally from the Bkejwanong (Walpole Island) First Nations’ unceded reserve. Elias was one of the first native graduates of Cobourg’s Victoria University in 1889, a year before it became part of the University of Toronto. The journals had recently made their way back to the Shawanaga reserve, 37 km northwest of Parry Sound, where Elias settled in 1909.

“There’s no journal like this anywhere in Canada covering this time period,” McNab said. “And it’s a very key time period, covering the first and second generation of the residential schools. Here we have the view of a highly literate person who is fluent in Ojibwa, fluent in English, who had the highest training in his community and from his community.” (The only gap in the journals’ run is from 1914-1918 when Elias was busy living in the bush, learning to be a native medicine man.)

“How lucky could I be?” McNab said. “That was an amazing event in my life.”

McNab’s project, which is titled “The Borders of Knowledge: An Analytical Study of the Life and Writings of William A. Elias (1856-1929)”, will indeed keep him busy for the next three years and, when finished, provide a priceless historical and educational resource for, and gift to, many First Nations’ communities in Ontario and Michigan.

walpole island schoolhouse

“Elias told stories about various people who lived there and whose descendents live there today,” McNab explained. “So they will get stories back to me to identify and annotate the journals.”

Left: School house on Saugeen First Nation reserve (near Owen Sound) where Elias taught in the 1870s

In addition to the main study, McNab’s project will also result in the creation of a digital archive of the many family and place names given in the journals in Ojibwa and in English, as well as records of events during a critical period in Canada’s aboriginal history. The journal also contains an account of Elias’ confrontation with American “freebooters” who were trying to smuggle alcohol onto the reserve and with it  the dire consequences of alcoholism for the community. For defying them, Elias received death threats and was eventually posted by the church to another community in northern Michigan for his own safety in 1903.

The survival of the journals is a story in itself. They were in Elias’ log cabin some time after his death in 1929 and preserved by his daughter Beatrice Sharkey. The volumes, some chewed at the corners by porcupines, were turned over to an old school friend, Lucy Adelaide Clark of Sturgeon Falls, with instructions to return them to the Shawanaga community which she did in the summer of 2003.

elias sketchIn addition to the written details of life on a reserve in late-19th and early-20th century Ontario, the approximately 10,000 pages include sketches by Elias of local scenes, one of which proved the value of the legacy almost immediately. McNab gave a lecture and showed some of the journal pages to a class of undergraduate students last winter. One of the pages included a sketch from Elias’ days at university. The animated sketch (above) is of one of his absent-minded professors (J.W. Annis, MA), who, having forgotten his ticket, was running to catch a train with his gown flying behind him. He was identified in the accompanying hand-written caption, and one of the students in McNab’s class, Heather Annis, immediately recognized the subject as an ancestor – the first of many family history revelations the project will provide for generations to come.

“She came racing up to me and said, that’s my great-great-great grandfather,” McNab recalled, adding Annis went on to write a paper about the discovery.

A graduate (BFA ’04) from the Theatre Department in York’s Faculty of Fine Arts. Annis is now a graduate student in the Faculty of Environmental Studies and will work with McNab as one of four native research assistants on the project. The others are Kim Lamothe, Cassandra Wright and Candice Jobe, who are also FES graduate students.

The journals themselves have been microfilmed and put into storage, with the help of Michael Moir, University archivist & head, archives & special collections, at York’s Clara Thomas Archives. McNab hopes they will eventually become the centrepiece of a new living cultural and heritage centre on the Shawanaga First Nation’s reserve.

“It’s just been wonderful,” McNab said of the experience. “The stuff I’ve learned just in the last year visiting some of the communities and sharing some of the stories, it’s been so wonderful. If you give a story, you get 100 times back in terms of the knowledge.”