For those who grow up within the embrace of Indigenous heritage, the effects can often be profound. From an early age, Indigenous youth render and hold perspectives that foster critical thinking about what they are being taught in school. Their cultural teachings may have engendered empathy and compassion for other life forms within nature and for nature itself. As they learn more about history, they may rail against the injustices heaped upon Indigenous peoples and gain insights about the resulting deep complications and systemic derisions and divisions caused by colonial policies and practices, some of which have become internalized. And as they venture through adulthood, their identity, perspectives, knowledge, and capacity can shape actions that often lead to distinguished lives of service.
Such has been the case for Larry McDermott, executive director of Plenty Canada, whose inherited cultural instructions and lived experiences, perspectives, and knowledge, have created a legacy well known to many, not only among Indigenous peoples within Canada, but also with rural and Indigenous peoples in many other parts of the world. Seventy-three years old, with fifty of those years dedicated to assisting others in achieving their community needs and aspirations on a variety of projects spanning several sectors that have strongly interfaced with the Indigenous world.
Along the way, he’s developed expertise in national and international processes involving Indigenous environmental engagement and protection through formal conventions and declarations. These include participation in the 1991 International Conference of Environmental NGOs and Indigenous Peoples sponsored by French President Francois Mitterrand; as a member of the Indigenous delegation from Canada to the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil; follow-up meetings for the Convention on Biodiversity including Nagoya, Japan in 2010 (where the current CBD targets where established); and as a member of Indigenous delegations at various international NGO events on issues related to climate change, biodiversity, and desertification (soil loss) for over 30 years. He has also attended events involving the UN Decade of Indigenous Peoples in both New York and throughout Canada; served as an informal liaison between provincial Indigenous organizations and the Ontario Royal Commission for Land Use Planning Reform in the early 90s; and served as a board member with the Canadian Twinning Process in response to the African Famine involving Indigenous artists and political leaders.
Deeply knowledgeable, as a result of avid reading and extensive civic and institutional engagement, Larry has formed strong and long-lasting relationships with others who have also prioritized the expression and sustainability of Indigenous lifeways and the conservation of the natural world. These include, among many others, his election in 1978 to the Lavant, Dalhousie, and North Sherbrooke Township Council with the encouragement of Algonquin elders; his election as first Chair of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities Rural Forum and Indigenous Partnerships; service for five years as the FCM board appointee to the Canadian Sustainable Communities Judges Panel; as a member of the Canadian Council for International Cooperation with Christine Stewart, who later as Minister of the Environment signed the Kyoto agreement; completion of a master’s degree focusing on non-status Indigenous cultural retention, historically, with advice for the future; and receiving parliamentary recognition for “promoting sustainability” in Plenty Canada’s project with the Mayan people of Guatemala.
Encapsulating a life informed and fulfilled by thousands of learnings, conversations, meetings, readings, writings, lectures, ceremonies, and philosophical principals absorbed and applied over a lifetime is a daunting task, particularly regarding those who possess deep passion for their identity and work and who are unrelenting in their advocacy and actions to improve the lives of others. Larry’s awareness and convictions, which began and were fostered in a family that embraced its Indigenous heritage, comprise a story that deserves affirmation and respect.
“No doubt Canada and Ontario know who they are, and their citizens enjoy the same rights throughout the land. A man in British Columbia who says I am Canadian has the same meaning as a man in Ontario who says he is Canadian. The Algonquin Nation must recognize all of its citizens as equal. They must be able to stand shoulder to shoulder and say I am an Algonquin. They must not stand and say I am non-status, I am status, I am off reserve or I am reserve. They must all be equal citizens of the Algonquin Nation.”
— Shabot Obaadjiwan Chief Doreen Davis
The story of my Indigenous ancestors and their influence
I once spoke in a national magazine article that my strongest influences on my lifestyle choices and policy making positions were my Algonquin grandmother and her daughter, my mother. Through them I also learned about my Algonquin grandfather, again on my mother’s side. He was very traditional and refused to hide his Algonquin identity despite living off reserve. I would later hear at my grandmother’s bedside 44 years ago, that racism and prejudice were intense when my mother was a child. As a result, she had decided to split the family and leave Canada to enroll her children in a boarding school in central New York State operated by the Catholic church. The boys did not stay long and ran away back to their father where they spent winters trapping and some logging. At my grandmother’s bedside, she declared her decision was a mistake, that the price was too high and that her children struggled as a result.
My grandmother told me how proud my mother was to be an “Indian” and how in certain circles of people, who held racist views, this was a problem. But my mother was determined to not let anyone intimidate her into not being proud of her identity. My mother told stories of the nuns taking the best food and how she would slip down into the kitchen at night and bring up better food for the other kids and herself. When I would suggest she was a victim she would say the experience made her strong, that justice was in the hands of the Great Spirit, and that practicing gratitude and reciprocity was key to a good life. This was an early teaching for me about standing independent of victimization and remaining steadfast in terms of one’s identity and culture.
My mother influenced my view that all humans were connected. She would remind us at meals to think of others who did not have enough food and to be grateful for the gifts that came to us. She also encouraged us to find ways of sharing with others and to not take what we didn’t need. These were early teachings involving natural law, empathy, and reciprocity that became significant underpinnings of my values and principles shaping my personal, professional, and community life. I was also taught the importance of burning tobacco, as were some of my cousins, to connect with the unseen world and to affirm our expressions of reciprocity when harvesting gifts from Mother Earth.
During my research for our community, Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nation, academically and for my personal interest in the oral transmission of our Algonquin knowledge, I contacted several relatives and their descendants who share either a direct line to my grandmother or grandfather. I interviewed three first cousins of my mother, over twenty second cousins and even some married-in relatives who corroborated ancestry and lived experiences. My grandmother’s and mother’s generation survived cultural, religious, and racist challenges that have been a source of inspiration. Our work at Plenty Canada, to assist others with the basic necessities of life in harmony with natural law, is partly a reflection of these traditions. Today, their manifestations include the use of solar power, redesigned traditional housing that provides passive solar heating, utilizing materials drawn from the immediate area, and supporting the retention of traditional skills.
The issue of the Indian Act and its delegation of status has caused deep ruptures among Indigenous peoples. This history is well known among those informed about the Indigenous experience. In what has been described as the ultimate act of colonization, and one could also say genocide, the policy of enfranchisement employed in the 1857 Gradual Civilization Act was continued after Confederation through the Indian Act of 1876. Enfranchisement was a process by which Indigenous people were offered Canadian citizenship when they renounced their Indian status and treaty rights. Surrendering their Indigenous identity enabled them the right to vote in Canadian elections, own property, and keep their children out of residential schools. Enfranchisement remained an entrenched policy in the Indian Act until amendments were made in 1985 to align it with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These and other social impediments and practices caused deep harm to generations of families with Indigenous heritage.
Today, there exist both status and non-status Indigenous communities, a reality that has been dealt with respectfully by some, and not by others. An Algonquin elder who was known far and wide for his knowledge of our culture and traditions, Fred Antoine, signed an affidavit on December 28, 1995 that said, “his grandfather and father would not go live on a reserve or be status because they didn’t want to be hemmed in,” did not want status because “future generations of his family could be cut off,” and that “carrying a status card would not make him any more Indian than he is.”
The Indian Act was designed to get rid of the “Indian problem” and its legacy has been to establish a false separation that has created a distrust for our own peoples and traditions. How interesting and restorative it is, therefore, that Article 9 in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples reads:
• Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right to belong to an Indigenous community or nation, in accordance with the traditions and customs of the community or nation concerned. No discrimination of any kind may arise from the exercise of such right.
Article 33 reads:
• Indigenous peoples have the right to determine their own identity or membership in accordance with their customs and traditions. This does not impair the right of indigenous individuals to obtain citizenship of the States in which they live.
Colonialism ignores the promises made to share the land respecting natural law and to bring forward a full embrace of our collective legal systems. The challenges facing the survival of the next seven generations requires, as Mi’kmaq Elder Albert Marshall councils, “Two Eyed Seeing,” or, as Algonquin Elder William Commanda promoted, “A Circle of All Nations: A Culture of Peace” moving together with “one mind, one heart, and one determination.”
At Plenty Canada we are inspired by Indigenous elders who have shared their knowledge, vision, and concrete advice for actions to heal Mother Earth and all the life upon her. My commitment reflects everything I’ve learned in connection with my family’s teachings and all of the knowledge and insights gained throughout my life.
— Larry McDermott