/National Indigenous History Month in the Haliburton Highlands
Larry O’Connor found out in his retirement that he has Indigenous roots, and has spent the past few years exploring his own history. He is dedicated to learning about his family, their stories, and how he can educate others about Indigenous culture in the Haliburton Highlands. /photo submitted

National Indigenous History Month in the Haliburton Highlands

By Emily Stonehouse

The month of June has been identified as National Indigenous History Month, with National Indigenous People’s Day falling on June 21, to tie in with the summer solstice. 

The date was put in place by the federal government in 2017, and has been recognized nationally ever since. 

According to www.native-land.ca, Haliburton County sits on the traditional territory of the Anishinabaweki and the Mississauga Nations.  In 2018, David Andrew Beaucage Johnson, a student at Trent University, wrote an essay on the history of Indigenous habitation in the region through the locally-supported U-Links program. 

“The original name for the area of Haliburton Highlands is Ogidaaki, or Gidaaki in the Mississauga pronunciation,” wrote Johnson in his paper. “The meaning of Gidaaki can be broken into two words Gidaa meaning upwards and Ki meaning earth. When English came to be spoken by the Mississaugas, the area was referred to as ‘The Height of Land’.”

The Haliburton Highlands. 

So what are the Highlands now? And how do we proceed in this community in a way that is supportive, inclusive, and understanding of Indigenous cultures? 

Being a tourism-based community, the Echo reached out to Ontario’s Highlands Tourism Organization (OHTO). OHTO is this region’s destination development organization that was established by the Ontario Government to coordinate tourism initiatives.

“It’s not just about acknowledging the land we work and live on,” said Amy Hogue, the content specialist for OHTO, “it’s a first step to acknowledge it, but then the next step is to celebrate it.” 

Hogue shared that as a region that is dependent on tourism, it is important for consumers to be mindful of their purchases and practices. “Being open to cultural educational experiences, such as PowWows, and making sure you support Indigenous artisans and tour operators is key,” she said. 

Hogue believes that the educational component of reconciliation is fundamental in progressing forward. “Awareness of Indigenous history and culture is constantly evolving,” she said, “we need to keep asking ourselves, ‘how can we help educate Ontario’s Highlands?’” 

While Hogue said that there are no tourism providers in the County who have officially identified as Indigenous at this time, there are organizations dedicated to this foundation of education. 

Haliburton Forest and Wild Life Reserve is one such organization. 

The Forest opted into the Progressive Aboriginal Relations (PAR) program in mid-January of 2023.The program is spearheaded by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB), and is designed as a program that any organization can jump into without any prior knowledge. The three-year program is split into equal parts, starting with internal planning, then moving on to setting specific and measurable goals, and finally concluding with outreach.

“During this first phase in 2023, our focus is on making internal progress,” said Malcolm Cockwell, the managing director of Haliburton Forest, “so that we are in a position to build meaningful, mutually beneficial relationships in 2024 and beyond.”

Over the past few months, Cockwell shared that he and his team at the Forest have identified the key Indigenous communities with which they hope to build relationships with. They have also formalized an Aboriginal Relations Policy, and scheduled PAR training for the Forest’s leadership team this summer. 

“As we approach the second phase in late-2023 or early-2024, we will start implementing our new internal policies, updating our internal communications, holding company-wide training, as well as reaching out to the communities of interest,” Cockwell told the Echo

The CCAB have been nothing but supportive throughout the Forest’s journey towards education thus far, claimed Cockwell. He shared that they provide a tangible framework to address key priorities, for not only the tourism component of the Forest, but also the logging side of the business. 

While businesses are finding their footing with Indigenous education and reconciliation, there are locals in the community that ensure that Indigenous information is never out of sight, out of mind. 

Larry O’Connor is the host of Tales from the Big Canoe on Canoe FM, which airs the last Wednesday and the following Friday of each month. 

O’Connor was a cottager of the Haliburton Highlands for 40 years during his professional career of everything from committee involvement to the mayor of Brock Township. Upon retirement, he was able to explore his own story. 

“I always knew something was there,” he said, “but I never really had a chance to delve into it.” 

O’Connor’s grandparents had passed away early in his life, but he claimed that he always had a feeling that he had ties to the land, to nature, and to the world views practiced by many Indigenous cultures. “It was always there,” he said, “but I just never understood it.” 

Through careful investigation, O’Connor discovered that he had Métis heritage on both sides of his family, and specifically Odawa heritage on his father’s side. “It was always my dad’s dream to understand his history, and he found out two years before he passed. Mom also always wanted to know, and she received her Métis citizenship six weeks before she died.” 

He shared that one of the reasons the history has been so skewed was because of the colonial impacts on the culture throughout history. “My grandmother went to a residential school, and she survived, but when she left, she lied and told everyone her children were french. She didn’t want the same thing for them that she had experienced.” 

O’Connor believes that a big part of Indigenous celebrations should be to not only recognize the land you are on, but reclaim the history that has been whitewashed. “For so many people, they have lived a life of denial because of the treatment they received,” he said. 

Over the past few years, O’Connor has started attending as many Indigenous events and experiences as possible, and has begun to dabble in the world of traditional Indigenous dances. “I am proud to say that I can actually dance at a grand entry,” he said. 

He referenced the many pieces of his regalia – some that he has made himself and some that are collected or inherited – that make his experiences all the more fulfilling, including a Métis sash to honour his late mother. “So many pieces of what we do, our history, our culture, it’s all in that regalia,” he said. 

While we are far from reversing the damages inflicted by colonialism in our region, National Indigenous History Month serves as a reminder to reflect, honour, and celebrate Indigenous practices, cultures, and stories on this land once known as Ogidaaki.