‘A great land defender and defender of the people’: Remembering Chief Gary Potts

For decades, the Anishinaabe trapper-turned-chief advocated for his community — and inspired respect across partisan lines. TVO.org speaks with the people whose lives he touched
By Nick Dunne - Published on Sep 19, 2020
Gary Potts stands beside a portrait of former Second Chief Alex Paulin in North Bay on February 16, 1983. (Rudy Platiel/Globe and Mail)

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Thirty-one years ago, the old-growth pines of Temagami were under threat from mining- and lumber- industry interests. The Teme-Augama Anishnabai, or TAA, who had inhabited the region for more than 7,000 years, pleaded with authorities to prevent the cutting down of forests. They filed injunctions, and, when those failed, the local First Nation set up blockades on Red Squirrel Road. By September 18, 1989, the TAA were no longer alone. First Nations across the country rallied around Temagami, as did environmentalists from the Temagami Wilderness Society and protestors from Toronto. Even Bob Rae, then the opposition leader for the provincial New Democrats, joined the blockades, getting arrested in the process.

The situation in N’Daki Menan, the traditional territory of the TAA, was now national news. The political momentum surrounding the blockades and court battles wouldn’t have grown so intense, however, if not for the determination and actions of Gary Potts, an Anishinaabe trapper-turned-chief. This year, the community will mark the anniversary without him for the first time: he died on June 3 at age 75. “He was a great land defender and defender of the people,” says Mary Laronde, a friend of Potts who worked alongside him beginning in 1982. “So many things that we take for granted today in Temagami were galvanized because of Gary during that time.”

The towering white and red pines that make up the old-growth forests of Temagami, once the site of ice-age glaciers, are the product of 10,000 years of evolution, according to Laronde, who worked in forestry management for 30 years. Trappers once lived off the land, travelling by canoe and snowshoe through the network of rivers and lakes that connected as far south as the Great Lakes and as far east as the St. Lawrence River. But, during the 20th century, mining and lumber industries pushed the people away from the land — and their way of life.

Potts began his public life after delivering a speech at the Ontario Trappers Association’s convention in 1972. “In my opinion, the Canadian people will lose a great deal of knowledge and understanding if the present government policy of complete integration into white society is followed,” Potts said, according to a North Bay Nugget article. “If the white people want the Native people to take an active role in the Canadian nation, we can only give true representation when the government recognizes our heritage, and when this happens, the government will see that proud Natives can and will contribute a great deal to the Canadian nation.” Potts was intelligent and easy-going, Laronde says, and he could make people listen: “He had the voice of a crane — that big loud voice that carries forever.”

a group of people walking while a helicopter hovers overhead
In 1972, Potts became chief of both Temagami First Nation and the TAA. (Courtesy of Deva Belec ​​​​​​)

The reaction to the speech was so strong that it drew the trapper out of the bush and into a life of politics: in 1972, he became chief of both Temagami First Nation (the federally administered Indian Act band) and the TAA, whose membership included those who didn’t qualify for the restrictive federal Indian Status registry.

Potts’s first major move was to file a series of land cautions in 1973: as Teme-Augama chiefs had done nearly a century before him, he asserted that the people had never signed away their land via treaty. The province, though, had for years been issuing mining and lumber patents to private interests. Potts and his allies were not necessarily opposed to industry, unlike the environmentalists who protested alongside them; according to Laronde, they wanted protection for sacred and environmentally sensitive areas, and a stake in the management of natural resources. “We weren't against it per se — again, we’re against anyone harvesting over the old-growth forest,” she says, adding that, at the time, less than 5 per cent of it remained. The cautions halted mining activity, but logging continued, sparking legal issues over the course of a decade — the province sued the TAA over the land cautions in ’78 — and culminating in the blockades of ’89.

As the blockades continued and various groups joined the protests, the TAA fought for title over the region through the court system, appealing an Ontario Court of Appeal decision in 1989. “I think he thought we would get justice there finally,” says Laronde. But, in 1991, the highest court in the country dismissed its appeal. Because some TAA members had received Robinson-Huron annuities of $4 per year and accepted a reserve in 1971 after being charged for hunting and chopping firewood without permits — and due to the time that the province had asserted itself on the land — the Supreme Court upheld the decision and ruled that the Aboriginal title was not legitimate.

However, the court did acknowledge that the TAA were the original people of the land and said that the province had to settle with them, something that has yet to happen. “In a narrow legal sense, it was certainly a defeat and devastating to the TAA and, to some extent, Gary,” says James Cullingham, a professor of Indigenous studies at Trent University, which granted Potts an honorary doctorate. “But he also took a longer view and recognized that the word was getting out among Canadians and throughout Indigenous communities that there were remedies available.” Cullingham, who covered the Supreme Court case as a journalist and eventually befriended Potts, says it provided key lessons for future leaders and lawyers pursuing their own Indigenous-rights cases: “Fighting that case, even when some people said it shouldn't have been fought, was one of Gary Potts’s great achievements.”

The case was part of Potts’s larger vision, which involved the coexistence of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. He came up with the idea of creating the Wendaban Stewardship Authority, which would have seen resources co-managed by the province, the municipalities of the region, and the Indigenous people of Temagami. “We'd share the land and decision-making over to the land. People would have their towns, and we would have our own sole-stewardship area,” explains Laronde. “We’d have enough land that we could make socioeconomic decisions for ourselves.”

a man wearing a baseball uniform
"He was a great land defender and defender of the people,” says Mary Laronde. (Courtesy of Deva Belec)

In 1990, the province signed a memoriam of understanding that split decision-making between four townships in the region. But, at the last minute, both the TAA and Temagami First Nation — the band council-led organization of Status-Indian members — asked for separate votes, causing a political rift within the community. To this day, the issue remains controversial. “As a model for people living together, it's beautiful. And that's what I'm still working on,” says Laronde, now a councillor to the TAA who also works with the Anishinabek Nation. There is hope that Pott’s vision will yet be realized: newly elected TAA chief Leanna Farr has spoken of creating stronger ties between the Temagami First Nation and nearby townships.

Respect for Potts crossed partisan lines. “The political class that I covered as a journalist, whether they were Liberals or Conservatives or NDP, they universally admired this guy. I think they were kind of, like, envious about just how effective he was politically,” says Cullingham. “He was one of the funniest people you'll ever meet. He had a joy, a sparkle in his eye.”

By the late ’90s and early 2000s, Potts had withdrawn from public life and dedicated himself to his family (although he did serve as chief again briefly in 2009). His daughter Deva Belec, 27, says she remains grateful for his humour and for his having instilled in her knowledge of the land and how to live on it. “As kids, he taught us to be cautious, but he always said, ‘Deva, if the animals wanted to kill us, we all would have been dead a long time ago.’ Just like that,” she says, laughing. “He said, ‘We are a part of our land; we're not separate from it.’”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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