M’CHIGEENG, Manitoulin Island — It's not the typical path to politics: teenage drug and alcohol addiction, an unexpected pregnancy at age 18, and, as if that weren’t enough, three suicide attempts.
And yet somehow Linda Debassige managed to overcome all of that by her early 30s and, in 2013, she was elected as one of the youngest chiefs in Ontario’s more than 130 First Nations — she’s also among the very few that are female. It’s a remarkable story and a testament to how the now 36-year-old transformed her life and became dedicated to solving problems for some of Ontario’s most vulnerable people.
To visit Debassige’s office in the administrative building in M’Chigeeng First Nation, on Manitoulin Island, is to be daunted by her to-do list. At least 15 huge flip-chart pages are taped to the walls of the office, covered in point-form notes written in magic marker. They’re a perpetual reminder of the myriad problems she’s working on for her more than 2,000 M’Chigeeng constituents.
“We have probably 80 per cent of the people here who are without jobs,” she says. “And at least half our population has opioid-addiction problems.”
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In spite of those horrifying statistics, the M’Chigeeng First Nation is a beautiful place, nestled along the shores of the West Bay of Manitoulin Island on the North Channel of Lake Huron. M’Chigeeng (pronounced “Shi-geeng” — the “m” is silent) is an Ojibway word that means “land between the bluffs.”
Debassige (pronounced de-BAH-se-gay) is a well-known name in these parts (62-year-old Blake Debassige, the nationally respected artist, is a cousin). And many of Linda Debassige’s other cousins have also served as chief in M’Chigeeng.
Raised and eventually adopted by relatives because her birth parents were unable to care for her, Debassige grew up bored and angry — bored because she was so smart and lost interest in school, and angry because of her family circumstances and those of Indigenous people in general. She became a single mother at 18. From an early age, she abused drugs and alcohol. She seemed well on her way to an early death.
Somehow she found a way out of that trap. She received helpful advice from local elders and eventually studied civil engineering and got a job in forestry with the Ministry of Natural Resources before getting elected to the band council. Eight years ago, she decided to stop abusing drugs and alcohol. “Cold turkey!” she says proudly. She started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and has been clean and sober ever since. She successfully ran for chief in January 2013 and is now in the midst of her second term. she has every intention of seeking a third.
Debassige represents far fewer people than does the typical MPP at Queen’s Park, but the percentage of constituents that need her help is much higher. The charts on her office wall divide her tasks into different categories: agenda items for the next band council meeting, items to discuss with federal and provincial government officials, policy and operations issues, economic development possibilities, and more.
The reserve now has its own elementary school, which means that young people have a shot at an education that respects their Indigenous culture and history. It also presents an opportunity to revive Ojibway as a commonly spoken language in the area. However, there is no high school in M’Chigeeng. Students will still have to go to Manitoulin Secondary School, the only option for all of the island’s youth.
When Debassige speaks, she talks in calm and measured tones, only occasionally letting the irritation of having lots of responsibility and very little power come to the fore. She’s in constant negotiations with representatives at Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada. “The reality is, because of the Indian Act, we don’t own our land. We’re in charge of it, but not really,” she says.
Some things infuriate her, such as the businessman who just decided without permission to set up a scrap yard in M’Chigeeng. Debassige says that he’s a squatter but that she has no power to evict him or even to padlock his business.
On the other hand, she’s excited about plans to establish the reserve’s first-ever grocery store and pharmacy. At the moment, people in M’Chigeeng spend their money off-reserve, enriching the businesses of the surrounding “settler” culture. By the fall, they hope to keep some of that spending and economic activity on-reserve.
“And the pharmacy will take a wholly different approach,” she says. “It’s not just going to be prescribing pills. We’ll take an Indigenous approach to health.” The chief knows something about this from personal experience. She says she never takes prescription meds for headaches, but rather employs a traditional solution using local roots “which always works.”
Debassige also managed to get funding for two youth workers at the local recreation centre, ensuring that young people will have structured activities all summer long from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. — she hopes that they’ll avoid much of the trouble she got into when she was their age.
As she has endless numbers of items in her inbox, I ask the chief whether she truly feels she’s making any progress.
“Oh, yes,” she says. “Every day. Absolutely every day.”
Given Debassige’s successful personal battles against substance abuse and suicide, all of which she faced while raising her son, I’m guessing the problems of leading a reserve don’t stand a chance of preventing this dynamo from getting to where she believes M’Chigeeng needs to go.