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‘How To Make A 2000 Piece Puzzle:’ How Wiikwemkoong’s Lost Diary Found Its Way Back Home


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A journal of 19th century events in Wiikwemkoong written by Jesuit missionaries is back where it started.

The unceded territory of Wiikwemkoong is located on Manitoulin Island in northern Ontario, the ancestral lands of the Odawa, Potawatomi and Ojibway peoples, also known as the Three Fires Confederacy.

The journal entries, spanning from 1844 to 1873, document daily life in the missions from Owen Sound to Sault Saint Marie, with an emphasis on Manitoulin Island. They also refer to the Manitoulin Treaty of 1862.

“It reaffirms Wiikwemkoong’s position when treaty time was on the island, and our position that we have never ceded the island,” said Luke Wassegijig, who is Odawa of Wiikwemkoong and manager of the Wiikwemkoong Tourism Board.

Shelley J. Pearen, who translated the diary, said the original document it was kept in the Wiikwemkoong Mission Church until it was lost in a fire that destroyed the church in 1954.

It turned out that a photostatic copy had been made and stored at the Jesuit Mission Academy in Toronto in 1951. Ten years ago it reappeared.

“I refer to it as a miracle because it was lost a long time ago and all of a sudden it’s back,” Pearen said.

Shelley J. Pearen was at the official launch of the Wikwemikong Diarium at the Manitoulin Island Historical Treatise Meeting: 1836 and 1862. (Wikwemikong Tourism/Facebook)

Pearen said a researcher friend was at the Jesuit Archives in Toronto and came across a stack of rolled-up documents, dated 1844 and named Wiikwemkoong.

The researcher photographed 1,000 pages and since they were early photostatic copies, they were negative images. The negative images had to be turned into positive images and then put on a CD and given to a colleague Pearen was working with at the time.

It took Pearen nearly 10 years to transcribe the text into 500 separate pages of writing in three volumes, each covering a decade.

Entry of the old Jesuit newspaper.
Photostatic image of an August 15, 1862 entry describing the local Indian agent’s attempts to convince the Anishinaabe that they should surrender the island. (Shelley J. Pearen)

Forced to keep records, the Jesuits wrote mainly in French. There were also entries written in English by a German priest because it was easier for him and entries in Anishinaabemowin by priests who were trying to learn the local language.

“It was like doing a 2,000-piece puzzle,” Pearen said.

“It was missing pieces and the dog had eaten some pieces. It’s handwritten in French.”

Guided by her previous research in the area, Pearen said she was familiar with the handwriting of 19th-century priests and enlisted the help of friends in translating the Anishnaabemowin.

learning the language

The entries record events such as weather that brought down the church, epidemics, and grand council meetings held by area chiefs.

The first priest to arrive at the mission, Father Jean-Pierre Choné, was interested in culture, and diary entries include references to weddings, customs, naming ceremonies, and clothing.

Entry of the old Jesuit newspaper.
A photostat from the February 1851 diary describing Father Hanipaux’s stay in Sheshegwaning/Chichigwaning. (Shelley J. Pearen)

He was trying to dominate Anishinaabemowin, and Pearen could see how he struggled with it in his journal entries.

Initially, he said, the children were taught in Anishinaabemowin, but it was the government that pressured the priests to teach in English.

Pearen said the autonomy of the Odawa, Potawatomi and Ojibway peoples is well documented in the paper.

“What I find most interesting is that it supports a lot of things that people have said and what I’ve found,” he said.

Pearen’s family has been on Manitoulin Island since before the treaty, including an Anglican missionary and a trader.

“I have seriously inherited a sense of evil through all the family lines,” he said.

She gave the printing rights to the newspaper to the people of Wiikwemkoong to use for their benefit. The official launch of the three-volume journal took place in May during the Meeting on the History of Manitoulin Island: Treaties of 1836 and 1862, where all 100 copies were sold out.

“In this moment of reconciliation, this is the real reconciliation,” Wassegijig said of returning the diary to the community.

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