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Ginoogaming First Nation Chief Celia Echum, third from the right, with her siblings and their mother at the end.

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At 5 foot 2, Ginoogaming First Nation Chief Celia Echum was below average in height. But despite her diminutive size, she held enormous influence in her community.

In 2016, Ms. Echum initiated a claim seeking compensation for land that Ginoogaming was entitled to under Treaty No. 9 but did not receive. Once settled, the claim will see the Anishinaabe community in northwestern Ontario gain almost 25 per cent more land.

Peter Rasevych, one of Ms. Echum’s nephews from Ginoogaming, was a boy when his Aunty Celia, as she was known to many, began serving the people of Ginoogaming. She received her community health representative (CHR) certificate from Laurentian University in the late 1970s. As a CHR, Ms. Echum helped co-ordinate and support health services for people in the small community with limited access to doctors and nurses.

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“I can remember her being a strong woman,” he recalled, saying that CHRs are “the strong women of the community.”

The rural community in northwestern Ontario is about 300 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay and surrounded by dense forest and rocky Canadian Shield. About 200 people live in Ginoogaming, a fraction of the almost 1,000 registered band members. Families here practise a traditional way of life, keeping connected to their history through hunting, trapping and fishing.

Ginoogaming is one of 49 First Nations that make up Nishnawbe Aski Nation, an area that covers most of Northern Ontario, reaching down from Hudson’s Bay and stopping just short of the Great Lakes. Ginoogaming is also one of the nine Matawa communities located northeast of Thunder Bay, whose ancestral and territorial lands lay within the proposed Ring of Fire mining development, which is highly contentious.

“She was very sensitive to what was happening especially with the Ring of Fire development,” said Wally McKay, the lead negotiator for Ginoogaming’s treaty land entitlement claim, who worked closely with Ms. Echum, his cousin. “She had seen the ravages that [previous] development has done to her territorial lands or ancestral lands and she was very concerned that such development will have a devastating impact in the North.”

The Ring of Fire is a proposed 2,000-square-kilometre mineral mining development in northwestern Ontario and one of the most anticipated projects the province has seen, possibly worth billions. But it has been plagued with delays, in part because of the insistence by First Nations leaders, including Ms. Echum, that they be treated as equal partners with governments and the mining companies seeking to benefit from development on their lands.

Though Ms. Echum had witnessed land devastation in the past, Mr. McKay said, she believed that development could benefit First Nations communities if they worked closely with governments and the private sector to put the proper controls in place.

Last November, Ms. Echum travelled to Toronto with two other Matawa First Nations chiefs to present to Ontario’s standing committee on general government in opposition to Bill 132. The omnibus bill proposed amendments to reduce “red tape” in a broad range of existing legislation including the Mining Act, the Milk Act and the Highway Traffic Act.

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The Matawa chiefs, including Ms. Echum, were quick to call out the Ford government for trying to reduce consultations with First Nations, which have a constitutional right to protect their treaty lands as fair and equal treaty partners. Ms. Echum said the Ontario government needed a new approach to working with First Nations treaty partners in the North, whose interests are in land development for the benefit of their communities and people.

Following their presentation to the standing committee, the NDP blasted the proposed amendments for creating more red tape in some cases that would likely end up in court because of violations of First Nations treaty rights.

“They deserve to be at the table. It’s in the best economic interest of the province. It’s in the best environmental interest of the province,” said MPP Catherine Fife at the third reading of the bill.

The bill was passed a month later.

Ms. Echum was born Ashe Celina McKay on Dec. 15, 1952, in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, an Anishinaabe Oji-Cree First Nation in remote northwestern Ontario. Such isolated, fly-in communities are accessible only by plane except in the coldest weather, when the winter roads open. First Nations people in these isolated areas of the deep North often lack clean water and adequate health care, but the remoteness helps protect some of their most valuable resources.

“She never lost her language,” even after she moved to Ginoogaming, Mr. Rasevych said.

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Ms. Echum was the second of eight children born to Sarah Jane and Cornelius McKay.

As a child, Celia left her parents and home in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug to attend Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ont., about 600 kilometres to the south.

Her children recall her stories of witnessing abuse against other children, and how she would run away just so she would be punished to make sure the other children wouldn’t have to endure the abuse alone.

After residential school, she travelled east to attend high school in Geraldton, Ont. As a young teen, that is where she met her future husband, Gabriel Echum, a member of Ginoogaming First Nation.

In 1973, Mr. Echum was elected Chief to serve the first of several two-year terms as leader of his community.

At that time, Ms. Echum took on roles within band administration while she and her husband were raising their five sons. Ms. Echum grew into her role as an elected leader, first as a band councillor and then eventually Chief in 2007.

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Mr. Rasevych said political life for First Nations chiefs often means giving up your personal life.

“Like any chief does, I guess. You’re always travelling or the doorbell is always ringing, the phone is always ringing. At Celia’s house on a typical Sunday night or Monday night or Tuesday night at 8 p.m. or 10 p.m. or midnight, even late at night, people would be calling. Where do you draw the line? She always helped, she always accepted the calls, always helped people.”

Ms. Echum’s husband died in 2013. She was elected for the seventh and final time last August.

On May 9, Ms. Echum had a sudden medical emergency and was taken by ambulance to the Geraldton hospital where she died. She was 67.

The treaty land entitlement claim she started for Ginoogaming is ongoing. The process was opened up to First Nations that didn’t receive all the land that should have been allocated when the treaties were signed. In Ginoogaming’s case, about 55 band members were left off the list that determined how much reserve land they were entitled to when Treaty No. 9 was signed, a shortfall of 29.5 square kilometres (7,296 acres). The community now has to decide what to do with the land that is being transferred back, as well as negotiate compensation for the fact that they did not have the use of this land for all this time.

One of Ms. Echum’s five sons, Derek, a 28-year veteran with Anishinabek Police Service in Ginoogaming, said his mother’s work was about planning a secure and stable future for the community.

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“She wanted to know what kind of resources she had for our membership, the members that she served. She wanted to progress in that area, progressing into different places like goals and values of the community, make it a more stable community, have self-sufficiency.”

Mr. Echum said he plans to hang onto family traditions.

“Every year [Ms. Echum] and my late father had Christmas at their house and the fond memories of just being with them at Christmas. She would usually come home from Thunder Bay and wrap [gifts] on the 23rd and have everything ready for the 24th and everybody would still be wrapping at 5 or 6 o’clock,” Mr. Echum said.

“Me and my wife are just going to carry that on at our house this year to have that feeling of her being there with us still.”

Ms. Echum leaves her five sons, Vincent, Derek, Scott, Myles and Troy, as well as several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She also leaves her mother, Sarah Jane McKay, and five siblings from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug.

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