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Chief Gary Potts with a 1913 picture of former Second Chief Alex Paul.

Rudy Platiel/The Globe and Mail

It began with such hope and promise.

Gary Potts, a young charismatic Anishnabai chief of the Temagami First Nation near North Bay, Ont., walked into the office of Bruce Clark, a young idealistic small-town lawyer, in Haileybury in 1973 and used the $5,000 proceeds of a trapping grant to hire him.

The two concocted a daring strategy. They filed a caution on the legal title of 9,800 square kilometres of land around the Bear Island Indian Reserve. The legal caution warned any potential purchasers or developers that title to the land was in dispute and not legally clear.

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The plan was to halt development and force the Ontario government to negotiate a land-claim settlement recognizing the Bear Island Reserve’s Indigenous title to this large swath of wilderness. The first casualty was the province’s plan for a theme-park resort on Maple Mountain, an outcome that did not endear the Temagami Anishnabai to everyone in the region.

The land claims fight became a long, torturous and all-consuming odyssey that gradually eroded Mr. Clark’s legal practice, forcing him at one point to move his family onto the reserve to survive. In the end the long battle eventually destroyed his friendship with Mr. Potts.

In 1991, Mr. Potts and Rita O’Sullivan, another leader in the land claims fight, led a contingent of supporters to Ottawa where they received the bitter Supreme Court of Canada decision rejecting their claim.

Mr. Potts remained defiant. He told a documentary on the battle that the fight would go on and that Canada had run into “a spirit that rises from the Canadian soil.”

“They can kill some of our people,' he said, “but they cannot suppress the Indigenous spirit … and the Canadian people have nothing to fear from that.”

In its ruling, the court recognized that the government had breached its fiduciary responsibility for the band. That prompted Mr. Potts and his negotiating team to resume talks with the province on a “a treaty of co-existence” with the Teme Augama Anishnabai (the Deep Water People).

(Mr. Potts re-established the Teme Augama Anishnabai Council in the 1970s to recognize all of those with Temagami Anishnabai heritage, including some who had lost their “Indian status” for various reasons.)

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The land claim had been launched under the legal auspices of the band council, but decades after it began, that quixotic dream of a shared land died amid fear and suspicion when the treaty of co-existence that Mr. Potts had painstakingly negotiated was rejected in a vote by the status Indian members of Bear Island band, who feared it would give the government and Canadian society indirect control over Anishnabai land.

On June 3, Mr. Potts, surrounded by his family, died on Bear Island where he had spent his life. He had been elected a band council chief a number of times, led the fight to stop old growth logging and battled to gain control over the land that he liked to point out had been home to Indigenous people “for 6,000 years.”

Mr. Potts was awarded an honorary doctorate by Trent University in Peterborough for his life’s work. His philosophy was characterized by a plea for co-operation and conciliation with Canadian society. That philosophical grounding is all the more pertinent today amid the controversy raging in our pandemic world about how to deal with systemic racial discrimination.

Born in Temagami on Dec. 1, 1944, George Gary Emmet Potts spent his childhood trapping with his father and learning from him how to survive on the land.

His brother, Wayne, tells the story of an early encounter that may have shaped his brother’s philosophy. As a teenager Gary went out trapping with his father and they returned to the cabin they had built on Indian Trail Lake to find their belongings piled in the snow outside the cabin.

“Inside were three or four Shaaganash [white men] from the Sudbury region who came in on the lumber road from River Valley,” Wayne said.

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“They claimed they had found the cabin while hunting the previous fall and deemed it as theirs.”

The father, Philip, and his son were eventually allowed to sleep on the floor of the cabin for the night.

“My father, in his humility and gift of ambassadorship, ended up making an arrangement with these hunter men – that he would continue to use the cabin for late fall and winter trapping and they could use it for their fishing and early fall hunting – with the understanding that they would continue to renovate and maintain it,” Wayne recalled.

An incident that could have generated bitterness and resentment was instead perhaps a foundation for a lifelong philosophy of the need for co-operation and conciliation but married to a determination to establish Indigenous rights and protect ancestral land.

Gary Potts was in his mid-20s when he first shared his views publicly in an interview with a North Bay Nugget reporter at a trapping convention. He raised the issue of native land rights but also talked about the need for co-operation between societies.

His last recorded public statement – long after logging protests and decades of court battles – was to students and academics at a Temagami Weekend conference in 2017, when he emotionally stressed the need for conciliation between the Anishnabai and non-Indigenous societies.

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But despite that talk about co-operation and conciliation, Mr. Potts was also a fierce defender of native rights and protector of his people’s wilderness – called N’Daki Menan – which was regarded as an Anishnabai heritage.

In 1989, bundled up in the November cold, he led protesters blockading the Red Squirrel Road to stop the cutting of old growth timber that the provincial government had approved the previous year. Among those who joined the blockade protest was Bob Rae, then the NDP Opposition leader. Mr. Rae was led away by the provincial police but never charged and the following year became the premier of Ontario in an election upset.

Under Mr. Rae the province did put forward negotiation efforts, but Mr. Potts and his supporters felt it was important to pursue a Supreme Court decision on the Temagami claim – a decision that could also have wider implications for aboriginal land rights across Canada. This was particularly relevant where aboriginal rights had apparently been infringed upon or nullified by treaties.

But the Supreme Court handed the Teme-Augama Anishnabai a bitter defeat, ruling that the band had forfeited its land rights because it apparently adhered to the 1850 Robinson-Huron Treaty.

Indigenous leaders had long argued that at the time of treaty signing there was a poor understanding among Indigenous leaders of what the treaties really meant or the legal implications that were subsequently framed into law. Indigenous leaders asserted that the implications of what ended up in writing went way beyond their idea of what the signers originally believed had been orally negotiated.

The Supreme Court rejected that argument on the basis that the Temagami members had accepted treaty payments ($5 a year per person) and the creation of a band. But it did offer a small crumb of victory in ruling that “The Crown had failed to comply with some of its obligations under this agreement and, thereby breached its fiduciary obligations.”

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In view of the fiduciary breach finding, the Ontario government, to its credit, offered to negotiate “A treaty of co-existence” and the band agreed.

Mr. Potts’s long battle to establish the Temagami people’s ownership of this vast tract of their ancestors’ land and trying to protect it from old-growth logging, earned him widespread respect and admiration.

James Cullingham, an adjunct graduate faculty member of Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies at Trent University, and the filmmaker who created a documentary on the Supreme Court battle, calls him “a towering, deeply rooted presence.”

He said Mr. Potts’s principled resistance and charismatic leadership brought him national attention and an influential role with the Assembly of First Nations. The two first met when Mr. Cullingham was a young CBC reporter and they had a 40-year friendship.

Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald said that as “a young leader he left a strong impression on me and others around him, leading his community with wisdom and experience.”

He demonstrated “a deep commitment to fairness and transparency, and used that to make tremendous efforts in improving his community and preserving Temagami’s sovereignty rights and title to their traditional lands,” she said in a statement.

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Mary Laronde, a member of the Teme Augama Anishnabai Council who held a number of technical posts in the years of negotiation and court action, says what she learned from Mr. Potts was “a turning point for me – a game changer.”

The concept of a treaty of co-existence which Mr. Potts pursued was “a different kind of treaty,” she said.

“It meant that we as Indigenous people had the right to exist in our homeland as who we were. We didn’t have to disappear and be somebody other than what our creator wanted,” Ms. Laronde said.

So, while the concept of a treaty of co-existence visualized two separate entities involved in managing the land, she said, “co-operation was the whole underpinning.”

When Mr. Potts’s vision was dashed in a rejection by the band members, he was “heartbroken,” she said. That was followed by a deep division among the Anishnabai people which descended into a bitter factional fight with accusations being hurled by band members that he was trying to overturn the band vote.

Several years after the court decision, Mr. Potts’s son, Alan (known as Ally) died. Disheartened, she said, “Gary became very reclusive after that.” At a time, he needed support, he was caught up in the midst of factional turmoil among the Anishnabai people, she said. He retreated.

“He never recovered,” his brother Wayne says.

Then in 2013, another son, Gary Jr. (known as Guy) died of a liver disease while waiting for a transplant.

“[Gary’s] world had come crashing down,” Ms. Laronde said.

The vision of a vast tract of Temagami wilderness jointly managed by two societies but guided by the values of the Anishnabai people turned out to be a dream too far – one that died on the shoals of a much narrower community vision.

In some ways, Mr. Potts’s journey was a uniquely Canadian saga of a racially co-operative vision that fell tantalizingly short of being realized in his lifetime. One hopeful sign remains: Mr. Potts’s brother Wayne, an educator, former teacher and school administrator, is currently running for chief of the Teme Augama Anishnabai Council on an election platform that promotes his brother’s goal of creating a co-operative jointly managed homeland guided by Anishnabai values.

Mr. Potts was predeceased by his father, Philip; wife, Doreen Mathias; two brothers, Brian and Richard; and two sons. He leaves his mother, Catherine (née Kiely) Potts; brothers Wayne and Henry; sister, Linda Mathias; son Dean; and three daughters, Elizabeth, Paula and Deva Belec Potts; as well as Deva’s mother, Aline Belec, his loving friend and companion. He also leaves 12 grandchildren, 20 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.

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