Pair travels to Manitoulin on a 10-day trip to Canada
LITTLE CURRENT—A custom-built, brightly coloured totem pole stands tall in Willy van Ee’s yard. The pole would stand out in any setting but installing it at his home in the Netherlands made it even more striking. The totem pole had seemed to be a calling for Willy, but he could never quite understand why.
“I always knew I was different,” he said as he described how he tried to sort out the mystery.
Willy embarked on a global quest to discover his roots. After living as far as South Africa, he finally got a break when asking his mother about his heritage. She reluctantly told him about his biological father: Walter Mejaki, a soldier from Sagamok First Nation who fought for Canada in World War II.
During the celebrations following the war, many soldiers struck up relationships with people in the communities in which they fought. According to ‘Voices of the Left Behind,’ a book that contains Willy’s story as well as nearly 50 others, roughly 30,000 babies were born between Canadian soldiers and European women following the Second World War.
An exhausting search followed until finally, Willy got in contact with Mr. Mejaki’s brother. Willy’s father had died over a decade before, long before Willy had the chance to meet him. After connecting with his uncle, he got the chance to visit his father’s home and was welcomed into the community, complete with an Indian status card.
Since then, Willy has made multiple trips to visit his newfound family and friends, the majority of whom live in Wiikwemkoong. Despite the strong connections and recognition by his own community, getting his Canadian citizenship was a multi-decade ordeal for Willy.
“I’ve been fighting for 40, 50 years,” he said.
Don Chapman shared Willy’s story through his Lost Canadians campaign, a lengthy project that attempted to raise awareness and restore citizenship to those who should have been considered citizens but were not, for a variety of reasons.
That campaign came to a head when Willy finally got his citizenship about a year and a half ago.
“It feels very good,” he said.
In recent years, Willy has had company join him on his trips to Canada. His son Mike received his status in 1999 and has had the privilege of growing up knowing about his Indigenous heritage. He has started making his own trips to Wiikwemkoong as well.
“We are very thankful for all Native people, especially in Wiiky, where they see us as family,” said Mike.
Mike was in the news in October after he travelled to Montreal to take his own oath of citizenship. The process was easier now that his father had paved the way. Mike said his older brother Roy is in the process of getting his own Canadian citizenship and expects that he will be able to take the oath within weeks.
“To find your true self, you have to find your roots,” said Mike.
Rosemary Wakegijig has become a strong supporter of the family even though they are not related. She hosted Willy and Mike at her home and has gotten to know them well.
“There’s been no looking back after this. They’ve been so welcoming,” said Ms. Wakegijig, adding that Wiikwemkoong is known for its warm hospitality.
Their agenda was jam-packed with ceremonies, meeting friends and family and travelling in between.
“It goes fast on the reserve because everybody seems to be your family,” said Mike with a laugh. “It always feels like home.”
Ms. Wakegijig said she understands the tight schedule constraints. “I’m trying to immerse them in so much in such a short time,” she said. Willy and Mike’s trip to Canada was only 10 days long, a good portion of which was spent in Montreal for the citizenship oath.
“I’m so honoured to be spending so much time with them,” said Ms. Wakegijig.
At a powwow social at the Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre in Little Current last Wednesday, Ms. Wakegijig brought Willy and Mike up to acknowledge them as members of the community. They participated in dances around the circle and got to spend time with others from their home away from home.
“We are very proud to be one of them, but they are also proud that we are one of them. That’s an amazing feeling,” said Mike.