Joe and Grace Fox
Both Joe and Grace Fox are significant role models. Grace Fox is a very well-known and highly respected woman. She has accomplished much to date and has met and worked with many political icons, decision-makers that are in positions to effect ‘change for the better’ in the Manitoulin community. As education director in Wikwemikong just prior to the construction of the Wikwemikong High School, and presently, as school trustee for the eleven First Nations represented by the Rainbow Board, Grace has been part of many innovations on the educational front. She has been part of a team that has negotiated strategies with former Prime Minister Paul Martin, former Lt. Governor James Bartleman, and Liz Sandals, the current Education Minister for Ontario. She has also spent time with First Nation activist Cindy Blackstock, with Justice Murray Sinclair, Commissioner of the Residential School Reconciliation project, and shared some laughter with David Suzuki when he visited M’Chigeeng.
Joe Fox has been a trusted Deacon in M’Chigeeng for 38 years. He has helped numerous people at stressful times in their lives. He speaks of two life-changing events. The first was the occasion of his meeting with Pope, John Paul II at the time of the Pope’s visit to Midland in 1984. Joe was handed a bible by the Pontiff in a ceremony that will forever evoke powerful feelings for him. Perhaps even more moving was Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology to Canada’s Indigenous Peoples on June 11, 2008. “This apology ‘rang a bell’ in me. It shifted the blame and anger I felt towards my own people to the European descendants who had now accepted responsibility for the decisions they made in running the residential schools.”
“It was our priest who had put me in the car that day,” Joe recalls of his own introduction to residential school. “My friend and I were taken right off the street and taken to the Residential School in Spanish. I was five and nobody tried to stop them. No good-byes were allowed. For many decades I harboured anger at my community for not stopping them. After the apology, everything turned around. I accepted that it was the Canadian government that was guilty.”
Joe was born on August 9, 1932 on Cockburn Island to William and Sarah (nee Migwans) Fox (Wagoosh). Joe had two siblings, Ivan and Lena. Sarah later worked at the Post Office in M’Chigeeng. Joe was four when his mother died of tuberculosis, a year after her daughter Lena, three years old, died of the same disease. Joe has vague memories of spending several months at the Toronto Western Hospital’s TB Clinic, where he was given shots to prevent tuberculosis. The family went through changes. Ivan stayed with his father and Joe moved in with his grandmother.
At age five, Joe’s home and that of his buddy Adam, became the Residential School. Joe came home twice from The Garnier School, once at age eight and again at 11. In his later teen-years, he resisted the control of the priests. “One day, I got leave to visit friends in Wawa; found work there and never returned to the school. Mine jobs paid well.”
Grace was born on August 28, 1940 in Wikwemikong to John and Florence (nee Enosse) Assinewai. “My mother died of thyroid cancer one day before my second birthday. Our dad had already left to join the army, so an aunt came to live with my older sister Norma and me,” Grace shares. “When our father came home, he had no wife, no home but two girls to look after. I moved in with my paternal grandparents, Frank and Katherine (nee Recollet) Assinewai on their farm in Rabbit Island. I have fond memories of collecting maple syrup in the spring. Horses pulled the wagon through the snow while I was cozily wrapped up in blankets, a basket of food beside me. We would spend a few weeks at the sugar shack. I especially loved the candy my grandpa made from tossing the boiling syrup in the snow.”
“As an only child, living with my grandparents, I remember being alone a lot. Occasionally, uncles and aunts would arrive for a visit. My grandparents were very self-sufficient, making many of the things they needed. We made crafts too. It was a happy time for me and I learned a lot for a five-year old. Creating canoes and teepees from raw birch bark was fun. I learned how to make quill boxes too.” These would be sold in the Wiky store.
Kindergarten or ‘baby class’ was in Rabbit Island. “We spoke Ojibwe in school but I learned a few English words.” Most days, Grace mastered the two-mile walk by herself. “Our teacher, Mrs. Wabegjig was really nice. I still remember playing a cow for the Christmas concert. I had a cardboard cow face and I had to utter ‘moo’ at the right time.”
At age six Grace came to the girls’ residential school in Spanish with no English. “I had no idea how I got to the school and none of my relatives clarified this later,” she explains. “My first recollection was being acquainted with my bed, also a box where all my personal items would reside and the hook for my clothes. I was number ‘25’. I sat down on the box and waited to see what would unfold. Lots of chatter came from the room beside me and soon I was immersed in this life.”
Grace doesn’t recall the transition from Ojibway to English but she was never punished for speaking Ojibwe. “I found out one of the girls had been asked to report to the nuns if someone spoke their own language. I was reprimanded once, but not punished.” Grace came home for two summers to be with the family. “I may have been under the care of Children’s Aid for a while too. I spent one summer with a family in Cape Smith. I remember making birch bark crafts again, this time with Catherine Roy.”
“Two years later, I came home and took Grade 8 and 9 in the Wiky school. “It was a huge change living with a family. My father had remarried and there were ten kids in all. The nuns in Wiky were similar to the nuns at the Residential School. I was part of the first Grade 9 class in our community.” Grace was 14 when she earned her independence. She got a summer job doing dishes at Manitowaning Lodge.
That fall she returned to the Residential School once again. “I had to go to Manitowaning to the Indian Affairs Office to apply for re-entry. It was hard to find someone who would sign for me. I really enjoyed the school. I had experienced no negative issues; in fact most of the disagreements were of a petty nature. Some of the girls could be more challenging to deal with than the nuns. Generally we had regular meals, schedules, assigned jobs and I managed to read every book in the school library. I visited my aunts’ and friends’ families; friends like Valerie Kaboni in Wiky at Christmas and Easter.”
For Grade 13, Grace went to the high school in Mindemoya. She worked summers in the hospital, at some restaurants and in tourist lodges. After high school, it was two years of Teacher’s College in North Bay. At that time, Grace was asked to join the West Bay reserve by Chief Gus Debassige. Her sister Melvina (Corbiere) lived here, so she decided to transfer over from Wiky.
Grace was still attending Teacher’s College when she met Joe Fox at a Sudbury function. He heard I was a new band member of M’Chigeeng. “My impression of Joe was very positive. He was intelligent, good-looking, definitely a keeper.” He gave her the impression he would always look after her. Joe adds, “I knew right away that she would be the one I would marry. She was smart, pretty, spoke Ojibwe and had similar interests. She was someone I could share a dream with.”
They married on October 20, 1962 in West Bay at the Immaculate Conception Church. “It was a simple wedding. Neither one of us had close family nearby, so much of the preparations were done by us; my beautiful dress came from a friend,” Grace explains. “I remember Mabel and Richard Roy chasing chickens to cut their heads off for the feast. Melvina helped to cook them. We had a cake too and a dance.” It all started with humble beginnings. At that time, neither Joe nor Grace could see all the milestones that were in store for the Fox family.
Grace began to teach Grade 3 in Espanola and later in Little Current. “I really liked teaching. Joe was finishing some work In Timmins and Sudbury. Then he got a job at INCO in the Murray Mine and Grace got a teaching position in Sudbury so she could be close to Joe. After two years, Grace began an eight-year position with Indian Affairs. Joe spent 10 years at INCO, finishing in the Creighton Mine. “I was only scared once,” he attests. “There was a cave-in between shifts. Nobody was hurt but we all were a little nervous after that incident. There were lots of good people employed there,” Joe reminds us. “I liked the work and the camaraderie. It was a safe, secure and well-paid job for me.”
After the couple returned to the Island, Grace began to teach all grades and run the library at Lakeview School in M’Chigeeng. Grace took further courses to qualify as a guidance counsellor. In 1985, she attended Toronto’s Ontario Institute of Education where she became a Senior Qualified Guidance Counsellor. “The new high school, Manitoulin Secondary School, had opened in 1969. I loved counselling high school students there. It was the best part of my career.”
Joe recalls vividly the day he met the Pope in Midland in September of 1984. He had been ordained a Deacon in 1977. Father Murray helped set up the meeting, hoping to encourage First Nation input for the Catholic Church. The Pope was also honouring First Nation people. “I got up at four in the morning in the hotel and drove our family to the big gathering at Midland. Then came my big moment, standing face to face with the head of the Catholic Church. It was very exciting. He handed me a very special bible.” Meanwhile Grace missed this poignant occasion. She was busy trying to keep the kids from getting lost in the crowd.
The couple had six children, Craig, Cathy, Patty, Joey, Ivan John and Billy Joe. Craig is currently working at Finn’s Gas Bar for the winter. He is a ‘jack of all trades’ and works as a landscaper in Sudbury in the summer. Both girls work for the Wikwemikong Board of Education. Cathy is the Literary Lead for the Wikwemikong Board of Education. Patricia Lynn teaches high school. Joey had his Cambrian diploma for Child and Youth Services and he was employed in Toronto in that capacity. He also worked for the Northern Ontario Regional Cancer Care Center. Sadly he died of leukemia at age 37.
Ivan John is in his fourth year at Algoma University. He is taking an Honours Program in Social Economic Development. Lastly, Billy Joe has worked for five years at Vale (formerly INCO), in Sudbury, and just like his father, he likes this work. When Billy Joe was born, Grace was just finishing up her Masters in Education at Central Michigan University. She had already earned her BA from Laurentian and her B Ed from Nipissing University.
In 1997, she earned her ‘Supervisory Officer Certificate,’ allowing her to have a better understanding of how the school system works with regard to school programing and assessments. “I was the only native person taking this ‘Principal’s course’ at the time.” In 1995 while serving as Director of Education for Wikwemikong School Board, Grace dealt with an emotional personal issue. She had breast cancer. A combination of western and traditional healing allowed her to be cancer-free after a few years. “I learned to deal with the disease and I didn’t let it conquer me.”
Grace has been a School Trustee for the Rainbow District School Board for the Anishinabe population for the last 10 years. She attended the Ontario Public School Board Association Meeting (OPSBA) in June of 2013 and was appointed the First Anishinabe Representative to be on the Ontario Public School Board Trustees Association. She continues in this capacity, having been re-appointed recently. In 2014 she met Ontario’s Education Minister Liz Sandals while opening up McLeod Public School in Sudbury.
Grace has volunteered her time for several boards; ten years for each of TV Ontario, Manitoulin Health Centre and the Children’s Aid Society Board. She is currently on the Advisory Committee for NOSM (Northern Ontario School of Medicine). She is also a Native Advisor for Laurentian University. Grace has earned the ‘Laurentian Native Person of Distinction Award’ for outstanding performance.
“After retirement, we wanted to connect to our true Aboriginal roots, so we were glad we had the chance to spend two years at each of Fort Albany and Fort Hope, both fly-in communities. I was Education Director,” Grace offers. “We enjoyed the local lifestyle while living off the land. I loved it. Fort Hope was so beautiful. That time was most fulfilling for Joe and me. We also spent two years at Christian Island.”
The couple has travelled extensively since retirement. “We have been to Mexico, Yugoslavia, San Diego, The Holy Land and Europe several times. The Baltic cruise in 2008, took us to Russia, Denmark, Copenhagen, Germany. We visited Switzerland, Venice and Orlando, Florida where we have a place. We have travelled to the Dominican Republic and most of Canada.
“In the Holy Land, soldiers were everywhere. “We were astounded to find the Lord’s Prayer in Ojibwe. That was a very proud moment. Joe also had the chance to assist the local priest in a re-enactment of Jesus carrying his cross. They traced his footsteps through the same streets of Jerusalem. He knelt beside the Sea of Galilee.”
In the desert the couple from M’Chigeeng found some harmony with the Bedouin tribes. “They were trying to re-establish their language and culture just like we are. Also they seem to make similar crafts, including expert beadwork and basket-making.” In Egypt Joe traded his much-coveted baseball cap for an Arab headdress and climbed a huge pyramid. In Venice, he enjoyed a gondola ride, while Grace stayed on the bridge to take photos. On their trip to Switzerland in 2002, they had the opportunity to see the famous ‘Passion Play’ at Oberammergau. “We celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary there. These days we like to avoid the driving and the airports. Shortly, we are going on a one-month bus tour to the southern states: Mesa, Arizona, Nashville, Tennessee, New Mexico and parts of California.”
Both Grace and Joe learned independence at a young age and continued to foster this trait, as a couple, after they married. “We both worked to make ourselves a home, a happy life together. We both love new things and that has encouraged the travelling. Joe offers: “The two of us had a vision for a socially-rewarding and full, spiritual life.”
“Listening and Counselling were very important in my work,” Joe reveals. “Working for Nadmadwin and Rainbow Lodge in Wiky for 20 years as a counsellor taught me that.” Joe is extremely proud of the bible he received personally from the Pope. He is also gratified with the skills he attained as a miner. “It is harder to find these talents now.” Joe is delighted to have been able to work in his own community; he has performed about 125 baptisms and close to 35 marriages. In his role as Deacon, he attends many funerals and spends time with grieving families. “As one elder shared in a time of grief: “this is more about life than death.” This perspective helped mitigate the grief and brought strength to all participants.
“I have been cancer free for 17 years now,” Grace shares happily “When I retired, I was able to say goodbye to regular schedules. I could do more of what I wanted to do, like getting back to our roots and spending time with the family. In the last two years, I have begun to quilt and I quite enjoy it. We both love to read and share our perspectives about what we read.”
“I love it when the family is all here. It seems my love for the children and the developmental stages they go through, has always strengthened my love for education, still important in my life. Today, we have 22 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. I recently lost an elderly relative in Wiky, Justine Enosse on my mother’s side,” Grace adds.
“Manitoulin is the best place, in the best country in the world. Sometimes I can’t believe I have lived this long and have done so much. We have travelled a lot, seen a lot, but we always come back to peaceful Manitoulin with all its beautiful places. Life is interesting here, but simpler, despite all the newcomers. Sometimes I would like to swing the bridge and just keep the Island as pristine as it has been. You can still pick real apples and eat real blueberries here. When you get to a certain age, your spirit just wants to rest here in our Manitoulin home.”