Obituary: Andrew Manitowabi, Aabi Ntam Gish Kang, 1922-2018

Left"A twenty-something Andrew Manitowabi as a Royal Engineer who saw combat in Europe in defence of Canada. Right: The very picture of a stern warrior, Andrew Manitowabi was a patriach who is warmly recalled by his descendants as a loving and lighthearted family man.

Wiikwemkoong patriarch and entrepreneur defined economic sovereignty against the odds

WIIKWEMKOONG—There is probably no other single individual who has done more for the economic sovereignty of his First Nation community than Andrew (Andy) Manitowabi—Aabi Ntam Gish Kang—the founder of Wiikwemkoong’s Andy’s (aka the Andrew Manitowabi Group). 

With 10 children (tragically having lost four), 35 grandchildren and 30 great grandchildren (and counting), Mr. Manitowabi quite literally fulfilled the role of patriarch. 

His legacy lives on in those who he has left behind, having instilled the virtues and demonstrated the rewards of hard work to his descendants, all of whom are well known as hardworking individuals in their professions.

Born in April 1922 in Wiikwemkoong, Mr. Manitowabi had a normal upbringing, but the call of adventure captured his imagination and he volunteered to go to war in 1941 at the age of 19. Mr. Manitowabi soon found himself in the thick of things on the frontline, spending two years there until his return home in 1945.

Mr. Manitowabi and his friends Walter Mishke, Ambrose Kitchikake and Johnny Pitawanakwat had spent the weekend in Little Current and on that Monday, they passed by the Mansion House (now the Anchor Inn) and noticed a sign that read, ‘Join the army and see the world.’ One of his friends said to him, “What do you say we go see the world?” and so it was that the four went inside and enlisted in the Royal Canadian Army. 

That same day, he later recalled in conversation with The Expositor’s Alicia McCutcheon, the four buddies were put on a train from Little Current to Sudbury where they received X-rays at the general hospital and put on another train bound for Toronto, where they arrived early the following morning. Mr. Manitowabi had not even told his family and said he wrote them a letter telling them of his decision when he arrived in the city.

Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes joined Andrew Manitowabi and Wiikwemkoong Ogimaa Duke Peltier on the occasion of Andy’s jubilee celebrations in 2013.

For one week, Mr. Manitowabi lived in the army barracks at Exhibition Place and became a part of the 4th Battalion Royal Canadian Engineers, he then shipped out to Petawawa to receive training.

“You were taught how to be a soldier; they teach you not to think—the commanding officers do the thinking,” he recalled during that interview.

In the winter of 1942, Mr. Manitowabi was moved to another training camp, this time in Debert, Nova Scotia. Come spring, the young engineer “embarked on a ship to England.”

“I watched the land disappear and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll never see that land again,” he recalled.

The Canadian troops landed in Scotland where they were put on a troop train to the south of England, near the English Channel. Mr. Manitowabi was now part of the 8th field squadron. He was soon separated from his regular unit and placed in a holding unit—he was basically in a replacement category as the casualties were heavy, he explained.

Mr. Manitowabi recalled clearly the day he was the most frightened out of the entire experience. He and a friend had taken their leave to London. While they were waiting for a train to take them back to the base, a bomb exploded just outside of the station. The force of it sent the pair flying and even knocked their caps off of their heads, he said. It was not to be the last time he came close to fulfilling his earlier prophecy. Mr. Manitowabi went on to serve in Italy, where 14 close associates were killed nearby in shelling, and following that he was stationed in the Netherlands where some of the heaviest fighting by the Canadians took place.

“He was a very dedicated veteran,” Anishnaabek Nation Grand Council Chief Glen Hare said. “He was at all of the services that I attended. He was always there, a very quiet individual. He will certainly be missed. Over all of these years he has been very involved in his community.”

Mr. Manitowabi’s grandson, current Wiikwemkoong Ogimaa (chief) Duke Peltier, noted that even in war there can be found silver linings. “If it were not for war, he may not have met my grandmother, Josephine Manitowabi’baa, a volunteer for the war efforts who he met while preparing to go overseas,” said Ogimaa Peltier.

Following the war, Mr. Manitowabi supported his family by working in construction, building roads and infrastructure across Manitoulin Island.

“In fact, he was the catalyst for establishing a communal water system at a time when Indian Affairs was only willing to connect the Pontiac School,” recalled Ogimaa Peltier. “He carefully and calmly asked the Indian agent ‘why can’t our people enjoy clean water delivered within their homes?’ Sounds like something you hear across this country still.”

Mr. Manitowabi served his community in an elected capacity, serving on Wiikwemkoong’s elected council during the late 1960s and early 1970s. His son Walter followed in his footsteps and was elected chief of Wiikwemkoong in 2002, and the current chief, his grandson Duke, was elected to that position in 2012 where he remains to the present day.  

But unlike too many involved in public service, Mr. Manitowabi had a strict policy of not mixing politics with business. 

Mr. Manitowabi’s biggest impact on his community came not in the political realm, although he was no slouch in that department as will soon be related, but in the area of business. In 1966 Mr. Manitowabi started up the confectionary store and gas station, now known as Andy’s General Store (part of the Walter Manitowabi Group). 

“He often joked that he started the confectionary store so he could buy his groceries at wholesale because of his large family,” laughed Doug Smith of Smith’s Wholesale, National Grocers and Manitoulin Transport.

Mr. Manitowabi once shared a story with Ogimaa Peltier that when Mr. Manitowabi was not able to get credit anywhere for his groceries Mr. Smith assured the company’s credit department that Mr. Manitowabi was his best customer in the early days—“trustworthy and a man of his word.”

That deep personal integrity played a pivotal role in helping Mr. Manitowabi to grow Andy’s into the huge retail operation it is today, employing 50 community members.

“With the business, he gave us all a place to work and a place to grow,” said Ogimaa Peltier. “His greatest pride was to set up a business to provide goods and services to the community, but also to employ community members.”

That loyalty to his community had been repaid manifold, as many of the employees are long-serving employees, many having worked more than 20 years at the business. “That says something about what he established,” said Ogimaa Peltier.

Many of those who worked for Mr. Manitowabi considered themselves fortunate, but some learned valuable lessons along the way.

“One employee was asked why they were not in college,” recalled Ogimaa Pelter. “They replied that they enjoyed the work pumping gas. Andy fired him immediately, forcing him to continue on his journey.”

Ogimaa Peltier learned the value of hard work in the Manitowabi operation. He worked summers shoveling gravel in the pipeline trench before an office job presented itself. “I took it,” chuckled Mr. Peltier.

Among Mr. Manitowabi’s accomplishments was the Wikwemikong Nursing Home, a 70-bed personal care home that continues to operate in the community to this day and which enjoys a stellar reputation amongst both its Native and non-Native elders. It was an accomplishment that brought some of its own rewards.

“During the last year of his life, he lived in the nursing home,” said Ogimaa Peltier. “He was very proud of the care that he was given by our community members, professional care and loving care. The family witnessed that firsthand right until his passing, where all of the staff came and bid their farewell to him.”

His business philosophy was simple, yet powerful. “Provide local goods and services and create jobs for community members at the same time.”

In 1990, Mr. Manitowabi was the inaugural winner of Waubetek Business Development Corporation’s Entrepreneur of the Year award and in 1994 he was honoured as the inaugural winner of the Northern Ontario Business Awards as the First Nation Business of the Year.  

In recognition of contributions to the Wiikwemkoong community and the Anishinabek Nation, Mr. Manitowabi was presented with an Anishinabek Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011.

The accolades included the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal with which he was recognized in 2012.

As a veteran, Mr. Manitowabi was a familiar face at Remembrance Day events, but there was a glaring omission in the way Anishinaabe veterans were treated after they came home. Mr. Manitowabi was instrumental in setting that record straight. “Accompanying National Chief Ovide Mercredi in 1994 at the National Remembrance Day Ceremony on Parliament Hill, my grandfather was the first Anishinaabe veteran to be given the honour of laying a wreath at this celebration in history,” said Ogimaa Peltier. “Prior to then our veterans were not allowed to participate.”

Mr. Manitowabi was a founding member of the First Nations Veterans Association and was active with that organization nationally where he fought tirelessly to see Indigenous veterans receive the recognition they so very much deserved.

“He was a pillar of Wiikwemkoong for generations,” noted Ogimaa Peltier. The sayings that exemplified his life were relayed by his grandson as words he continues to strive to live by. Work hard yet be humble and share all that you have. Protect and honour family, no matter what the cost. A battle for family is a battle that can’t be lost. Take a stand for things that matter, and keep your head held up high. Embrace those things close to your heart, and yes, sometimes men do cry. “These lessons from his life were not taught, but observed in his life,” said Ogimaa Peltier. 

As with anyone who lives a long and full life, there were plenty of difficult times Mr. Manitowabi experienced in his life. He was predeceased by his wife Josephine (nee Green), 1972 and his second wife Veronica Jacko in 2016 and was predeceased by children Linda in 1971, Ross in 1980, Farrell in 2010 and Lester in 2014.  

It was often remarked by those who did not know him that Mr. Manitowabi seemed stern of demeanor, striking a solemn and martial pose in his uniform and Legion dress, but nothing could have been further from the truth as attested by his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

“He was actually very lighthearted,” recalled Ogimaa Peltier. “He loved every single one of his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren and they knew it. He was a proud, hard working family man.”

Mr. Manitowabi served Canada, his community and his nation with honour and integrity and did so in the face of obstacles that would have proved insurmountable to many a lessor man. He built an enviable business empire even while facing down more than a half century of systemic discrimination from a largely thankless society in whose service he had literally put his life on the line and he did so with grace, dignity and a rock solid determination that has and will prove an inspiration for many generations to come.