On the eve of Pope Francis’ visit to Canada, Gordon Shaw celebrates his newfound Indigenous identity
INNISFAIL – Cree Elder Maggie Loney was invited to open Innisfail Pride on June 25 with a prayer, smudge and message of hope.
She reminded her audience that the COVID-19 pandemic had created loneliness and tranquility over the past two years. She said there was a loss of communication between all people, with a lot of “hidden behind things”, like the web.
“Now I think it’s time for us to come to a point where we start communicating again,” said Loney, a respected Indigenous leader from Red Deer. “We communicate when we have what we call a good sacred circle. And a good sacred circle is you. It all starts in your mind, in your heart; it is your sacred circle.
In the crowd listening intently was Gordon Shaw, a 63-year-old professional planner, who volunteered at the Pride event with his wife Angela. Shaw is also a proud member of Dakota Tipi Creek First Nation, located six kilometers southwest of Portage la Prairie, Manitoba.
These are extraordinary times for Indigenous citizens of Canada, including Shaw and Loney.
Since the discovery last year of more than 1,100 unmarked Aboriginal graves at the sites of former residential schools run by Catholic churches across Canada, including more than 200 in Kamloops, British Columbia, and up to 751 in the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan, there were Cross-Canada Calls to Hold the Catholic Church Accountable.
Pope Francis will be in Canada July 24-29.
The pope, who apologized from the Vatican to Canada’s indigenous people on April 1 for past abuses at Catholic boarding schools, is expected to visit the indigenous community of Maskwacis, 105 kilometers north of Innisfail, on July 25.
During his hour-long visit, the pope also visits the former site of a boarding school in the community. The pope could also repeat his April 1 apology on Canadian soil.
“I have mixed feelings about it. It’s good to see that he’s coming to acknowledge. But what is he actually going to do about all the illegal things that have happened to Indigenous people in the past?” said Loney. “What’s going to happen to the priests who have never been charged? How is that going to change? And how are they going to move forward with the rest of the native population? There must be more than “I am sorry”.
Shaw said he felt “empty” about the pope’s April 1 apology. He said none of the words resonated with him.
He added that action must accompany the Pope’s words, as the wounds caused by the Catholic Church still affect generations of people and are the cause of dysfunction for countless indigenous families.
“The fact that my heritage was taken away from me and because it was taken away from my mother and grandmother, I never got to experience the other side of my heritage,” Shaw said. “It will take generations before this wound is healed.”
But 10 years ago, Shaw vigorously embarked on an arduous journey to reclaim his Indigenous heritage. It changed him forever.
The lost pearl
Shaw’s story begins with his maternal grandmother Pearl Pashe. She was an Aboriginal woman born in 1897 along a trapline near Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan.
Pearl’s birth was not registered until she was almost seven years old, when she lived on the Dakota Tipi Creek First Nation. There, she was called The Lost Pearl.
“She was actually dressed up as a little Indian girl and was basically parading around the white community like some kind of little princess,” Shaw said.
Around the age of seven, she was taken to residential school in Portage la Prairie. Six weeks later, Pearl was sold to work as a cleaner at a haulage company.
She spent the rest of her childhood and adolescence working from company to company. Several years later, her white, Italian immigrant husband, Joseph Alterio, paid $2,000 to get Pearl out of the business; a cost claimed for all meals, uniforms, and lodging that Pearl required for his time with the company.
With those sad years finally behind her, Pearl went to Winnipeg for over a decade; away from his native roots and never returning to the Dakota Tipi Creek First Nation.
“My grandmother did not embrace her heritage. She always considered herself white and not of Native descent,” Shaw said, pointing out that Pearl lost her legal Native status when she married Alterio.
His mother Doris Shaw also chose not to follow the Aboriginal path. She raised six children alone, including Gordon. His father died when he was only six months old.
The mother and children grew up in poverty in North Vancouver, British Columbia; never knowing or acknowledging their Aboriginal heritage. They continued to live as white citizens. Doris’ professional history is particularly interesting.
“My mother went to work at the post office in 1968; the first letter carrier at the time in all of Canada,” Shaw said. “She was actually the first Aboriginal letter carrier in Canada. Although I have tried to get Canada Post to honor her by issuing a stamp for her so far, I have not been successful.
Pearl died in 1986 in Vancouver, never returning to her Aboriginal roots. In 2003, Doris passed away. She never took her inheritance either.
It was then that Gordon began to recognize that there was another part of him that was lost. With the help of Doris’ sister, Audrey Audrey, Gordon began the work necessary to obtain official Native status from the federal government.
“It was about closing the circle that my grandmother started and acknowledging that this was a very big part of my heritage that I didn’t recognize,” Shaw said. “The Lost Pearl – the fact that she lost her status because she married a white man, and my mother wasn’t really brought up to think she was an aboriginal person.
“I just felt it was fundamentally important for me to reclaim that legacy because it’s such an important part of my ancestry, that I’m descended from chef Crazy Horse,” he said of the chef. 19th century Lakota war warrior who fought in many legendary battles, including the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
For many, many years, Shaw painstakingly researched his ancestry and completed all the paperwork required to prove his Aboriginal status to the federal government. However, getting timely approval was torture.
“The wait was extremely frustrating because as far as I could see there was a direct line from my great-grandfather to my grandmother, my mother and me. It was very clear on the documentation Shaw said. “It was only because for some reason it came across the right person in the government bureaucracy that she dealt with it very quickly after I spoke to her.”
In 2019, he finally received what the federal government calls a Certificate of Indian Status; an effort that spanned more than seven years. Almost immediately after, four out of five of his siblings did the same.
“I felt that I was a pioneer in recovering this heritage. The fact that others were able to build on this pioneering work made it so much better for them,” said Shaw, who proudly displayed the Albertan his certificate.
In February 2019, Gordon Shaw traveled with Angela to Dakota Tipi Creek First Nation.
For the first time, he would meet members of his family, including many cousins and his nephew Eric Pashe, the head of the reservation. It was here that he was finally able to walk the same ground that Pearl had once trod.
The whole visit was a huge boost to Shaw’s long-running quest to find and embrace the man he’d known for decades was inside but never fully freed.
In July, the couple returned to Manitoba to attend a Sun Dance 40 kilometers west of the reserve. A Sun Dance is a sacred Aboriginal ceremony that involves the community coming together to pray for healing.
“I think I already had a really strong connection with God at that point. I think it was more about trying to build on that spirituality, fostering a deeper understanding of who I was, where I came from, where my family came from and how I could honor that as I moved forward in my life,” Gordon said. “And so it took a very long time to be able to convince the government that yes, I am a native. I am an Aboriginal.
The second visit included a baptismal ceremony. Angela and Gordon proudly accepted the healer’s offerings of their new Native names.
Angela became Four Directions Woman.
As for Gordon, his circle has been reconquered and completed.
He is Red Wolf Man.