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A framed black and white photo of Rodney Bobiwash hanging on a white wall above two awards, one a stone carving of an eagle and the other a stone carving of a grizzly bear on a rock, both on wooden plaques
Photo by Nick Iwanyshyn, retouching by Hayley Stewart

A Heart of Courage

As director of U of T’s First Nations House, Rodney Bobiwash fought for the rights of Indigenous people. He also embodied the Anishinaabe virtues of humility and approachability

In August 1992, about 70 white supremacists gathered north of Montreal for Aryan Fest. Rodney Bobiwash, anti-racism co-ordinator at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto at the time, spent two days trailing the attendees, spying and eavesdropping on them in sub shops, bingo halls and parking lots. In his meticulous trip log, he recorded several brushes with danger. For example, one of the Quebec Ku Klux Klan leaders got a knife from his van when Bobiwash wrote down his licence plate number, but then abruptly backed off. On the way home to Toronto, Bobiwash was stuck in a traffic jam. Suddenly, the same KKK leader jumped out of the car ahead, cursing and accusing Bobiwash of following him. “Quite a humorous coincidence,” wrote Bobiwash, who died in 2002.

That he could be amused by this confrontation – and others – is a testament to Bobiwash’s unique brand of activism. “He could be deadly serious on the issues that mattered, then comedic in his observations and very quick with a joke,” says his friend Kenn Richard, founder of Native Child and Family Services of Toronto and a sessional lecturer in social work at U of T. And though Bobiwash fought tirelessly against injustice, including for several years as the director of First Nations House at U of T, he didn’t lose sight of the common humanity of those who perpetrated it. “Way before I met him, I heard about Rodney as an Indigenous rights leader, thinker and go-to person,” says Richard. “But everything he did was coloured with self-deprecation and humour – even when things might appear to be humourless, as many Indigenous issues do. He was an activist at heart, and he activated us all.”

Born in 1959 in Blind River, Ontario, Bobiwash was one of eight children of a single mother (his father died when he was one). He was part of the Anishinabek Nation, from the Mississauga First Nation on the north shore of Lake Huron. “So much of Rodney’s work was an expression of who he was as an Anishinaabe man,” says Rebeka Tabobondung (BA 2001 Victoria, MA 2008), who knew Rodney at U of T when she was president of the Native Students’ Association. “He had those Anishinaabe virtues of being humble, approachable and welcoming. There was no hierarchy in his thinking about people.”

Yet Bobiwash had to search for his Anishinaabe identity. He moved from Blind River, a few kilometres from the Mississauga First Nation, to a town near Sudbury, Ontario, when he was young. He had little exposure to Indigenous life there. His family struggled with poverty and at 12 he was taken into foster care on a farm. “I spent time in the children’s aid as a kid,” he told a Toronto Star reporter. “That’s probably the experience of most Indian people in this country. Nothing unique in that.”

Despite the adversity in his childhood, Bobiwash’s intelligence and ambition sustained him through school. In a personal essay he wrote when he was a student at Trent University, he says, “All my life I have been trying to find out what it means to be an Indian” through books, TV and movies. He went on to earn a degree in native studies, then became the first Indigenous student sponsored by the Canadian government for graduate studies at Oxford University. On his return to Canada, Bobiwash taught in the native studies programs at the University of Manitoba and then Trent, where he was a politically active faculty member. When he proposed joining some students to participate in the logging protests in Temagami, his department warned him that he wouldn’t have a job to come back to. He went anyway, and lost his position. His wife, Heather Howard-Bobiwash (PhD 2005), an associate professor of anthropology at Michigan State University and affiliated faculty at the Centre for Indigenous Studies at U of T, says uncompromising adherence to his principles was typical. “He saw it as simply following through on the traditional Indigenous responsibility to defend the land.”

In the early 1990s, Bobiwash moved to Toronto and extended his activism to combating the escalating neo-Nazi movement, specifically the Heritage Front. “Rodney did more to shut down hate than any other anti-racism activist back then,” says Elisa Hategan, who was briefly a member of the Heritage Front as a teen but now writes and speaks out against far-right extremism. Bobiwash filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission against the organization’s phone hotline for its attacks on him personally and Indigenous people generally. He also started Klanbusters, an anti-racism hotline and newsletter that provided information on the activity of hate groups in Toronto and encouraged grassroots action against them. In this pre-Internet time, the phone line quickly filled up with vitriol and threats against his life. “The irony of anti-racism work is that it can lead to an increase by reactionary forces,” he said in a 1992 Metro News article. “However, the work done so far will lead to greater efforts at self-defence in the community.”

Even when the Heritage Front directly targeted him with a harassment campaign, he didn’t back down. “I wasn’t part of their strategy to terrorize activists, but I was aware of it,” says Hategan, who later turned against the Heritage Front and helped secure criminal convictions for its leaders. “When I had to go into hiding, though, he helped save my life. He enlisted six members of the American Indian Movement to keep me safe when I went to court. He gave me money, let me stay in his apartment and took me out to dinner.”

During the harassment campaign, Bobiwash was under 24-hour police protection. “That was an ugly time,” says Richard. “He must have felt some anxiety, but he was always up front, standing tall with a bit of a smile on his face and burning commitment in his eyes.” Tabobondung remembers Bobiwash often referenced Ogitchida, an Ojibwe warrior. “Ogitchida means big-hearted, and the members are those who are brave enough to fight for their people until death or victory. Rodney wasn’t afraid of standing up for the right thing. Only certain people have that courage, and that’s what made him so special as a leader.”

Rodney always said the most subversive act was for indigenous people to just be who we are

Bobiwash did take the basic precautions of keeping his home address and number unlisted. “I don’t shrug this off, but I don’t lose any sleep either,” he told the Medicine Hat News. He even went for coffee once with the leader of the Heritage Front. “There’s no reason to be unnecessarily rude just because I don’t agree with what he stands for. I don’t see any reason to deny his humanity.”

In the end, Bobiwash played a pivotal role in dismantling the Heritage Front. Then he shifted his focus to illuminating the Indigenous history of Toronto and heightening awareness of its contemporary Indigenous population. In a 1996 letter to Eye Weekly in response to an article that linked “scalping” to First Nations peoples, he wrote: “There are 65,000 Native people living in Toronto, of which the vast majority live their lives, do their work, and seek to live in some sort of peaceful coexistence with those visitors to our lands who have come and never left. The harmful stereotypes inherent in [this] article do little to further peaceful coexistence and provide fuel for unrest and misunderstanding.” With Howard-Bobiwash, he started a community history project at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto in 1995 and shared the knowledge through a “Great Indian Bus Tour” around town. “He led the tour and was so entertaining that he kept everyone riveted, even when it was five hours long,” says Howard-Bobiwash. Today the project lives on as part of “First Story Toronto,” which provides a bus tour and more. 

Toronto has the largest Indigenous population in Ontario and the fourth-largest in Canada. There’s a long history of urban migration of Indigenous people, who often move to cities looking for work, says Michael White, special projects officer for Indigenous initiatives at U of T. “Unlike settler and immigrant populations that tend to build communities within urban centres, Indigenous peoples don’t tend toward this type of social grouping. There are many reasons for this, including lack of access to economic resources and employment.”

Bobiwash was deeply knowledgeable and passionate about promoting Indigenous education, self-government and resource rights. Whether he was writing academic papers, speaking at conferences or talking to people one-on-one, however, he didn’t “blame and shame,” says Richard. “Rodney was one of the earliest Indigenous activists to speak plainly and notwithstanding any offense taken by anybody. But he was well-received by the non-Indigenous sector because he never made it about a personal attack on anybody. He let the facts stand on their own.”

That approach extended to Bobiwash’s role at U of T, where he expanded services and support for First Nations students while lecturing in the Aboriginal Studies program. “He always said the most subversive act was for Indigenous people to just be who we are – speaking our language, maintaining our ties to the land, eating our traditional food,” says Tabobondung. “At U of T, he created space to do that. It was quite revolutionary for the time. His main message was that we had to deconstruct traditional colonial institutions, including the university, and he was one of the first Indigenous people to do that at U of T.” Bobiwash pushed to include the Indigenous perspective in the curriculum, while also building a sense of community at First Nations House.

In the few years before he died, Bobiwash’s health was declining because of severe diabetes and its complications. Nevertheless, he kept up his work as an Indigenous rights leader the best he could. Bobiwash travelled extensively in these last years, forging relationships with Indigenous communities in Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and Russia. When fellow Indigenous activist Kimy Pernia Domicò from Colombia disappeared in 2001 after speaking out against a plan to dam his people’s river, Bobiwash maintained a regular Friday evening vigil outside the Colombian consulate. When Bobiwash died on January 13, 2002, Colombian activists held the same vigil, but made it for him. At the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, a fire burned outside for three days. On the last day, 700 people came together for a ceremony. In a memorial, Tabobondung wrote: “What appears idealistic and altruistic, a lost cause to most, was totally logical to Rodney. There is either justice or there isn’t; we fight for our survival or we don’t survive.”

After his death, other scholars and activists stepped forward to continue his work. “He was a born educator,” says Prof. Keren Rice, founding director of U of T’s Centre for Indigenous Studies. “Rodney’s vision for Indigenous Studies continues to be reflected in the program’s philosophy, which is about Indigenous perspectives on histories, civilizations, epistemologies and world views. While it’s impossible to teach and learn these things without introducing settlers, the focus is not on settler views but on the priorities and aspirations of Indigenous peoples in Canada and throughout the world. Another important goal is to encourage students to engage in social activism.”

Bobiwash’s 60th birthday would have been this past summer, and no one can say exactly what he’d be doing if he were still here. He’d probably be pleased to see the progress U of T has made in implementing the calls to action in the university’s Truth and Reconciliation Steering Committee, such as increasing recruitment of Indigenous students and faculty, says Howard-Bobiwash. “But he’d also be in the thick of efforts to make sure that the ongoing issues of settler colonialism aren’t swept under the carpet.” Would the big-hearted warrior still be fighting the good fight? Says Richard, “Rodney burned pretty bright. A guy like him doesn’t just retire.”

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  1. 12 Responses to “ A Heart of Courage ”

  2. Martin Dowding, PhD UofT (2002) says:

    I was so glad to read such a well-written, thoughtful article about Rodney, whom I knew as a fellow student at Trent in the 1970s. He was such a kind, bright, funny person to be around. As I was thinking about a dear Ojibway friend who died suddenly last year Rodney came to mind. They, together, showed me, as much as I could understand, what it must be like to face life as an Indigenous person. We lost Rodney far too early.

  3. Alvin Cummins says:

    I am thrilled to read about this fighter for Native rights. I have just finished a novel, "Friends and Relations," my fourth book, in which I write about the disremembered history of Indigenous Indian Slavery. In it I detail the inhuman conditions that indigenous people had to undergo: genocide, theft of their lands, unfulfilled treaty obligations, and all the horrors of slavery, including removal from their own country and export to the Caribbean to work on plantations there.

  4. Jennifer Lukas, BSc UofT (2000) says:

    Thank you so much for this article! I took a course with Rodney Bobiwash at U of T and it was one of the best. I remember doing a pictorial history of Indigenous people in Ontario. My partner and I worked weekly at the Ontario Archives cataloguing every picture we could find. He made learning interesting. The bus tour was amazing, too. What an awesome memorial to an amazing man. I’m honoured to have known him.

  5. David Fujiwara, B Arch (1978) says:

    Thanks for this enlightening story about Rodney Bobiwash.

  6. Rose-Marie Bobiwash says:

    What a great article about my brother. He was dearly loved and we miss him to this day. This story really shows the type of person Rodney was, and we see parts of him in our nephews, nieces and grandchildren.

  7. Maria Hupfield says:

    Chi-meegwetch to Rodney. He was a hard professor with a strong work ethic. He never allowed for any excuses and pushed his students to always give their best. He also introduced me to a broader, more inclusive North American art history that unapologetically included Native People and our history. He was political, funny, and a general bad ass. He showed me being smart and Indian go together. He was a mentor and is missed.

  8. mary margaret Crapper says:

    Very interesting article. Thanks for writing this.

  9. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    From Kenneth Mintz (PhD 1972)

    Although most Canadians are sympathetic to Indigenous communities for the struggles that they have faced, such as Residential Schools, and have difficulty understanding why the delivery of potable water to some communities has taken so long, the use of the word "settlers" to describe non-Indigenous people is rather unsettling. Worldwide that word has become almost pejorative, referring to people who are occupying land belonging to someone else. The dictionary definition of settler is that of someone who has moved to another place. How can someone, regardless of ethnicity, born in Canada be regarded as a "settler"?

  10. Shirley Honyust says:

    Excellent article!

  11. Shirley Honyust says:

    This is a great article by Megan Easton. It really touched the heart and spirit of Rodney Bobiwash.

  12. Kim Bolton says:

    So good to read such a summary of Rodney's heart and work. Twenty years gone and still missed.

  13. Shirley Honyust says:

    This article was a good read the first time and an even better read the second time.