Elder Freda McDonald

Elder Freda McDonald

Elder Freda McDonald

  • Date of birth: April 26, 1932, Fort Alexander First Nation
  • Date of death: January 1, 2018, Thunder Bay, Ontario
  • Accomplishments related to: First Nations Culture
  • Major affiliations: Fort William Historical Park, Beendigen, Elder’s Advisory Council

From the time she arrived in Thunder Bay with her husband and children in 1976 until her death at the age of 85 on January 1st, 2018, Freda McDonald shared her knowledge of Ojibwa culture and spirituality with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike in Thunder Bay and beyond.

Freda McDonald (nee Courchene) was born in Fort Alexander (Sagkeeng) First Nation on April 26th, 1932, and grew up in a traditional hunting and trapping culture. However, years at residential school and loss of her official native status when she married a non-native person separated her from her childhood experiences of living off the land. All that changed with the move to Thunder Bay in 1976 and her employment at Fort William Historical Park.

According to an article in Canadian Geographic's May-June 1994 issue, Freda applied at Fort William Historical Park for a job as a seamstress and was instead hired to work at the Indian Encampment, which in those days consisted of a teepee. There, she shared her knowledge about Ojibwa crafts, culture, and spirituality, and became regarded as an expert. Under her guidance the Indian Encampment developed into a vibrant site incorporating cooking, basket weaving, and other traditional activities.

Thousands of visitors to Fort William Historical Park from all over the world were exposed to authentic Ojibwa culture because of the work of Freda McDonald. As Freda’s knowledge of her culture increased so too did her spiritual awareness. Freda said of her craft making, “For me, the work is very therapeutic and centering. It’s a healing thing.”

Freda making a basket

Freda (left) making a basket

Beatrice Twance-Hynes recalls Freda as a mentor to many Indigenous women in Thunder Bay. “Many came to Freda to talk and to ask for her opinion on things they were struggling with or questions about ceremonies and culture. She started a women’s hand drumming circle where she shared teachings about the drum...Freda was part of the Mash-kow-zii-ii-kwe-wag (Strong Women Drum Group) and later the Medicine Wheel Spirit Singers, where she was part of creating a CD called 'Let Your Spirit Soar'.”

Freda McDonald

Freda McDonald (middle)

As the mother of seven children, one of whom required lifelong support due to a disability, she balanced the needs of her family with her growing involvement in the community. Her living the culture led to her being recognized as an elder. Others recognized her wisdom and the truth in her teachings and her influence stretched beyond the local to provincial and national forums. Her years of research for her work at Fort William Historical Park had made her a recognized expert in Ojibwa culture.

Freda understood the significant connection between culture and healing, and so she was committed to helping Beendigen help women live lives free from violence. She belonged to Beendigen’s Bapiin Drum Group which drummed monthly for residents at the Crisis Home as well as performing at various Beendigen events. Freda also served on the Lakehead University Elders Council from 2006 to 2017. Freda was one of six elders invited to form the Elder’s Advisory Council for the City of Thunder Bay Aboriginal Liaison Office in 2010. [Yolanda Twance quote]

Freda is credited with helping to lay the foundation for the accurate portrayal of indigenous culture and the important role of women within the fur trade society. For over 20 years at Fort William Historical Park she provided training to around 150 young people annually. Even more importantly, many Indigenous people today in positions of leadership in Thunder Bay and elsewhere recognize Freda McDonald as a mentor.

Freda McDonald passed away on January 1st, 2018 at the age of 85, embodying the Seven Grandfather teachings. Her life was lived with Humility, Bravery, Honesty, Wisdom, Truth, Respect and Love.

 

 Freda McDonald

Freda McDonald (middle)

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Sources:

From the Hands of a Master - Charles Wilkins, Canadian Geographic May- June 1994

Culture wasn’t art; it was survival - Charles Wilkins Chronicle Journal May 20, 2000 page A3

Obituary Chronicle Journal January 4th, 2018 page B7

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