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Cartoonist's ordinary Native people celebrated.

There are no Indian cliches in this comic strip; you won't see the noble savage clad in buck-skin and feathers with his hair blowing in the wind.


Instead, Lynn Johnston, the creator of For Better or For Worse, invented the realistic yet fictional Ojibway village of Mtigwaki to show life as it is in the far north, where children love cookies and families live in houses with heat, electricity, Internet access and satellite TV.

Union of Ontario Indians Grand Council Chief John Beaucage loves For Better or For Worse.

"One of the things that Lynn has done with her comic strip is it has brought an aspect of living in a far northern Native community to life for many people in North America," said Beaucage. Life in Mtigwaki accurately reflects the cultural, spiritual and social aspects of Native life as he knows it to be.


The comic strip appears in more than 2,000 papers in 22 countries and is available in eight languages. For this reason, the Union of Ontario Indians, which represents the 42 communities of the Anishinabek Nation, awarded Johnston the 2004 Debwewin Citation for excellence in Aboriginal-issues journalism in December.

Chief Phil Goulais of Nipissing First Nation nominated Johnston for the award. When asked why, Goulais said "I guess the answer, if I had to do it in one little comic strip like she has to do things, is that she's helping to sensitize mainstream journalism and larger society to the Aboriginal community."

Johnston is all about breaking stereotypes. That's why she sent one of her characters, Elizabeth Patterson, up north to Nipissing University.

"People in the South have these crazy ideas that we all live in ice huts up here and dog teams and that there's winter trails and no way to get here," said Johnston, who lives in Corbeil, just outside of North Bay.

She's humble about the award, saying she hasn't done enough to deserve it.

"I have been at other events where people have received this prestigious award, and been really impressed by how much these people had done. And my friend Perry [McLeod-Shabogesic] said 'Well, even if you do nothing else, just showing a village with ordinary people doing ordinary things is great.' But, I'm not finished yet," she said.

Johnston said Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine and Beaucage offered their support for a serious story line in the strip. She said she has some ideas, both funny and serious, based on her experience at a powwow. She recalled seeing a young man with red tears painted on his face.

"When I asked him about the tears he said 'One of the Elders suggested I do this because it helped me to see better into the souls of others.' And I thought, 'No, no, no, no ... This is more intense than that, but you're not going to tell a stranger and, especially me, the significance of the red tears."

Johnston has always been interested in different cultures and people. The cartoonist told Windspeaker that faces that did not look like her own reflection in the mirror fascinated. She used to practice drawing the different faces depicted in the book The World's Great Religions.

"It's really difficult to draw something that you don't see in the mirror and to do it without any kind of prejudice, because typically ... Chinese people will have a certain eye-shape for a cartoonist or black people will have a certain mouth and nose shape for a cartoonist, and I didn't want to fall into that trap of stereotyping anything," said Johnston.

Johnston has been very careful to be sensitive to Aboriginal issues, consulting with various members of the Union of Ontario Indians and the Nipissing First Nation.

"There's different cultures in society and some people will say 'Well, you're laughing with us' and others will say 'You're making fun of us.' So she's been really careful with that and she's doing a lot of consulting with Aboriginal people before she writes those jokes," said Goulais.

Johnston became interested in incorporating Native culture into her comic strip after a visit to villages in Northern Manitoba more than 20 years ago with her husband Rod, a dentist who treated patients in the small communities once a month. However, the comic strips' foray into Aboriginal culture did not start until much later when the character April Patterson went to a summer camp where a Native leader taught the kids about his customs. This was just a one shot deal, said Johnston, and when Elizabeth went north to Nipissing University for teachers college, the opportunity came for her to do her practicum at Our Lady of Sorrows school in Garden Village, near Sturgeon Falls. Johnston visited the Nipissing First Nation community and the school, which teaches Ojibway language and culture, and included local stories and characters into her comic strip.

Not wanting to venture into the creation of a Native village on her own, Johnston enlisted the help of McLeod-Shabogesic and his family. His wife, Laurie, came up with the village name. Mtigwaki means "land of trees." McLeod-Shabogesic and his son Falcon Skye designed the village and Falcon Skye designed the community logo.

Since September, Elizabeth has been teaching at the Mtigwaki day school. Johnston said the language teacher, Laurie, and a student, Jessie, will probably lead Elizabeth into whatever lies beneath the surface of the community, but she does not know what will be revealed.

"I don't have a schedule or a plan or any kind of script written for this. It's just taking me where it wants to go with the help of others who will tell me whether I'm doing the right thing or whether I'm not," said the cartoonist.

Goulais described Johnston as a down to earth and unassuming person who is a friend to the Nipissing community.

"I haven't been anywhere where she's not liked. Everybody likes her," said Goulais.

The response to Mtigwaki has also been very positive. Johnston said she has received letters as diverse as an emotional letter from a residential school survivor to letters of support from those working in the Aboriginal community.

"I've only had one person write a very intense letter saying 'So what are you going to do with this? Are you going to show the truth? Are you going to take our side? Are you going to be an advocate or are you just going to gratuitously use this and be another do-gooder, Indian lover white person,' which was the way it was put."

Johnston is familiar with tension between Aboriginal people and non-Natives. Growing up near the Squamish First Nation, the cartoonist recalled seeing Native people in her father's store in North Vancouver.

"Even though dad was fond of and friendly with them, there was still that distance and I always wondered why."

Lynn Johnston's answer came when Laurie McLeod-Shabogesic gave her some documents about the Aboriginal history in residential schools and the sterilization in hospitals. Johnston, known for tackling serious issues in her comic strip, such as homosexuality and robbery, has many Aboriginal fans wondering what's next. Johnston said she thinks there is potential to do a story based on one of these issues, but she's not in a rush.

"You have to take a situation and all of the characters have to be liked by the readers before you do a serious story. You have to show the characters in the state where it's just ... a normal community with all the stuff that goes on. Whether someone has an argument over laundry or somebody else is late for work, it doesn't matter, but whatever goes on it's pretty innocuous. And once the characters are well established and people start to like them and wonder 'Well, what's their home like? What's their fridge like? Where do they go on the weekends? Then you can do a serious story. Because then it has depth and meaning and people will not think that you did the whole thing just for that story. They will believe that the story is just part of a whole," explained Johnston.

For Beaucage, Johnston's ability to poke fun at life's ironies is an excellent match with Native humor.

"We often humorize or make humor of daily ironies of life and it seems to fit very well with the way that we look at humor," he said.

The chief announced that he would present a resolution to the Anishinabek chiefs in June to recognize Mtigwaki as an honorary member of the Anishinabek Nation and Johnston as an honorary citizen. Beaucage told Windspeaker that he had talked to the board already, and that the resolution was quite likely to pass.

Johnston is happy about the announcement.

"They told me I could go into the band office and just help myself to the washroom, use the notepaper and join in on any community events if I wanted to, and I thought that sounds like I belong," Johnston laughed.

By Deirdre Tombs

Windspeaker Staff Writer

COPYRIGHT 2005 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
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Title Annotation:canadian classroom
Author:Tombs, Deirdre
Publication:Wind Speaker
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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