Two people with strong ties to the Rainy River District are releasing a book that aims to teach others about the many stories that make up the histories of both the District, and neighbouring Koochiching County.
Shaun Loney and Jim Leonard have spent several years working on their book Manidoo Ziibi: The Rainy River Tells Its Story, which aims to chronicle some of the well-known stories and lesser known parts of the history of the area, especially along the River.
Leonard, is well known throughout the region, having served as Chief of Rainy River First Nations for almost 20 years.
While Loney no longer lives in the district, both men said the idea to write the book together came from a chance meeting at Cloverleaf in Emo.
“I bumped into Jim in Cloverleaf – I think it was about six years ago – and I told him it just shocks me how little I know about our shared history,” Loney said.
“He surprised me with his response. He said ‘Yeah, we [the Ojibwe] don’t know either.’”
“I’d written books before so I said I could write, and we both started throwing story ideas around and we kind of agreed then to make it happen.”
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do all my life,” Leonard said.
“I retired a few years ago, but I’ve always wanted to have a book written. Growing up in the district, I lived here all my life and went to school here, and there was never anything about the history of the area, about the river. You don’t learn anything in school about Emo or Fort Frances. You maybe learn that La Verendrye passed by here in 1632, or whenever it was, and that’s all you hear.”
With the decision to write their book made, the pair began looking for stories and knowledge from different places around the area in order to provide as comprehensive an overview of the history of the area as possible.
“What we did was just start collecting information,” Loney said.
“It’s all there, it’s just not available or told in an interesting way. We wanted the book to be very place-based and to let the river tell its story, so we’re encouraging people to canoe down or drive around it and see where all these amazing things happened.”
To make it easier for a reader to take part in that journey, the book is written like a guidebook of sorts, beginning at the east end of the region before hopping south across the border into Koochiching County, finally making its way back into Canada before heading up the highway toward Kenora. Along the way, it’s filled with anecdotes and historic facts and photos that will teach readers about specific places and happenings.
Leonard said he wanted the book to be easy to pick up and read, and accessible to anyone.
“I told Shaun that I wanted the 80-year-old farmer in Stratton and also the kid in grade seven or eight to be able to understand it,” Leonard said. “To make it accessible and teach people something they didn’t know about the district.”
Of course, one inescapable fact about the district is that both the settlers and Indigenous peoples interacted with each other. Both Loney and Leonard stressed that they wanted the book to highlight both the good – and the bad – of that relationship throughout the years.
“We were really looking for stories that either highlighted where the settler-Indigenous relationship was just right and worth celebrating, and where we got it really wrong,” Loney said.
“They’re things that happened in our past,” Leonard said. “Maybe they’re not good, but we have to live with them and understand each other, that sort of thing. That’s why I tried to tell Shaun, ‘Let’s not put any opinion in it. Let’s just state the facts in terms of a story.’ We don’t push one side of the story or the other.”
Both men said one of the goals of the book is to just encourage people to get to know the region – and each other – better.
“I think we’ll do better as a district, and as a region, if we understand each other better,” Loney said.
“The stories of things that have occurred can help do that. I feel like this is the river connecting Indigenous peoples and settlers – and I feel like it’s the river connecting us to our neighbours in Minnesota, as well. I think going forward, we’ll do better economically, in all kinds of ways, if we know how we got to where we are.”
“I want people to walk away with a better understanding of the district and how everybody worked together back then,” Leonard shared.
“I hear so many stories from old guys about how we used to share. If somebody was short something, everybody would help out. It was about sharing and caring, and you don’t see that as much today.”
Loney is also hoping the book will help put the region on the map, and encourage more people to come to the area to explore its history and culture.
While Manidoo Zibii has been a major undertaking, Loney and Leonard have discussed the possibility of doing another book in the future, particularly as Leonard is hoping the first book will encourage people to be more open and share more personal stories that he feels they didn’t get the first time around.
Still, before a second book can happen, the first one needs to be released. To that end, a book release will be held at the Fort Frances Public Library Technology Centre at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, December 14. Copies of the book will be available for $35. Proof of double vaccination is required to attend.
Loney and Leonard will be in attendance to answer questions – and to celebrate the history they’ve captured for residents of the Rainy River District.