Cree sisters accuse childhood abuser of Indigenous identity fraud in court

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In a Peterborough, Ont., courtroom last year, three Cree sisters unfolded the difficult stories of their childhoods. They recalled the beatings their aunt by marriage routinely meted out.

They alleged Katherine Cannon, the woman acting as their foster parent, had beat them with her fists, a belt and razor strap, and abused them with death threats and racist insults in the 1960s and ’70s.

The woman who called them “dirty Indians,” they testified, later became a self-styled “chief” of the Algonquins of Ontario organization. They alleged her Algonquin identity was “bogus” and was adopted for personal gain in the 1990s.

It took 10 years of civil litigation, but in November a judge ruled Sharon Cannon, Rosie Christie and Darlene Paddy-Cannon were telling the truth about the abuse.

“They were belittled, treated differently from others, hit with a belt and a razor strap, treated as servants, and left vulnerable,” wrote Ontario Superior Court Justice S.E. Fraser. 

“They lost their childhood.”

The lawsuit has been called important for survivors of historic abuse, and is a rare case where allegations of Indigenous identity fraud and the associated harm were tested in court. 

The sisters argued their abuser’s dubious Algonquin identity claim added insult to injury, allowing her to reap financial benefits and political opportunity by cloaking herself in the heritage she once maligned and mocked. 

The Algonquins of Ontario is a controversial organization, which many have accused of being substantially non-Indigenous.

Identity fraud matters, the plaintiffs argued, because it marginalizes First Nations, robs them of opportunity and allows settlers to shape their future — a situation of “great concern” generally, the judge wrote.

Fraser held Katherine Cannon and the Canadian government liable for the abuse, and awarded each sister $260,000. But the judge declined to rule on whether Katherine Cannon falsely claimed an Algonquin identity, citing insufficient evidence.

Katherine Cannon denied all the allegations at trial, and she and the Canadian government have appealed separately to the Ontario Court of Appeal. Katherine Cannon did not respond to a request for comment.

In court filings, her appeal lawyer Robert Reynolds argued Fraser reached conclusions that were “illogical, irrational, and not supported by the evidence,” particularly in rejecting defence testimony. Reynolds declined to comment.

In a statement, Sharon Cannon and Rosie Christie said it was “very healing” to represent themselves at the retrial, and thanked lawyer John A. Annen, who represented them in the first trial, which they lost but successfully appealed.

The statement said they were hesitant to give an interview, citing the ongoing litigation. 

“They want it known that they will never give up their fight for justice,” the statement said.

Darlene Paddy-Cannon declined to comment.

A difficult journey

The sisters, now in their 60s, are the daughters of a Cree mother, Marie Paddy, a residential school survivor, and an Irish-descended father, Gerald Cannon. The sisters are all members of Thunderchild First Nation in western Saskatchewan.

In September 1964, Gerald took the children to live with his mother Ethel Cannon near Bancroft, Ont. Ethel died shortly after, and the kids landed with Gerald’s brother, Vern, and his wife Katherine.

Marie struggled with alcohol use, Fraser wrote in her decision, and despite Marie’s attempts to reunite with her children — no court ever actually revoked her legal rights as a parent — they wouldn’t do so until 1993. 

“Marie’s desire to parent was subject to the scrutiny of others. She was treated differently because she was an Indian,” Fraser wrote.

“The level of scrutiny heaped on her is in stark contrast to the white women who cared for the plaintiffs in their childhood.”

Fraser wrote that Department of Indian Affairs officials drew up plans for the sisters’ return to Thunderchild, believing it was in their best interests, but shelved the plans after the local Children’s Aid Society refused to intervene, making the loss that followed foreseeable.

“The plaintiffs lost their nation, their culture, their language, and their community when they were separated from their mother,” the judge wrote.

The Canadian government is challenging Fraser’s finding of federal negligence but not the findings of abuse. 

“Federal officials did not have any child welfare powers in respect of the plaintiffs,” wrote Justice Canada lawyer Daniel Luxat in a notice of appeal.

A controversial identity

Last year, roughly 2,000 people with disputed ancestry were removed from the Algonquins of Ontario (AOO), an umbrella organization formed in 2004 to advance modern treaty talks in eastern Ontario.

The ancestor from which Katherine Cannon claims Algonquin descent wasn’t removed in the cleanup, and her name is not on an October 2023 list of removed electors obtained by CBC Indigenous.

Katherine Cannon identifies as Irish-Algonquin, a descendant of an Algonquin community that lived at Baptiste Lake in Bancroft, roughly 235 kilometres west of Ottawa, according to the decision.

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