- Bridging Two Peoples: Chief Peter E. Jones, 1843–1909 by Allan Sherwin
Over the past few decades, developments in biographical writing have demonstrated that the boundaries separating biography from history have been somewhat artificial and, often, unhelpful demarcations. Particularly when the biographer’s subject is an individual from a less powerful group, biography can provide an important window through which we can glimpse their engagement with larger social, political, and cultural structures: the negotiations, accommodations, compromises, and confrontations that arise as individuals make their way in various worlds.
In many ways, Allan Sherwin’s study of Peter Edmund Jones does just that. Jones, son of the well-known Anishinabe Mississauga leader and minister, Kahkewaquonaby (or the Reverend Peter Jones) and his English wife, Eliza Field Jones, led a life marked by both his Mississauga and British identities and locations. Born October 30, 1843 at the Methodist mission in London, Ontario, Jones’ childhood was shaped both by illness – he contracted polio at the age of three and suffered from bronchitis – and his mixed-race background. In 1851 the Jones family moved to Brantford, where Peter Edmund grew up, close to – but not on – the Mississauga’s New Credit reserve. Educated at home because of his physical frailty, Jones would go on to graduate from Queen’s University in Medicine, the first Status Indian to do so in Canada. He established a medical practice in Hagersville, near the New Credit, and served as the latter’s doctor, introducing a number of public health measures that Sherwin believes were critically important to the Mississauga.
Sherwin also points out, though, that his energies and talents extended beyond the field of medicine. Just as his father worked as both minister and advocate for the Mississauga, from 1874 Peter Edmund attempted to serve the community in a number of capacities: as an elected band chief, researcher for New Credit land claims, secretary-treasurer for the Grand General Indian Council of Ontario and Quebec, and publisher of The Indian, Canada’s first Indigenous newspaper, which he used as a forum to advise newly registered Indians of their (short-lived) voting rights. Jones also worked as a mediator or cultural broker between Indigenous and settler society, as he advised John A. Macdonald on modifications to the Indian Act, was appointed an Indian agent, and advised [End Page 260] Ontario’s archaeologist, David Boyle, and the Smithsonian Museum about Indigenous settlements and artifacts. By the 1890s, having battled chronic illnesses which may, Sherwin believes, have been a form of ‘post-polio’ syndrome, Jones’ time was spent tending to his patients in Hagersville and farming with his stepson. He died in Hagersville of cancer of the tongue in 1909 and was buried in Brantford.
As those who are familiar with Peter Jones’ career will probably have noted, in many ways Peter Edmund Jones’ life closely resembled that of his father: indeed, Sherwin’s work is indebted to that of Donald B. Smith, who published his biographical study of Kahkewaquonaby in 1987. As one who inherited the complicated, sometimes ambiguous, position of ‘bridging two peoples,’ Peter Edmund experienced the stresses and strains that marked his father’s life. Contrasting Sherwin’s biography with Smith’s, the son dealt with racially inflected boundaries between Indigenous and Ontario’s settler society that became more rigid and intractable over the nineteenth century. Moreover, while Kahkewaquonaby’s espousal of certain aspects of European society was certainly not welcomed by all members of the Mississauga, he at least was able to communicate with them in Ojibwa. His son, however, was quite self-consciously brought up (primarily, it seems, by his English mother) in English (p. 45); while he visited his paternal grandmother at the New Credit to practice his Ojibwa, it appears that he was not entirely fluent in the language (pp. 45, 51). As Sherwin points out, Peter Edmund’s engagement in Mississauga politics was not always welcomed at the New Credit, particularly by traditionalist families determined to preserve their language and cultural practices who viewed his family history, lack of deep...