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Anishinabek celebrate Lynn Johnston comic strip for being inclusive

NIPISSING FIRST NATION - For introducing a fictional Anishinabek Nation community into a comic strip published daily in over 2,000 newspapers in 22 countries in eight languages, Lynn Johnston has been named the 2004 recipient of the Debwewin Citation for excellence in Aboriginal-issues journalism.

Lynn accepts the Citation

The artist and author who creates her internationally-acclaimed comic strip "For Better or For Worse" from her home in Corbeil, just outside North Bay, accepted the prize - a specially-mounted feather - with typical humility. "I'm not trying to preach at people...just to show that Native people are like everyone else," she said. Johnston grew up in North Vancouver a few blocks from the Squamish First Nation, and recalls her father inviting band members to her home for tea. She also remembered the warm welcome Natives extended to her and husband Rod when his dentistry practice took them to the northern Manitoba community of Lynn Lake.

"I heard drumming coming from a nearby house and it was such a reassuring sound," she recalled. North Bay Nugget managing editor editor John Size presented the award to Johnston at the Union of Ontario Indians Elders Hall at a ceremony attended by UOI staff and Johnston's production team. The Nugget is a member of the Osprey Media Group, which three years ago became the founding sponsor of the Debwewin Citations, the only prize for Aboriginal-issues journalism in Canada. The annual award is co-ordinated by the communications unit of the Union of Ontario Indians.

Size refererred to the Nugget's longstanding relationship with the Union of Ontario Indians, and said that the paper's weekly Niijii Circle Page - containing aboriginal-issues material contributed by UOI communications staff - "is something Osprey believes in". He said Johnston's "For Better or For Worse" has not backed away from controversial topics, including introducing black and gay characters and storylines in the past.

Johnston was nominated for the honour by Chief Phil Goulais of Nipissing First Nation. The award was a surprise for Johnston, who thought she was visiting the Union of Ontario Indians' head office for a ceremony naming her fictional First Nation - "Mtigwaki" (land of trees) an honourary member community of the Anishinabek Nation. Grand Council Chief John Beaucage announced that he would be introducing a resolution asking Anishinabek Chiefs to recognize Mtigwaki as an honourary Anishinabek member community, and Johnston as an honourary Anishinabek citizen, both firsts for the oldest political organization in Ontario.

"It's still too often stereotypes that label us," said Beaucage, noting that Johnston's comic strip portrays First Nations citizens as "everyday, real people."

Johnston, who has published 30 books, decided to create Mtigwaki a few years ago when one of her characters "Elizabeth", was deciding to become a teacher. Lynn thought it would be a good idea if Elizabeth would spend time teaching up north. It was through Lynn's own experience a few years ago living with husband Rod in a small remote northern Native community that gave her the idea. She felt her character could learn and experience what she had during her time there. It would also allow her to take her readers on a journey learning and growing with both the real and fictitious characters of Mtigwaki.

Although Lynn had thought about this for a couple of years, it wasn't until last year that it began to take shape. She introduced a character named "Mr Crow" to bring the first Aboriginal content for her readers. He only had a bit part in one strip but it was enough to get a positive reaction from her readers. Lynn is very conscious of her fans and wants to take them wherever she goes, including on her own learning journey.

Next she decided to use Our Lady of Sorrows School in Sturgeon Falls, Ontario as a teaching stop for Elizabeth. O.L.S. is attended by most of the children from Garden Village on Nipissing First Nation. Lynn visited the school and used many of the Native children and teachers as models for her character development.

She even paid a visit to Garden Village Confectionary to get a feel for the community and further her own knowledge base about First Nations. All communities have unique characters and there she met Dennis Goulais, owner of the small store whose humour made him a perfect character to use in her strip.

Lynn began to develop the idea of her own First Nation community with the help of some friends. Perry, Laurie and Falcon Skye McLeod-Shabogesic helped her create Mtigwaki. Falcon designed the community logo, with he and his dad Perry helping create the physical structure and layout of the First Nation using a model built on the back of a pizza box. Laurie came up with the name and became Lynn's Ojibwe language consultant, for example, suggesting the name of the new kitten and friend in Elizabeth's life - "Shiimsa".

A significant part of Lynn's website ( is dedicated to Mtigwaki, Aboriginal information (current and historic) and other relevant links.

Lynn attributes the remarkable success of "For Better or For Worse" - which she plans on wrapping up in three years - to her family - especially husband Rod, the "rock" in her life - many friends and dedicated staff. Her support system has helped her take her comic strip from her kitchen table to a corporation. Humble and caring, wise and truthful, Lynn Johnston touches the lives of millions each day with gentle humour, unselfishly sharing herself and her beliefs.

The Anishinabek Nation is richer to call her, her family and staff "Niijii" - our friends.