Thunder Bay

Remembering Chris Cromarty, a First Nations elder, leader and example of living the good life

Chris Cromarty was a gentle, caring family man whose dogged determination helped unite First Nations in northwestern Ontario and get the attention of the government. First Nations leaders are reflecting on his passing, and what it means to live a good life.

Cromarty was a gentle, caring man who helped unite First Nations in northwestern Ontario

Nishnawbe Aski Nation health transformation lead Alvin Fiddler, right, and Chris Cromarty are shown in a recent photograph. Fiddler said he was impressed by the determination of leaders like Chris Cromarty who often took long trips by car in order to hold their early meetings. (Submitted by Alvin Fiddler)

This piece is part of CBC Thunder Bay's special National Indigenous Peoples Day coverage Mino Bimaadiziwin — The Good Life.

You can find all of our coverage here.


Chris Cromarty was a gentle, caring family man whose dogged determination helped unite First Nations in northwestern Ontario and get the attention of the government.

Cromarty, the founding vice president of Grand Council Treaty #9, which later evolved into the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, died earlier this month in Sioux Lookout. He was born in 1937 in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation in northwestern Ontario. 

Cromarty attended both the Pelican Lake Indian Residential School at Pelican Falls near Sioux Lookout and the Shingwauk Indian Residential School in Sault Ste. Marie. 

"He endured a lot of trauma and abuse, just like many of the survivors… I think they just had a lot of strength, a lot of resilience," said NAN Grand Chief Derek Fox. "Residential schools were still in existence at that time," 

A leader 'willing to sacrifice' for his people

He and his fellow survivors were motivated by a desire to no longer see children taken from their homes, Fox said.

"As a leader Chris believed in preserving traditional practices and was concerned with young people losing touch with their language, culture, and spirituality," according to a news release from the Nishnawbe Aski Nation announcing Chromarty's death earlier this month. 

"He often spoke about seeing positive change in young people as they returned to traditional teachings." 

Derek Fox of Bearskin Lake First Nation has been elected to serve as the grand chief for the Nishnawbe Aski Nation for the next three years. Fox has previously served as one of NAN's three deputy grand chiefs since 2015. (Nishnawbe Aski Nation)

Alvin Fiddler, former grand chief and health transformation lead for NAN recalled the determination of leaders such as Cromarty, who launched Grand Council Treaty #9 with no government funding and often traveled to meetings in Timmins or even Toronto by car.

"They were willing to sacrifice whatever it was they needed to, to be able to achieve the vision that they had," Fiddler said.

After serving as vice president of Grand Council Treaty #9, Cromarty returned to his home community of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug and managed the co-op there.

'Salt of the Earth'

Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug Chief Donny Morris remembered him as the "salt of the Earth."

"Chris was friendly to everybody," Morris said. "He was a gentle person. He cared for his people when he was in a leadership capacity and being an elder too."

Speaking of Cromarty and his wife, Morris said, "I think they treated me like anybody would treat their own son." 

Later in life, Cromarty played a key role in the 1997 Four Party Hospital Services Agreement, which merged two hospitals in Sioux Lookout into what eventually became the Meno Ya Win Health Centre. 

Cromarty was also a champion for health care within First Nation communities, and remained active throughout his life, Fiddler said.

Living a 'good life' 

Fiddler recalled visiting Cromarty in Wunnummin Lake – where Cromarty lived prior to his passing – along with then-Health Minister Jane Philpott to inform Cromarty that the community had been approved for a new health centre. 

"One of the things I regret is that Chris wasn't able to see the completion of the facility," Fiddler said. "But he saw it being built. And that gives me some satisfaction to know that his work and his vision is all being worked on, and his community will have a new health centre."

The Meno Ya Win Health Centre awarded Cromarty its inaugural Chris Cromarty Excellence in Leadership Award in 2007.

Former Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler speaks during a press conference on Parliament Hill, Friday, March 10, 2017 in Ottawa. He credits the leadership of people like Cromarty with paving the way. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

NAN presented Cromarty with a lifetime achievement award in 2012.

"In the end, he had his wife by his side, and he had kids, and I think the good life is being a family man," Fox said. 

"You know, he did all he could, and he passed away in his homelands. And he passed away knowing that there's people taking over, that he passed on his teachings."


This piece is part of CBC Thunder Bay's special National Indigenous Peoples Day coverage Mino Bimaadiziwin — The Good Life. You can find all of our coverage here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Heather Kitching reports on northwestern Ontario for CBC Thunder Bay. You can reach her at heather.kitching@cbc.ca.

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