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Cree sisters accuse childhood abuser of Indigenous identity fraud in court

March 11, 2024

Algonquins of Ontario ex-representative Katherine Cannon appeals; judge declines to rule on identity

A woman in a museum holds a framed portrait.
Katherine Cannon served as a paid, elected negotiation representative of the Algonquins of Ontario political umbrella organization for several years. (Bancroft—North Hastings Heritage Museum/Facebook)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

CBC Indigenous: 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 self-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.

The plaintiffs lost their nation, their culture, their language, and their community.- Justice S.E. Fraser

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.

Algonquins of Ontario organization removes members after ancestry disputes.

Ottawa Morning 11:59

The Algonquins of Ontario has removed nearly 2,000 people from its certified electorate after an internal tribunal ruled against their asserted Algonquin ancestry.

Click on the following link to listen to “Ottawa Morning”:

An AOO voters list made public in 2015 says Katherine’s root ancestor is Jean Baptiste Kegic-o-manitou, born c. 1794, the father of chief John Baptiste Dufond. She claims this lineage through her mother, Gertrude Green, Fraser wrote. 

A family tree filed in court lists Gertrude as the daughter of Susan Baptiste. 

But the sisters obtained Gertrude’s baptismal certificate, which says Gertrude was “of unknown parents.” They also submitted Gertrude’s obituary, which doesn’t mention Susan Baptiste and lists John and Madeline Baptiste as her parents. 

The sisters alleged Katherine Cannon personally benefited from identity fraud because her claims can’t be substantiated.

Katherine Cannon was involved in the Algonquin land claim since 1991, and served as a negotiation representative, or “chief,” for Kijicho Manito Madaouskarini Algonquin First Nation, which is not an Indian Act band or self-governing First Nation.

AOO comprises 10 communities but only one, Algonquins of Pikwakanagan, is a federally recognized Indian Act band. The nine other communities elect official negotiation representatives for treaty talks, and some call themselves chiefs.

Katherine Cannon testified she worked for 27 years as an AOO community representative, and began to draw a salary after funding was provided. As chief, she signed Indian status cards that closely resembled official federal ones. She was able to work tax-free, the plaintiffs claimed, and as chief relocated the band office to her daughter’s house.

While Katherine Cannon said she always knew who she was, other testimony showed First Nations traditions weren’t present in the house when the sisters lived there, which Fraser said called that assertion into question.

“However, on the evidence before me, I cannot conclude that Katherine is of First Nations descent. Similarly, I cannot conclude that she is not,” the judge held.

Fraser did express doubts about Katherine Cannon’s claim, however, saying this may impact the court’s assessment of her credibility — something her appeal lawyer argued was incorrect, since the allegation was unproven.

The judge also found other reasons to doubt “problematic” aspects of Katherine Cannon’s testimony, which Fraser said stemmed from “a deliberate attempt to overcome the vulnerabilities of the case.”

Katherine Cannon took a job cleaning the local school, demonstrating “blatant disregard” for a foster care agreement that barred outside work, the decision said. She testified she treated the Cree sisters as her own daughters, but this was contradicted by what happened after they left.

“Nothing,” Fraser wrote. 

She didn’t write, call or visit, the judge wrote.

The Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations said in a statement it appealed “to seek further clarification from the court.” Canada’s appeal filing, however, seeks to overturn the decision and dismiss the case against the federal government.

A hearing date for the appeal has not yet been scheduled.


Brett Forester, Reporter

Brett Forester is a reporter with CBC Indigenous in Ottawa. He is a member of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation in southern Ontario who previously worked as a journalist with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.