1920 – 1987
Xavier Michon was known to many as the Grandfather of the Friendship Centre Movement. He was a lifetime member of the National Association of Friendship Centres (NAFC), so honoured for his early efforts in helping to establish the NAFC and the Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres (OFIFC); as well as being the founding father of the Thunder Bay Indian Friendship Centre.
In his early years, Xavier responded to the plight of Ontario’s Aboriginal peoples and his career became a quest to address the difficulties that many of us have faced during cultural transition. Like many of us, he experienced poverty, discrimination and even violence; never forgetting to include others in his pursuit of a better life.
Xavier rose to meet a challenge in his lifetime that few would dare to confront. In 1940, at the age of twenty while working in a bakery, he enlisted in the army. He saw action in both North Africa and in Italy. He was part of an artillery company which was commonly called the Nine-Mile Snipers. His sergeant was confident in his bravery and repeatedly assigned him the midnight watch, the period when surprise attacks were most likely to occur.
Xavier was one of our esteemed Aboriginal veterans who fought his way up the boot of Italy, through the mountainous regions, battling the enemy, the rain and poor conditions. In Africa, Eisenhower had been quoted as saying about the men who fought there, “the troops that come out of this campaign are going to be battle-wise and tactically efficient”. Xavier Michon was one of the very men Eisenhower spoke of with conviction.
He was wounded in battle and his acts of heroism were commemorated with five medals. These included: the 1939-1945 Star B for 6 months service for active operations; The Italy Star B for operational service in Italy; Canadian Volunteer Service Medal B for 18 months voluntary service; Defence Medal B for six months service in Britain; The 1939-1945 War Medal B for 28 days of service on active operations.
Summing up that portion of his life, Mr. Michon stated, AI felt good in uniform because we were all dressed the same. I felt more accepted. We were all fighting for the same cause, though I didn’t know exactly what the cause was. I had friends in the army. After the war, he returned to the bakery and became a master baker and manager.
In 1951, Xavier left the bakery for a job with Abitibi Provincial Paper Mill. He and another Aboriginal person endured the taunting by other workers and they felt they would have been fired if it were not for the union. During his job at the mill, Mr. Michon began volunteer work helping Aboriginal people and their children.
There were two women, Mrs. Irene Smith and Mrs. Mary Anne Baird, who asked him for his organizational skills to begin the Friendship Centre in a small 10′ x 20′ red brick building. He accepted the challenge and began to recruit members to form a Board of Directors by becoming a member of many organizations and appearing before others to gain community interest and recognition. The result was an eight member Board which consisted of people from diverse backgrounds with expertise on issues which had a direct impact on the lives of Aboriginal people. Some of them included a Deputy Chief of Police, a judge, a school teacher, a jail superintendent and a furniture salesman, which resulted in the receipt of furniture for the Centre at no cost.
Through persistent efforts, Xavier received the support and some funding from influential people to improve the Centre. In the late 1960’s, he visited the reserves in the Thunder Bay region bringing clothing to the destitute and encouraged people to work on improving the community and its development. He set up links for people who were moving to Thunder Bay to seek help at the Centre or access other agencies= resources. Then, after his long service and dedication to the Centre, he became the Executive Director.
In 1974, he became the President of the NAFC, President of the Native People of Thunder Bay Development and founding President of the OFIFC. He was also a member of the following establishments:
- The Welfare Council of Canada
- The Task Force on Native People of Canada Manpower
- The Ontario Government’s Task Force on Natives and the Law
- The Smith Clinic for Alcoholism;
- Métis and Non-Status Indian Association of Ontario;
- Welfare Association of Thunder Bay;
- Ontario Legal Aid;
- Family and Children’s Services;
- Co-chair of the Ontario Task Force on Services to Urban Natives
Mr. Michon was the first Aboriginal to sit on the Board of some of the above organizations. The Centre and many organizations he dealt with recognized his dedication by nominating him for the Outstanding Achievement Award and the Order of Canada Medal. Due to his many contributions of making a better life for our people, he gained respect from many Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Thunder Bay.
It was Xavier Michon’s dream to build a strong Aboriginal community, to be treated fairly, for Aboriginal people to have independence, a home for their kids, jobs to support their families and to be given a chance at life. Many times he personally helped people with his own money for groceries or to pay a fine to keep someone out of jail.
Xavier’s counseling methods were very unorthodox. As manager of a developing Aboriginal housing corporation he would often make house calls to fix leaky pipes or broken furnaces and would then provide advice to the tenants on a number of matters they would raise.
His death in 1987 was mourned by countless numbers and his name remains synonymous with the Friendship Centre Movement and the Thunder Bay Indian Friendship Centre. His contributions will not be forgotten.
His years were not long by most standards, but he left a rich legacy to Aboriginal people, the Friendship Centre Movement, his children, grandchildren and all those who had a good life because of him. His legacy has played a vital role for us to walk in dignity and to be proud of whom we are.
In September, 1989, the Indian Youth Friendship Society celebrated its twenty-fifth year of operations. As part of that celebration, a portrait of Xavier Michon was unveiled as a commemoration to his memory and in gratitude. The portrait of this honourable and humble man hangs there today and can be seen by all who walk through those doors.
Source: Article by Gwen Kakeeway – Honouring a Native Veteran and a Builder, Skimaginish June 1989 – Volume 1, 2
Courtesy: Indian Youth Friendship Society, Thunder Bay, Ontario.