An Indigenous heroine gets her due — 170 years later
'I want our women to see how incredibly strong they are,'
director Michelle Derosier
Julia Jones as Angelique and Charlie Carrick as Charlie Mott. The young couple were abandoned on a
Lake Superior island in the 1840s. Only Angelique survived. (Thunderstone Pictures)
By Tanya TalagaStaff Reporter
Sun., Aug. 20, 2017
Nearly a decade ago, the survival story of Angelique Mott, a young Anishinaabe woman from the 1800s, seized Indigenous director Michelle Derosier.
Angelique, 17, was left to starve to death on a Lake Superior island during the copper rush in 1845-’46. Her story, gleaned from written accounts at the time with gaps filled creatively by Derosier, has become the subject of the acclaimed Indigenous director’s indie feature film, Angelique’s IsleAngelique’s Isle, which will be released next year.
The film is a layered story of Indigenous female power, says Derosier. It speaks to Canada’s colonial relationship with Indigenous people, the greed to exploit natural resources and of racism and the experiences of Indigenous women both in the past and present.
“I felt connected to Angelique,” said Derosier, who is from Migisi Sahgaigan (Eagle Lake) First Nation in northern Ontario. “I want our women to see how incredibly strong they are.”
Based on the novella “Angelique Abandoned” by James Stevens, the film centres on the ill-fated journey of Angelique, played by Julia Jones, and her husband, the French-Canadian voyageur Charlie Mott, played by Charlie Carrick. Angelique’s grandmother, played by Tantoo Cardinal, warns Angelique not to follow her husband and go with American prospectors who are in search of copper.
Angelique ignored her advice. The couple was abandoned by the U.S. miners on Isle Royale in northwest Lake Superior for 10 months. Charlie eventually succumbed to starvation, leaving Angelique to fend for herself in the harsh winter.
Many of Derosier’s artistic endeavours feature Indigenous teachings, knowledge and empowerment — especially of women. Now the co-owner of Thunderstone Pictures, Derosier worked in social services for 12 years, helping at-risk youth from Pikangikum First Nation and at Indigenous schools such as Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School. She also worked with the City of Thunder Bay to produce the Walk-A-Mile film project aimed at teaching non-Indigenous municipal staff about Indigenous culture. Walk-A-Mile helped open dialogue about racism in Thunder Bay.
“I felt ineffective at individual counselling. Then I arrived at story telling,” Derosier said in an interview while she was on a break from film editing in Montreal.
She described Angelique as a powerful woman who used traditional teachings and knowledge to stay alive while she was alone over the course of a brutal winter. “She contemplated eating her husband. But she survived by using her hair to snare rabbits.”
During the writing and filming of Angelique’s Isle (co-directed with Marie-Helene Cousineau), Derosier felt the spirit of her late grandmother Maybel Derosier, a residential school survivor. She was murdered in 1974 at the age of 47. Her story is largely untold, as are many of the historic cases of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in Canada.
“She is not a part of any statistics or on any radar. She was my father’s mom and my dad died from drinking,” Derosier said.
When she has probed family about what happened to her — Maybel had 10 children — no one seems to know beyond that she was murdered, possibly by bootleggers.
“As I do this story, I am processing my own feelings about my grandmother. Lots has happened in my life. It has been difficult to trudge forward but this story has kept me going.”
Filmmaker Michelle Derosier is currently editing her first feature, Angelique’s Isle, which will
be released next year.
During the filming of Angelique’s Isle, Derosier was mindful to bring ceremony and her own Anishinaabe cultural practices as she directed.
“Incredible strength comes from this,” she said. She remembers one instance, after the death of her uncle, that during ceremony and prayer she realized “our power of our women and their ability to communicate and manoeuvre between the worlds and how the cultural strength we come from is key to all of this.”
Derosier spent years trying to persuade people that Angelique’s story needed to be told. Tantoo Cardinal, one of the most prolific and decorated actresses in Canada — she has appeared in nearly 100 films and television shows, including Dances With Wolves and Longmire — praises Angelique’s Isle for promoting Indigenous female stories and actors.
Often, Cardinal has played Indigenous female characters in feature films, but they were given limited screen time and development.
“Indigenous women are kind of in the background — even more so with older Indigenous women. I have come through all the ages. As I have aged, the perspective of who we are and what we have to offer has grown over time,” Cardinal says. “This has been a breath of fresh air, it’s been great.”