For legendary Walpole Island hunting and fishing guide Bill Sands, reconnecting to his Indigenous roots has become a lifelong journey
Even as things improved during the early days of his guiding career, Sands couldn’t escape reminders of life at the Mohawk Institute. Every Saturday, for example, staff would bring the older boys into a room to watch Hockey Night in Canada. The staff knew they were assimilating the boys, building a Canadian identity, using the country’s official winter sport. And while those Saturday evenings seemed like a respite, they still had their dangers.
“We had a room there where we’d watch the hockey games, and a guy once knocked me off my chair and jumped on me and was beating me up,” Sands recalls. “I just covered up my head and I had my hands behind my head. This guy was punching me.”
In that room, Sands watched as the Montreal Canadiens won multiple Stanley Cups, led by the great Maurice Richard. Among their main challengers were the Detroit Red Wings, featuring NHL legends Gordie Howe and fellow Hall of Famer Alex Delvecchio.
Years later, memories of those games came flooding back as Sands guided those very two same players on a duck hunt, the former linemates inhaling and exhaling in unison as they prepared their guns. The only other sound was the rustle of wings as a flight of ducks dropped in over the reeds, heading for the decoys. On the ice, Howe and Delvecchio rarely missed their mark, and on the exhale, they squeezed their triggers. Their aim proved true on the hunt as well.
Like any good coach, Sands praised the pair, something he’d long done—and would continue to do—with his many other celebrity guests, including Bobby Orr, Steven Spielberg, Cher and Prime Minister Paul Martin, among others.
Sands’ grandfather, Walter, got his first gun dog from Olympic gold medallist and Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Thorpe
In the early days of his guiding career, when the hunting season ended and the marshes froze, Sands would set hundreds of muskrat traps. He’d tend those traps until the early spring, selling the meat and pelts until he saw the red-winged blackbirds return to the marsh. That meant only a few snowy days remained, and when the thaw came, he’d soon be back enjoying quiet moments walking the fields with his white Labrador retriever, Casper.
Sands’ father, Emerson, had loved hunting dogs. He got his first gun dog from Olympic gold medallist and Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Thorpe. Thorpe, an Indigenous man, had worked with Emerson in Detroit, and would regularly visit Walpole Island to hunt and fish with him and Sands’ grandfather, Walter.
“Jim raised giant Airedales, and he gave my grandfather two of the them,” Sands says. “They were hunting dogs, upland game bird dogs. They were ferocious, but not to people. They could really fight. My dad would hunt on St. Anne’s Island for pheasants. Those two dogs were great at that. They could flush the birds and retrieve them for my dad.”
Sands became accustomed to guiding and interacting with foreign dignitaries, presidents and prime ministers
Decades after his release from residential school, Sands had become accustomed to guiding and interacting with celebrities along the waters of the Chematogen Channel. He was used to foreign dignitaries, presidents and prime ministers sipping coffee in his presence. He’d seen his children playing catch with Major League Baseball stars after a morning hunt.
Just beneath the surface, however, the impact of his childhood years in residential school remained. While watching his hunting lodge chef prepare duck and perch, for example, memories of worm-filled mush and sulphur-soaked powdered eggs would still sneak in. Yes, his life had changed, but with the trauma of residential school still lingering, Sands sometimes felt trapped. “I was at Mohawk for four years. It was the toughest four years of my life, and it still affects me today. And it has affected my children, and my ex-wife, my parents.”