Residential school survivor Bill Sands finds solace through fishing and hunting

Legendary hunting and fishing guide Bill Sands has spent a lifetime reconnecting to his Indigenous roots


Duck hunting is one way Alyssa Sands helps local youth reconnect with their culture

Over the years, Sands has tried to face his demons. Once, while attending a Little Native Hockey League tournament in a nearby town, Sands took his daughter, Alyssa, and son, Dustin, to see the Mohawk Institute. He wanted them to know about the place that had impacted them all.

“My kids were small and I took them there,” Sands says. “I never went back to the school until that time. I pulled up at the back, stopped the car and turned it off. The windows were down, and I had the most evil feeling I ever felt in my life. I turned around and looked at my kids and said, ‘You guys feel okay?’” They had seen enough, and left.


Now age 39, Alyssa remembers watching her father’s journey. She’s seen him face the evil he experienced at Mohawk, felt his pain, and watched him use the land and the water, hunting and fishing, to heal. As with so many Indigenous youth today, Alyssa did not grow up with the language, culture and traditional knowledge of her ancestors, all of which were taken from her family through the residential school system.

“I always felt like I was missing something, like there was a part of myself that I didn’t know,” she says, pointing to her father’s experience, and that of her maternal grandmother, who survived the Shingwauk Indian Residential School in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. “I’ve never had a connection to my culture.”

Alyssa Sands has started a program of cultural reclamation and traditional knowledge transfer for Walpole Island’s Anishinaabe youth

Seeking to overcome that loss, Alyssa started Niizh Miigwaansag Land Based Learning, a program of cultural reclamation and traditional knowledge transfer for Walpole Island’s Anishinaabe youth. Her first initiative was to arrange a duck hunt. “Our people from Walpole Island are hunters,” she says. “Walpole Island is part of a huge migratory flyway, and it’s been a mecca for duck hunters for decades. I think the history is important, and I think teaching kids to provide for their families is important.”


Alyssa also hopes to instill a sense of mental well-being for local youth by helping them connect to their traditions and culture, in particular through building a passion for hunting and fishing. While she and her father had their traditional knowledge stripped from their family through residential schools, they’ve both worked to rebuild that connection.

“Our people have this inherent knowledge of the land,” Alyssa says. “Even without any formal knowledge of the traditional practices, I know there is something deep inside us. If we can help the youth reconnect to that part of who they are, it’s a success.”

Another way Alyssa helps rebuild this connection is by running a traditional hide-tanning camp, showing Indigenous youth how to respect and use all portions of the deer they harvest. “I want them to respect the animals. We don’t kill just to kill. Deer give their lives to feed and clothe us. I want the youths to see how we respect that by using as much of the animal as we are able to, as well as sharing what we have. It’s all about connection.”

Our people have an inherent knowledge of the land, Alyssa says

A shiny granite monument stands on Walpole Island, engraved with rows and rows of names, including that of Bill Sands and the hundreds of other local children forcibly taken away to residential schools. On the front of the monument, a plaque reads, “From inside those walls no one outside heard our cries; when we left, no one outside heard our cries from within.”

Today on Walpole, Bill Sands and his daughter, Alyssa, are listening, and reconnecting to their Indigenous culture, both for themselves and for local youth. And it is their belief those connections to the outdoors, to the wilderness around them, will continue to provide healing and strength for generations to come.