The Township of Scugog is extremely fortunate to have a substantial representation of Canada’s first people living among us. For the past twenty years, the Mississauga’s of Scugog Island, have provided amazing benefits to our town and our region.
The band is led by a chief, who is elected every two years. For the past two terms, Kelly La Rocca has held that position. Registered members of the Mississaugas have the right to vote, and Kelly has accomplished a great deal in the time she has been representing the First Nation.
Born in Oshawa, Kelly, her brother and her parents moved to Port Perry when she was 16. Her dad was a jazz musician prior to working at General Motors, and has performed with big bands in many different locales. Her mother, a member of the Mississaugas of Scugog, had a career in retail sales, and was asked to move to Port Perry and look after a new venture, which the band wanted to initiate.
Native art was, and still is a sought after art form, and the Mississaugas were interested in opening a store in Port Perry to display and sell their crafts. The First Nation opened Native Perspectives on Queen Street which was a point of pride for the community. A few years later, Kelly’s mom purchased the First Nation’s gallery, renamed it Native Focus, and ran the store successfully for well over a decade. Kelly and her brother, who is now also a jazz musician, worked part time in the shop, helping out their mother.
“It was wonderful to move to Port Perry and live in my ancestral home, where I still reside today,” Kelly explained. During her high school years she worked briefly in Oshawa, for Ruby Jo’s Fashions, and in Scugog, for the First Nation, pruning trees, but most of her part time work was in her mom’s store. When her mother passed away, the store was sold to Jeremy and Erin Le Page and continued under the name, Native Focus.
Kelly had aspirations of going into law, and after high school she fulfilled her dream by obtaining an honour’s Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy, and going on to receive a law degree from the University of Windsor Law School.
She practiced in Toronto, specializing in civil litigation and did graduate work in British Columbia, for the University of Victoria Law School. While working on her thesis and living in Waterloo, Kelly heard of a bi election within the Mississaugas of Scugog Township. “It was a great opportunity to give back to my community and to live in Port Perry again,” she said.
The position was for a full-time councillor and the 2008 election was a tough race. Kelly won by a narrow margin, but the knowledge and skill she received in the next five years as councillor, prepared her to run for the top job in 2013.
In 2016 Kelly married her sweetheart, Jonathan. The couple have two children, Ruby and Eli. I asked her if they met through work and she smiled. “I met him at a dance. He was my instructor... I suppose he literally, swept me off my feet.”
When I asked what being Chief means, Kelly, without hesitation, replied. “Among many things, it means being a cultural leader for my people and community,” she explained. “It means making sure our people have access to the culture in the ways we choose, as well access as to program and service offerings.”
Opportunities for Indigenous communities are changing rapidly, and staying ahead of the curve is extremely important. Her role as Chief gives her an opportunity to liaise with the Township, the Region and the Province, as well as several Federal involvements, all in an effort to give her constituents and her community the best possible options ahead.
Being Chief is akin to that of being a Mayor, and she and her Council oversee public works, education, healthcare as well as being an employer of more than 50 people. Major concerns for the Band are water treatment, the youth & child welfare and community programs.
Of course, another major project is the build of a new hotel, scheduled to begin late this spring, as well as the plan to construct a property on Seven Mile Island, once the proper assessments are complete. There is certainly no shortage of community related projects for Kelly to be involved in.
Over the past twenty years, the Mississaugas of Scugog Island have given $32 million to the people of Durham Region and Scugog Township. As a nation, the Mississaugas of Scugog have opted out of selling Cannabis, which is a major step forward for the community.
The Mississaugas of Scugog Island are part of the Ojibwa, who are an Anishinaabe people of Canada and the United States. They are one of the most numerous indigenous peoples north of the Rio Grande. In Canada, they are the second largest First Nations population.
Her training as a lawyer gives her the amazing ability to petition on behalf of her people. Kelly has accomplished a great deal in the past five years. I asked if she was thinking of running for another term; her answer was simple: “As long as the people will have me.”
Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award-winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. His show, ‘The Jonathan van Bilsen Show,’ on RogersTV, the Standard Website or YouTube, features many of the people included in this column.