The Kingston region lost a “force of nature” on the evening of Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, as Laurel Claus-Johnson began her spirit journey.
Grandmother Laurel, as she was known to many, was a Bear Clan woman of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte who moved to Kingston in 1986 and attended Queen’s University as a law student for a year and a half. Although she did not complete her law degree, she was passionate about humanitarian and environmental law and became an indispensable member of the Kataro’kwi (Kingston) Indigenous community, tirelessly advocating for traditional ways of knowing, human rights, and the environment.
“Grandmother Laurel-Ba was the first person in the Kataro’kwi Indigenous community that felt like family to me. Calling her Grandma came easy and naturally,” recalls Taylor Tye, a Queen’s Education student and freelance writer who served as Co-Editor in Chief, Queen’s Journal of Indigenous Studies, explaining that in Ojibwe teaching, « ba » is added to the name as a sign of respect when someone has passed, so that their spirit doesn’t get stuck on Earth.
“She was everywhere, always involved, always doing her part with great love… telling people she loved them and pointing out the good she saw in them,” Tye continues. “She encouraged us all to be kind to the earth and to be kind to one another… that’s a brilliant teaching to leave behind for us to carry with us. That is to know Sken:nen. Nía:wen Akshótha Laurel.”
At the Kingston City Council meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, Mayor Bryan Paterson recognized Grandmother Laurel’s passing with a motion of condolence: “Over the years, Laurel supported and advised the City on many matters, often reminding staff and Council that the words we speak carry our intents and should be chosen with care. As just one example of this teaching in action, Laurel helped to write the recognition statement that is read at the start of each Council meeting, the words that bring us together with humility, respect, and love. Laurel was tireless in her community work and will live on in the contributions she made and through the family and friends she leaves behind.”
Chrystal Wilson, community organizer and founder of Our Livable Solutions, remembers Claus-Johnson as a friend with great compassion for the unhoused. “During the Belle Park encampment of June 2020, Grandmother Laurel was not satisfied with reading about the situation from others, she had to hear from residents herself. She spent multiple days listening and learning everyone’s stories and tasked me with keeping her updated on the outcomes of all of the individuals she had met. Grandmother Laurel became one of our trusted advisors: sharing insights, making connections, and always looking for opportunities to assist people experiencing homelessness. Her compassion for others was unmatched, her persistence was admirable, and her vision for what could be was always beautiful, kind, and full of hope. Laurel’s involvement always improved outcomes. I will miss Laurel’s presence, her midnight phone calls, off-the-beaten-path adventures, and unwavering support.”
Maureen Buchanan of the Kingston Indigenous Languages Nest says she knew “Laurel-ba” for 30 years. “She was someone who had endless energy to push and insist that the urban Indigenous community existed — that we needed our cultural ways to find one another, to heal, and to create our community, in real time. She had big ideas, and through sheer determination and by surrounding herself with determined women, she and they made the improbable happen. Her volunteerism was staggering. Her vision, sometimes controversial, came from that place of longing for the promise of a vibrant Indigenous community. I’m pretty sure many people would say she was a force of nature. She could be a very ‘Inconvenient Indian.’”
Councillor Jim Neill recalls receiving calls from Claus-Johnson during Planning and Council meetings where she would give him advice on how to vote. “I would see that she was calling, and I’d take the call because she was always really, really good at making suggestions… She was a really important member of the First Nations community and an important person in the city, and I’m going to miss those calls.”
Grandmother Laurel was also a fierce advocate for nature, according to Buchanan. “Most recently, I think the trees would say she was their relative, seeing them when many others hadn’t the eyes yet. Laurel felt her kinship with the twin maple trees outside her window… and that very old ‘grandmother oak’ [at the site of the Davis Tannery]. I’m pretty sure [those trees] inspired Laurel-ba to push and insist that we wake up to our kinship with the trees and all our relations.”
Indeed, Neill remembers she even talked about chaining herself in her wheelchair to the fence in front of the 200-year-old “grandmother oak” to prevent it from being cut down — her determination and presence were not to be doubted.
Laurel Claus-Johnson was “a larger-than-life vibrant force,” recalls Mary Farrar, president of Friends of Kingston Inner Harbour.
“She had the sort of presence that politicians respected,” says Farrar. “They listened and reflected whenever she spoke. Her voice will be missed.”
Editorial note: In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that Taylor Tye, a source in this article, is also a writer with Kingstonist.