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From the Thunderbird bridge flying over Humber Bay to the remains of a Huron-Wendat village in Scarborough, the city’s remarkable Indigenous history is everywhere
When we think of the Indigenous history of Toronto we tend to think of the Toronto Purchase or the Huron story of how Toronto got its name as a centre of commerce and “meeting place.”
The reality, however, is not so romantic. Turns out, Toronto actually got its name from the Mohawk, Tkaronto, which translates to “where there are trees in the water,” a reference to the weirs constructed in Lake Ontario and its waterways by the Iroquois (or Haudenosaunee) and other Indigenous peoples to catch fish.
French missionaries reportedly continued the tradition of calling the place Tkaronto when they arrived in the early 1600s, naming a fort established around the foot of the Humber Fort Tkaronto.
But that all changed when the British arrived in the late 1700s. And like the monuments that would later be erected to pay homage to the members of the Family Compact that made up the establishment, Tkaronto would officially become the Town of York.
By then, as many as four different First Nations had lived in the area for millennia, even before the building of the great pyramids in Egypt.
Conventional wisdom is that the New World was a mostly barren, wild place when settlers arrived to “tame” the frontier, and that its Indigenous inhabitants mostly killed each other off in savage wars. The truth is more complicated.
The Indigenous population of southern Ontario in 500 CE was believed to be around 12,000 people.
The Huron, the Seneca and other nations had complex societies with sophisticated systems of governance. They signed nation-to-nation treaties with the settlers. Most of the agreements would be forgotten or simply ignored by colonialists in the name of expansion. Indigenous peoples were starved into submission and their children forced into residential schools as part of a genocidal campaign of assimilation. More Canadians are starting to understand – and finally acknowledge – the legacy of that history in the wake of the recent discovery of mass graves of children at the former residential schools.
Tkaronto has become known as Toronto The Good. But it’s got one mean history when it comes to recognizing the Indigenous peoples who were here before us.
As Nelly Volpert Knizhnik writes in her academic article Re/making The ‘Meeting Place’ – Transforming Toronto’s Public Spaces Through Creative Placemaking, Indigenous Story And Planning: “While there is a visible shift in our ‘public memory’ and ceremonial celebrations of that missing past, the physical representation of the actual historic sites remains both inadequate and challenging.”
From the Thunderbird bridge flying high over Humber Bay to the remains of a Huron-Wendat village in Scarborough, the city’s remarkable Indigenous history is being brought to light. Here are the stories behind 10 places that you may not know.
(On the Martin Goodman Trail at Sir Casimir Gzowski Park)
The Humber River holds a special place in Tkaronto’s Indigenous lore. Its wide banks provided salmon and a direct trading route all the way to Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay. For more than 200 years, the Ojibway lived and hunted in the area now occupied by the cycle and pedestrian bridge connecting Sir Casimir Gzowski Park to the eastern half of Humber Bay Park. Digs have unearthed artifacts in the area that originated from Indigenous peoples of the Ohio Valley, the Gulf of Mexico, the western plains and the Pacific coast, as well as evidence of longhouses.
Designed by Montgomery Sisam Architects and opened in 1996, its white arches were inspired by “an abstracted version of the Thunderbird,” the seer of all things. (If you squint just right, it appears to take flight in the sunset.) Embedded in the concrete, fossil-like, are the turtles, snakes and salmon that were aplenty in the area until the arrival of industrialization and the pollution that came with it.
It was here at the mouth of the river in 1615 that the first explorer – Frenchman and “wandering scoundrel” Étienne Brûlé, who had befriended the Huron – crossed the “Toronto Passage” on his way to the United States via the Niagara River. There’s a park named after him that straddles the section of the Humber between Old Mill and Baby Point where the salmon still run in the fall.
Brûlé is venerated by historians for living among the “Indians,” but as Hayden King shares in Rising Like A Cloud: New Histories Of Old Toronto, “evidence of his hero status is bolstered by stereotypes.” But that’s another story. By the late 1800s, the salmon that were so plentiful here that you could walk across their backs from one side of the Humber to the other would be gone.
(Indian Mound Crescent at Lawrence and Bellamy)
Scarborough is not usually a place that’s associated with Indigenous history. It was known mostly as an agricultural area when it was established in the late 1790s until well into the 20th century when barely 3,700 people occupied the area.
However, the jagged bluffs along its southern edge rising 100 metres above Lake Ontario tell a different story – that of an ancient lake carved out of the Ice Age that once rose here and an Indigenous presence that goes back to the 14th century.
On August 17, 1956, during the construction of a subdivision, a steam shovel began levelling a 20-metre high mound. A Huron-Wendat (Wyandot) burial ground containing the remains of some 470 people was discovered. On a grassy hill overlooking Tabor Hill Park, a giant rock marks the spot.
The remains were first thought to have been part of a mass funeral. But the Huron-Wendat were also known to leave their dead on scaffolds in the forest until their bodies decomposed. Their bones would later be collected, cleaned and reburied in mass pits in ceremonies known as Feasts of the Dead.
Gus Harris, the mayor at the time, suggested the discovery was not an Indian burial ground at all but one from the cholera epidemic of the late 1800s. The Royal Ontario Museum’s assistant curator of ethnology Walter Kenyon was called in to assess the situation. His examination uncovered a second burial site, which he described as “the most significant ethnological discovery in Canada’s history.”
That same year, the remains of an Iroquois village were excavated just west of Tabor Hill at Brimley. Further north off Kennedy just south of Steeles, evidence of another 14th-century village was uncovered in 2000 during preparation for a new subdivision along Highland Creek. The Alexandra site, as it was known, yielded evidence of 17 structures (believed to be houses) and an astounding 19,000 artifacts in a 2-hectare area.
A three-day ceremony that brought First Nations leaders from across Canada marked reburial of the bodies discovered at Tabor Hill in 1961.
(16 Spadina Road)
There’s a popular colonial belief in Canada that most Indigenous peoples live on remote reserves. But in fact, cities are home to the largest Indigenous communities in Canada. Like immigrants from abroad, Indigenous people were part of the post-Second World War migration to Canada’s urban centres.
But unlike their immigrant counterparts, there weren’t many places in the city where Indigenous peoples could go for kinship or help. The Native Canadian Centre of Toronto provided one of the first permanent meeting places, starting as a friendship centre on Church in 1962 before moving into the former Bible College building on Spadina in 1976. The idea for a community gathering place was born out of a resistance to assimilation as well as a desire to preserve Indigenous culture.
Four years after its official opening, a 12-metre totem donated by Saskatchewan artist Don McLeay was erected on the front lawn of the building. The totem was not just a beacon and symbol of strength and pride for Toronto’s Aboriginal communities; it also served to represent the coming together of the different Indigenous clans, as seen by the different animals on the totem.
It was a rough-and-tumble time for “city Indians,” many of them still suffering the trauma from residential schools and now living in places far from home and teeming with racism.
But besides providing friendship and a support network, the centre’s mandate was also to “nurture Indigenous knowledge.” Today, a special collection of Indigenous work sold by the NCCT to the city in 1980 forms part of that knowledge as one of the city’s biggest collections of native materials at the Toronto Public Library’s Spadina branch just down the street. The work to spread knowledge continues through language and other programs offered at the centre.
In the book Aboriginal Peoples In Canadian Cities: Transformations And Continuities, Heather Howard-Bobiwash explains why the centre is so important to Toronto’s Indigenous community: “I came into contact with Indians from other parts of Ontario and other provinces. I found out that there were a lot of Indians working to help their own people… That is Indians helping Indians – it’s not the same as white do-gooders! Indians who have lived in the city know what it’s all about. City Indians had really good ideas about how to help their people adjust to city life.”
(789 Don Mills)
While the Don Valley holds a special place in Tkaronto’s Indigenous history, the lobby of the Independent Order of Foresters (IOF) in Don Mills is as unlikely a place as any to find a marker of a remarkable chapter in Indigenous history.
There stands the life-sized bronze of Oronhyatekha, aka Burning Cloud, aka Dr. O, aka Peter Martin. The statue was commissioned to mark the opening of the Temple Building on Bay and Richmond in 1897. The 10-storey building, one of Toronto’s first skyscrapers, was the original home of the IOF, a U.S.-based fraternal order and “white males only” club. Oronhyatekha would become the exception to the rule, turning the IOF into one of the most successful financial institutions in the world as the group’s first Supreme Chief Ranger.
O belonged to a number of fraternal orders, including the Orange Order. But while his alias afforded a certain amount of cover in Victorian society, he never forgot his Indigenous roots growing up on the Grand River on the Tyendinaga reserve and his time at the Mohawk Institute residential school where he trained as a cobbler.
At 14, fate intervened when an agent for the Church of England travelling through the reserve determined O was “educable.” He took O to Wesleyan Academy in Massachusetts and Kenyon College in Ohio, where he completed his religious studies, presumably to enter the clergy.
But O had other ideas, going on to study medicine at the University of Toronto where he obtained a medical degree. There he joined Company 9 of the Queen’s Own Rifles, the militia unit that would fight at the Battle of Ridgeway in the 1866 Fenian Raids.
O returned to the reserve of his youth where another twist of fate would occur when he was chosen to deliver the welcoming address to a visiting Prince of Wales. The prince’s physician was reportedly taken with O and invited him to study at Oxford. O would attend for one semester but was forced to return. Apparently, he had not obtained permission from the Church of England’s agent to leave the reserve. The bonds of colonialism could not keep him down for long, though. His medical practice advertising “Indian cures and herbal medicine” caught the attention of John A. Macdonald, and O was appointed consulting physician for the Mohawks at Tyendinaga. O would live out his last days on Carlton in Toronto, lying in state at Massey Hall before a train was commissioned to return his body to Tyendinaga. The plaque dedicated to O in Allan Gardens reads that he married Ellen Hill, a great-granddaughter of Joseph Brant, aka Thayendanegea, the Mohawk military leader who led Mohawks against rebels during the American Revolutionary War.
(275 Spadina Road)
Gete-Onigaming, is the Ojibway word for “old portage trail.”
More than 13,000 years ago, Davenport Road followed the same line of the bluffs that formed the shoreline of mighty Lake Iroquois. The trail extended all the way west to Hamilton harbour and east to Kingston. Evidence of settlements along the route date back some 11,000 years when nomads fished and hunted caribou, mastodon and mammoth.
In colonial times, the trail provided a link to the major trading routes of the Humber, Don and Rouge. The Toronto Islands provided a resting place and safe harbour for weary travellers and traders. Casa Loma at the top of Spadina sits on a former Mississauga council ground. Spadina comes from the Anishnabe term “Ishpaadina,” meaning “the clump of land you see out there,” a reference to the Toronto Islands, which are visible from here.
The lands around the lake were home of five founding nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas and Senecas), who would later move into the Toronto area during the 17th century.
But the construction of Fort York in 1793, which created a permanent military base in Tkaronto (then York), would make it a focus of economic activity in the area – and later – a flashpoint for war in 1812.
Conventional wisdom is that colonists dominated the area. But there were barely 700 inhabitants in York. The Senecas, who controlled the trade routes along the Humber and Rouge, were being replaced in the region by Algonkian speakers from central Ontario, who would dominate the history of the region to the end of the 18th century.
But the Algonkian Mississaugas, as they would come to be known, did little farming. Instead, they were hunter-gatherers, living in seasonal settlements, and catching salmon. A huge wave of British immigration following the American Revolutionary War would soon follow and change everything.
Her father was an Ojibway chief and her mother of English-Irish-Scottish descent. When Verna Patronella Johnston moved from Cape Croker reserve on the Bruce Peninsula to Toronto in 1965, she didn’t plan to stay long. She had followed two of her granddaughters who would be attending business school and wanted to be there for them for provide a support system. They lived in a walk-up on Broadview right across from the Riverdale Zoo.
But other Indigenous girls who were being fostered by white families were not so lucky to have a support system. They increasingly found themselves spending time at Johnston’s Broadview apartment. It was a place where Johnston was affectionately known as “grandma” and Indigenous young people could eat the food familiar to them and feel more connected to their culture.
By 1966, three more of Johnston’s granddaughters had arrived in Toronto, and the apartment became too small to accommodate the Johnston family and comings and goings of other kids.
As fate would have it, Johnston would end up moving into a former farm house in leafy North Toronto on Blythwood Road, thanks to a chance meeting.
As she relates in a 1982 interview: “There was an old gentleman here in Toronto and he found out I was here. He was in a mental hospital at 999 [Queen West], but all his life he had come to Cape Croker for holidays. His name was Mr. Ramsey and his grandfather was old John Fisher who was once mayor of Toronto. He lived on Blythwood Road. He lived in the old farmhouse. All his assets went to a public trustee. And he asked that I be allowed to live in the house for as long as he lived. And so I moved there and before I knew it I had a boarding house for Indian girls.”
Blythwood House would become the first boarding home for Indigenous girls in Toronto, with Johnston serving as foster mother and mentor. Soon it would also invite boys. After Ramsey died in 1972, the home was moved to a former Ryerson residence on McGill Street. But with Johnston’s health failing it would close a year later. There were plans to establish another boarding house in Cape Croker to help stem the flow of Indigenous children who were increasingly being placed with white foster families by Children’s Aid societies. But the former French missionary building found by Johnston in Cape Croker would be destroyed by fire. Johnston would go back and forth between Toronto eventually returning for good to work at a hostel for women.
Indigenous author George Kenny writes in a tribute to Johnston that young Verna was as “solemn as an owl” and with “earnestness that remained a dominant characteristic through a hard yet good life.”
Remnants of what the landscape of Tkaranto looked like before the arrival of French and British colonizers can be seen today in our parks and ravines.
The oak savannahs of High Park and the forests that used to surround the Beaches and Rosedale areas were managed by Indigenous peoples to attract wildlife and encourage the growth of plants used for medicine.
The area now occupied by David Balfour Park was referred to as “mishkodae,” or prairie, by the Mississaugas, for whom it was an important hunting ground for muskrat, duck and deer. Goldenrod, which was used by Indigenous peoples to make medicinal tea, still grows there.
The First Peoples in the area, which included the Wendat, Haudenosaunee Confederacy and Mississaugas, used controlled burns to keep the forest floor from being overtaken by undergrowth all throughout the Lower Don River, which connects today to David Balfour via the Park Drive Reservation Trail. For that reason, they called the Don River “Wonscotonach,” which means “bright burning area” or “black burnt country.”
Other historical interpretations, however, suggests the name refers to the practice of spearing of salmon by torchlight on the river by the Mississaugas, who occupied a seasonal settlement in the area. In 2018, the city’s parks committee passed a motion to rename the area of the Lower Don to Wonscotonach Parklands as part of the city’s reconciliation efforts.
If you stand at the Mount Pleasant Road entrance of David Balfour Park (at Roxborough) and look north, you can still make out the ridge of the lower plain of what used to be a hunting area south of Summerhill. Further north, St. Clair marks the line of what used to be the upper plain. There the present-day Deer Park neighbourhood gets its name from the deer that were plentiful in the area until well into the 1800s.
(93 Front East)
The St. Lawrence Market building has been an epicentre of the city’s history since the first ships began arriving in Toronto Harbour in the early 1800s. The original wood structure was built in 1820. Beginning in 1845, the building housed the city’s first city hall and jailhouse in the basement. It is said that the screams of prisoners could be heard on the street. Some were hanged there. But in August of 1796, a different horror threatened to undo the uneasy piece between colonialists and Mississaugas of the nearby Credit.
It was here that Chief Wabakinine, a signatory to the Toronto Purchase years earlier, was murdered while on a trip with his wife and sister to sell salmon at the market.
Wabakinine and the women were sleeping underneath their canoes near the market resting for the journey back in the morning when their camp was set upon by three men. Among them was a soldier, Charles McCuen, who had encountered Wabakinine’s sister earlier in the day. He reportedly offered her some rum and a dollar and had asked her for “certain favours.” He was rebuffed and had returned that night to seek revenge. A violent confrontation broke out during which Wabakinine was repeatedly hit with a rock on the head and left unconscious. He would die on the journey home. His wife died several weeks later from her injuries. Throughout the winter months that followed “the organization of a rebellion appeared to have begun,” writes Donald B. Smith in the Dictionary Of Canadian Biography.
The Mississaugas approached Mohawk military leader Joseph Brant about seeking revenge. The plan was to attack a British garrison at York. But Brant talked them out of it.
McCuen would eventually be tried, but it was mostly just a show trial. He would be acquitted for “lack of evidence.”
Historians have concluded that the death of Wabakinine dispelled the popular myth that colonizers and Indigenous peoples lived in relative harmony following the signing of treaties.
On the contrary, as Smith describes, the genocide was already underway after lands were relinquished by the Mississaugas in the Toronto Purchase.
“Hundreds of American immigrants began farming in the surrendered territory and made the Mississaugas’ lives a nightmare: farmers threatened to shoot the Indians for ‘trespassing’; vandals desecrated their graves; epidemics against which the band had no immunity reduced its population from over 500 to roughly 350 between 1787 and 1798.”
There would also be no avenging Wabakinine’s death.
(100 Queen’s Park)
When it reopened in 2018, visitors to the ROM’s Daphne Cockwell Gallery dedicated to Indigenous art were given pea-sized pebble and tobacco tied in yellow fabric. Rocks were important to Indigenous peoples for the making of tools. Tobacco is used for ceremonial purposes as well as in prayer. At the gallery’s rededication, Josh Basseches, the ROM’s director, asked: “What does it mean to be a museum in the 21st century?”
It’s an important question for cultural institutions in Canada in general, and the ROM in particular, which had come under criticism for its “exoticization” of Indigenous culture – and, as the Toronto Star’s former art critic Murray Whyte wrote in his review of the reopening, “the deadening of First Nations culture under glass.”
More than 1,000 artifacts make up the collection, which is one of the largest of Indigenous art outside the McMichael. They include Sitting Bull’s “war bonnet” and paintings by Paul Kane, who spent eight years traversing Upper Canada and the northwest to learn about Indigenous cultures.
The idea of learning from Canada’s First Peoples in the spirit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call for “inter-cultural understanding, empathy and mutual respect,” was also part of the reimagining of the gallery. In that vein, the ROM solicited advice from Indigenous communities.
The museum’s diorama depicting Mohawk domestic life, for example, which had been criticized for omitting Mohawk contributions to Indigenous peoples’ intellectual and spiritual existence, was updated to include the tools of modern technology, including an iPad. A plaque next to the display with the words from George Erasmus, former chief of the Assembly of First Nations, explains the addition: “You have a phrase called ‘Golden Age.’ We do not want to be depicted the way we were, when we were first discovered in our homeland in North America. We do not want museums to continue to present us as something from the past. We believe we are very, very much here now, and we are going to be very important in the future.”
(Underneath Old Mill subway station bridge)
Indigenous peoples used pictographs to tell their history. One recreated 80 years ago by James Red Sky on birch bark recounts the Anishinaabe Creation Story. It begins with four figures representing the four nations around a sacred fire and notes the migration of tribes west to Minnesota and north of Superior upon arrival of the colonizers, who are referred to as “square thinkers,” for their penchant of carving up land for private ownership.
Underneath the Old Mill subway station in a wind-blown section of King’s Mill Park, the Anishinaabe Creation Story is told in a series of 10 murals, each of them painted in circles on concrete pillars holding up the bridge. There’s a reason for that. Cote says that in Indigenous culture “Everything is connected. Our world is circular. We don’t put things in boxes.”
The panels explore humankind’s arrival, Indigenous peoples’ links to the spirit world and the role of nature in the 13,500-plus year history of Indigenous people on Turtle Island. The mural project takes its name from the resurgent power of nature. Cote says that Indigenous peoples took their cue on how to live on the planet from the animals around them, which is why they moved to hunting grounds in the summer, and places where they were protected from the elements in winter. Western cultures, on the other hand, tend to see the planet as theirs for the taking. “Human beings are not at the apex of life,” says Cote. “Bees are more important than humans. If they were gone there would be no food.”
The work also symbolizes the importance of learning from Indigenous teachings, which according to Anishinaabe tradition says we are now entering the era of the lighting of the fire of the 8th prophecy. That prophecy tells the story of Indigenous and western cultures retracing our historical footsteps to create “a golden age of peace.” But the prophecy says that it all depends on whether the road we take is the road of reconciliation or of destruction.
Cote says the choice is not necessarily between “good and bad” but between living in the spiritual versus the physical world “and taking responsibility for how we look at our planet. We’re in the early footsteps of telling our own story. We haven’t been asked for a lot of reasons. But the original truth is not in Europe.”
Hidden Toronto is a weekly feature exploring the city’s alternative history through contemporary landmarks.