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Digging up Indigenous: history in Toronto's cityscape.

LIKE MANY CITIES IN THE AMERICAS, Toronto is built on the ideotogical foundation of conquest, ownership and capitalism. As capitalist development accelerates, communities and the landscape continue to disappear and are built over. Searching the land for an Indigenous history in a city that perpetually transforms is a daunting and difficult task.

The Indigenous history of the land is situated in many conflicting stories from historians, archaeologists, Indigenous nations and competing ethnic groups, with all of these associations wanting to lay claim to the area and link their knowledge to the territory. As well, there are numerous groups who seek to create an exciting, exotic and romantic history in order to satisfy tourism and promote interest in Toronto. Within this complicated mix, how do we push aside bloated egos, distorted "facts" and competing knowledges for the area? First, by remembering that history is a version of stories that are approached from different perspectives, knowledges and worldviews; and second, by digging up as much information and artifacts as possible. Either of these suggestions poses a challenge for the person who has a general interest in understanding the city space they live in.

Omission of Language, Omission of History

To illustrate, take a walk with me through the area of Baby Point--named after James Baby, a member of the French elite--located in the west end of Toronto, a few blocks north of Bloor and west of Jane. To ground yourself in the space, try to imagine a massive stone gate constructed in two-hundred-year-old maples, which marks the entrance of Baby Point and the intersection of Jane and Annette--said to be the names of James Baby's children. An alternative story is that these are the names of two best friends who wanted to be beside one another for eternity. Baby Point includes a park around the Humber River, a national heritage river that runs into Lake Ontario. This river is one of the major water flows to enter into take Ontario, and has been used as a route for Indigenous peoples, traders and settlers. The area around the river and Baby Point is named the Toronto Carrying Place, which is part of a trail from Lake Simcoe to Lake Ontario that has been used for thousands of years. The only evidence that marks this space is a tiny plaque on the ground, written in English and French. The omission of an Indigenous language or history represents an injustice of the space and to the unrecognized Indigenous groups.

Walking through Baby Point's stately homes and massive old-growth trees, we find a path tucked away between two huge lots that brings us down some stairs along a giant ridge, down to the Humber River, small ravines and the area that once was a Seneca Village named Teieiagon. The village was named after its natural benefits as a bridge allowing people to cross the river at its low point. There was a sister village on the Rouge River, on the east side of the city, named Ganatsekwyagon. Both these villages were populated with around five thousand people, who farmed and set up longhouses with Erie/Neutral and Seneca. In Teieiagon there were Mohawks. By 1687 both villages were deserted--or the inhabitants were chased out by the knowledge of the advancing French General Denville, who was burning and destroying Seneca villages in upper-state New York.

Although some sources indicate that the general destroyed the village of Teieiagon, other sources state that the Seneca left, as they knew the General was on his way. The area described was ripe for settlement due to its fertile ground, running river water and valley-like situation, well set up to protect the area from intruders. The desirability of this geographic space has resulted in numerous war stories of the Seneca, Wendat and Iroquois engaging in bloody battles for control of the location. There is little evidence, however, to prove these allegations, as this could be the sensationalized version precipitated by colonial settlers about Indigenous groups being violent and uncivilized.

Encroachments of Development

While the specific dates and timelines of settlement by various groups remain contested, there is no debate regarding Seneca occupation of the land. This is validated by the recent unearthing of a burial site of a Seneca woman that has been dated back to the seventeenth century. This finding was initiated by property development, and the woman was moved to a nearby but different location. This represented a controversial decision, since there are no re-burial practices for the Seneca. The decision to move the site was, however, based on Six Nations Council; it remains a contested issue, as capitalism and development plague the cityscape with more burial sites being dug up to make space for an encroaching urban landscape.

Continuing our walk through the forested area we encounter another important marker of Indigenous history disguised within the landscape. It's called a thunderbird mound. In Indigenous history, the thunderbird is a Large bird that produces the sound of thunder when it flaps its wings. It controls the rain and the weather systems. Some of the mounds found in Toronto could be up to 8,000 years old. Thunderbird mounds have great magnetic force, as they control the weather, and this was evident while standing near or on it. People from the village of Teieiagon stood on top of it to see weather systems and to communicate to other villages or people close by.

Ownership battles continue over space and history between the first groups of settlers erasing Indigenous history. There are different versions of history, and there is a strong force from the French to hold onto and keep alive French history in an Anglo-dominated space Like Toronto. There is a hot debate as to whether the French trader Etienne Brule was the first "white" man to discover both the Humber River and Lake Ontario, as he travelled southward on the Humber River while seeking a shortcut to Detroit in 1613. The area around the Humber River is named Etienne Brule Park--an homage to the "first" white person to "discover" this spot. Another reason the French have a historical presence in the area is the large tract of land on the east bank of the Humber River, which in 1S20 was granted to or purchased by James Baby. There are also sources that claim that one of Baby's grandparents was from Six Nations. As with all such claims, the evidence is conflicting.

The Toronto Purchase: Disputed Stories

By 1750 the Mississaugas, who are Anishnawbek, would have moved into the area,. Most of the people came around the same time as the British and French traders and settlers. There are conflicting viewpointson the timeframe and the purpose of the Mississau-gas' arrival, as it is linked to land rights. In the late eighteenth century, the Mississauga nation was occupying the area to be arranged into Toronto, and in 1787 the government paid the Mississauga Mation [pounds sterling]1700 in cash and goods to acquire the land to open the way for Euro-American settlement. This transaction was called the Toronto Purchase. To date, this land transfer is an ongoing process of legitimizing the official stories surrounding it. The Mississauga Nation disputes it.


In a capitalist cityscape, it is difficult to remove history that is entrenched in ownership, land rights and the need a historical presence. The lack of Indigenous history and presence in Toronto can be well understood, as the space is marked to perform development and industrialization of the area, erasing and burying Indigenous people's links to past and present.
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Author:Nacam, Julie
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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