Indigenous History of Toronto Parks
November 10, 2017
Recently, Park People staff and many community park groups embarked on an Indigenous tour of Toronto’s eastern neighbourhoods. For many of us, it was the first time we came to understand how Indigenous people fit into the narrative of the land that the city of Toronto now occupies.
First Story Toronto, the organization that led the bus tour, has been researching and preserving the Indigenous history of Toronto to bring awareness to Indigenous contributions to the city since 1995. We started out by learning the names of the many Indigenous nations: the Wendat, Haudenosaunee Confederacy (Six Nations), and Mississaugas of New Credit First nation, that lived on this territory in succession long before the arrival of Europeans.
We learned much more on the Indigenous tour which is highlighted here:
Many sites on the Don
Photo Credit: Viv Lynch
Torontonians today are not the first to appreciate the incredible vistas overlooking the Don Valley. Some village sites along the Don River have been occupied for the last 4000 years. These villages and camps offered an excellent vantage point to see the comings and goings of animals and people along the trail that once extended all the way to Lake Simcoe along the bank of the Don River.
Photo Credit: Jon Hayes
Indigenous landscapes still punctuate Toronto’s ecosystems. The oak savannahs of High Park, the Beaches and Rosedale were managed continuously for thousands of years by the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, Wendat peoples and their ancestors. Oak savannahs were created and managed using fire to prevent new understory plants from establishing, leaving an open landscape punctuated with large oak or beech trees. This made it easier to hunt and grow different plant species. The first peoples in the region called the now Don River by the name of Wonscotonach (one of the names of the Don River), which means “bright burning area,” referring to the management technique practiced there.
Before the cement paths were laid and before the European newcomers stepped foot on what is now called Toronto, Indigenous peoples walked these lands and created multiple trails around the Toronto area. One example is Davenport road which follows the base of the bluffs where the former shoreline of Lake Ontario was situated 13,000 years ago. This trail connected all the way to Hamilton on the west side and to Kingston, Ontario on the east. Next time you’re walking on an old winding road in Toronto, ask yourself if this could have been a First Nations trail.
Plan of Dundas Street, created in 1795 by Surveyor General D.W. Smith, (Ontario Archives)
The Indigenous word Gete-Onigaming, which means old portage trail, is included in the Davenport Road street sign at Spadina Road. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)
Tabor Hill Park holds a sacred and ancient history. In 1950’s when Scarborough was being developed, a Wendat burial site was uncovered. When moving their villages, the Wendat peoples (who the Europeans called the Huron) practiced a special burial ceremony. They dug out individual graves, cleaned each of the bones thoroughly, had a celebration where they dug and filled a trench with the mixed bones. The mound was created when earth was laid on top to cover the bones. These mounds can be found in different areas across Toronto, when you encounter one it is important to remember you are in the presence of a sacred space.
John Johnson from First Story shared one interpretation of the mound: where the mound represents Mother Earth’s womb where death can become re-birth in the cycle of life.
During our stop at Guild Park in Scarborough, we encountered a piece of the Temple Building from the independent order of foresters, once located in downtown Toronto. Here began the story of Dr. Oronhytekha. Dr. Oronhytekha was a Mohawk who attended a residential school. He started his university education at England’s Oxford University but was unable to finish because he had not received permission from the Church of England’s agent to leave his reserve. He persevered with his medical studies and became Canada’s second Indigenous doctor and the first non-white member and a Supreme Chief Ranger of the Independent Order of Foresters.
While he had spent much time in a Victorian society, Dr. Oronhytekha maintained a strong connection to his Indigenous roots and advocated for Indigenous peoples’ right to vote and for women to be treated more fairly. When he passed away in 1907 his body laid in state for 3-4 days and over 10,000 people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people paid their respects. To learn more about his story, check First Story’s blog.
We want to thank First Story, a program at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto devoted to researching and sharing Toronto’s Indigenous heritage through a variety of popular educational initiatives and our guides Jon Johnson and Amber Sandy for sharing such important histories of the past and present indigenous history in Toronto.
For more information visit First Story’s website for information on free tours, download their app, or have them lead a tour for your organization!