Events that strengthen ties between park groups and Indigenous groups
How can we apply an Indigenous lens when looking at opportunities for place-making within our City parks? The collaborative events hosted by Toronto Island and Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nations (MNCFN) Friendship Group demonstrate how to foster relationships that build trust and engagement in public spaces so that multiple histories can co-exist.
The Toronto Island is a beautiful gathering place any time one’s lucky enough to visit. But there was a special feeling in the air when Toronto Island and Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nations (MNCFN) Friendship Group joined together for the first of three events supported through the TD Park People Grant program.
The groups’ relationship to the Islands:
Forced inland from their Traditional Territory along the lakeshore, the Mississaugas were separated from a key component of their livelihood when they no longer had immediate access to water. The Mississaugas remain adaptive and resilient, describing themselves as a “thriving and vibrant community.” They have no desire to displace those who currently inhabit their traditional lands, but they do, of course, seek closure for past grievances and ultimately reconciliation. The Toronto Islands are a part of the Mississaugas’ Treaty Lands.
Those currently living on the Island know that they can’t undo the past, but are interested in forging a strong relationship with the Mississaugas. “I think that once you start to build a friendship, then you start to come up with ideas of how you can work together,” says Islander David Smiley. He says that he understands that the Mississaugas are deeply connected to and invested in the Island. He hopes that, going forward, the two groups will not only be friends, but also political allies, working together to reimagine the future of the Islands.
While the flag-raising event was the first official collaboration between the Toronto Islanders and the MNCFN, there has been a long-standing connection between these two groups. Smiley says that he has had an enduring friendship with Elder Garry Sault. The two have stayed in touch over the years and Smiley, along with other Islanders, has attended several Mississauga events in New Credit, a reserve near Brantford, Ontario.
It was through Elder Garry Sault that Smiley met Chief R. Stacey Laforme. The Mississaugas and the Toronto Islanders exchanged flags last winter in a gesture of mutual respect and appreciation. When the Toronto Friendship Group learned about the TD Park People Grant program a few months later, they saw an opportunity to further cultivate the relationship with the Mississauga band through a series of joint events. After some conversation, three events were planned.
“From what I’ve been told, the Island was a sacred space for all nations as a gathering place,” says Caitlin Laforme, “but it bears particular significance to the Mississaugas as part of our Treaty Land.”
Laforme hadn’t been out to the Island in a few years before the flag raising ceremony. Returning to the Island after being away for such an extended time, she experienced a feeling of comfort and belonging that she describes as being “like coming home.” She goes on to say, “the Islanders were so welcoming; we could feel that from the moment we got off the ferry.” This would not have been possible if the groups had not built up a level of mutual respect and trust.
Sharing as a means of building ties:
The mandate for the newly formed Toronto Island and MNCFN Friendship Group, articulated in their TD Park People Grant application, is to organize public events that provide these two communities with opportunities to learn from and with each other in order to form stronger social and cultural ties. These events have an explicit goal to spark meaningful conversations between the two groups. Sharing is central to these efforts. These groups came together to share tradition, share food, share stories and most importantly to celebrate their shared appreciation, love and respect for the Island.
The day started with a potluck lunch provided by the Islanders, “Food is always a great way to share culture and to start the process of bringing new people together,” said Smiley. Laforme described an encounter with a little girl, about the same age as her own children, who was quite keen to have her sample the cornbread that she had worked hard to prepare for the potluck. This was a subtle but heartwarming example of the kind of bonding and enthusiastic sharing that was common at the event.
Laforme says that food is always a part of the Mississaugas culture, and by providing the potluck lunch, the Islanders played an important part in the traditional ceremonies of the day. Smoked trout was served, as a traditional food to accompany the water ceremony that was to follow. The serving of fish was a symbolic celebration of the bounty of the water.
After the potluck, everyone walked together to Ward’s Beach where the water ceremony was conducted by Debbie Denard. Everyone stood in a large circle along the waterfront. Curious beach-goers tentatively stepped forward and were invited to join in as the ceremony began with a ritual smudging. A dried and smoldering braid of sweetgrass was carried around the circle, and each person wafted the sweet-smelling smoke over themselves.
“Smudging brings people together in the moment,” Laforme says, “as the smoke washes over you, it cleanses away any lingering negativity so that you can enter into the ceremony with a clear mind and a good heart.”
Words to a traditional song were shared, and together everyone sang out over the lake to honour the water and give thanks. The importance of water was underlined as Chief Laforme read his poems, one of which was entitled “Mother” and spoke to everyone’s shared responsibility for the stewardship of the land and water. “If we don’t do better,” he said, “we’re going to be gone.”
Finally, the pinnacle of the day was a flag raising ceremony, officiated by MNCFN Elder and Veteran Garry Sault. The Mississaugas’ flag was hoisted up outside of the Ward’s Island Association Clubhouse to acknowledge the Islands as part of the Mississaugas’ Treaty Land. The ceremony was followed by a poetry reading by Chief R. Stacey Laforme.
The festivities were structured enough to give a sense of rhythm and purpose to the day, but casual enough that people had time to talk and engage one another. Some of the MNCFN attendees spotted some scouring rush growing along the trail and began collecting it to bring back to New Credit. Seeing this, a few Islanders offered to show them where they might find other traditional medicinal plants around the Island. This exchange about medicinal plants highlights how the groups were able to build common ground through shared knowledge and experiences.
Caitlin Laforme was very positive about the collaboration, highlighting that sometimes when the MNCFN is asked to participate at events, their presence feels more like a symbolic gesture rather than a genuine invitation to participate and help shape the event. In this instance though, she was excited to see that people were generously sharing with one another. “The engagement that I saw was far more meaningful than someone trying to put a checkmark in a box,” she says, “this kind of genuine engagement is key to relationship building and the first step towards bringing these communities together.”
The next event on the roster for this group is a tour of the Islands which will be led jointly by the Mississaugas and elders from the Island. The tour will highlight different socially and environmentally significant areas as members from each community share stories that will illuminate the unique relationship each group has with the Islands.
“I’m looking forward to hearing the history of the Islands from both sides,” Laforme says. This event will use storytelling as a means of drawing together these different perspectives to create a more fully rounded appreciation for the Island’s history and enduring significance. Acknowledging these historical and experiential differences in a welcoming and respectful atmosphere will provide a wonderful opportunity for conversation and learning which will foster a deeper understanding between these two groups and ultimately strengthen their relationship.
Laforme and Smiley were both pleased with how the initial event played out and are encouraged, moving forward, that these events will serve to establish a sturdy foundation for the groups’ relationship in the future. Laforme hopes that more people will come out to participate in the upcoming events and that the two groups will continue to collaborate beyond what they already have planned. “There is so much that we could do!” she says.