Undoing colonial thinking to connect with the land and each other

Compiled by Kelsey Carriere, based on our InTO the Ravines event: Indigenous Storytelling & Ravine Ecology, and knowledge shared in a wonderful conversation with Philip Cote.

Philip is a young Elder, artist, activist, educator, historian & traditional wisdom keeper from Moose Deer Point First Nation with Shawnee, Lakota, Potawatomi, and Ojibway lineage. Learn more about Philip at https://tecumsehcollective.wixsite.com/philipcote.

Cover picture credit: Resurge: First Timeline, Philip Cote, Old Mill Bridge, Humber River. 


We think we’re so clever

The CN Tower remains the tallest structure in the Western Hemisphere—a feat of human ingenuity, engineering and determination. Yet, when we see our record-breaking tower superimposed through history, it is suddenly dwarfed by the glaciers that shaped the land that we now call Toronto.

At this same time, a people referred to as “Oh-kwa-ming-i-nini-ug” or the Ice Runners, were here—ancestors of some of today’s Anishinaabe. Some of their stories and knowledge of how to live on this land have grown and evolved and been carried from generation to generation for over 130,000 years. Since before the pyramids were built. Two ice ages ago. As the glaciers retreated and melted shaping the land, ravines and river valleys we now know. And they are still being shared and guiding people on The Good Path today.

These stories teach how to live in the right relations with all of creation, how to express gratitude to the Earth for nourishing us, and how to live in reciprocity with nature, giving back for everything you take. These stories and knowledge passed down over seasons, years, ice ages and many cycles of life guided sustainable human existence on this part of Turtle Island until the arrival of colonial thinkers in Taronto, “the meeting place” or “Fishing Weir” or “Where sticks stand in the Water,” now known as Toronto, in 1720.


Height of the glaciers in Taronto


The circle and the square


There are many ways for us humans to think about our relationship with the world. Western thinking is often based on categorizing, dividing, compartmentalizing—literally putting things in boxes—and this comes with a clear hierarchy of who does the putting in boxes and who and what ‘gets put.’ So it is no surprise that there was a misunderstanding when the colonizers arrived in Taronto with their “square thinking.”


Anishinaabe Creation Story, James Red SkyElder


The arrival of the colonizers is marked here on this Birch Bark Pictograph, a timeline recreated 80 years ago by James Red SkyElder from Northern Ontario that shows the Anishinaabe Creation Story. It begins with four figures around a fire circle—representing this as the four winds and sons that went off in the four directions creating the four nations—a story that would take seven days to recount in full.

We also see clearly at the bottom, near the end of the timeline, the arrival of the “square thinkers.” These new arrivals with their colonial mindsets proceeded to put the “new world” and its inhabitants in boxes without understanding them and carved the land into squares of private ownership where previously land was shared in ways that ensured access for all, to all of the essential medicines, water and hunting grounds.

Among the many parts of the story this pictograph marks, we can see that it begins and ends in circles. Indigenous understanding flows in circles—the medicine wheel, the circle of life, cycles of days and seasons and moving across the cosmos, the cycling of nutrients through nature, even reincarnation.

The final circle on this timeline represents how we will regain our ability to think in cycles and know how to live respectfully and reciprocally on this land and with each other.


Marker Trees


The natural world tends to trickle and grow in spirals and branches and Fibonacci sequences, so when we see an ancient tree standing with an awkward square-angled limb, as abrupt and seemingly ill-fitting to the landscape as the “square thinkers” depicted in the pictograph, Philip suggests that we should wonder.

It is not a sign of coincidence or accident, but a deliberate act to share a message.


Marker Tree, High Park. Courtesy of Philip Cote


For hundreds of years, the Anishinaabe have made a point of shaping trees to mark an important route or event. Marker Trees still standing today in Toronto acknowledge grand councils where important decisions were made about how to deal with the abrupt changes to their way of life and being on the land once settlers arrived.

With the settlers now part of their world, the Indigenous people at the time were not sure how it was going to go but they were determined to hang on to their knowledge as best they could.

“This tree,” says Phil, “is really symbolic of that…The trunk of the tree was split right in two, so the trunks travel along the ground then reach up to the sky.”

He points out two marker trees in High Park and another at the foot of Kipling Avenue that would have been shaped during the tumultuous times of the War of 1812 representing a fork in the road—of the two paths down which the new arrival of settlers could lead—one of mutual understanding and reciprocity, and one of destruction.

These trees were there, rooted and present while great conversations about the future of the Original People were being discussed hundreds of years ago. And they continue to stand, their roots deep in history and their branches outstretched as we continue toward a new chapter in our story together.


The 8th Fire


As the marker trees have weathered storms and centuries, so have the Anishinaabe. Their story and teachings span generations articulating how to live in reciprocity with the land. They also recount many eras, depicted by Anishnaabe storytellers as Fires. The 7th fire was a time of revival and reclaiming of culture amid generational and institutional displacement and injustice.

The 8th Fire is the time prophesied generations ago where our two cultures would come together over a common understanding to heal the land and carry our new way of doing things into the future creating the new people for the new age called the golden age. But it is also seen as another fork in the road a choice of two roads one of light and the other of dark it sounds like trouble but in essence, it’s telling us about the two worlds one is physical and other is spiritual this concept is at the heart of our cosmology and in this deep understanding we see the universe as light and dark physical and spirit its this understanding that will be shared with the western people and have a great effect on our future. The choice is ours and a livable future cannot be had without our cultures coming together, not only the Western and Original People but all nations and all of Creation on a path of friendship, respect, unity and peace.


Ask the land


So how do we get to the 8th Fire amid all of the hollow languages and stalled political promises of reconciliation? Phil reminds us about reciprocity—that we can’t get something without giving first. We must also act in a way that our descendants seven generations from now will be grateful for our decisions. Our relationship to the land is integral to getting on the right path.

“We can’t just think about things and write about things—we need to physically put ourselves in connection with the land so that we can have a relationship with the land and know that we are being cared for—not the other way around”

“You have to re-situate yourself at the centre of life,” he tells us, and remember The Seven Grandfather Teachings: Respect, Honesty, Truth, Humility, Courage, Wisdom and Love.

One great way to connect with the land, he tells us, is through an offering. “You can get some tobacco and hold it in your left hand. Go to a park or a place that you feel resonates with you. Tap on the ground four times with your hand that has the tobacco in it, then turn in a circle four times and set the tobacco down in that spot. Ask the land for whatever answer you seek and the land sends a message to the universe and will provide you with an answer.” So long as you listen for it.

Thank you Philip for your teachings and may we all take a moment to honour the land that provides for us and ask of it what we can each do to repair the damage that colonial and industrial thinking has imposed on the land and its people.


About Philip Cote

Philip Cote is the artist behind many important public art pieces including Indigenous History of the Land at Spadina & Dupont, The Niagara Treaty of 1764 at University of Toronto, and Resurge: First Timeline under Old Mill Station in King’s Mill Park that are helping to tell the whole story of the history of this land and the Indigenous understandings that reinforce our reciprocal relationship with the land.



“My experience of being an Indigenous person in Toronto wasn’t good. I faced so much racism…I was really an alien here on my land…I knew the world was a harsh place be
I didn’t know why. I didn’t know that it was directly linked to me being Indigenous.

Then I learned that there is a racial bias that was created by history’s writing of who Indigenous people were and as I got older, I realized that my culture was really important and something that I wanted to share through my paintings and through my drawings. I was driven and drawn to find ways of communicating this culture and over time it evolved until public art became a commonplace for me to get work. This important work is creating a space for people to see us in a different light, from an Indigenous perspective—not from a western perspective, or a historic racial perspective, but showing that Indigenous people have something to share and that our culture and our understanding of being human and being alive is something that the world needs to see now.”



Watch our webinar “Indigenous Storytelling & Ravine Ecology




InTO the Ravines, a program in partnership with the City of Toronto

Racism is a parks and public space issue

Systemic racism and white supremacy are prevalent and visible in our parks and public spaces where Black, Indigenous and racialized people experience suspicion, surveillance, harassment, violence and death.

Park People cannot achieve its mission to “activate the power of parks to improve quality of life in cities” without acknowledging that systemic racism, oppression, and injustice are part of the daily lived experiences of Black, Indigenous, and racialized people in parks and public spaces.

Park People’s work champions equity and inclusion. It is one of our core values, expressed as “parks are for everyone.” 

However, we must do more to address the fact that racist systems of gatekeeping in public spaces mean that, in practice, parks are not for everyone. It is our job to actively work with communities across Canada to disrupt and dismantle the implicit and explicit structures of power, privilege and racism in parks and public spaces. 

With humility, we admit that we are at the beginning of this process. This statement is a declaration of our intention to begin dismantling systemic racism as an organization including assessing our strategic plan, theory of change, programs and hiring, training and management practices. Coming out of this process we will establish a concrete organizational strategy to address systemic racism as Park People.   

We support and stand with Black, Indigenous and racialized people and we are committed to listening and learning from their voices to shape our actions as we move forward.

Here are some useful readings we’re reviewing to better educate ourselves. We hope you’ll join us.

Anti-racism readings

This list is by no means exhaustive, but these are a few readings that have resonated with us in confronting the pervasiveness of racism, and specifically anti-Black and Indigenous racism, in the planning, design, and management of parks and public spaces both in the U.S. and Canada. 

Racism in Canada is Ever-Present, But We Have a Long History of Denial, Maija Kappler, May 2020

Subdivided, Ed. Jay Pitter and John Lorinc. 2016.

Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present, Robyn Maynard, 2017.

Urban Density: Confronting the Distance between Desire and Disparity, Jay Pitter, April 2020

Why Race Matters in Planning Public Parks, Brentin Mock, March 2016

Public Space, Park Space, and Racialized Space, KangJae Lee, January 2020

Diversity? Inclusion? Let’s talk about racism first, Brentin Mock, April 2014  

Placemaking When Black Lives Matter, Annette Koh, April 2017

Indigenous History of Toronto Parks

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

Screen shot 2017-11-09 at 4.38.59 PM

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.

Savannah Landscapes


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.

Indigenous routes

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)

Sacred Mounds


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.

Dr. Oronhytekha


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!


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