First Nations reclaim the streets of Toronto

Activists have added Anishinaabe-language street signs to parts of the city to highlight their indigenous roots.

Canada indigenous language road signs
Indigenous-language road signs can be found along major intersections in Toronto [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]

Toronto, Canada – A bronze plaque hangs at the corner of Spadina and Davenport roads. About 12,000 years ago, this was where high cliffs abutted Glacial Lake Iroquois, an ancient lake formed during the last Ice Age, the marker reads. Before the ancient waters receded, everything below this point – which includes today’s downtown Toronto, Toronto City Hall and Ontario provincial legislature, financial district, universities and innumerable neighbourhoods, parks and shops – would have been underwater.

For years, the only hint of indigenous history on this street, now a main thoroughfare cutting east-west across the city, was a vague reference to “an Indian trail,” which the plaque says once connected the Humber and Don rivers.

Today, after a Toronto-based initiative launched by indigenous activists in 2013, the area’s largely overlooked indigenous history has finally been given permanent visibility.

“We were hoping that we could maybe raise a conversation and some questions [with] people,” said Stuart Grant, chair of the Dupont by the Castle Business Improvement Area (BIA), a local group that promotes businesses in the neighbourhood.

In September, the BIA added two Anishinaabe-language street signs on this corner to highlight the indigenous roots of the area: the Anishinaabe word Ishpadinaa now sits above the official Spadina Road sign, while Gete-Onigaming designates Davenport Road.

The Anishinaabe refers to a group of indigenous peoples, which include the Ojibwe and Algonquin peoples, who live primarily in the provinces of Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba in Canada, and in the northeast of the United States.

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Written in black letters on a white background, the Anishinaabe names sit above the blue, English-language street signs. While the signs are clearly marked, their presence is subtle with many passers-by not noticing, unless they know to look for them.

A third sign sits a few blocks away at the corner of Dupont Avenue and Davenport Road, while the last official sign is just down the road at Dupont Avenue and Spadina Road.

“This area, for thousands and thousands of years, was occupied by First Nations people, and it is a very important part of the history of the area … Way before European settlers came here, what are now those streets were used as trails by First Nations people,” Grant told Al Jazeera.

“It’s a matter of educating the current population that this was indigenous territory and now we share it, but those First Nations people are still here.”

Permanent visibility 

The BIA’s project is separate from, but inspired by, an earlier initiative launched in Toronto in 2013 called Ogimaa Mikana.

Indigenous activists Susan Blight, an Anishinaabe from Couchiching First Nation in Ontario, and Hayden King, also Anishinaabe from Beausoleil First Nation, founded Ogimaa Mikana at the height of Idle No More, a grassroots protest movement calling for indigenous rights across Canada.

At the time, the activists placed stickers over official street signs in Toronto to denote indigenous names of streets and erected billboards with Anishinaabe-language phrases in several cities across Ontario, including Toronto, Thunder Bay and North Bay.

One Toronto billboard, for example, sported an Anishinaabe phrase that translates into English as, “If you want to learn something, first you must learn this.”

Blight and King served as advisers on the official, BIA street-sign initiative, but Blight, who works as the Aboriginal Student Life coordinator at First Nations House at the University of Toronto, stressed that the two projects are separate.

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She said it was important for the Ogimaa Mikana project to centre the Anishinaabe language and re-assert indigenous presence in the cities.

“It’s about visibility, but it’s also about validating and reclaiming what the Canadian state tried to take from us,” Blight told Al Jazeera.

Indigenous peoples in Canada continue to fight against the erasure of their traditional languages, which are spoken by some elders but have largely become lost among younger generations as a result of Canadian government policies and colonialism.

“In an attempt to assimilate First Nations cultures into English society, the government discouraged and suppressed thousands of years of linguistic diversity and knowledge,” explained the Indigenous Foundations research project at the University of British Columbia.

One of the most destructive methods to suppress indigenous language was the creation of residential schools across Canada, where indigenous children were barred from speaking their native languages and forcibly separated from their families, who otherwise could have taught them.

For decades, indigenous children were enrolled in these government-funded residential schools that aimed to assimilate them into Canadian society. The schools were wrought with physical and sexual abuse and mistreatment, and the system created lasting, inter-generational trauma in indigenous communities.

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According to the most recent government figures from 2011, about 213,500 people said they had an aboriginal mother tongue, while about 213,400 said they spoke a native language regularly or most often at home.

That same year, almost 37,000 people identifying as indigenous lived in Toronto, accounting for less than one percent of the city’s total population.

Fifty-six percent of indigenous peoples in Canada lived off reserves, and this urban indigenous population was the fastest growing segment of the population in the country, increasing by seven percent from 1996 to 2011, the census found.

“So in that way, it’s really empowering because we’re not only saying Anishinaabe people are still here – we still have our language, we still speak our language – but it’s also a way of resisting and saying those [state] policies … didn’t win,” Blight said about the Ogimaa Mikana project.

“This is not over. We are not a conquered people, and as long as we speak our languages and have our ways, that’s evident.”

Before the project, there were few indications that indigenous populations had lived in Toronto and the surrounding areas for centuries [Jillian Kestler-D’Amours/Al Jazeera]

Deep history in Toronto

Spadina is the anglicised version of the Anishinaabe word “Ishpadinaa”, which means “a rise in the land” and was used to designate the area where Spadina and Davenport roads meet today, explained Sam Kloetstra.

Kloetstra is the youth coordinator at the Toronto Indigenous Health Advisory Circle and a researcher and tour guide for First Story Toronto, an initiative that offers walking tours and an interactive map highlighting the indigenous history of Canada’s largest city.

He explained that from the elevated plateau at Spadina Road, indigenous people held an important vantage point from which to see any incoming danger.

Today’s Davenport Road, meanwhile, was an important trade and travel route used by indigenous communities for thousands of years. The Ojibwe phrase Gete-Onigaming – now affixed to the street sign – means “at the old portage”.

Kloetstra described Toronto as a city made from two layers of history: an indigenous layer and a settler-colonial layer, and the latter either covers up or actively seeks to erase the former.

This is not over. We are not a conquered people, and as long as we speak our languages and have our ways, that's evident.

by Susan Blight, Aboriginal Student Life coordinator

“It almost seems like indigenous history was purposely denied in the city, so that this idea that Canada was this terra nullius, empty land, that was being colonised or settled, could be perpetuated,” Kloetstra told Al Jazeera, “when in actuality, people have been living here for thousands and thousands [of years].”

The city’s name itself likely originates from the Mohawk word “Tkaranto“, which was used in the 1600s and means, “where there are trees in the water”. Lake Simcoe in southern Ontario was also referred to as variations of “Taronto” from 1660 to 1710.

However, indigenous history can be found in many places across Toronto, from the St Lawrence Market – where early European settlers killed Wabakinine, head chief of the Mississauga of New Credit First Nation, and his wife in the late 1700s – to the Don River Valley, which served as another important indigenous trade route.

“The Anishinaabe would have travelled up the Don River to go to Lake Simcoe,” Kloetstra said. “Some of the interior of that valley hasn’t been touched since indigenous people in a pre-contact [context] … It’s still very much an indigenous space.”

Linking the past, present and future

Following his election last autumn, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to launch “a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship” between the government and indigenous peoples that recognises their rights in Canada.

The government has also promised to implement recommendations emerging from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a federal inquiry into the treatment of indigenous youth in residential schools.

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But Kloetstra said understanding the experiences of indigenous peoples is critical for any reconciliation to take place, and that is where efforts to raise awareness and make indigenous history more visible in places like Toronto come in.

“You can’t have reconciliation without truth,” he said. “Truth is knowing, it’s having an understanding of where you’re coming from and where you’re going. And how can people understand where we’re coming from, if over 20,000 years of our history is erased, it’s deleted, [and] it doesn’t matter?”

Blight, meanwhile, said she hoped the Ogimaa Mikana project would remind people that they are on indigenous land and that indigenous peoples are still here, preserving their languages and ways of life for future generations, and resisting ongoing colonisation.

“If [people in Toronto] see these signs and they’ve responded to them, I hope that it presents a question of how they situate themselves … What is [their] relationship to this land?” she said.

“I think that that’s important – and it’s the start and the spark to deepening your relationship to the land, and that can only be a good thing.”

Inspired by an earlier movement, the BIA's project is meant to remind Canadians of the indiginous community's history and presence in Toronto [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]
Inspired by an earlier movement, the BIA’s project is meant to remind Canadians of the indiginous community’s history and presence in Toronto [Jillian Kestler-D’Amours/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera