Beyond 185 years: Honouring Toronto’s Indigenous history

By Dilshad Burman and Mark McAllister

Toronto marks 185 years of incorporation on Wednesday and while the city has many events organized to celebrate the occasion, it’s important to recognize that the history of the city extends much further back.

Steps have been taken to acknowledge Indigenous history in the city through symbols like the medicine wheel at the Toronto sign at Nathan Phillips Square, but Chief Stacey Laforme of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation says a concrete strategy is still lacking.

“I recognize some of the things that are going on – the appointment of the new Indigenous office in Toronto, the addition of certain artwork around the city – that’s all good stuff,” he tells CityNews. “It’s good, it’s a start, it’s a conversation and I think its well intended. But we need more – we need be able to have measurable results and we need a plan and a strategy that’s not piecemeal.”

Heritage Toronto released its latest report on the state of heritage in the city and suggests education is important. Of the 17 recommendations in the report, two are tied specifically to recognizing Toronto’s Indigenous heritage and doing more to enhance it.

The report points to increasing “visible presence of Indigenous history through art and educational markers on every corner” and increasing “the availability of Toronto’s heritage spaces, historic sites, and
museums to Indigenous communities and knowledge keepers as spaces to tell their community’s stories.”

Kaitlin Wainwright from Heritage Toronto says public art and plaquing projects are also helping to bring Indigenous history to the forefront.

“[These projects] are challenging some of those historic and colonial narratives that we have,” she says. “More constantly needs to be done because anytime you’re trying to challenge the status quo or challenge the mainstream narrative, you’re always going to receive push back,” she says.

She added that it has been difficult to implement the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission‘s (TRC) report.

“With the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the TRC report, its been challenging to get a lot of traction around that – so certainly [we’re] looking for more opportunities to kind of create that snowball effect.”

Laforme says reconciliation cannot simply be a buzzword.

“If you’re going to take on reconciliation – if that’s going to be part of your platform whether you’re the country, the province or the city – you have to have markers,” he says. “You can’t just say we’re doing this and then have some pretty pictures. You have to have markers that are measurable and things that we can go back to in 10 years and say look how far we’ve come or haven’t,” he says.

He adds that while the new Indigenous Affairs Office at City Hall can give some voice to Indigenous people, much more needs to be done.

“For me that’s part of putting band aids on things. How do you fix the big issues like children in care, homelessness, lack of housing?”

In terms of educating people about the history of the country and the city, Laforme says it’s important to think of history beyond the short term and before colonization.

“Stop thinking that Toronto came about during these 185 years and start thinking about the fact that this land was covered with many Indigenous nations many thousands of years before that,” he says. “It’s something [people] should learn and be proud of because this will be part of their history and their children’s history.”

Laforme says Indigenous history is not separate and should not be seen as distinct from Canadian history.

“We don’t start over at certain junctures. This is all our history and so its important to start learning that ideology.”

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