Be­fore Toronto


Canada's History - - CONTENTS - By Bill Moreau

Canada’s largest city is re­dis­cov­er­ing its Indige­nous roots.

STAND AT THE COR­NER OF YONGE AND BLOOR STREETS IN down­town Toronto, and you are sur­rounded by of­fice build­ings, con­do­minium tow­ers, con­crete, traf­fic, and noise. The ground vi­brates un­der your feet as sub­way trains travel through Canada’s busiest pub­lic tran­sit hub. On the north­west cor­ner of the in­ter­sec­tion, a sil­ver plaque may catch your eye — it marks the site of the pot­ter’s field where some 6,700 in­hab­i­tants of nineteenth-cen­tury Muddy York, as it was dis­dain­fully dubbed, were once in­terred. But there are buried sto­ries here that are much, much older still. In­deed, Louis Lesage, a de­scen­dant of the ear­li­est in­hab­i­tants, said the pow­er­ful and pros­per­ous me­trop­o­lis of to­day is “the con­tin­u­a­tion of what our an­ces­tors iden­ti­fied.”

The Toronto area was oc­cu­pied by Lesage’s an­ces­tors, an Iro­quoian peo­ple called the Wen­dat. “Peo­ple pop­u­lated this land­scape some ten thou­sand years ago,” said ar­chae­ol­o­gist Ron Wil­liamson, adding that the Wen­dat civ­i­liza­tion “de­vel­oped here, in this place.”

Cana­dian ar­chae­ol­o­gist Peter Rams­den has cal­cu­lated that there is a greater den­sity of pre­his­toric sites in south­ern On­tario than in early ne­olithic south­ern Bri­tain or the Val­ley of Mex­ico. In­deed, some ninety pre-con­tact First Na­tions vil­lages and mass­burial sites have been lo­cated within a forty-kilo­me­tre ra­dius of Yonge and Bloor. But con­tem­po­rary Toron­to­ni­ans have re­mained largely un­aware of the rich world that is lit­er­ally be­neath their feet. Now, thanks to the de­ter­mined work of ar­chae­ol­o­gists and his­to­ri­ans, the pas­sage of pioneering leg­is­la­tion, and the ac­tivism of the de­scen­dants of those orig­i­nal village dwellers, the tex­ture of an­cient Toronto is emerg­ing from the land­scape.

The Wen­dat who oc­cu­pied these pre-con­tact sites arose from proto-Wen­dat an­ces­tors in south­ern On­tario a thou­sand years ago. By the year 1300 this na­tion, also com­monly known as the Huron, ex­em­pli­fied the typ­i­cal in­gre­di­ents of Iro­quoian cul­ture: agrar­ian set­tle­ments com­posed of sev­eral long­houses, re­liance on a maize-based diet, and a ma­tri­lin­eal clan sys­tem. (The Iro­quois, or Hau­denosaunee, indige­nous to New York State, are an­other branch of the larger Iro­quoian fam­ily.) An­other cul­tural fea­ture spe­cific to the Wen­dat is the pe­ri­odic dis­in­ter­ment and mass re­burial of the com­mu­nity’s dead in pits called os­suar­ies, which of­ten con­tained the re­mains of sev­eral hun­dred in­di­vid­u­als.

Dur­ing their six-hun­dred-year pres­ence in what is now the Greater Toronto Area, Wen­dat peo­ple es­tab­lished vil­lages along Duffins Creek as well as the Rouge, Don, and Hum­ber rivers and their trib­u­taries. These set­tle­ments were usu­ally built on eas­ily de­fen­si­ble sites, of­ten en­closed by a wooden pal­isade, and were sur­rounded by an ex­ten­sive sys­tem of cul­ti­vated maize fields. Ev­ery fif­teen to twenty years, as wood be­came scarce and nu­tri­ents in the soil were de­pleted, vil­lages would be aban­doned and re­con­sti­tuted nearby, of­ten join­ing to­gether with nearby Wen­dat com­mu­ni­ties to es­tab­lish larger and larger set­tle­ments. At the height of their power in the six­teenth cen­tury, the Wen­dat of south-cen­tral On­tario num­bered in the tens of thou­sands and were a for­mi­da­ble na­tion.

Al­lied Wen­dat clans also in­hab­ited the lands south of Lake Huron’s Ge­or­gian Bay, about 150 kilo­me­tres north of Toronto. Un­der the pres­sure of con­flict with the Hau­denosaunee, their long-stand­ing ad­ver­saries, the Wen­dat of Toronto be­gan to

mi­grate north to join these groups, fi­nally re­lo­cat­ing en masse in about 1600. By the time French ex­plor­ers Éti­enne Brûlé and Samuel de Cham­plain en­tered what is now On­tario, the re­mains of Wen­dat vil­lages and fields in the Toronto re­gion had al­ready be­gun to de­cay and to be­come over­grown.

In their home by Ge­or­gian Bay, Wen­dat clans re­ceived French Je­suit mis­sion­ar­ies be­fore ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a se­ries of apoc­a­lyp­tic episodes. Dur­ing the 1630s and 1640s dis­ease, famine, and war, pri­mar­ily with the Hau­denosaunee, re­duced the tribal pop­u­la­tion by half, and by 1650 the sur­viv­ing Wen­dat of On­tario chose to re­lo­cate. Dif­fer­ent groups went sep­a­rate ways, and over time Wen­dat came to set­tle in de­scen­dant com­mu­ni­ties as far afield as what are now Michi­gan, Kansas, Ok­la­homa, and Que­bec. Over the next few gen­er­a­tions, the Toronto area was home to Seneca (mem­bers of the Hau­denosaunee Con­fed­er­acy) and Anishi­naabe peo­ples. The ex­tent of the Wen­dat’s dis­ap­pear­ance from the area is ev­i­denced in the fact that the Bri­tish Crown ne­go­ti­ated the 1787 Toronto Pur­chase not with an Iro­quoian peo­ple but with an Anishi­naabe First Na­tion, the Mis­sis­saugas of New Credit.

Wen­dat vil­lages were es­tab­lished near wa­ter­courses and amidst fer­tile soil, so it is not sur­pris­ing that as pioneering Euro­pean set­tlers cleared and pre­pared fields for cul­ti­va­tion in the late-eigh­teenth and early nineteenth cen­turies (in many cases re­turn­ing these lands to agri­cul­tural pur­poses) they of­ten un­earthed Indige­nous ar­ti­facts and os­suar­ies. Such dis­cov­er­ies con­tin­ued to be made through­out the nineteenth cen­tury.

Set­tler farm­ing prac­tices prob­a­bly had min­i­mal ef­fects on most Wen­dat sites; but ir­re­versible and large-scale dam­age to Toronto’s Indige­nous her­itage oc­curred through­out the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, as the re­gion be­came ever more ur­ban­ized. The Jackes Site, near present-day Av­enue Road and Eglin­ton Av­enue in mid­town Toronto, which had been iden­ti­fied as the lo­ca­tion of a First Na­tions village in 1887, is a prime ex­am­ple. It was first sub­ject to decades of loot­ing — in the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury “dig­ging bees,” so­cial out­ings with the main pur­pose of find­ing old ar­ti­facts, were a pop­u­lar pas­time — be­fore fi­nally be­ing de­stroyed by ur­ban developmen­t in the 1930s. This loss of her­itage ac­cel­er­ated af­ter the Sec­ond World War, as Toronto ex­panded rapidly into the agri­cul­tural lands sur­round­ing the city. Wil­liamson, founder of Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Ser­vices Inc. and the lead­ing author­ity on Toronto’s Wen­dat sites, said that “be­tween 1951 and 1991 some eight thou­sand Indige­nous ar­chae­o­log­i­cal fea­tures were de­stroyed in the Greater Toronto Area,” a num­ber that in­cludes ev­ery­thing from small an­cient camp­sites to en­tire vil­lages.

As the scale of this de­struc­tion be­came ap­par­ent, the On­tario pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment be­gan to take leg­isla­tive ac­tion. Be­gin­ning in 1975, sev­eral laws were passed or amended to gov­ern the han­dling of the prov­ince’s ar­chae­o­log­i­cal re­sources. These acts, in­clud­ing the Her­itage Act, Mu­nic­i­pal Act, and Plan­ning Act, pro­vide North Amer­ica’s strong­est le­gal frame­work for man­ag­ing her­itage, hold­ing ar­chae­ol­o­gists to pro­fes­sional stan­dards, and man­dat­ing that all pro­posed developmen­t un­dergo ar­chae­o­log­i­cal as­sess­ment. Where sig­nif­i­cant ar­chae­o­log­i­cal re­mains are found, a site must be com­pletely ex­ca­vated and doc­u­mented, and ar­ti­facts re­moved, be­fore developmen­t can con­tinue.

Pro­vin­cial leg­is­la­tion has en­abled the in­ten­sive study of

sev­eral an­ces­tral Wen­dat vil­lages in the Toronto area. This process be­gan in the mid-1970s with sites that were due to be paved over for the Pick­er­ing air­port — a con­struc­tion pro­ject that was later sus­pended — and it con­tin­ues to the present day, mainly be­cause of the build­ing of new res­i­den­tial sub­di­vi­sions and in­dus­trial parks on the ever-ex­pand­ing fringe of the me­trop­o­lis.

These digs have un­earthed mil­lions of ar­ti­facts, such as dec­o­rated ce­ramic ves­sels, some bear­ing haunt­ing im­ages of hu­man faces on their rims, ef­figy pipes in the form of owls, wood­peck­ers, and tur­tles, bone nee­dles, and antler combs, in ad­di­tion to hu­man re­mains. On the sur­face, though, a Wen­dat village site pre­sents lit­tle even to the trained eye, and the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the ex­ca­vated rem­nants is a sub­tle art.

While clay, stone, and bone ob­jects sur­vive, built struc­tures have long since rot­ted away, leav­ing ar­chae­ol­o­gists to re­con­struct village plans largely from dis­coloured patches of earth called post moulds, where the wood of a pal­isade or a long­house wall has de­com­posed. Jen­nifer Birch, a pro­fes­sor of an­thro­pol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia, has par­tic­i­pated in sev­eral of these digs, in­clud­ing at the mas­sive early six­teen­th­cen­tury Man­tle Site near Stouf­fville, north­east of Toronto. She calls the ex­ca­va­tion of Iro­quoian vil­lages “the ar­chae­ol­ogy of ‘this dirt looks slightly dif­fer­ent than that dirt.’”

Be­cause the writ­ten history of the Wen­dat dates only from the ar­rival of Euro­peans, ar­chae­ol­o­gists have had to use im­mense in­ge­nu­ity to learn the lessons left at these vil­lages and os­suar­ies. The data that have been amassed over the past forty years have al­lowed the story of Wen­dat Toronto to emerge, piece by piece. “Sal­vage” ex­ca­va­tions are car­ried out when an en­tire site will be oblit­er­ated by developmen­t — for ex­am­ple, by a sub­di­vi­sion, an in­dus­trial park, or a high­way. These ex­ca­va­tions en­able re­searchers to con­struct full village plans, like street maps of the set­tle­ment.

Re­searchers are then able to de­ter­mine where ar­ti­facts were left on the site — for ex­am­ple, within a dwelling, in a garbage heap, or be­yond the pal­isades. Anal­y­sis of post moulds can in­di­cate the life­span of in­di­vid­ual long­houses, the ex­pan­sion and con­trac­tion of set­tle­ments, and the pres­ence of de­fen­sive pal­isades. Study of ce­ramic and stone ar­ti­facts can in­di­cate cul­tural af­fil­i­a­tions and trad­ing re­la­tion­ships with other First Na­tions, while the pres­ence of butchered and burned hu­man bones can sug­gest his­to­ries of war­fare and tor­ture. The cat­a­logu­ing of plant and an­i­mal re­mains, and anal­y­sis of hu­man teeth, can re­veal the com­po­nents of the village diet. Ra­dio­car­bon dat­ing of or­ganic re­mains, to­gether with a com­par­i­son of the rel­a­tive sizes and lo­ca­tions of vil­lages, sug­gests how smaller groups of Wen­dat co­a­lesced into larger and more or­ga­nized com­mu­ni­ties over time. While many ques­tions re­main unan­swered — for in­stance, re­searchers are not al­ways sure who was in con­flict with whom — these ex­ca­va­tions have built a dense body of schol­ar­ship about the history and cul­ture of Wen­dat Toronto.

But one voice has long re­mained un­heard: that of the de­scen­dant Wen­dat them­selves. Be­cause the Wen­dat had been ab­sent from the north shore of Lake On­tario since be­fore the ar­rival of Euro­peans, and their place had been taken over by other First Na­tions, there has been per­sis­tent con­fu­sion about just whose ar­ti­facts were be­ing un­earthed, an un­cer­tainty that en­dured well into the twen­ti­eth cen­tury. When the four­teenth-cen­tury Ta­bor Hill Os­suary was un­cov­ered dur­ing the build­ing of a sub­di­vi­sion in sub­ur­ban Scarboroug­h in 1956, there was ex­ten­sive col­lab­o­ra­tion among the mu­nic­i­pal­ity, the Royal On­tario Mu­seum, and the Hau­denosaunee Six Na­tions Iro­quois, re­sult­ing in the re­burial of the hu­man re­mains and the memo­ri­al­iza­tion of the site. But, as Wil­liamson noted, “they were talk­ing to the wrong peo­ple,” for the bones that the Hau­denosaunee re­buried in fact be­longed to their an­ces­tors’ foes.

In re­cent years the Wen­dat, though re­lo­cated in var­i­ous places, have taken an ever-greater in­ter­est in their an­ces­tral ter­ri­to­ries. This is es­pe­cially the case for the one Cana­dian de­scen­dant com­mu­nity, the Huron-Wen­dat Na­tion, based on a re­serve at Wen­dake in sub­ur­ban Que­bec City. Louis Lesage is the di­rec­tor of the Huron-Wen­dat Nion­wentsïo of­fice, a body that is re­spon­si­ble for all that touches the na­tion’s ter­ri­tory. “There is an im­mense her­itage in Wen­dake Sud [South],” said Lesage, us­ing the name the Wen­dat ap­ply to the lands their an­ces­tors once in­hab­ited in south­ern On­tario, “and we have taken on the re­spon­si­bil­ity to pro­tect our her­itage.”

In 2006 an On­tario court af­firmed that the Huron-Wen­dat Na­tion must be con­sulted when­ever pro­posed de­vel­op­ments

touch on an an­ces­tral Wen­dat site. Wil­liamson points to the 2005 re­dis­cov­ery of the Te­ston Os­suary in Vaughan, On­tario, as a mo­ment of awak­en­ing for the Wen­dat in re­tak­ing own­er­ship of their history in the Toronto area. When work crews dis­turbed the burial site while widen­ing a road, there was im­me­di­ate col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the mu­nic­i­pal­ity and the Wen­dat; the road al­lowance was shifted, and the os­suary was left largely undis­turbed.

Then, in 2013, the re­mains of more than 1,600 an­ces­tors from pre­vi­ously ex­ca­vated os­suar­ies, which had been sit­ting in boxes at the Univer­sity of Toronto for as long as sixty years, were repa­tri­ated to the Klein­burg Os­suary in Vaughan, north of Toronto, in a cer­e­mony in­volv­ing Wen­dat from sev­eral de­scen­dant com­mu­ni­ties. The Huron-Wen­dat Na­tion now sends a surveil­lant — an over­seer — to rep­re­sent the in­ter­ests of the na­tion at ev­ery ex­ca­va­tion of an an­ces­tral site. In this way the Wen­dat have re-en­tered their own history as ac­tive sub­jects, rather than mere ob­jects of study.

The re­turn of the Wen­dat to their an­ces­tral vil­lages and os­suar­ies has brought new per­spec­tives to the prac­tice of ar­chae­ol­ogy it­self. While much has been learned about Wen­dat history, this in­creased knowl­edge has come at an im­mense cost: the com­plete oblit­er­a­tion of the re­mains of sev­eral vil­lages. As Birch said, “When you do a full ex­ca­va­tion, you get one­hun­dred-per-cent re­cov­ery, but you also have one-hun­dred­per-cent de­struc­tion” — and noth­ing in On­tario leg­is­la­tion man­dates that an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site not be ex­ca­vated. Some of these “stripped” sites have been in­te­grated into parks and pub­licly memo­ri­al­ized, like the four­teenth-cen­tury Alexan­dra Site in north Scarboroug­h, east of Toronto. Others, though, have been wiped away en­tirely, such as the fif­teenth-cen­tury Kef­fer Site, which sits un­marked be­neath a Vaughan in­dus­trial unit.

For the Huron-Wen­dat, these sites are sa­cred places where

the spir­its of their an­ces­tors still re­side. Their coun­cil at Wen­dake has passed a res­o­lu­tion that no new sal­vage ex­ca­va­tions should take place, pre­fer­ring in­stead that sites be pre­served in the ground. Lesage said while an ex­cep­tion might be made if there is a sig­nif­i­cant op­por­tu­nity to learn more about a pe­riod that is not well-doc­u­mented, “we would like to make that de­ci­sion.”

The non-Wen­dat ar­chae­ol­o­gists Wil­liamson and Birch con­cur. Wil­liamson points out that in the decade from 2000 to 2010 the re­mains of more than 250 long­houses — struc­tures cen­tral to Wen­dat so­cial, cul­tural, and spir­i­tual life — have been de­stroyed through ex­ca­va­tion. For her part, Birch said, “I would find it hard to jus­tify strip­ping a site for purely aca­demic in­ter­est.”

For Wil­liamson, the so­lu­tion lies at the mu­nic­i­pal level, where ac­tual plan­ning de­ci­sions are made. “When you have a mu­nic­i­pal ar­chae­o­log­i­cal mas­ter plan, and can iden­tify po­ten­tial sites early on in the plan­ning process,” he said, “you have a much greater pos­si­bil­ity of pro­tect­ing the site.”

An­other weak­ness in On­tario’s leg­is­la­tion con­cerns the legacy of these ex­ca­va­tions. Birch laments that ar­chae­ol­o­gists are un­der no obli­ga­tion to share their find­ings, whether through pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion or the pub­li­ca­tion of re­search. Like­wise, there is no leg­is­la­tion to cover what hap­pens to ex­ca­vated ar­ti­facts. Wil­liamson es­ti­mates that there are some twenty thou­sand bankers boxes of ob­jects scat­tered about On­tario in univer­sity de­part­ments, ware­houses, and even pri­vate homes, where they are largely in­ac­ces­si­ble to aca­demic re­searchers or to the de­scen­dants of the peo­ple who cre­ated them. What is needed, Wil­liamson ar­gues, is a legacy col­lec­tion, run in col­lab­o­ra­tion with First Na­tions, where this cul­tural re­source can be made avail­able to re­searchers and the pub­lic.

On the east bank of the Hum­ber River, ad­ja­cent to the Klein­burg Os­suary, sits the Skan­datut Site. This set­tle­ment, in­hab­ited in the late-six­teenth cen­tury, is per­haps the most ex­ten­sive and sig­nif­i­cant site to have re­mained largely undis­turbed. Wil­liamson be­lieves that it may even be the place to which the Wen­dat de­cided to re­treat from the Toronto area at the turn of the sev­en­teenth cen­tury. By the turn of the twen­ty­first cen­tury, the site, like so many others, was slated for ur­ban developmen­t. A full sal­vage ex­ca­va­tion had al­ready be­gun in 2010, when lawyers for the Huron-Wen­dat Na­tion suc­cess­fully pe­ti­tioned the courts to halt all ar­chae­o­log­i­cal work on the site.

Af­ter ne­go­ti­a­tions among the mu­nic­i­pal­ity, the prov­ince, the prop­erty owner, and the Wen­dat, a deal was an­nounced in 2012 to pro­tect and to pre­serve Skan­datut. While the prop­erty re­mains in the hands of a de­vel­oper for the mo­ment, de­tails are be­ing worked out to en­sure its trans­fer to a pub­lic agency. Ka­t­rina Guy, the city of Vaughan’s cul­tural her­itage co­or­di­na­tor, af­firmed the vi­sion for the site: The un­ex­ca­vated Skan­datut village site, the Hum­ber River, and the Klein­burg Os­suary will to­gether form a “cul­tural her­itage land­scape” that will for­ever pre­serve a piece of Wen­dat Toronto for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. “With Skan­datut,” said Guy, “we have a unique chance to pro­vide con­ti­nu­ity in the land­scape. We can’t stop change, but we can con­nect to the nat­u­ral and hu­man her­itage.”

Why does any of this mat­ter? Both Birch and Wil­liamson be­came in­ter­ested in ar­chae­ol­ogy when they came to ap­pre­ci­ate the an­tiq­uity of hu­man pres­ence in south­ern On­tario, a fact that still has the power to sur­prise the pub­lic. When Cana­di­ans un­der­stand that history did not be­gin with the ar­rival of French ex­plor­ers, but that peo­ple have been here for at least ten thou­sand years, their per­spec­tives are broad­ened. As Wil­liamson put it, “we have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to the an­ces­tral land­scape, which is alive in many ways.”

In a sense, Wen­dat civ­i­liza­tion pre­saged the con­tem­po­rary city. For ex­am­ple, the ce­ram­ics col­lected from the Man­tle Site orig­i­nated from through­out the Iro­quoian world, from the St. Lawrence River to up­state New York, ar­riv­ing there through trade and the move­ment of peo­ples. This col­lec­tion prompted Wil­liam En­gel­brecht, a pro­fes­sor at The State Univer­sity of New York at Buf­falo, to com­ment, “It’s like Toronto be­fore Toronto.”

Speak­ing for the Huron-Wen­dat, Louis Lesage notes that Toronto is the largest, most pros­per­ous, and most cos­mopoli­tan city in Canada, and he draws a les­son for its cur­rent in­hab­i­tants: “It takes wa­ter, land, and nat­u­ral re­sources to sup­port such a city, and our an­ces­tors were able to iden­tify the best place to set­tle, and so they be­came a pros­per­ous na­tion. We found a place where we could de­velop a true civ­i­liza­tion, and the city of Toronto is the con­tin­u­a­tion of what our an­ces­tors iden­ti­fied.” He con­tin­ues: “We would like those who live in Toronto, and im­mi­grants who go to Toronto, to know that this enor­mous, di­verse city is there thanks to an­other civ­i­liza­tion that pre­ceded it.”

Huron Daily Life, by Lewis Parker.

A Toronto Daily Star ar­ti­cle from 1925 high­lights the com­mon prac­tice of or­di­nary cit­i­zens, as well as ar­chae­ol­o­gists, sim­ply dig­ging up and loot­ing Wen­dat sites in the city.

A site plan de­picts the Alexan­dra ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site, a for­mer Wen­dat set­tle­ment in present-day Scarboroug­h, On­tario.

Top right: Wen­dat and lo­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tives take part in the ded­i­ca­tion of a plaque at the Man­tle Site in Stouf­fville, north­east of Toronto.

Top left: Ar­chae­ol­o­gists at the Alexan­dra Site near Scarboroug­h, On­tario, stake out the di­men­sions of a Wen­dat long­house and its sub­se­quent ex­ten­sions.

Cen­tre right: A stone pro­jec­tile point from the Man­tle Site.

Above right: A Tur­tle Clan long­house stands on the Wen­dat her­itage site in the Craw­ford Lake Con­ser­va­tion Area south­east of Toronto.

Cen­tre: An owl ef­figy that was part of a Wen­dat clay pipe.

Above left: A Wen­dat clay smok­ing pipe as it was found on the Alexan­dra Site.

These beads made from shell, bone, and stone emerged at the Skan­datut Site in Vaughan, On­tario.

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