CANADA’S LARGEST CITY IS REDISCOVERING ITS ANCIENT INDIGENOUS ROOTS.
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.”