Hey Toronto. What’s your island story?
Island Stories is a collective storytelling project meant to capture the unique ways Torontonians experience Toronto Island.
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The island means something different to everyone. As part of the upcoming Toronto Island Park Master Plan project, we’re reflecting on the unique role the island plays in the lives of Torontonians of all walks of life – before we collectively reimagine its future. We want to hear from you! Share a post, send a video, write a story, make some art – whatever feels right. Because every island story is worth sharing.
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The following article is reprinted with permission. It originally appeared in NOW Magazine on November 12, 2018.
“Welcome to Toronto Islands,” says the Islander to the delegation from the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, as he prepares to raise the band’s flag up the pole.
“Right back atcha!” says Stacey LaForme, chief of the First Nation, whose traditional territory Toronto and its islands lie within.
The crowd taking in the scene near the ferry docks at Ward’s Island laughs together.
It takes skill and goodwill to turn awkward moments into opportunities.
In September, more than 100 Islanders, mainlanders and Mississaugas took part in a “friendship tour” to share stories of a place they love.
The tour was organized by the Toronto Island and Mississaugas of the New Credit Friendship Group, which was recently formed to build a new model for land sharing, trust and reconciliation. The tour, which included a dinner afterward, was led by elders of the First Nation and long-time Island residents.
The aim of the collaboration is to promote “historical and cultural contexts for both settler and Indigenous relationships to the Islands, with a focus on the Toronto Purchase,” the long-disputed sale of the Mississaugas’ Toronto lands to the British in 1787, until a land claim was settled with the federal government in 2010.
Martha Farquhar-McDonnell, a mother and teacher who grew up on the Islands, notes that the Mississaugas have been “incredibly generous” to the Toronto Islands community.
“We remember that we are living here because of broken covenants and broken treaties and the theft of land,” says Farquhar-McDonnell. “We need to make things right. That’s what’s driving this work.”
That work includes a season of get-togethers that began with a water ceremony in May. That event wrapped up with former New Credit chief Carolyn King leading a diverse crowd in stencilling moccasin prints on Ward’s Island walkways.
Now standing on sun-scorched sand near Hanlan’s Point, with sailboats in the background, dragonflies dancing in the air and the odd bare butt bobbing on the clothing-optional beach, New Credit director of lands, research and membership Margaret Sault tells of her community’s struggle to recover from their displacement from the fabulous shores of Toronto to a tiny, land-locked reserve near Hagersville.
Working as treaty scholar since the 1980s, Sault resolved three land claims for the New Credit First Nation, including the Toronto Purchase. An original copy of this agreement, which supposedly legitimized British title to the land that grew our city, indicates no record of compensation and offers no description of land that was allegedly turned over. The signatures of the three chiefs who allegedly approved the deal are actually pasted onto the page.
A resolution took decades, says Sault, because the “government really doesn’t have timelines in their process. When the Department of Justice lawyer says, ‘We’ll have our legal opinion done in November,’ I ask, ‘Of what year?’ And there are always roadblocks in our way.” For instance, the government insisted that the original iffy document first had to be accepted as legitimate.
The 2010 Toronto Purchase settlement of $145 million was a tiny fraction of the real value of their rich territory, but Sault advised her community to accept it anyway “because we first started talking about the Toronto Purchase in the 1980s. Meanwhile, people passed away and gained nothing from it.”
Except for annual “wellness payments” of $1,500 for each member, the sum is in trust. “We have to always keep in mind that we have to look after seven generations down the road.”
As the tour continues past Gibraltar Point, Island Elder Jimmy Jones points out where there once stood a residence for patients from SickKids to convalesce. Margaret Sault reveals that the First Nation also “brought their sick to the peninsula to recover. They called it their ‘healthful atmosphere.’”
Snake Island was another place used for healing and ceremony, says New Credit Elder Gary Sault. A baby quacks along with him as he spins a merry tale about the spirit Nanabush filling his belly by convincing ducks to dance with their eyes shut. Sault warns that we are the ducks in this story. “Let’s not get caught up believing that if we close our eyes, everything will be fine.”
To be sure, there was a time when Island residents were themselves almost forcibly removed from the Islands. From the base of the bridge to Algonquin Island, former city councillor and fourth-generation Islander Liz Amer reads from Sally Gibson’s book More Than An Island, about that day in 1980 when the sheriff arrived to serve residents with notices of eviction to eliminate all homes on the Islands. Hundreds of protestors from the mainland joined Islanders in preventing their removal in an action that eventually led in 1993 to a formalizing of the unique residential-public space model that had existed informally ever since the Island (then a peninsula) was settled in the early 1800s.
Later over dinner, King talks about the next round of the New Credit’s claim negotiations. In September 2016, the First Nation submitted a water claim “for unextinguished Aboriginal title to all waters, beds of water and floodplains.”
The British never contested the Mississaugas’ insistence on unimpeded access to, and authority over, the web of rivers and lakes that connect their traditional territory, their vital fishery and marshes where rice grew. So a treaty partner who ruined the fishery with thoughtless land and water use, and who uses the rare gift of a freshwater lake as a toilet, has some thinking to do.
On the water claim, “We’re getting creative,” says Sault, noting that there is no money involved. “We’re talking about stewardship that’s going to benefit everybody. Water’s our life-giving force, right? If we wreck the water, we wreck everything.”
The New Credit has always been adamant that they are in no way trying to displace persons from the land that is their traditional territory.
For the First Nation, the heart of the treaty process has always been about stewardship over its traditional territory – and sharing.
As Chief LaForme said at the flag-raising, “All steps in reconciliation are good, but when we consider reconciliation, we don’t just consider us – we consider the world around us. We consider nature and the environment. You can do all the right things and have all the best relationships, but at the end of the day, if we forget to care for the planet, what does it mean?”
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