Listening to History: Correcting the Toronto Metis Land Acknowledgement

By Jesse Thistle

Map ascribed to Louis Jolliet after 1673 showing ganatchakiagon and the rouge trail the eastern arm of the Toronto carrying place

Map ascribed to Louis Jolliet after 1673 showing ganatchakiagon and the rouge trail the eastern arm of the Toronto carrying place

One of my friends is a teacher for the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). She recently asked me for help regarding their traditional land acknowledgement recognizing the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, Wendat, and the Metis. She told me that the board was facing considerable resistance from the community regarding the acknowledgment of the Metis. The blow back is understandable, and here’s why.

I’m sure we’ve all seen the Metis wars on Twitter raging amongst our scholarly friends. They rail on about who is and who is not Metis; where the historic Metis homeland is and where it is not. Well if you’re wondering, Toronto isn’t Metis, nor are its historic mixed-bloods. But beyond the contested lines drawn in the scholarly sandbox, here is some actual history to break down why Toronto sits outside of the western Metis homeland and thus should not be included in the TDSB Indigenous land acknowledgement.

In 2014, while I was an undergrad at York University, I wrote an essay called “We are Children of The River: Toronto’s Lost Metis History” as a major research paper for a directed reading course supervised by Dr. Victoria Freeman. In it I argued that Toronto lay along the old French River system prior to 1821 and thus had considerable Metis presence from 1760 up to the departure of Toronto Globe newspaper journalist, Metis James Ross in 1869.[1] The paper won one of York’s major essay prizes, the Odessa Award, as well as the 2015 Dr. James Wu prize for best undergrad thesis. The work is said to have broken new historical ground, or at least uncovered some lost Metis history. But, truthfully, it’s been nothing but a big headache. You see, I argued with all my undergrad vigor, innocence, and ignorance that Toronto was a part of the historic Metis homeland, and, judging by the accolades it won, it was very convincing.

Mea Culpa.

I have since read more books, done more research, and participated in my fair share of Metis Twitter wars and can see now that I was perhaps overly zealous in my inclusionary stance on historic Metis in Toronto. I like to imagine myself kind of like Jacqueline Peterson who once believed Great Lakes mixed-bloods were Metis but, as she aged and became wiser, came to change her inclusionary view of the eastern mixed-bloods once she understood that Metis peoplehood formed exclusively in the western prairies.[2] We live and learn.

winning-research-poster

The Author with a Poster of His Research

Indeed, in digging blindly in the archives, I came upon evidence that confirmed that historic Metis had frequently travelled through colonial York, later Toronto, to and from Montreal, the Illinois Country, and the Upper Great Lakes on their way to the Northwest.[3] The main trade route used by these Metis between the years 1760 and 1821 was the Toronto Carrying Place; which, I am sure we all know, was replaced by Yonge Street, a major artery to the Northwest financed in large part by the Northwest Company. Early Yonge Street, then, which ran from Toronto to Lake Simcoe, was Metis voyageur central prior to 1821![4] Some of these sojourning NWC Metis, with last names like Askin, Peltier, McKee, and McKenzie, had solid trade connections to the mixed-blood families at Detroit, Fort Erie, Queenston, Niagara, and Fort Joseph and beyond. However, these were mixed-blood eastern families, not fully political and cultural Metis peoples, like the ones that formed on the western prairies after 1780.

In terms of military involvement, I unearthed a few letters and books that confirmed the Corps of Canadian Voyageurs (Métis)—later the Provincial Commissariat Voyageurs—had defended colonial York by way of Yonge Street in 1813, and that Metis had supplied York throughout the War of 1812.[5]

What is even more interesting, I even discovered the first official printing of the word “half-breed” in Upper Canadian publication history. Half-breed, as the word appeared in an 1818 Upper Canada Gazette pamphlet entitled “Offences in the Indian Territories,” described the Métis plaintiffs Paul Brown and Frenchman Francois Fermin Boucher, who were being prosecuted at York for NWC crimes committed at the Battle of Seven Oaks. Court proceedings were held at Old Montgomery’s assize courthouse located on the northeast corner of what is now Richmond and Victoria Streets just east of Yonge Street.[6] Also accused but not present were “Bostonionas” Peter Pangman and Cuthbert Grant (both Métis), and twelve other senior Lower Canadian-Scot wintering partners of the NWC, who, according to the Hudson Bay Company, had maliciously attacked the Selkirk Colony on 19 June 1816, killing Gov. Semple and his twenty-one of his men.[7]

For those that don’t know, the Battle of Seven Oaks is regarded as the moment when the Metis Nation itself formed into a fully developed political entity. Basically, it’s when scholars and the Metis themselves agree the Metis Nation was founded—kind of like the struggle for Vimy Ridge galvanized the Canadian imagination into forging a new national consciousness, a new independent Canada. You could imagine my surprise when I read that the trial to this all-important Metis ethnogenesis event was held right here in Toronto, right where the restaurant La Bettola Di Terroni now stands— about fifteen hundred kilometres away from Red River and the Metis heartland.

Outside of the trial, which exonerated the accused of any guilt in killing HBC governor Semple at the Battle, the overarching thing that I discovered—much to my dismay—was that Toronto was not the traditional territory of the Metis because it was merely a travel stopover on the way to somewhere else. As hard as I looked I found no trace of a Metis settled community in or around York at any time in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. However bare, I used this scant evidence to defend my cause, but most of it, I admit, was conjecture, historical smoke and mirrors.

After the U.S. Embargo Act of 1807, the 1814 Treaty of Ghent (which ended the War of 1812 and solidified the U.S.-Canada border for the first time), and the formation of the mono-conglomerate HBC (which amalgamated the HBC and the NWC into one powerful company and took all but a trickle of the fur trade to Hudson Bay away from the older Montreal River system on which the Toronto Carrying Place lay), Toronto’s long connection to the fur trade was snuffed out overnight.[8] After 1821 trade no longer ran through Toronto, and—according to the historical record—Metis stopped coming here as well.

It is true: some wealthy “country born” Metis did send their grandchildren and children to the Toronto region to be educated in the 1830s and ’40s—a reflection of their ephemeral connection to York during the NWC period. They almost always returned west or assimilated in one generation into Upper Canadian Anglo society, however, which meant they lost their Metis culture and political identity.[9] Thus, these Metis sons and daughters gradually ceased to be Metis. Remember, as Chris Andersen doggedly reminds us, being Metis is not about racial mixing alone. Rather, it’s about community, collective political will, and ongoing connections to culture and practice. These pillars of Metis ethnogenesis and peoplehood did not exist after the Metis assimilated in Toronto and surrounding region (or at least that’s what my research showed me).

So what does all this mean?

Well, to be frank, and also historically correct: Toronto is not the traditional homeland of the Metis. This is a historically incorrect claim. It is also very harmful to Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, and Wendat peoples who are fighting for recognition of their land, a struggle within which land acknowledgements form an important part. Though the Metis traveled through Toronto and had a considerable presence, it is wrong and immoral to say Toronto is traditional Metis territory.

In lieu of all these facts, on November 22, 2016 I went to a joint meeting of the Aboriginal Community Advisory Committee and TDSB to present my research on the Toronto Metis in an effort to correct the mistaken Toronto Metis land acknowledgement. I also did it as a favour to my friend who first approached for advice on the problem. Tasha, I got you.

When I arrived I was relieved to see that I had back up. Tera Beaulieu, the President of the Toronto York Region Metis Council (TYRMC) had pre-emptively sent a letter to the ACAC committee conveying much of the information I have shared above, which makes sense, as we had talked and decided—based on my research—that Toronto was not the traditional nineteenth-century territory of the Metis and should not be remembered as such. Words from Metis-Cree educator Tanya Senk, testimony from Metis Marilyn Hew of the TYRMC, thoughts from knowledge keeper Blu Waters, and insights from Anishinaabeekwes Janine Manning and Lena Recollet all supported the position of dropping Metis from the traditional land acknowledgment of the TDSB. By the end of the meeting it seemed to me that, as a team, we had intervened in a positive way to stop Metis from being wrongly included. All members at the meeting agreed that the traditional land acknowledgement will now only include the Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabee, and Wendat, and that the Metis will be recognized as having an historical presence in Toronto.

Only time and training resources will tell if the TDSB will actually get around to changing the land misrecognition, or if they actually listen to history. As it stands now, things appear hopeful.

Jesse Thistle is a PhD student in History at York University. He is Métis-Cree-Scot from northern Saskatchewan, but was raised in Toronto. Jesse is a Trudeau and Vanier scholar, as well as a Governor General Silver Medalist. He also sits as the national representative for Indigenous Homelessness in Canada for the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.


[1] W. D. Smith, “Ross, James (1835-71),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, (2003) Web. (Date accessed: November 28, 2016). http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/ross_james_1835_71_10E.html

[2] Jacqueline Petersen, “Red River Redux: Metis Ethnogenesis and the Great Lakes Region,” in Contours of a People: Metis Family, Mobility, and History, eds., Nicole St-Onge, Carolyn Podruchny, and Brenda Macdougall. (Norman: Oklahoma Press, 2012), 3-22.

[3] Percy Robinson, “Yonge Street and the Northwest Company,” in Canadian Historical Review, XXIV, 256-57.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Edith G. Firth, “The Town of York 1793-1815,” (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962), 313.

[6] The Upper Canada Gazette. “Offences in the Indian Country,” October 29, 1818, Toronto Reference Library Archives and Pelham C. Mulvany, Toronto Past and Present Until 1882: A Handbook of the City. (Toronto: W. E. Caiger Publisher, 1884), 19-20 and Scadding, Henry. Toronto of Old: Collections and Recollections Illustrative of the Early Settlement and Social Life of the Capital of Ontario. (Toronto: Adam, Stevenson & Co, 1873), 289.

[7] Ibid, “Offences in the Indian Country.”

[8] Englebert, “Beyond Borders: Mental Mapping and the French River World in North America, 1763- 1805,” (PhD Diss. Department of Hist., University of Ottawa, 2010) ii and Embargo Act, “Embargo Act,  (1807),” on Encyclopedia Britannica website, (2014), Web. (Date Accessed: August 24, 2014) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/185515/Embargo-Act and Olive Patricia Dickason, and William Newbigging, A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations: Second Edition, (Toronto: Oxford Press, 2010), 146-47 and Robinson, “Yonge Street and the Northwest Company,” 253-265.

[9] Jennifer Brown, “Ultimate Respectabily: Fur-trade Children in the ‘Civilized World’: Part Two,” in The Beaver: Magazine of The North. Winter (1977), 54 and 53.

15 thoughts on “Listening to History: Correcting the Toronto Metis Land Acknowledgement

  1. Alison Norman

    Hey! I’m so glad you wrote this. I’ll be sharing it with my colleagues in the ministry working on Metis issues.

  2. Veronica Strong-Boag

    A good piece. thanks for this as another useful reminder that ideas change with further evidence!

  3. Gregg Powless

    LOL. Toronto is and never has been the traditional territory of the Wendat. The Haudenosaunee (North Shore Iroquois) have always lived on and controlled the north shores of the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario (and eastern Lake Erie). The Wendat peoples never came south of Barrie but the majority of their territory was Georgian Bay as far north as Parry Sound.

    If you can muddle through the Jesuit Relations for those periods you will find that they were rejected by the North Shore Iroquois along with the French. In order to reach the Wendat they had to change their travel routes to avoid contact with the Haudenosaunee. Ultimately their common travelway became the Ottawa-French River system.

    The pre-Royal Proclamation 1763 treaties also spell out that the British and Haudenosaunee were under treaty to keep the French and Algonquins out ot the Haudenosaunee territories – to protect the Haudenosaunee as the only merchant of resource goods traded from the north and west.

    Techanically the territory was not the traditional territory of the Mississauga except through the One Spoon-One Bowl Wampum they were invited down to hunt under the protection of the Haudenosaunee. However, that is another story.

    The Metis didn’t use the St. Lawrence / Lake Ontario travelway much after 1656 since one of the agreements under the One Spoon One Bowl was to occupy the lands to prevent the French and their Metis couriers from occupying the corridor from Lake Ontario to Mississagua traditional territory north of Superior and further for exclusive control of trade in North America.

  4. jadrianthistle@gmail.com

    The Metis did travel through York as I have indicated, and the Wendat did live here–the Parson’s site behind York University is but one archeological site. There is much documentation to prove it. This post is not about Haudansaunee politics or agendas, it’s about what the records have shown, and the Metis were here but stopped after the above mentioned factors.

  5. Gregg Powless

    The Metis incurisions were minimal.

    The Wendat were never here. Archaeological evidence says the “Huron” lived there BUT the name “Huron” was simply a name given by the Jesuits to distinguish the North Shore Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) from the Southern Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) they were all the same people. You’ll also find the place names are either Seneca or Cayuga and there are not direct correlations to the Wendat dialects.

    Pre-contact Haudenosaunee villages are all over southern Ontario. The most recent – a Seneca village dated to AD700 – was found in Burlington a couple of years ago. Before that there was a Cayuga village discovered in the Kawarthas in the mid 1990s that dates back to AD1200-1400.

    No doubt like most researchers you relied on written British history. British history was rewriten and altered by the Family Compact in the 1800’s to reinforce eminent domain and to circumvent the Royal Proclamation 1763 – which prohibited occupation, use or settlement upon ‘Indian lands”.

    Proper research includes reviewing the pre-RP1763 treaties and the journals prepared by British and American observers, as well as learning about the oral histories of the subjects you intend to discuss. I have been studying the North Shore Iroquois going on 30 years and can tell you that much of what is written – especially about the Haudenosaunee – is hogwash.

  6. jadrianthistle@gmail.com

    Hey, for what it’s worth, I’m not arguing with you, simply talking about Metis presence in Toronto and how it’s not our territory. I will let your Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabee, and Wendat peoples sort that out–not my place to debate anything outside of Metis presence. LOL

  7. Fat_Daddy_Cool

    Anyone that ends a open discussion on history with the term “hogwash”, only makes themselves appear to be the last one on the canoe with a hole, trying to bale the water while telling everyone else “see it isn’t sinking”

    And to clearly state they are many times that even the most intelligent of us have had to rethink and question our own work.. Stephen Hawkling had to admit that his theory on black holes destroying matter or information was flawed. I would say that he never ended a discussion with hogwash.

  8. Tsi Nikayen' Enonhne'

    Your fallacy argument adds nothing to the discussion. Go find a fight to sooth your soul.

  9. Fat_Daddy_Cool

    I am simply saying that a free and decent conversation on history should not have someone saying someone else’s hard work is hogwash. It demeans the work people put into research, it is a matter of respecting one another. Just comment that you don’t agree and provide your side of the argument. Reading his research or point of view was really interesting and possibly enlightening but completely lost any meaning when he commented that the Author’s article was Hogwash. Like calling someone else’s work like a painting or a carving as hogwash. If someone came along and said that the fine bead work done by an artisan as “Hogwash” or what I perceive it to be “Bull Shit”

    Respect is the greatest tool in a positive argument. Minds are not won with insults but with respect, knowledge and wisdom

  10. Gregg Powless

    Ah. So you have a reading deficit. I never called the article ‘hogwash’. Go back and read my original comment. I accept your apology in advance.

  11. Gregg Powless

    “Respect is the greatest tool in a positive argument. Minds are not won with insults but with respect, knowledge and wisdom”

    Facts have no need for respect. They are what they are whether it offends someone or not.

    I have no interest is competive discussions. The fact that you want to win minds over, is a sign of deep entrenchment in colonialism. And if you are in fact coming from that kind of deep entrenchment then you don’t understand the discussion.

  12. Fat_Daddy_Cool

    I am bit one to be to proud to say sorry, I did misread it and reacted poorly. I am completely and whole heartedly sorry.

  13. Victoria Freeman

    Jesse, I’m glad you have clarified what you discovered…and what you didn’t. Your explorations in that paper were original and, despite the controversy, worthwhile.

  14. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of November 27, 2016 | Unwritten Histories

  15. Victoria Freeman

    Debates about the exclusive or inclusive use of the term “Metis” aside, what was original about Jesse Thistle’s paper was the way he situated the Toronto area within the familial networks of the broader fur trade up to the 1820s or so, something that hadn’t been done before. Percy Robinson’s research had examined the early fur trade during the French regime with a little bit at the end up to the so-called Toronto Purchase of 1787, but Robinson mostly focused on the three French trading forts, their commanders, and relations with French authorities, without much of a sense of the fur traders on the ground and their relations who either worked in these trading posts or in or near the fledgling town of York, or transported goods or furs here or through here. We know almost nothing about local relations between fur traders and the Senecas and later Mississaugas whom they traded with. Jesse found some evidence that members of the same “mixed-blood” fur trade families involved in the fur trade elsewhere around the Great Lakes were also involved in the fur trade in the Toronto area, but concluded in his paper that a distinct Metis community did not evolve here, as it did elsewhere, and he explored some of the reasons why. So it was a little puzzling that a paper that concluded that a Metis community did not develop here came to be used to claim that Toronto was a Metis homeland. He also explored Toronto/York links to the western Metis, such as the trial over the Battle of Seven Oaks. All of this brings new dimensions to Toronto’s Indigenous history and asks new questions. Jesse’s research was definitely preliminary, however, it was an undergraduate essay, and he acknowledged more research needed to be done.

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