Indigenous culture thrives in the GTA…but you don’t often see it


Living in the GTA, Indigenous culture is next to invisible, and it is not an accident. “It’s almost as if people see us in the past, like in this historical context. But no, we’re actually here now, thriving to this day,” said Elijah Williams.

Entrance to the Centre for Indigenous Learning and Support

The land before Colonialism

Williams, the head of the Sheridan Centre for Indigenous Learning and Support, explained that the territory that we now live on used to be a type of trading route for multiple Indigenous nations. The land was mostly used by the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nations people, but it was also shared by the Anishnaabe people, the Haudenosaunee people, and the Huron people. Williams said that the land was probably used by many other groups, but since there was not anyone recording the information back then, it is impossible to know for sure.

The Toronto purchase

In 1787, a representative of the British Crown met with the Mississaugas of the Credit people and claimed to have bought a large portion of land in what is now the GTA. When the deed to the land was uncovered years later, it was a blank document that had no specifics about any form of purchase, which led to the assumption that the land was simply stolen. The Crown acknowledged the lack of legal legitimacy of this purchase but waited another 10 years before making another deal with the Mississaugas of the Credit people. In 1805 they officially purchased just over 1015km2 of land for 10 shillings. The equivalent in 2019 would be purchasing almost all of Etobicoke, Toronto, North York, York, and Vaughn for around $75 Canadian.

Map of GTA treaties and price of the Toronto Purchase.

Erasing the culture

Williams said the main reason we are not surrounded by as much Indigenous culture as we should be is the systemic destruction of the Indigenous people and their culture. “Since Confederation, it was the goal of Sir John A. Macdonald to get rid of Indigenous people by any means necessary. So, the Indian Act was created with that goal, residential schools were created with that goal, and the fact that residential schools lasted until 1996 shows a prime example of where things are with the relationship with Indigenous people,” he added.

New medicine wheel Toronto sign at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto.
Photo taken by @JohnTory on Twitter.

The Canadian education system is often to blame for lack of knowledge of Indigenous issues. David Oskroba grew up in Oakville, and after graduating from St. Ignatius of Loyola Catholic High School, he went on to get a degree in Political Science from Guelph University, where he became aware of Canada’s true past: 

“High school did a terrible job teaching us about Indigenous people. Grade 7 and grade 8 told us about the classic hunter-gatherer information about the Indigenous people in the 1600s and 1700s, but after that, we basically didn’t learn a thing,” Oskroba explained. This, unfortunately, is not a very unique story.

Although the awareness of Indigenous culture is still a Canada-wide issue, it is much more prevalent in some places compared to others. I grew up in Oakville as well, but once it was time to go to university, I chose Laurentian in Sudbury, Ontario. Though I was only four hours north from my home, the culture I was surrounded by was something completely new. In the four years I lived in Sudbury, I took multiple Indigenous studies classes, attended ceremonies, and even worked with an elder.

Once I returned to Oakville permanently, the differences were jarring. Other than the Centre of Indigenous Learning and Support here at Sheridan, there are not many Indigenous monuments or establishments in Oakville. Even when browsing the very large archive belonging to the Oakville Historical Society, there is no information on the Indigenous people who lived here before. The Oakville Historical Society did not respond when asked about their lack of information.

Inuksuk by Lake Ontario in Oakville, Ontario.
Photo by @JPwashere on Instagram.

Awareness is a small step in the direction of reconciliation, but there are many more steps to go. There are plenty of events and opportunities for education organized by Sheridan’s Centre for Indigenous Learning and Support. For more information, visit their office on the Trafalgar campus in B-127.

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