By Janice Bennink
“There is no way to undo the past, but with this historic settlement we can begin to write a new chapter together where trust is rebuilt, treaty rights are celebrated and our ongoing treaty relationship is strengthened.”
With these words, Carolyn Bennett, Federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, issued an apology in November on behalf of the federal government for the negative impacts of the 1923 Williams Treaties on seven Ontario First Nations. The treaties had enabled the government to acquire three enormous parcels of land in southern and central Ontario totaling 12,944,400 acres, stretching as far north as Sudbury and east to Pembroke.
This well-publicized apology followed the September 2018 settlement of a land claim called the Alderville litigation, first filed in 1992 by seven Williams Treaties First Nations. It finally resolved longstanding disputes and acknowledged that the Crown did not act honourably when making the treaties. The negotiated settlement included financial compensation, recognition of harvesting and land rights, and additional reserve lands.
Included in the Williams Treaties, yet not part of that 2018 settlement, is the Rouge Tract Claim, submitted in 2015 to the governments of Ontario and Canada by the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nations. The Mississaugas claim aboriginal title to the Rouge River Valley Tract (see map) and are seeking return of these lands.
The Rouge Tract (in which Centennial/West Rouge is located) was purportedly “surrendered” to the Crown by ancestors of the Mississauga nations in the 1788 Johnson-Butler Purchase. It is also known as the Gunshot Treaty, named because land was claimed as far back from the north shore of Lake Ontario as a person could hear a gunshot. The treaty included the north shore of Lake Ontario from the Trent River to the Etobicoke River.
There are few written records for the Gunshot Treaty. A blank deed of sorts was found, but it did not contain a description of the lands to be sold, and spaces were left, presumably to be filled in after proper surveys.
Documents about the Gunshot Treaty in the provincial archives include transcripts based on both Euro-Canadian observers and Aboriginal oral traditions. They show the clash of cultures that may have resulted in varying interpretations of the agreement. Even with an interpreter, there is some doubt that the concept of land “surrender” translated to Ojibway, and it may well have been understood as “shared.”
In 1837, Mississauga Ojibwa chief John Sunday told the story of the Gunshot Treaty to a British Commission as handed down through generations of his ancestors. According to Sunday, it was not intended that his people be deprived of their privileges of hunting, trapping and fishing, as it was a source of their livelihood.
Questions about the validity of the Gunshot Treaty remained until the 1923 negotiation of the Williams Treaties. Even though the Mississaugas of the Credit made claims that it had not been surrendered, the appointed Treaty Commissioners added Gunshot Treaty lands to the negotiations.
With much of the property already being used by the province, the federal and provincial governments moved quickly to secure Williams Treaty lands for a fraction of their value. Hunting and fishing rights were surrendered only to off-reserve lands.
The Mississaugas of the Credit were not a signatory of the Williams Treaty and were unaware that part of their territory was under discussion. In their 2015 claim, they maintain unextinguished aboriginal title to the Rouge River Valley Tract.
Land claims are a long process, and can take years following submission to be accepted for negotiation. While waiting for a decision, we can reflect on the Williams Treaties apology and its plea to “acknowledge past wrongs and the multifaceted impacts of colonialism.” Awareness and understanding of the Rouge Tract claim are one step on the path towards healing relationships with Indigenous peoples and our collective journey towards reconciliation.