The Indigenous City: Indigeneity and Toronto’s Past and Present

“We had a beautiful day; the eagles came, and we couldn’t have asked for a better day to do what we had to do,” Konrad Sioui, grand chief of the Huron-Wendat Nation, told a 2013 audience after laying to rest 1,760 of the tribe’s ancestors in their final resting place at the University of Toronto.

Dug up during suburban development in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, the ossuaries of these Indigenous peoples were replaced by subdivisions, and the remains sent to the University of Toronto for cataloguing and storage. However, the Huron-Wendat people did not learn of the exhumation of their ancestors until 2010. “There are a couple thousand of our people waiting to return home,” Huron-Wendat Clan Chief Gaetan Sioui told reporters the same year. “When we went to see them, we almost cried to see our ancestors lying in dusty boxes for so long.” From the outset, the Huron-Wendat leadership struck a tone that expressed grief over the treatment of their ancestors but also a desire to ensure a proper burial. “We want to work with the university to repatriate the remains and rebury them back in their place in a respectful manner,” Gaetan Sioui told the Toronto Star in 2010.

Toronto University, Toronto, Canada, 1900, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The repatriation of the Huron-Wendat to their ancestral home, where the University of Toronto now sits, has coincided with a greater awareness of the historical and current presence of Indigenous peoples in Toronto. It is worth exploring the arc of this history both as a means to highlight the contributions of Indigenous peoples to urban North America, as well as to better understand how this past reverberates for the estimated 13,000 to 15,000 aboriginal residents in Toronto, and over 31,000 in the Greater Toronto Area.[1]

At various points in history, Toronto’s Indigenous populations included Wendats (Hurons), Tionnontati (Petuns), Senecas, and the Mississaugas (Ojibwa, Chippewa, Anishinaabeg). Mississauga New Credit First Nation elder Peter Schuler speaking in Nathan Phillips Square during the 175th anniversary celebration of the city’s incorporation noted that Toronto served as resting place and departure point for the Anishinaabeg during their “Great Migration” east. “We stayed quite a while [but] in 1847 we were removed from this place … I’m asked to come and celebrate this city but the city itself kind of moved us out.”[2]

The knowledge of this history, let alone admission of any culpability regarding the plight of Indigenous people in Toronto, often eludes Torontonians, though among urban residents of North America this state of affairs is hardly unique. “The invisibility of local Indigenous history is a common North American settler colonial phenomenon,” writes York University Professor Victoria Freeman. Indigenous peoples frequently make a brief appearance, presented as a pre-history presence, then promptly “exit stage left after treaty or battle” in official narratives.[3] While academic historians such as Freeman, Donald B. Smith, Leo Johnson, and Alan Taylor have addressed the intervening history of Canada’s and, sometimes more specifically, Toronto’s Indigenous peoples from the treaty to today, so far their insights have failed to penetrate the broader public.

For example, the aforementioned Mississauga tribe of New Credit received only ten shillings for the 250,880 acres that eventually bloomed into the city we recognize today, yet many history books make no mention of the treaty or sale, an odd omission considering that, as Freeman notes, the “confirmed treaty is the foundation for Toronto’s legal existence, and since 1986 that treaty has been subject to a land claim.”[4] Even more telling, argues Freeman, is the 1834 incorporation of Toronto that the city uses as its historical commemoration point, which obscures the importance of native peoples. After all, the Treaty of Toronto, signed in 1787, briefly revoked in 1794, then reasserted or “confirmed” in 1805, represents the city’s origin.[5] Pegging celebrations to incorporation, argues Freeman, simultaneously frames the settlers as indigenous and the “symbolic deed to Toronto’s modernity.”[6]

Observers over a century earlier engaged in similar erasure. Residents such as Anne Jameison laced their narratives with the usual racism: “I can no more conceive a city filled with industrious Mohawks and Chippewas, than I can imagine a flock of panthers browsing in a penfold.”[7] Others, like German visitor Johann Kohl, shrouded their explanations of the declining presence of native peoples in Toronto in Orientalism. Though once abundant, by 1855, the city’s Indigenous peoples, Kohl wrote, had “vanished like the morning mist, and nothing remains to recall even their memory, but the well sounding name they invented for this locality – the sonorous Toronto.”[8] Kohl’s observation, like those of other Europeans travelling in North America, made the disappearance of Indigenous peoples seem mysterious, almost mystical, when ultimately colonial government policy, disease, and settler expansion had driven them out.

Sketch of the entrance into Lake Ontario, Upper Canada Octr. 15 1813, Geography and Maps Division Library of Congress.

From the late eighteenth into the early nineteenth centuries, the Mississauga population in Toronto plummeted by two-thirds, from 500 in 1778 to less than 200 by 1818. Those who remained attempted to adapt; they converted to Methodism, gave up alcohol and turned to husbandry, but even with these efforts they still failed to secure permanent land rights. Eventually, the Mississaugas departed Credit River in 1847 for refuge provided to them by the Six Nations in a corner of territory that earlier had been ceded to the British in 1784 “for use by the Six Nations loyalist refugees forced from their homelands during the American Revolution.” Afterwards, native peoples only appeared in Toronto culture as exotic Others passing through as part of the occasional “Wild West” show or as craft vendors at the Ontario Industrial Exhibition.[9]

By 1884, Toronto had ascended as one of Canada’s most important cities: the capital of Ontario with 86,000 residents “and a rapidly industrializing lake port and railway hub, a regional center on its way to becoming a national metropolis.”[10] Nineteenth-century cities represented “an unprecedented urban space in the New World, signifying a key moment in both empire and modernity,” argues historian Penelope Edmonds. [11] Notably, this moment came six years after the passage of Canada’s Indian Act of 1876, which effectively made Indigenous peoples wards of the state. Using the 1834 incorporation of the city as the official marker of Toronto’s birth served as an encapsulation of both impulses: western progress through industrialization and capitalism and the subjugation of Indigenous peoples under a benevolent government led by European settlers.[12]

1884 Commeration Programme courtesy of Hathi Trust

The public commemoration held in 1884 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the city’s incorporation portrayed Indigenous peoples as undone by governmental altruism or “conquest through benevolence.” The Upper Canada government eventually subsumed the Mississauga tribe (and others) and forced Indigenous peoples into a dependent relationship with the state, which functioned to disrupt trade and political alliances held with other tribes. Concurrently, the Mississauga witnessed the dissolution of their hunting and fishing areas due to colonial expansion.[13] Disease and alcoholism among members of the Nation further contributed to their decline. Native peoples faced similar policies and experiences in the United States.


Toronto’s largely Anglo population viewed the remaining Indigenous population in Toronto as “invisible or too ‘civilized’ to still be considered Indians, whereas ‘authentic’ Indigenous people came to be seen as exotic Others outside of modernity and the historical trajectory of Toronto.” Real native peoples lived in northern and western regions of the nation, prime candidates for the civilizing force of Christianity and capitalism. “Toronto artists such as Paul Kane could paint them, Toronto’s men of letters could study them anthropologically, and Toronto’s businessmen, political leaders, and imperialists could call for the annexation of their land,” writes Freeman.[14]

In this vein, the week-long semi-centennial celebration in 1884 sought to emphasize Toronto’s “material and social progress,” thereby projecting an “image of prosperity and social harmony” as means to attract more tourism and investment dollars. Thousands of people attended. “It seemed the entire population of the province had made it a special point to be present,” noted one participant.[15]

Historians of the day, such as William Caniff and Henry Scadding, presented a history of the city devoid of Indigenous peoples and lobbied for annexation of surrounding lands. Daniel Wilson, the inaugural professor of history and English literature at the University of Toronto served as Orator of the Day for the parade commemorating incorporation, during which he narrated a history of a city awash in virtue and goodwill, ignoring the very unequal relations established by colonialism. For Wilson, Toronto represented a blank slate upon which its Anglo residents could write history. “[T]here is nothing to efface, to undo, to desecrate,” he asserted. “The new past is despised; the old past is altogether unheeded; and for antiquity there is neither reverence nor faith.”[16]

1884 Semi-Centennial Celebration Programme courtesy of Hathi Trust

As evidenced by newspaper coverage of the event, the parade held to the usual tropes historians have come to recognize. “One is unconsciously taken back to the unhewn forests, and brought forward, step by step, through gradual processes of our ever growing civilization until we behold Toronto, the Queen City of a great Province, the cent[er] of a thriving, populous agricultural district, a growing, stirring, unresting metropolis, the proud possessor of colleges of national repute, indomitable commercial pluck and enterprise, and vast material wealth,” gushed the Globe. The narrative, loosely summarized, goes something like this: Indigenous peoples, recognizing the superiority of their British counterparts, willingly made way “for a virtuous and lawful British society, which in turn offered unprejudiced opportunity to multicultural immigrants … a representation of history as Torontonians wished it might have been.”[17]

Despite coerced migration and historical erasure, post-1945 Toronto witnessed a return of Indigeneity, though not necessarily from the native peoples that once inhabited Toronto. Rather, Indigenous persons from across the world have resettled in the city and, much like their non-Indigenous counterparts, are equally “multicultural, cosmopolitan, and diasporic.”[18] Indigenous scholars and persons have noted this development. In a series of lectures spanning May and June of 2006, Toronto architect, historian, and Mohawk of Six Nations of the Grand River William Woodworth expanded on this point. “In a place still named in the language of the Ancestors, peoples from virtually every part of the world find refuge in Toronto,” he reflected. “The time has come to recover and refresh these old responsibilities in this special place which is nurturing a powerful form of global community.”[19]

From 2013 Huron-Wendat Day celebration courtesy of Torontoist

Changes in attitudes have been gaining momentum, but the larger movement took time. Nearly a decade before Woodworth’s lectures, in 1997, Wendat scholar and activist Michel Gros-Louis of Wendake, Quebec persuaded the Royal Ontario Museum to repatriate bones excavated during the 1930s from a Midland, Ontario, ossuary to their original site. It resulted in the first Wendat Feast of Souls in 350 years and invigorated advocacy by Indigenous peoples across Canada, including in Toronto.[20] The affect of this activism extends beyond repatriation of ancestral remains. For example, in 2013, Heritage Toronto organized a historical bike tour as part of larger efforts to commemorate the Parsons site community, a Huron Wendat settlement first excavated in the 1950s. Toronto’s municipal government declared June 15 Huron-Wendat day, and descendants from the community spoke to onlookers at a public event attended by the mayor. “We must never forget that our ancestors have walked, lived and died in the Greater Toronto Area and in the Great Lakes area,” Konrad Sioui told the audience. “The Huron-Wendat Trail is a positive reminder of our past, present and future presence in our unceded ancestral lands.”

slider-logo.pngFor interested Torontonians and tourists, the city does offer several chances to delve into this history. Trent University historian Alison Norman advises that one should begin with Native Canadian Centre of Toronto (NCCT), which provides both a space for Indigenous peoples in the city and for non-Indigenous folks who want to learn more about this history and culture. If one isn’t able to visit the NCCT, the Centre for Community Mapping has created the First Story app, which “provides intriguing and useful information about particular sites around the city that are either important historically or that play a crucial role in Indigenous culture today.”

While the city still lacks a museum specifically dedicated to its Indigenous past, the First People gallery at the Royal Ontario Museum exhibits more than 1000 artifacts, “including works of art by Indigenous men and women from the past up to the present, amazing preserved artifacts from across the country, and pieces of art by non-Indigenous people like Paul Kane depicting what Indigenous peoples and their homes looked like centuries ago.” Admittedly, the focus on Toronto’s Indigenous population at ROM could be more concentrated, notes Freeman.

One can hope, and perhaps fervently believe, that in a city where over half of its residents are foreign born, Torontonians are very much aware that where people live might not have been where they started. The loss of homeland, be it from persecution or economic deprivation, is a theme that undoubtedly resonates with a great number of Toronto’s inhabitants. Perhaps when paired with the efforts of advocates like Gaetan and Konrad Sioui, historians, and engaged Torontonians, the role played by Indigenous people and their continued contributions to the city’s urban culture might become part of the larger narrative for residents and visitors alike.

Toronto’s example remains another star in a constellation of colonial settler narratives. The larger point here is that we must fully face the problematic history of European expansion in North America and elsewhere, telling more expansively the story of settlement by highlighting the role of Indigenous peoples in order to grasp more fully the arc of history and better understand the cities we live in today.

As always, what follows below is our best attempt at a Toronto bibliography. While not comprehensive, we hope readers can add titles we might have missed in the comments section. Also, a big thank you to historians Jennifer Bonnell and Daniel Ross for their help in compiling said bibliography.


York [later Toronto], on Lake Ontario, published between 1800 and 1830, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


Bunch, Adam, and Shawn Micallef. The Toronto Book of the Dead. Toronto: Dundurn, 2017.

Hayes, Derek. Historical Atlas of Toronto. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2008.

Lorinc, John, Michael McClelland, Ellen Scheinberg, Tatum Taylor, eds. The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto’s First Immigrant Neighbourhood. Toronto: Coach House, 2015.

Lorinc, John, Jane Farrow, Stephanie Chambers, eds. Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2017.

Micallef, Sean. Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2010.

Smardz Frost, Karolyn. I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007.

Young, Phyliss. The Torontonians: A Novel. Toronto: Longmans, Green, 1960.

Toronto from the bay, 1901, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


Armstrong, Frederick H. Making Toronto Modern: Architecture and Design, 1895-1975. Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014.

Belisle, Donica. “Exploring Postwar Consumption: The Campaign to Unionize Eaton’s in Toronto, 1948-1952,” The Canadian Historical Review 86, no. 4 (2005): 641-672.

Bocking, Stephen. “Constructing Urban Expertise: Professional and Political Authority in Toronto, 1940-1970.” Journal of Urban History 33, no. 1 (2006): 51–76.

Anders Sandberg, Ken Cruickshank, eds. Urban Explorations: Environmental Histories of the Toronto Region. Toronto: NiCHE, 2013.

Bonnell, Jennifer. Reclaiming the Don: An Environmental History of Toronto’s Don River Valley. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014.

Brushett, Kevin. “‘People and Government Travelling Together’: Community Organization, Urban Planning and the Politics of Post-War Reconstruction in Toronto, 1943–1953.” Urban History Review/Revue d’histoire urbaine 27, no. 3 (1999): 44-58.

——. “’Where Will the People Go’: Toronto’s Emergency Housing Program and the Limits of Canadian Social Housing Policy, 1944-1957,” Journal of Urban History 33, no. 3, (2007): 375-399.

Churchill, David. “American Expatriates and the Building of Alternative Social Space in Toronto, 1965–1977.” Urban History Review/Revue d’histoire urbaine 39, no. 1 (2010): 31-44.

Davies, Stephen. “Reckless Walking Must be Discouraged: The Automobile and the Shaping of Urban Canada to 1930.” Urban History Review/Revue d’histoire urbaine 18 no. 2 (1989): 123-38.

Fernandes, Gilberto. “‘Beyond the ‘Politics of Toil’: Collective Mobilization and Individual Activism in Toronto’s Portuguese Community, 1950s–1990s.” Urban History Review/Revue d’histoire urbaine, 39, no. 1 (2010): 59-72.

Frager, Ruth. Sweatshop strife: class, ethnicity, and gender in the Jewish labour movement of Toronto, 1900-1939. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.

Freeman, Victoria. “Indigenous Hauntings in Settler Colonial Spaces: The Activism of Indigenous Ancestors in the City of Toronto,” in Phantom Past, Indigenous Presence: Native Ghosts in North American Culture and History. Eds. Colleen E. Boyd and Cole Thrush. University of Nebraska Press, 2011: 209-254.

Freeman, Victoria. “‘Toronto Has No History!’ Indigeneity, Settler Colonialism and Historical Memory in Canada’s Largest City.” Urban History Review 38, no. 2 (Spring 2010): 21–35.

Premium Gas, Toronto, Ontario, photograph by John Margolies, 1977, Prints and Photographs Division Library of Congress

Harris, Richard. Unplanned Suburbs: Toronto’s American Tragedy, 1900 to 1950. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1996.

——-. “Using Toronto to explore three suburban stereotypes,” Environment and Planning A 47, no. 1 (2015): 30-49.

Henderson, Stuart. Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.

Iacovetta, Franca. Such Hardworking People: Italian Immigrants in Postwar Toronto. Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992.

Jenkins, William. Between Raid and Rebellion: The Irish in Buffalo and Toronto, 1867-1919. Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013.

Klemek, Christopher. “From Political Outsider to Power Broker in Two ‘Great American Cities’: Jane Jacobs and the Fall of the Urban Renewal Order in New York and Toronto,” Journal of Urban History 34, no. 2 (2008): 309-332.

Lewis, Robert and Paul Hess. “Refashioning urban space in postwar Toronto: the Wood-Wellesley redevelopment area, 1952–1957.” Planning Perspectives 31, (2016): 563-84.

Mackintosh, Phillip Gordon. Newspaper City: Toronto’s Street Surfaces and the Liberal Press, 1860-1935 Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017.

Moore, Peter W. “Public Services and Residential Development in a Toronto Neighborhood, 1880-1915,” Journal of Urban History 9, no. 4 (1983): 445-471.

——. “Zoning and Neighbourhood Change. The Annex in Toronto, 1900-1970.” The Canadian Geographer 26, no. 1 (1982): 21-36.

Paterson, Ross. “The Development of an Interwar Suburb: Kingsway Park, Etobicoke,” Urban History Review 13 1985: 225-235.

Penfold, Steve. “The Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade and the Making of a Metropolitan Spectacle, 1905–1982.” Social History/Histoire Sociale 87, (May 2011): 1-28.

Qadeer, Mohammed, S.K. Angrawal and A. Lovell. “Evolution of Ethnic Enclaves in the Toronto Metropolitan Area, 2001-2006,” International Journal of Migration and Integration 11, (2010): 315-319.

Relph, Edward. Toronto: Transformations in a City and its Region. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.

Urban Toronto, photograph by Amanda Catching, September 2, 2019 courtesy of flickr

Sandberg, L. Anders, Gerda R. Wekerle and Liette Gilbert. The Oak Ridges Moraine Battles. Development, Sprawl, and Nature Conservation in the Toronto Region. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010.

Smith, Donald B. Mississauga Portraits: Ojibwe Voices from Nineteenth Century Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013.

Stanger-Ross, Jordan. Staying Italian: Urban Change and Ethnic Life in Postwar Toronto and Philadelphia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2011.

Strange, Carolyn. Toronto’s Girl Problem: The Perils and Pleasures of the City, 1880-1930. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.

Kensington Market, Toronto, photograph by Stephanie Swift, 2019 courtesy of flickr

Teaford, Jon C. “Jane Jacobs and the Cosmopolitan Metropolis: 2012 UHA Presidential Address,” Journal of Urban History 39, no. 5 (2013): 881-889.

Temby, Owen. “Trouble in Smogville: The Politics of Toronto’s Air Pollution during the 1950s.” Urban History 39, no. 4 (2012): 669-689.

Toney, Jared. “Locating Diaspora: Afro-Caribbean Narratives of Migration and Settlement in Toronto, 1914–1929,” Urban History Review/Revue d’histoire urbaine 39, no. 1 (2010): 75-87.

Walks, Alan. “Inequality and Neighbourhood Change in the Greater Toronto Region,” in Changing Neighbourhoods. Social and Spatial Polarization in Canadian Cities. Eds. Jill Grant, Howard Ramos and Alan Walks. Vancouver: UBC Press, in press.

Weaver, John C. Crimes, Constables, and Courts: Order and Transgression in a Canadian City, 1816-1970. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press, 1995.

White, Richard. Planning Toronto: The Planners, the Plans, Their Legacies. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2016.

—–. “Urban Renewal Revisited: Toronto, 1950 to 1970.” Canadian Historical Review 97, no. 1 (Spring 2016): 1-33.

 Young, Jason. “Searching for a Better Way: Subway Life and Metropolitan Growth in Toronto, 1942-1978.” History PhD Thesis, York University, 2012.

Featured image (at top): A row of teepees in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square. The city and Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre hosted what came to be called the Indian Residential School Survivors Legacy Celebration in July 2019. Photo by Muriel Draaisma/CBC.

[1] Victoria Freeman, “Indigenous Hauntings in Settler Colonial Spaces: The Activism of Indigenous Ancestors in the City of Toronto,” in Phantom Past, Indigenous Presence: Native Ghosts in North American Culture and History, Eds. Colleen E. Boyd and Cole Thrush, (University of Nebraska Press, 2011) 217. See also, Alison Norman, “A Guide to Indigenous Toronto,” BlogTO, January 25, 2015,, who writes, “While the City puts the number around 19,000, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada put the number closer to 37,000. Some Indigenous groups in the city put the number even higher.

[2] Victoria Freeman, “Toronto Has No History! Indigeneity, Settler Colonialism, and Historical Memory in Canada’s Largest City,” Urban History Review Vol. 38, no.2 (Spring 2010), 21.

[3] Freeman, “Indigenous Hauntings in Settler Colonial Spaces,” 214.

[4] Freeman, “Indigenous Hauntings in Settler Colonial Spaces,” 214

[5] Freeman, “Indigenous Hauntings in Settler Colonial Spaces,” 214.

[6] Freeman, “Toronto Has No History!” 21.

[7] Freeman, “Toronto Has No History!” 22.

[8] Freeman, “Indigenous Hauntings in Settler Colonial Spaces,” 216.

[9] Freeman, “Indigenous Hauntings in Settler Colonial Spaces,” 220-221.

[10] Freeman, “Toronto Has No History!” 22.

[11] Quoted in Freeman, “Toronto Has No History!” 21-22.

[12] Freeman, “Toronto Has No History!” 21-22.

[13] Freeman, “Toronto Has No History!” 24, 26.

[14] Freeman, “Toronto Has No History!” 22-3.

[15] Freeman, “Toronto Has No History!” 23.

[16] Freeman, “Toronto Has No History!” 24.

[17] Freeman, “Toronto Has No History!” 25, 28.

[18] Freeman, “Indigenous Hauntings in Settler Colonial Spaces,” 222.

[19] Freeman, “Indigenous Hauntings in Settler Colonial Spaces,” 234.

[20] Freeman, “Indigenous Hauntings in Settler Colonial Spaces,” 225-226.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.