Humber Path honours First Nations' history

Plaques along the 'Shared Path' recognize role of native peoples

Tamara Shephard,

Toronto's newest Discovery Walk honours the extensive history of First Nations on the Humber River.

The Shared Path project weaves for 10 kilometres through the Humber River Valley and consists of 13 historical nodes that describe Canada's early history as it happened along the banks of the Humber River.

Cultural heritage and Humber River history recognize the historic presence of First Nations on the Humber, who were later followed by the French and the British.

La Societe d'histoire de Toronto initiated the project undertaken in partnership with Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) and the City of Toronto.

"We're trying to tell the story of how important the Humber River was to Canada's national development," said TRCA Humber River project manager Susan Robertson, who is also the Shared Path project manager.

"As a conservation authority, we try to protect our rivers and celebrate them. It's not only a watershed matter. Rivers matter today as much as they did 200 years ago when they were highways into the interior."

Last month, more than 100 people including representatives of Six Nations of the Grand River, Mississaugas of the New Credit and Huron-Wendat First Nations gathered on the east bank of the Humber River in Etienne Brule Park for the official unveiling of the First Nations' Shared Path.

Shared Path bilingual plaques detail Humber River history that stretches from being an ancient Aboriginal portage route to modern roads and railways, from First Nations' settlements to 18th century French trading posts and the beginnings of French Toronto, and from the ruins of water-powered mills to the birth of industrial Toronto.

Plaques include text written in First Nations' languages.

"(The project) dealt with our concerns around recognition that our people were there, too; recognizing that there were three founding nations on the Humber River," said Carolyn King, former elected chief of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, referring to First Nations, French and English settlers.

"As First Nations' people we've had our spaces lost and taken over by earlier settlers. This project is in a public park and the entire trail is accessible. Any one of us can go there."

The Shared Path project includes a large fire pit along the river in Etienne Brule Park.

"Already, we're talking about going down there and having ceremonies at the fire pit," said King, noting First Nations' people cannot typically conduct fire ceremonies in Toronto due to regulations.

The Humber River was designated a Canadian Heritage River in 1999. It is the only Canadian Heritage River in the Greater Toronto Area and the only one in Canada on a subway stop (The Old Mill), Robertson said.

Heritage Toronto officials liaised with First Nations, as well as with Etobicoke Historical Society, Swansea Historical Society, Randall Reid, senior programs officer with Montgomery's Inn, and Etobicoke York Preservation Panel members Madeleine McDowell and Mary Louise Ashbourne on the project, and also conducted historical research and wrote the material that appears on the plaques.

Consulting firm Archaeological Services Inc. assisted with areas of archaeological significance, particularly to First Nations.

"One of the reasons why Toronto was established where it is is because the Humber River was a shortcut to Georgian Bay and militarily important," explained Gary Miedema, chief historian and associate director with Heritage Toronto.

"The portage route was established perhaps thousands of years ago. It's such a smart route it was picked up by the British and Yonge Street replaced it. There is an 11,000-year human history in this area."

Miedema said he hopes the Shared Path Discovery Walk helps residents appreciate who came before them.

"When people begin to understand what happened in the area where they live, it becomes storied. People think, 'I'm not the first to live here.' It creates some humility and respect for the area and for who lived here. It gives people a sense of rootedness, a sense of place. It's a fabulous corridor in which to tell a series of stories."

Huron-Wendat First Nations' Heather Bastien, in charge of the project for Ontario, expressed enthusiasm for the recognition of her people in the area. The Huron-Wendat First Nation now resides in Quebec.

"There are two stories in Canada: French history and English history. Natives have been forgotten. But we also have a rich history," she said.

"I'd like people to understand our history. We're not strangers. We've been there 15,000 years BC. We had a confederacy, a real government. People think we were savages. But we weren't."

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