We asked community-engaged artists to respond to New Monuments in three commissioned interviews where they shared their research, work, and lived experience of the subject matter of the film. This is the first of three interviews in the series, conducted by Fiona Raye Clarke. New Monuments can be viewed for free on CBC Gem until Spring 2022.
Fiona Raye Clarke: With all your work teaching in and around Toronto through your Talking Treaties project, you have a lot of context behind what's happening in this piece. Could you talk about that first meeting [depicted in New Monuments], when settlers came to the shoreline?
Ange Loft: Yes, there are a lot of Toronto-specific visuals in the narrative and there are additional bits of information that I think could be useful and I can chat about a few of the concepts.
To start, Indigenous Sign Language would have been at play here, in the early phases of contact. There were language barriers between nations that were here. We all speak different dialects, we all can converse with our neighbors, but not necessarily with people that are far away. So it was kind of a network of interconnected languages... you understand your neighbor, your neighbor understands their neighbor, and so on - so the languages keep changing and shifting as we move along the rivers.
A lot of us are bound to rivers in this area, so you can't get anywhere unless you're traveling on a river which means you're traveling through a lot of people's territory. In a pre-contact time you'd be traveling really far distances to manage international trade between nations. That meant we had to have a shared, symbol-based language to communicate. Some people say that American Sign Language is actually based on indigenous sign languages. There's some public videos available from the Oneida Sign Language YouTube channel where I was learning about symbols for the concept of territory and ways to ask “what's your clan?” These are the questions you would need to ask to find your kin, to find people that were related to you to make sure that you were safe and part of a long history of relationships. When we introduce ourselves, we talk about our nation, our home, our clan. Sometimes we'll say who our parents are because that reveals so much about us. When we first met with European people, they noticed shared signs and hand gestures, up and down the whole coast all the way down into Florida, even down into the Caribbean. So movement to accompany our meaning was always a part of the way we welcomed people into the area.
FRC: Can you talk about the moment in the piece where the flag is planted?
AL: It was actually crosses that came first, before flags, across this region. Down the St. Lawrence river, at Montreal, where my people are from, the French put up a huge cross to signal their presence:
“1534, we had a cross made 30 feet high, which was put together in the presence of a number of Indians on the point of entrance at the harbor...a long board written in Gothic characters that said “long live the king of France”
All the French people knelt down with their hands joined up and they all worshipped it before these native folks. And then they made a sign looking up and pointing towards heaven. When these French people went away, they left their cross there.
“When we had returned to our ship, the chief, dressed in an old black bear skin, arrived in a canoe with three of his sons and his brother. He pointed to the cross and the chief made a long heurangue, making the sign of a cross with his two fingers, and then he pointed to all the land around and about, as if to say he wished that all of this region belonged to Him. And we ought not to have set up this cross without his permission.”
So we have this chief, yelling, “Why did you put this up here? This isn’t yours!” “Don't put your stuff up here without our permission, there isn’t free reign here.”
But that wasn’t the perspective of the French people. 50 years before coming to North America, the Portuguese go to North Africa, and they get permission to go and claim as much as they want, signed off by their King and the Pope. The British got the O.K. from King Henry VII in 1496.
We lost like two thirds of our population in this region in this time period between the contact and mid 1600’s, due to mostly diseases, some internal warfare, early problems with the fur trade, the arrival of European guns and weapons. One of the things that helped conversion to Christianity happen was new European illnesses. The missionaries were not getting sick, they already had immunity. So people see everyone else falling ill around them, while these missionaries who are praying every day and looking up at the sky, are not. They conclude that the medicines that the indigenous people have aren't working anymore, and so a lot of people end up being convinced to turn towards Christianity, out of the necessity of self-preservation, because they are under the impression that the Jesuit God works and ours doesn't.
FRC: Wow. Can you talk a little bit about the symbol of the eagle?
AL: Sure. The role of that eagle is to watch over our agreements, and to act swiftly if anything challenges the peace between us. There’s a network of meeting locations around Toronto, that would have been places of Council, where we’d keep up our agreements between our nations. For example, the narrows at Lake Simcoe, north of the city, there would have been a council fire there. Another council location is right on the Credit River, where the Mississaugas used to live. One of their main clans is the eagle, who in Anishnaabe clan-based governance structures is sometimes the external communicator - the people that negotiate with other people, other nations.
This area around Toronto is contentious: there are good things here that people want. We knew there would be trouble, and that’s why we have places to keep talking through our challenges. It’s the job of the eagle - to keep those conversations going. In the reading of the Eternal Council Fire Belt, sometimes called the Yellowhead belt, there's an eagle who is perched on top of a tall tree, and when they feel that tree shaking that means the unity of us all coming together and choosing to meet up regularly has been disrupted; something's disrupted the dish. There are processes for how we're supposed to deal with each other and come to one mind around a topic. There are land based markers and iconography, visuals that go along with the agreements. These are not physical, permanent monuments, they have to be kept standing through memory and continued acts of coming together. I just wonder: is the purpose of the one and done European style of monument making to create unity or to permanently rewrite, toward a certain vision of history?
FRC: Could you talk a little bit about the Toronto purchase?
AL: It's a long and complicated story that's been told lots of different ways and it’ll connect up three things that I see happening in New Monuments: gifts, rum, and murder. The gifts were promised to keep coming from the British in the Treaty of Niagara, it was remembered in an oral relating of the 24 Nations belt to be a promise from the British to provide physical goods:
“my children this is my canoe floating on the other side of the water. It shall never be exhausted but always full of the necessaries of life for you, my children, as long as the world shall last shouldn't happen any time after this that you find the strength of your life, reduced your Indian tribes must take hold of the vessel and pull… I will open my hand as it were and you will find yourself supplied with plenty.”
So there's this promise that's given by the British: when you guys are in trouble, we'll help you out; when you're hungry, we'll give you some food. It also included guns and ammunition and fabric. You need to have those because they support your way of living, especially in the changing environment. Later on, it becomes what we consider ‘the basket’, some minimal freebies we get for having to live under another’s government.
So, coming back to the Toronto purchase, all native nations in the area are really used to getting gifts on a regular basis. So, the British give the Mississaugas gifts, as was promised at Niagara, and at one point, a delivery of these ongoing gifts are considered payment for a huge portion of land, improperly surveyed between the rivers at Toronto. The “payment” includes 120 mirrors, because mirrors would have been something that are relatively new for Native people. And they're not nice mirrors; they're funky shiny metal mirrors. There's some lace hats, because everyone wants lace; floral fabric imported from India, that British women would wear. So then native people wanted it. Ammunition, some guns, and 96 gallons of rum.
Rum was produced in the northern British colonies of the day, before they became American colonies. Food and animals would be processed into dry goods in the north, then sent down to the Caribbean to feed enslaved folks living in the Caribbean, who would cut sugarcane. The sugarcane would be processed into molasses, then the molasses would be sent to the northern colonies and made into rum. Then these colonies would use that rum to give as gifts to Native people around here. Then the native people would sign treaties. And you know, it's a lot easier to get a signature when somebody is drinking. So there are a lot of those old connections that influenced the land dealings at Toronto. There were 96 gallons of rum as part of that deal, and the rum just kept flowing.
So in 1796, the British go and try to survey the lands they want to claim. They never complete the survey, because there is a difference in understanding between the Three Chiefs who are there and the surveyor. Somehow, this document gets the Dodem (Clan) signatures from the three chiefs, actually signed on three separate pieces of paper and glued onto the original survey document, so we don't know if they signed that survey or if they just signed on a random piece of paper. The incomplete survey goes into a file in Britain and it lives there for almost 10 years. And throughout that time nobody knows that the survey of Toronto was actually not really complete.
The native people thought of the rivers as natural boundaries between their territories, and the British people were imposing these invisible straight lines as borders. The Mississaugas thought that they would be able to continue to traverse through the area and hunt as they needed. They would be able to keep using some of the fishing locations that they'd always had along all the flats of the rivers in and around Toronto. This starts changing really quickly - fences go up; chunks of these lands are parceled off to farmers, before they actually finish the survey. Eventually, the British noticed none of this was official, but didn’t make that information public.
Now for the murder. There's a very popular story in Toronto about Wabakinine, and many versions of it exist. Wabakinine, his sister and his wife were hanging out with some soldiers at the St. Lawrence Market. They have a few drinks, and they go down to the Toronto Island area, and the soldiers pursue them because they are trying to pick up Wabakinine’s sister. She refuses their advances. At some point the sister is attacked by a soldier and Wabakinine comes running out of his tent to protect her along with his wife. Wabakinine gets killed in this tussle between him and the soldier, and then later on his wife dies of injuries, also from that fight. Wabakinine was one of the main chiefs for the Mississaugas, and one who “signed” the survey document. The Missisguas are mad about his death, on top of the other problems facing their community… there's looting of grave sites, of their village, their town is being harassed by settlers, and there's already contentions over the fish and how much is being taken from waterways. So now you have this British soldier who's whisked off to Kingston to keep him safe. And the York people, they're so afraid for their lives, they actually fortify their garrison — Fort York — to help in case of the Mississaugas attack, which never happens.
All three chiefs who were said to have signed with their dodem marks died between the first survey and the confirmation in 1805. So by the time the Mississaugas arrive to the confirmation they say: “All the chiefs who sold the land you speak of are dead and gone... we cannot absolutely tell what our old people did before, except but what we see on the plans now produced. And what we have been told.”
The British get them to sign away a massive chunk of land, which goes all the way up to Newmarket, almost touching up to Lake Simcoe. It’s a massive land grab. After the purchase, this whole region around Lake Ontario was now clear for British people to move into. And then very soon after that, all of that gets parceled out to other farmers and other people. Then the Mississaugas feel the pressure of how many settlers are flooding into the area.
Later on, in 2010, the Mississaugas won their land claim settlement. There was a cap on how much money the federal government was willing to part with, it used to be $150 million. And if you think about that in relation to houses in Toronto, that's not a lot of houses, you know. But what the federal government did was deduct all of the lawyers fees going back to the 1800s from the final settlement figure. And all of the expenses for all of those gifts, including the 96 gallons of run, the mirrors, the fabric, the hats - that was all tallied up and deducted from the settlement price, so they got it kicked down $5 million, knocked off for the cost of those old presents. So Canada's still fighting native people on a regular basis, paying for both sides of the legal battle sometimes. Like, the government is paying to legislate us out of the way with our own money.
FRC: How do you deal with the difficulty of doing this research. And what are your thoughts on the sort of standard representations of Indigenous history?
AL: When we talk about indigenous history we often get stuck either in the beginning or the end. And in a way, it gets really dark in the middle. After the 1830s and then through the Indian Act, it gets to this point that I don't like researching it. I love researching the times just before that, where we're still at least talking together. But we often only talk about the traumatic histories, especially in Canadian history books, focusing on the conflict between indigenous nations, and leaving it there, like there was no resolve. We have wampum records of the times we made peace, and oral memories of promises made to each other made in councils. They might not be monuments, as we think of them now, but they mark monumental moments, to be remembered in our own way.
FRC: What monuments do you think we should be creating in the future?
AL: It's funny because my relationship to monuments itself is like, I don't want to see another statue. What's the living art aspect of the work, the alternatives, things we can do in public spaces that would bring people to this rounder vision of being together, as opposed to letting a monument try to detail that?
The first monuments that would have showed up here were giant crosses that people would kneel down in front of and worship, so they're actually public artworks that have an engagement component. The visual of the giant cross was to import a whole worldview and system onto you. Maybe it’s just not the time to do that anymore. I think we don’t need to make more monuments to counter the existing monuments. I don't think it's useful to replace them with statues of contemporary people of color. It might just be because we're in a different phase of engagement with the way that we remember history. Permanency seems passé these days.
There are some public art pieces I'd like to see, but does that mean that we have to keep pulling more minerals out of the ground to make these statues? I would like to see places where we can come together for counsel, places where communities are asked to speak with each other, on purpose. I think democracy falls apart when we don't speak a common language and can't communicate between each other. And there is so much more work to do, other than memorialize. I think we're in a different phase, we need to do things that cause more exchange as opposed to more static visions of the past, and I don't know what that looks like.
ANGE LOFT is an interdisciplinary performing artist and initiator from Kahnawake Kanienkehaka Territory, working in Toronto. She is an ardent collaborator, consultant, facilitator and mentor working in storyweaving, arts based research, wearable sculpture and Haudenosaunee history.
FIONA RAYE CLARKE is an award-winning Trinidadian-Canadian screenwriter and community-engaged artist. Her co-created short film, Intersecting screened at the CaribbeanTales International Film Festival and the Queer National Arts Festival. She was the winner of the CineFAM Short Film Challenge and a top ten finalist for the Magee TV Diverse Screenwriters Award. Her co-created kids animated series, MIXED UP, was a recipient of the CBC/Radio-Canada and Canada Council for the Arts Creation Accelerator and is currently in development.