By Megan Davies
When I first moved to Toronto in August 2014, I passed by a plaque on my running route at the intersection between Spadina and Davenport Roads, below the Baldwin Steps. I later came to understand this plaque as representative of the erasure of Indigenous trans-historical presence in this place, and in Toronto at large.
The plaque assumes a natural progression of Euro-Canadian settlement, without acknowledging the inherent violence of colonialism.
The “History of this Site” plaque, created by the City of Toronto, reads:
Directly below you are the 12,000-year-old shorecliffs of the great glacial Lake Iroquois, formed during the last ice age. Twenty-three metres high, this is the steepest part of the old bluffs running through the city just below St. Clair Avenue. All of Toronto below this point was once under water. An Indian trail connecting the Don and Humber Rivers wound its way along the foot of the hill. This shore line eventually became Davenport Road. These steep bluffs hampered the northward movement of early settlers. But as settlement progressed, much of the shorecliff was tamed and re-graded. A string of fine homes was built along its crest. In spite of these changes, the bluffs retained much of their imposing beauty. In 1913 a stairway was built on the Spadina Road alignment replacing an earlier wooden stairs. In recent times, this site was threatened by a proposal for a Spadina Expressway, with a tunnel beginning just below St. Clair Avenue, and exiting out of this hillside into a sweeping interchange. In 1971, the expressway was halted by the organized efforts of local residents. The Toronto Transit Commission's Spadina subway line was built deep beneath this site in 1980. The land on which the Baldwin Steps are located is now owned by the Province of Ontario and was leased back to the City of Toronto in 1984 for 99 years. The present steps were constructed by the City of Toronto in 1987 and were named to commemorate the Baldwin Family, whose land this once was.
Toronto has a long history of Indigenous occupation and use, dating back at least 11,000 years. About 10,000 years ago the Toronto landscape was part of what today many (but not all) refer to now as the “Toronto Carrying Place,” a network of canoe and portage routes that connected Lake Ontario to Georgian Bay and Lake Huron via the Lake Simcoe watershed (MacDonald 2008). As Iroquois Lake began to drain into the St. Lawrence River, the areas below the bluff became a beach and, over thousands of years, it was used in various ways by Indigenous peoples including as trails for hunting, fishing and much later on as an portage trail (MacDonald 2008: 24; Williamson 2008: 28). The Davenport Road portage trail is part of the landscape of the Toronto Carrying Place (Veilleux 2011) used by the Wendat, Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee peoples for access to resources, trade and possibly for raids well into the nineteenth century.
Beginning in the fur trade era, Europeans appropriated the Toronto Carrying Place, including the trail under Davenport Road, for their own uses. Later, British and other European settlers used the existing Indigenous trails, such as Davenport Road, as the foundations for settler roads into the St. Lawrence Market and downtown core, drawing on the infrastructure of the Toronto Carrying Place for colonial settlement and industrialization.
The City of Toronto plaque caught my interest because of the way it obscures much of what is known about the Indigenous use of this particular place. The strategic language used in the plaque is also striking. The plaque states that Davenport was originally an Indigenous trail but since then, “settlement progressed,” and surrounding the trail “a string of fine homes was built.” In stating this, the plaque assumes an untroubled natural progression from wilderness associated with its Indigenous trail (past) to the “taming” of the shorecliff to make way for early settlers (present). It also makes no references to the continued Indigenous presence in Toronto, or to the 2010 land claim settlement for the Mississaugas of the New Credit regarding the 1787–1805 Toronto Purchases, which effectively decreed that settler Torontonians had been squatters for over 200 years. The plaque normalizes a false narrative of colonial progress in its description of the road’s linear development from Indigenous trail to settlement, and erases the rich, complex and continued Indigenous presence around Davenport Road.
My encounter with this plaque and Davenport Road’s history upset me. It especially upset me because my white female body became complicit in the erasure of Indigenous presence, when I, like many other non-Indigenous Torontonians, used this trail as a running route for months without understanding it’s Indigenous history, or questioning the problematic colonial narrative representing it. If we want to be effective allies to Indigenous peoples, it is crucial that we make a concerted effort to understand the too-often concealed histories of the places where we walk, or eat, or work, or shop each day.
Photo: Megan Davies, used with permission.
Benn, Carl. 2008. Colonial Transformations. In Toronto: A Short Illustrated History of its First 12,000 Years, edited by Ronald F. Williamson, 53-72. James Lorimer & Company Ltd., Toronto.
City of Toronto. n.d. “History of this Site.” Commemorative Plaque. The Robert Baldwin Steps, Toronto.
MacDonald, Robert I. 2008. Toronto’s Natural History. In Toronto: A Short Illustrated History of its First 12,000 Years, edited by. Ronald F. Williamson, pp. 11-24. James Lorimer & Company Ltd., Toronto.
Veilleux, Annie. 2011. Knowing Landscape: Living, Discussing, and Imagining the Toronto Carrying Place. MA thesis. York University.
Williamson, Ronald F. 2008. Before The Visitors. In Toronto: A Short Illustrated History of its First 12,000 Years, edited by Ronald F. Williamson, pp. 25–52. James Lorimer & Company Ltd., Toronto.
Further Readings/Additional Resources
Armitage, Lynn. 2013. A War of Words: Toronto Goes Native, One Street Sign at a Time. Indian Country Today Media Network. Accessed 15 May 2015.
Dragonfly Consulting Services. 2012. Toronto is an Iroquois Word. Lesson Plan. Accessed 15 May 2015.
Howard-Bobiwash, Heather, and Frances Sanderson (editors). 1997. The Meeting Place: Aboriginal Life in Toronto. Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, Toronto.
Megan Davies is an MA Student in Theatre and Performance Studies at York University, and an IPinCH Associate.