Pathways: Following traces of Indigenous routes across Ontario | Exhibit Digest

November 26, 2019 | David

Comments (0)

Note: This article includes historical materials from the collections of Toronto Public Library. Who tells the story, and how the story is told creates tensions when trying to present content written by settlers about Indigenous people. These materials can reflect offensive historic attitudes, and in some cases, were created by individuals directly involved in acts of cultural genocide committed against Indigenous peoples. These materials are included as part of TPL’s commitment to the 69th Call to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which recognizes the inalienable right of Indigenous peoples to know the truth of what happened and why.

Interior of gallery with case in focus with objects inside and beyond colourful artwork

This post reproduces parts of the exhibit, Pathways: Following traces of Indigenous routes across Ontario (with a small sample of exhibit items). Below are the four main wall panels from the exhibit.

The exhibit was displayed in TD Gallery at the Toronto Reference Library from August 18 to October 28, 2018. It featured works by contemporary Indigenous artists as well as historical materials from the collections of Toronto Public Library (some available on our Digital Archive) and Library and Archives Canada.



Pathways: Following Traces of Indigenous Routes Across Ontario

The original inhabitants of Turtle Island (North America), have vibrant and rich histories. Before the arrival of Europeans, Indigenous societies were connected by an intricate network of relationships that include land and water routes. Over the past 400 years, these pathways and relationships have been disrupted by colonial policies.

Focusing on present-day Ontario, this exhibition uses the concept of pathways to trace the presence and agency of Indigenous peoples on these lands. Despite colonial policies of assimilation and displacement, Indigenous peoples have continued to resist, adapt and foster resilience.

Many works in this exhibition were created by European settlers. They are representative of the voices and stories that have been privileged in archival collections. They are displayed with works by contemporary Indigenous artists to offer new ways to look back at our shared past and our new pathways forward.

A illusration of a dock with two canoes and people nearby and on it with a few buildings on land and another image beside it of a man's illustrated portrait wearing a medal
Left: Hudson's Bay Post, Baawitigong (Sault Ste. Marie), 1863. Traditional territory of the Ojibwe and historic Métis community. By William Armstrong (1911). Right: Chief Nawahjegezhegwabe (Joseph Sawyer). By Reverend James Spencer (1846).


Since Time Immemorial

For millennia, Indigenous peoples have inhabited Turtle Island. These diverse Nations had a robust commercial and trading network that depended upon diplomacy and allies.

Indigenous peoples have an intricate, physical and spiritual relationship to the land and water. Traditional knowledge, languages, cultural practices and oral traditions are all connected to the land in some way. This unique relationship is exemplified by the original names given to landmarks, waterways and portages, which record how they perceived or interacted with the land or water.

Orange wall with painted board on one side and on the other side an English poem and its french translation  the English one titled Indigenous Pathways by Chief Lady Bird and Aura
Left: Indigenous Pathways poem (in English and French) by Chief Lady Bird and Aura. Right: One of four pieces from Tikinaagan | Kàlhu': Futurisms as a Pathway Between Generations by Chief Lady Bird and Aura (2018). Acrylic and aerosol on wood (cradle boards). Featuring contributions by Oasis Skateboard Factory.


Points of Contact

The first Europeans arrived in present-day Canada in the early 16th century. For the next 200 years, the fur trade was their primary commercial enterprise. Indigenous peoples were integral to the success of this industry as it depended on their traditional knowledge, technology and pathways. The fur trade altered the patterns of Indigenous life and gave birth to the Métis Nation.

Treaties were negotiated between the English colonial power and Indigenous Nations. For Indigenous peoples, treaties affirmed shared rights and responsibilities. For the Crown, these agreements were interpreted as land surrenders. There are 46 different treaties within the province of Ontario.

Despite the nation-to-nation relationships established by treaties, Indigenous peoples have been the target of colonial policies designed to assimilate and eradicate them, many of which are still in place.

Two images side by side  one of an illustration of a river in a valley with canoes and travellers and the other image showing a map with a large rectangle of empty space
Left: Rapid of La Dalle, French River, 1821, traditional territory of the Ojibwe. By John Elliott Woolford. Right: Map from Ratification of the "Toronto Purchase", traditional territory of the Mississaugas, part of the manuscript volume "Indian Treaties" (1805).

"Our lands have passed from our hands into those of the rapacious Squatter, the Clearings we had made have been torn from us to yield their crops to new masters. There is hardly a foot of ground that we can call our own or tread secure from the threats and ill deeds of these men."

- Speech of Ojibwe Chief Beyigishiqueshkam


Paths of Resilience

In spite of the long history of government assimilationist policies, Indigenous communities are thriving. When the Indian Act prohibited many Indigenous ceremonies and cultural practices, they did not disappear — they went underground.

Indigenous communities continue to demonstrate collective resistance, cultural resiliency and assert their power and sovereignty. They continue to live along their traditional pathways and are returning to areas from which they were forcibly removed, reclaiming their land and waterways.

Photo of man dancing in traditional outfit with wolf head and a different image of an illustrated brochure of Canadian National railway system that reads Lake of the Woods Nipigon and Albany Waters Quetico Park Ontario Arrowhead Country Minnesota
Left: Art Stevens (Nipissing First Nation) at Manitoulin Island Powwow in Wikwemikong by David Wiewel, Toronto Star Photograph Archive (1994). Right: Lake of the Woods, Nipigon and Albany Waters, Quetico Park, Ontario, Arrowhead Country, Minnesota, promotional brochure by Canadian National Railway, Library and Archives Canada (1930).

"For 500 years they have tried to kill us, but they have never destroyed the spirit in each of us to fight."

  • Métis author Maria Campbell

Update on Jan. 12, 2022: Note added to beginning of post.