A Grand Colonial History

“Did you know that Aboriginal people were forced out of Waterloo?” Last June—also known as Aboriginal History Month—a local Anishinaabe woman asked me this question. Feeling ashamed and honestly somewhat skeptical, I wasn’t sure how to respond, but her question challenged me to learn more about colonialism along the Grand River and the role my Mennonite predecessors played in it.

The words of a Mississauga elder, recorded in the 1861 book History of the Ojebway Indians, by Kahkewāquonāby, eloquently summarize the earliest days of indigenous-settler relations in what is now called southern Ontario:

“Before white man landed in our shores the red men of the forest were numerous, powerful, wise, and happy. In those days nothing but the weight of many winters bore them down to the grave…. A strange people landed, wise as the gods, powerful as the thunder, with faces white as the snow. Our fathers held out to them the hand of friendship. The strangers then asked for a small piece of land on which they might pitch their tents; the request was cheerfully granted. By and by they begged for more, and more was given them. In this way they have continued to ask, or have obtained by force or fraud, the fairest portions of our territory.”

The history of colonialism in this region occupies slim shelf-space, and sources are often contradictory, but not because there is no colonial history. Rather, many early settler historians seemed to have little interest in accurately or honestly documenting the colonial project.

What follows borrows heavily from the writings of the Ojibwa Methodist minister and writer Kahkewāquonāby, the local Mennonite historian Reginald Good and documents prepared by the Six Nations Land and Resource Department. Given the nature of my sources and my particular settler perspective, please treat this article as a jump-off point for learning more, preferably from indigenous people themselves, from whom I welcome correction.

The land now known as the region of Waterloo was not vacant, wild or untamed when the first Mennonite settlers arrived. Since the glaciers retreated, this land has been home to many different indigenous nations. In the thousands of years preceding European arrival, indigenous people moved through this area in nomadic groups, following big game. Eventually, advancements in technology and agriculture led to more sedentary lives, as communities erected large palisaded villages and managed vast territories. These communities hunted and fished, and planted corn, squash and beans. Eventually, nations began to coalesce into confederacies with distinct cultures. Over time, growing wealth and economic interests lead to conflict between these confederacies.

When Europeans first arrived to the heavily populated and diverse Great Lakes region, the land was in a state of political flux. The Huron-Wendat Confederacy to the north and the Haudenosaunee to the south were struggling for control of valuable hunting grounds. European arrival exacerbated this conflict by adding further economic incentive to collect pelts, and by introducing guns and disease. Conflict and disease resulted in the decimation of other nations, including the Neutral Confederacy, whose extensive villages continue to be found in the Grand River region, including in the Huron Natural Area in Kitchener.

In the late 1600s an Anishinaabe nation called the Mississaugas began to fill the void left in southern Ontario. A small nation scattered across vast territory, they often made summer camp in the Grand River valley, near to present day Galt, Blair, Doon, Freeport, Breslau and Bridgeport. In the autumn they harvested and stored food crops such as corn, beans and potatoes, along with wild food like fruit and nuts. Following the harvest they often gathered for feasting and celebration at the mouth of Schneider’s creek, along the Grand River.

Present day Waterloo Township was a favourite fall hunting location for the Mississaugas, who in the winter would travel deeper into the interior of the well-protected woods. One well-known wintering location was a swamp in what is now Victoria Park, Kitchener.

In the waning years of the American Revolution, the British Crown purchased land from the Mississaugas in a series of transactions that encompassed much of present-day southern Ontario, to make land grants to Loyalists. The Mississaugas believed these transactions were profitable rental agreements, that they had retained fishing and camping rights and also that they would continue to have exclusive use of some lands, such as burial grounds, planting flats, and fishing stations. Believing the Mississaugas had extinguished their title to the land, the Crown did nothing to uphold their land use rights.

The Haudensaunee, also known as the Six Nations or the Iroquois, did receive land from the Crown following the Revolution. As repayment for their loyalty, and as reparation for the loss of their territory south of the Great Lakes during the Revolution, they received land six miles on either side of the entire Grand River. This decree is known as the Haldimand Proclamation.

Shortly after the Haudensaunee obtained the land, their enterprising leader Joseph Brant sold northerly sections on the condition that a continual revenue stream be derived from these lands for 999 years, to be dedicated for Six Nations “perpetual care and maintenance.” Brant sold Block 2 of the Haldimand lands to English prospector Richard Beasley, who then resold this land to settlers, beginning with Mennonites who arrived from Pennsylvania around 1800.

These Mennonites travelled north because they had heard there was good land, and that they would be exempt from military service. They arrived to a managed landscape: the upper Grand River valley was full of planting flats and hunting parks, created by systematic burning to make ideal habitat for wild game hunting. However, by the time Mennonites arrived to the upper Grand River valley the Mississaugas’ way of life had already been disrupted in surrounding areas. Violence, disease, and famine had reduced their population to about 330 from 1000 people only 20 years earlier.

The Mennonites and Mississaugas enjoyed some amount of mutual benefit in those early days. The Mississaugas hunted wolves, which helped Mennonites protect their herds, and provided the Mennonites with fish and wild game. In exchange the Mennonites let them use unoccupied lands.

Mennonites along with other newcomers continued to spread their settlements along indigenous-made roads, though they also met resistance from the Mississauga, who protected a few reserves of land they believed they never surrendered. For example, when settlers erected a gristmill near Galt, some Mississaugas burned it down and defended the territory thereafter.

Land loss and ensuing famine and dependency on handouts among the Mississauagas was worsened by the sale of alcohol by some Mennonites and other settlers. In dismay, Mississauga leaders converted to Methodism, and in this way were able to usher in a new sense of autonomy, to take control of their lives and to eradicate alcoholism.

In 1837 many Potawatomi people arrived in the region, after a long journey north to avoid forcible relocation to reserves by the American government. Their arrival quickly created tension with the local white settlers, and came to a head in 1840 when Elisabeth Johnson of Wilmot Township was reportedly raped by a Potawatomi man. Settlers, including Mennonites, signed a petition for civil authorities to restore order to the region, and around this time, a local Justice of the Peace named William Ellis came across two white men whipping an indigenous man tied to a tree.

According to Good, the local historian, the petition and a vigilante call to action effectively forced the Mississauga people out of Waterloo Township. After 1840, mention of Mississauga villages disappears from historical records.

Writing in 1845, Kahkewāquonāby observed that “the Indian territories have been taken away till our possessions are now so small that you would almost require a magnifying glass to see them. We are surrounded on all sides by white settlers, still encroaching on us.

“I am afraid,” he continued, “that in a few years we will hardly have enough left to lay down our bones upon, or ground enough to cover our bodies.”

Today, Six Nations is in multiple litigation processes with the federal government concerning the mismanagement of funds and outright theft of land granted to them through the Haldimand Proclamation. To honour the original lease agreements, Six Nations has requested that Canada restore with interest the money it used for purposes other than for the benefit of the Haudensaunee people for the past 220 years, and define the terms by which they will continue to share Haldimand Proclamation lands.

So, were Aboriginal people forced out of Waterloo? Records reveal land loss, starvation, violence and disease resulting from settler encroachment, as well as local popular movements to expel First Nations peoples from the region. In light of this evidence, the answer is, unequivocally, “yes.” Given this history and ongoing effects of colonialism in our region, it is clear that there is much work to be done to restore relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. Dismantling the colonial system that continues to privilege settlers is no simple task, and it can feel overwhelming to think about where to begin. But perhaps we might start by asking our neighbours: “Did you know that Aboriginal people were forced out of Waterloo?”