UTSC event takes a critical and reflective look at the Williams Treaties and history of the Highland Creek Valley

aerial view of highland creek

By Tina Adamopoulos

Originally published by UTSC News


A U of T Scarborough event is taking a deep look into the political history of the Williams Treaties – and the campus’ own story within it – to encourage and initiate meaningful conversations about reconciliation.

Presented by the department of sociology and the Doris McCarthy Gallery (DMG) on November 4, the 'Quieting' Walk: A Settler History of the U of T Scarborough Campus, will look at the moral and legal geography of the Highland Creek Valley and the dispossession of Indigenous communities.

“As a department, one of the questions that have risen is about the land acknowledgment and how it can be made more concrete for people and not just something we say artificially, but sincerely,” says Joe Hermer, chair of the department of sociology at U of T Scarborough.

“We started thinking about the land acknowledgement, how it was being used and from there, we got into questions about the campus land itself. We’re trying to raise questions about how the history of dispossession and land theft has essentially been quieted or made invisible on the campus landscape today.”

The event corresponds with Treaties Recognition Week in Ontario, which honours the importance of treaties and helps students and Ontario residents learn more about treaty rights and relationships.

The Williams Treaties were two land surrender treaties that covered various parts of southern and central Ontario that erased Indigenous hunting and fishing rights, and entitlement, to the land. Signed in 1923, the Williams Treaties covered the northern shore of Lake Ontario, which includes the U of T Scarborough campus, land that stretched to Lake Simcoe and between the Georgian Bay and the Ottawa River. 

Informed by archival research conducted by sociology undergraduate students and faculty about the legal history of campus – which include treaties, crown patents and legal grounds for private property ownership – the event will focus on the Miller Lash Estate, built in 1916, as one notable example of colonial theft in Scarborough.

“The Miller Lash Mansion is a vivid example of settler development that occurred in southern Ontario, on land which had still belonged to Indigenous People,” Hermer says.

The event will begin with a discussion around artwork by Beausoleil First Nation artist Lisa Myers. Myers’s Blueprints series was selected and acquired for the DMG Collection by students in VPSC51 Curatorial Perspectives II, taught by Ann MacDonald, executive director and chief curator at the DMG.

The prints document her grandfather’s escape from Shingwauk Residential School in 1919. Vance Essaunce walked 225 km from Sault Ste Marie to Espanola, relying upon blueberries for sustenance. In order to tell his story with embodied knowledge, Myers retraced his steps. Using blueberry pigment, she then created four screenprints which map the journey.

The DMG and department of sociology collaborated on an exhibition, presented in the Instructional Centre Vitrines from September 2019 – April 2020, which paired research about unceded and stolen land in Scarborough with Myers’ Blueprints series. 

“We’ve been working together with the sociology department for several years about the quieting of Indigenous voices on campus and finding ways to talk about and challenge the narratives behind those spaces,” says Erin Peck, exhibitions and programming coordinator at the DMG.

“The key to meaningful learning opportunities is partnerships across campus, interdisciplinary programming, research and presentation that allows for different access points to these issues.”

Providing learning opportunities that run parallel with the campus’ five-year strategic plan of inclusive excellence, Hermer notes that the event stems from the commitment to fulfill the calls to action placed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“We have to deal with the truth part, before we deal with reconciliation, to critically examine the land that we are on, the history of it and how we can move forward to build sincere relationships.”