On a cold dreary April afternoon, the Humber River parkland beneath the Bloor St. West Bridge can be underwhelming. For the average park dweller, empty plastic bottles scattered along the muddy path distract from the river tide and the vacant natural land. One group has called it a sanctuary, using the area to install plants that were once cultivated by their Indigenous ancestors thousands of years ago.
With a couple of gardens across the GTA, the grassroots organization Naakaamagit Ki Group (NKG), Anishinaabe for ‘helpers of the earth’, have used agricultural initiatives to connect urban Indigenous youth to the land but the Humber River area between Lawrence and Eglinton Ave. West has led to a stand off between NKG and city officials, representing the long-standing issue of land access.
On NKG’s Facebook page the Humber River parkland site, acquired by the group in 2013, is tagged as a ‘milestone’ and rightfully so. The Humber River, also known as the Toronto Carrying Place Trail, was designated a heritage site for it’s cultural and historical contribution in 1999. Going from Lake Ontario to Lake Simcoe and the Upper Great Lakes, the Humber River acted as portage route for Indigenous communities and later the French. At about 45 kilometres, it’s one of the longest carrying trails in North America. In a piece by Merringer, titled History runs deep in the Humber River, the Huron and Petun First Nations established fishing camps in the young Humber Valley as the ancient Lake Iroquois receded 12,000 years ago.
“When we started people thought, ‘oh it’s a tree planting exercise, they will go away once the trees are planted in the ground and the grant is gone.’ That’s not what’s happening,” said Doug Anderson, the co-founder of NKG.
The present day site hasn’t only been used to plant Native plant species such as red osier dogwood, witch hazel, and white cedar. NKG has built a teaching lodge along the neighbouring shorelines of the Humber River. The area has also acted as a safe ground for Indigenous midwives and others in the community who wish to honour traditions of burying their children’s placenta.
“Indigenous people – many who can’t get out of the city – are finding this place. For 60 years it’s been a disaster ecologically and environmentally. It hasn’t been tended to, so they’re coming to this site and saying we’ll take care of it,” he said.
For many Indigenous people who live in the city, the natural environment presents a sacred relationship. The land, otherwise referred to as “mother-earth”, sits at the core of indigineity. Dating back to the Ice Age, the land has been multipurpose: used for food, medicine, spiritual healing, and traditional knowledge.
For Andrew Wesley, a Cree elder-in-residence at UofT’s First Nations House, the land serves as a resource for all things.
“The land for us carries values, stories, it carries your history.”
Wesley, who’s from Fort Albany in Northern Ontario, says Indigenous people are only affected in city areas. “If you walk around at High Park you could only walk on the trails, you can’t go in the bush and go get what you want incase there is a security guard. I can’t just grab red willow,” said Wesley. “In the North where I’m from I can hunt and grab whatever I need.”
“In a municipality you have to go through the red tape to sustain yourself,” Wesley says.
If we trace back to the 1787 Toronto Purchase agreement Wesley’s experiences become clear. The terms in the agreement were so vague, they weren’t enough to “make an official surrender or sale,” and therefore did not grant legal ownership of the land. Soon after, the Indian Act legislated in 1876 gave Colonial governments complete control over food systems and connection to land.
For Chris Alcantara, a Political Science professor at Western University, there should be ways for the city and indigenous groups to co-operatively work together. “It sounds like a situation where the city has got this piece of land that the city appreciates but it’s being underused and the city is worried about it and the lawyers get wind of it and worry about its precedence,” he says. “These groups are more worried about the land and taking care of the land.”
“The very Canadian and western thing to do is to have an agreement to clarify who is responsible for what and what their liabilities are,” he says. “A formal agreement is probably not the answer.”
The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), a non-profit organization responsible for restoring Canadian watersheds, owns half of the Humber River and half of the City’s public parklands. TRCA is managed by Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation (TPFR) and also have a long-standing maintenance agreement with the organization.
With studies increasingly outlining access to green space as a determinant of better health, the Toronto Parks Forestry and Recreation sought “to improve the quality of life for Toronto’s diverse communities” by 2017. One of the deliverables included, “supporting the needs of active and passive users, parks also need to accommodate spaces for natural areas and habitat, tree canopy, community events, urban agriculture and cultural expression.
Still, in a city with over 40,000 indigenous people, spaces that allow for an uninhibited relationship with the land barely exist.
In 2015, the city announced a 40-year “Parks and Public Realm Plan,” which aimed to improve the quality and connectivity of public spaces. According to an event posted on the Toronto Urban Growers Association website, planners sought to consult Indigenous community members like NKG to include the history and culture of Indigenous people in public park planning. The city has tried to initiate cultural reminders of Indigenous history in parks such as the Humber River, which include the ‘Shared Path,’ a discovery walk initiative that includes signs explaining historical landmarks along the Humber River.
Anderson explains that the group is still waiting on an agreement that reflects both the needs of the city and their group. “We’re gonna keep using it in the way that we have been for millennia,” he says.