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BOYER'S MODERN HISTORY OF MUSKOKA - Wahta Mohawks of Muskoka Part 2 – Settling In
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BOYER'S MODERN HISTORY OF MUSKOKA - Wahta Mohawks of Muskoka Part 2 – Settling In

Posted: 2023-11-15 10:23:40 By: jacob

Boyer's Modern History of Muskoka

By J. Patrick Boyer

(This second instalment on the history of Mohawk relocation from Quebec to Muskoka in 1881 picks up from Part 1 in October.)


Rough Treatment at the Sulpician Seminary

After the Protestant Mohawk families left Kanesatake in October 1881 to relocate in Muskoka, and with Indian Agent McGirr of having accompanied them to Muskoka leaving nobody from Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs at the Quebec community, the Sulpician priests moved quickly to seize Mohawk property.

The house of her grandmother, Grace Franks would learn in time, was near the Catholic Church and the nun’s building, and the Sulpicians wanted it. When she did not leave for Muskoka, a priest came to the house, argued, and pushed her against the stove. Expecting, she suffered a miscarriage. In addition to carrying their child, another reason she had not left was that her husband, whom she would not abandon, was in jail for cutting winter firewood.

Elsewhere, as remaining chiefs John Dewasha and Mitchell Frett reported, the seminarians forcibly took possession of another house. Some occupants had left on the Dagmar, but others still resided in it. The Sulpicians sent police, reinforced by 40 French men, who beat the remaining men and women and expelled them from the dwelling.


Wintering on New Lands in Muskoka

            As for the migrants, those not staying in Gravenhurst continued by steamboat to Bala, then downriver by canoe and scow as far as Red Rock on the Musquash River, where they made camp as October turned to November.

            Chief Sahanatien scanned dark clouds descending and gave orders to pitch tents in a winter pattern and gather firewood. They awakened next morning to a foot of snow. Nobody stirred, except several hunters who killed a deer for venison.

            As winter’s first snow melted, families scouted their new territory, walking about two miles from the river, examining the soil, choosing places for their cabins. They had been told, as an inducement to move, that buildings awaited them because the Sulpicians agreed to build one for each family. Of course none yet existed, because the families first had to select locations. After erecting three shanties, they fashioned sleighs and hauled belongings from the river encampment. Those having no cabin lived in the Red Rock landing camp tents through winter.

            To their surprise, Mohawks discovered squatters with French names, likely Métis people, on this land. They offered to sell or share their log cabins with the new arrivals desperate for winter shelter. When those who moved in could not pay because their money had gone for food, the squatters felt jilted and threatened to destroy what the Mohawks had themselves built. Agent McGirr reported the deteriorating situation to Ottawa.


Role of the Indian Agent

            As a power-wielding Indian agent, John McGirr was a go-between, representing the Department to the Indians and presenting needs of First Nations to his employer Indian Affairs at Ottawa. But even when taking up issues, as McGirr was increasingly doing for the Mohawks in Muskoka, two basic hurdles existed. Governments, departmental officials, and entities like the Sulpician Seminary were all implementing assimilation programs to make First Nations culturally white. Second, Indian agents themselves saw their charges through race-tinted glasses, treating them as “children,” often misreading stoicism and silence for “lack of feelings like civilized white people experience.”

            At least now, living with the Mohawk experiences and away from the Sulpicians, McGirr became deeply troubled by their urgent needs. Earlier, when the Mohawks planned relocating with Indian Affairs, they listed basics for establishing a settlement from scratch: farming tools, seed grain, cows, horses, bulls, and a gristmill to grind flour from wheat. Also: food, stoves, and clothing. A doctor, school, saw mill, road, and woollen factory as well. Nothing had arrived. The Mohawks were destitute. McGirr implored Ottawa to send stoves, stovepipes, and other promised necessities nowhere yet in sight.


Indian Affairs Department in Effect Abandons the Mohawks

            Indian Affairs, which had largely left matters concerning Mohawks at Oka to the Sulpicians, continued its out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach.

            Some molasses and salted pork arrived, but instead of sending essential supplies or even enough food for the first winter, Ottawa instructed the men to find work in mills to earn food money. The closest Muskoka mill was 22 miles distant, and closed for winter. Each family’s $3,005 compensation for their homes went to food. By December 1881, three cabins had been built that accommodated a number of families. The rest lived in tents all winter, or moved into squatter shanties. People lived on the edge of starvation all winter. Six children perished.

            By spring, some layover families from Gravenhurst arrived, though others there continued town-living. The relocating families settled in and worked to make a new home in Muskoka, clearing land, building homes, and holding worship services. In 1882, several cabins 18’x24’ per family were built to “seminary specifications” (two rooms, a loft and staircase, a window and door to each room) and paid for by Indian Affairs with Sulpician funds. Indian Affairs paid off the squatters directly for their buildings, in which some 16 resettled families now lived. Repairs Mohawks made to squatters’ shanties would not be paid for. By 1884, 14 more houses had been erected.


Gibson Township Reserve Becomes Known as “Wahta”

            Because of its hard maples, the Mohawks began using the distinctive name “Wahta” for their settlement, although “Gibson Reserve” also continued in common use well into the 20th Century. Its residents encouraged friends and family at Kanesatake to come, but could not answer their enquiries about the legal status of the Wahta lands. Some arrives liked the reserve better than conditions at Kanesatake, but would not relocate until the ownership puzzle was solved.

            Only a third of Oka’s Mohawks relocated to Muskoka. Several pioneering families who came in October 1881 went back, while others who temporarily wintered in Gravenhurst stayed there. The Sulpicians sought a refund, saying it had paid Ottawa for more land than needed. In January 1886, Indian Affairs returned unspent money to the impatient priests.

            The following year, in 1887, Mohawks living at Tyendinaga near Belleville, across Lake Ontario from their historic homelands, again feared settler society’s relentless encroachments. Knowing of the Mohawk relocation to Wahta, they also wanted land in Gibson Township. Representatives visited and, pleased about the land and a fellow nation community, sought with Indian Affairs to buy 15,000 acres and move to Muskoka. Told it was premature to sell any Wahta lands because all Mohawks at Oka might eventually move to them, Indian Affairs told the Tyendinaga Mohawks it would ask Ontario’s Crown Lands Commission if land in abutting Freeman Township was available instead. That, unsurprisingly, came to nothing.


Grave Dilemma about Ownership of their Muskoka Lands

            Uncertainty about ownership of the land overshadowed all else. When it came to title to their Muskoka reserve, Wahta residents knew only frustration, silence, untruths, and worse.

             Before relocating, Indian Affairs told the Mohawks they could manage their new Ontario land as an Indian Reserve under the new Indian Act of 1880. It had been surveyed into rectangles as township concessions and lots, but Indian Affairs requested Ontario to treat the 25,582 acres it was selling as a single block for a traditional communal reserve, under one Crown patent for all the territory.

            However, when Ontario’s cabinet authorized the sale in June 1881, it punitively stipulated that the Mohawks had to comply with settler requirements under the Free Grant and Homestead Act, a statute applying only to prospective farmers trying to qualify for free land.

            Neither the Mohawks nor Indian Affairs sought free land. Ontario had received full payment of $12,791 for the 25,582 acres. The Mohawks had a lawful right to be treated like anyone else buying Crown land outright, free to develop it as they saw fit on their own timetable.  

            But this gambit was no surprise. Ontario had already demonstrated, when refusing in 1875 to sell Mohawks land near Mattawa, that it did not want any new Indian reserves in the province.


Ontario’s Hostility to the Mohawks of Muskoka

            With a new reserve seemingly arising in Muskoka, no difficulty that Ontario could impose on the migrant Indians from Quebec would be too much. The reason was that Ontario’s Crown Lands Commission, in concert with other settler society branches of government, sought assimilation of Indigenous cultures and eradication of First Nation practices.

            The province had already gone on record with Indian Affairs as refusing to be “burdened with the maintenance of Indians.” But Ontario’s obstinacy ran far deeper than leaving Mohawks alone to look after their own needs. Rather than allowing land-owning Indians to live in traditional ways on a new reserve in Ontario, the province demanded they fulfill Homestead Act settler duties because doing so would force assimilation.

            Under the statute’s provisions, only heads of families in Gibson would be issued a location ticket for their selected lot. After five years performing statute-specified work on their 100-acre parcel of land, the individual could be named owner of that specific property. This procedure made it impossible to hold the land, as Indian Affairs intended and the Mohawks wanted, as a single block rather than individual lots. If maintained as a single unit, all 25,582 acres could be developed and operated as a reserve under the Indian Act, an integrated community. Ontario’s stance was a direct challenge to the federal government’s jurisdiction for Indigenous Peoples.


Individual Ownership of Lots Would Force Assimilation

            In 1889, a provincial inspector arrived at Wahta to see if the Homestead Act was being complied with, but was denied entry to the reserve. He was told by the chief that they had given up their land in Oka and come to Muskoka because they wanted a larger quantity of land to keep their families together, and did not want their patents issued to each locatee, as done in the case of white settlers, for fear some of their people might sell their homes and squander proceeds and that undesirable persons might own land amidst them. Individuality was secondary to the integrity of a mutually-supporting community.

            But by this date, it was too late. Back in autumn 1882, because Ontario immovably insisted that the surveyed lots making up the Wahta territory could only be acquired by individual heads of families, Indian Affairs reversed its position that the lands had to be treated as a single block. The department abandoned the Mohawks’ principles on the matter, which accorded with Indian Affairs’ own promise to them, prior to relocation, that they could lawfully operate in a unified community as a reserve.

            Falling in line with the province’s assimilationist policy, Ottawa had issued its own location tickets, called “certificates of possession,” under the Indian Act. They had been distributed to 32 individual Mohawks for the far-flung 100-acre lots each had chosen. Because land holding was by individual lots only, as Ontario engineered, many new problems appeared. Mohawk houses were spread so widely that any location for the church, school, or other communal place was inconvenient for many, an enduring source of Wahta problems. Much graver would be how Ontario’s divide-and-conquer policy weakened collective defence of the community against external forces.


Ontario Land Policies Create a Theatre of Confusion

            Ontario’s bullish manner in dealing with the Mohawks was part of its confused landholding policies, which were fully on display in Muskoka by the 1880s.

            First off, traditional Indigenous occupation and use of Muskoka land for thousands of years had only loosely been addressed in the Robinson-Huron Treaty of 1850. By that treaty, Ojibwe chiefs ceded much land to the Crown. However, major unresolved issues directly affected the Ojibwe First Nations, and possibly, by extension, Pottawatomi, Métis, and Mohawk peoples now in Muskoka as well. In 1923, the Williams Treaty would specifically, but unsatisfactorily, try to address those problems.

            A second confusing element was squatter ownership of land throughout Muskoka. A significant community of French-speaking Métis families had cabins and cleared farms in Gibson, long before the township’s official surveying. They had acquired ownership of their property by the legal doctrine of squatters’ rights. Ontario had sold the Mohawks some land it did not own and, seemingly, did not even know it did not own.

            For provincial Crown Land, to which the government asserted ownership based on treaties, Ontario for decades had been selling property in Muskoka and issuing buyers a Crown Patent (title deed) for their lots. The Mohawks, through the agency of Indian Affairs using Sulpician funds, similarly acquired Muskoka Crown land, but received no Crown patent or any other Ontario deed or document evincing their ownership.

            In 1887, to address this overarching dilemma, Indian Affairs requested the province to issue a patent for the Mohawk lands in Gibson. The request was repeatedly ignored that year. Asked for again in 1888, and then in 1889, Ontario did nothing. In 1889, 23 heads of Mohawk families who had been issued certificates of possession joined in by petitioning for deeds to their Gibson land. The only reply these requests and petitions got was taunting silence. The Wahta Mohawks were, nevertheless, constantly reassured by Ottawa that the land was theirs and would not be reduced in size.


Ontario Government Not Even-Handed when Dealing with Indians

            Ontario’s government was far from even-handed in land dealings. In addition to its double-standard about issuing patents to buyers of Crown lands, the provincial Lands Commission transferred land it deemed unsuited for agricultural purposes to influential private parties for recreational enjoyment.

            Thus an extensive area of rocky Georgian Bay terrain in Freeman Township, adjacent to Gibson, was transferred to a white man’s fishing club from Toronto. Such low-budget deals did not apply when Ontario sold hundreds of bedrock acres for Mohawks to farm.

            A related unfairness with land transfers arose when homesteaders, responding to Ontario’s agricultural settlement incentive of free land, found the fixed-grid boundary lines surveyors imposed on Muskoka’s rugged and watery landscape created many 100-acre lots with more rock and swamp than tillable acreage. Crown Land agents readily gave additional 100-acre lots to compensate. Despite Ontario requiring Mohawks to meet the conditions of the Homestead and Free Grants Act, no such make-up lots were ever offered by the Crown to offset their un-farmable lands.


The Worst Is Yet to Come

            If you Ontario’s handling of Mohawk lands in Muskoka marked the end of government challenges to the Wahta community, be sure to catch the third chapter of this saga with December’s concluding instalment.