BOYERS MODERN HISTORY OF MUSKOKA - Wahta Mohawks of Muskoka Part 3 – Resiliency & Land Claims
Boyer's Modern History of Muskoka
(This year’s Modern History of Muskoka programs have addressed a range of Indigenous subjects. The last two, in October and November, described the evolution and fragmentation of the Mohawk First Nation after Contact with Europeans, and the relocation in 1881 of a number of Mohawk families to Muskoka and conditions they faced beginning a new community on land purchased in Gibson Township. We pick up the story from there in this concluding Part 3 for December.)
Logging Issues on Wahta Mohawk Land
In the late 1800s decades, Ontario’s government wanted settlers farming Muskoka, but it also licensed logging companies to harvest Muskoka’s crop of forests. This created additional land use chaos, from Crown royalties for cutting pine trees to clogged waterways. For example, lumber companies floating their logs to saw-mills closed rivers that settlers and supply boats had to navigate.
Not only did the province thoughtlessly mash up farming and forestry operations in the big picture, but it created problems in specific cases, too. For instance, when Wahta Mohawks challenged a logging permit Ontario had issued a non-Indigenous man to cut timber on their lands, the province upheld his right to fell trees, saying the permit was issued before the government sold them the land, without making compensation to the Mohawks for the value of their lost wood.
The provincial government did whatever it could to make life difficult for the hard-pressed Wahta settlers in order to implement its policy of assimilating Indians into white society. Twice the Department of Indian Affairs in Ottawa asked Ontario to wave Crown royalty fees for pines Mohawks cut on their own lands, and both times the province refused.
Ontario’s Persistent Refusal to Issue a Crown Patent or Title Deed to Mohawk Lands
Most egregious of all, the provincial government bluntly refused to grant Mohawks title to the lands in Gibson Township that had been bought and paid for, leaving them in limbo with no proof of ownership.
By 1896, a decade and a-half after arriving in Muskoka, inability to deal with their own lands, even to authorize small business ventures, continued thwarting Wahta. For example, the community’s council asked permission from the Indian Affairs Department to issue a hunting permit to Alfred Jackson, a non-Indigenous Bala resident, to bring in hunting parties. Ottawa turned down the request, on the grounds Ontario had still not issued a Crown patent, or title deed, for the reserve. So the provincial government’s brazen refusal to issue documentation to the Wahta Mohawks, as property law required, had become the federal government’s buck-passing excuse.
More than a decade into the 1900s, absence of a document confirming their ownership of Muskoka land continued to hold Wahta Mohawks in vulnerable limbo. The plan had been for more if not indeed all Mohawks at the seminary in Quebec to come to Muskoka, Chief Angus Cooke emphasised how uncertainty about title “made people suspicious about moving here.”
Ontario’s Stance Prevented Full Migration
Information about the impacts of this government-created conundrum are reported in a History of the Wahta Mohawk Community published in 2002. There was little migration from Kanesatake to Wahta, it states, “despite the fact Indian Affairs tried over and over again to convince the Mohawks remaining there to move” and “held out hope well into the 20th Century there would be a mass migration from Kanesatake.”
Some who stayed behind were Catholics who blamed the Protestants for breaking Mohawk unity. Others, disappointed by low estimates of compensation for their property assets, saw nothing positive about moving to Muskoka, either. Some who did move to Wahta in the 1880s and 1890s soon enough returned to Quebec.
It is a telling detail that, in the eyes of Indian Affairs and the Mohawk council, even their brief residence made them members of the Wahta community. Those who returned were kept on the books in Ottawa as belonging to the “Wahta Band” rather than the “Oka Band.” For its part, Wahta council sent the returnees a share of revenue from timber sales and Hydro licence payments. For policy reasons of both the federal government and the Wahta council, hoping to make the reserve in Muskoka attractive to others, community membership appeared somewhat larger than it was.
Intrusions onto Wahta Lands Threaten Community
Compounding the Mohawks’ unabated consternation about not being able to prove ownership for their land was how the community’s peaceful enjoyment of their territory was often denied by intrusions onto the territory. The challenges by outsiders came in many forms.
Initially, the new arrivals in 1881 had been surprised to find a community of squatter families inhabiting a section of the land, just as Ontario surveyors had been astonished when discovering these French-speaking Métis families during their survey of the township two decades earlier.
A non-human intrusion came as floodwater. Dams built on the Gibson River by Muskoka Mill & Lumber Company and the Muskoka Slide, Dam, & Boom Company, a consortium of other logging outfits, was constructed just outside the reserve boundaries. The dams backed up a reservoir of water to float their winter’s harvest of logs downstream to saw-mills in spring. The back-up flooding of the river covered Mohawk families’ shorelines two feet above prior high-water levels, inundating some 330 acres.
New Squatters on Mohawk Land
Intrusion on a grand scale resumed when a new breed of squatters began moving in. From the 1880s on, Muskoka’s vacation economy was beginning to boom as city-dwellers enjoyed escaping to lakeside properties on the Canadian Shield. A northern section of Wahta lands filled with trespassing cottagers who had not paid the Mohawks nor even sought permission to occupy their land and build on it. The attitude in settler culture that “inconvenient” Indians were moveable, even expendable, was now being displayed in Gibson Township.
With so many parties having a role in the land deal of 1881, it was easy for officials to duck responsibility, leaving the Wahta Mohawks to watch intruders on their land brazenly assert ownership under the legal doctrine of squatters’ rights.
This intrusion became an existential threat because the Wahta Mohawks could not prove they owned the land cottagers were now enjoying. Putting a stop to such squatting was a task for the Indian Agent. Up to 1884, agent John McGirr became increasingly devoted to the Wahta Mohawks and their plight. But in April that year, the Indian Agency for Wahta was transferred to the Northern Ontario superintendency, Division 2, covering principally Ojibwe communities from Georgian Bay up to Lake Nipissing. Now it included a lone Mohawk reserve.
The Indian agent at Parry Sound had virtually no connection with the orphaned “Muskoka Band,” now in his jurisdiction. However, the provincial government had plenty of contact with city voters asserting that it was wrong for Indians to hold prime cottage lots they were not using. Pressure mounted for Ontario to reclaim some of Wahta’s Muskoka territory with its growing commercial and vacation value.
In the political and racial climate of the day, white urban property owners who voted in provincial elections outranked marginalized First Nations in the remote bush.
Ontario and Ottawa Engineer Reduction of Wahta Lands
Once the First World War erupted in 1914, the Wahta lands came under fresh assault. As the slaughter continued in Europe, Britain wanted more Canadians for its war of attrition. In 1917, Canada began conscripting soldiers. Under the broad cloak of mandatory military service for all males 18 to 40, Canadian authorities began forcing Indigenous men into the army, often directly violating their treaty rights.
For Wahta Mohawks, forced enlistment was uniquely bizarre because it came wrapped as a reverse land claim. The Ontario government wanted back 10,808 acres of the Wahta lands, leaving the community with only 14,795 acres – a 42 percent reduction of the lands bought and paid for in 1881.
This buy-back would have been more easily prevented by the Mohawks if they possessed a title deed for their lands. But after a third of a century without issuing its required Crown patent, the Ontario government had denied them the proof to hold up and say, “See, this is our land!” All the same, Wahta council refused to approve any surrender of their territory.
Then in 1917, four men arrived. Two were from Indian Affairs in Ottawa, which was helping implement conscription of soldiers and which even more to the point had a debt to the Ontario Crown Lands Office. Two came from Crown Lands in Toronto. Only a few old men and boys were at Wahta. Most were already in the army fighting overseas, or away at essential war-work in munition plants or at forestry logging and sawmill operations.
Gathering together the few band councillors still at the reserve, these officials threatened that, unless the council returned 10,808 acres, their sons would be dragged into the war. “If you don’t give up that land,” recalled one elder about the edict, “we’re going to pull all the boys, put them on the front line.” Zebede Road came home from the meeting, furious about what happened. “We lost the land,” he told his young son Frank. “Old guys with some military aged sons, they all give up.”
Indians Kept in the Dark about Their Own Interests
The Wahta Mohawks, in addition to repeatedly asking for and being denied a title deed to the acreage, were completely in the dark about arrangements between the two levels of government. There was neither transparency nor disclosure. Indian Affairs treated its constituency as “children” whom they would look after.
The labyrinthian nature of the Gibson Township land transaction, the unique uncertainty about ownership rights to the property that had been selected by Ontario and paid for out of Sulpician funds by the federal Department of Indian Affairs which brokered the deal, plus the intermittent registration of individual lots to specific heads of families, meant that anyone wanting to treat the 1881 transaction as open-ended felt they could do so.
Under cover of wartime press censorship and the public’s overriding preoccupation by 1917 with pending defeat, the federal and provincial officials were making a play to recoup the best of the increasingly valuable land sold for Mohawk use in 1881. Reclaiming 42 percent of the Wahta Lands removed high-value trapping areas from the Mohawks, while the Ontario government benefitted considerably by selling southern Ontarians cottage lots on it.
A Second World War Brings Further Land Losses
By 1939, another World War brought new problems to Wahta and intrusions onto the Mohawks remaining lands. With the province rapidly industrializing to manufacture everything needed for the war effort, Ontario Hydro needed to supply more electricity to factories. Without consulting the Mohawks, the provincial power utility used its over-riding statutory powers of expropriation, took over land, and dammed Musquash River waters flowing through Wahta to Georgian Bay, pooling water to drive turbines at a large generating plant it built at Big Eddy.
The backed-up waters flooded large sections of Wahta land, including the Mohawk cemetery. In addition, more forested land was clearcut to create a wide swath for Hydro’s high-voltage transmission lines and their towers carrying electricity to southern Ontario. The Big Eddy development also damaged hunting, fishing, and trapping by causing decline in wildlife and further by cutting off access to harvesting areas.
Ontario Next Builds a 4-Lane Highway
Just as the end seemed in sight for incursions into Wahta lands, Ontario’s program of building 400-series highways took a westward turn from Barrie up to Sudbury through Wahta territory. That development left Wahta council to sort out claims for the land used by the highways department for Highway 400 and the high-speed road system’s detrimental impacts on their community, in addition to it’s the complex claims against Ontario Hydro for its vast projects on their land.
After extensive research in the 1970s, Wahta’s claim upon the Government of Canada was made in the early 1980s for the 10,808 acres Ottawa returned to Ontario in 1918, without consent of the Wahta, to settle an issue between the two levels of government. Negotiations did not begin on the land claim until 1993, as the governments stalled for a decade. By 2002, with persistence on the part of the Wahta community and its leaders, an agreement-in-principle was reached. On October 25, 2003 a majority of Wahta members ratified its principles in a referendum.
Another Mohawk Land Issue Erupts – the Oka Crisis of 1990
While this Mohawk land claim in Muskoka was slowly proceeding, a much earlier problem over Mohawk land in Quebec erupted into the “Oka Crisis” during summer 1990. An instinctive and essential response to the land issue came with Chief Stephen Stock leading a party of Mohawks from Wahta to participate in solidarity with their ancestors at Oka, known to Mohawks as Kanesatake.
The issue of Indigenous land being forfeited in Quebec brought visceral feelings and intense memories of their own betrayal in Muskoka, and of the prior bad blood that had caused them to relocate from Kanesatake more than a century before, in 1881, the history of which had been passed down through Oral Tradition. Arriving to reinforce fellow Mohawks opposing encroachments on their territory, this “lost tribe” of Mohawks from Muskoka was warmly embraced by their brethren at the blockades.
There, in grim solidarity of resistance as Quebec provincial police and then the Canadian Army itself stood against them, they remained in the 78-day standoff “Oka Crisis.” Although journalists reported Mohawk opposition to a golf course expansion onto their lands as the flashpoint for the confrontation, Indigenous knowledge keepers understood this showdown had been fomenting for generations – back through the Mohawk removal to Muskoka, the persistent land claims by the Mohawks against the Sulpicians over common lands, the creation of Sulpician seminaries, the flight of Iroquois refugees into Canada, the fur-trade wars, the disorientations of Christian missionaries, on all the way back to first arrival of Europeans at the Eastern Doorway of the Iroquois Confederacy which Mohawks had once safeguarded.
Primary Wahta Land Claim Settled in 2005
By 2005, back in Muskoka, the final agreement was reached for the land claim. Wahta Mohawks received $9.7 million plus 8,300 acres of vacant provincial Crown land beside their existing Wahta territory, which now forms part of their reserve. Some Wahta lands claimed could not be returned because Ontario had sold them, leading to financial compensation instead.
Ontario contributed the land and $3.45 million as its share of the settlement, the federal government $6.24 million. Chief Blaine Commandant said Wahta members were “glad the land has been repatriated to our territory,” then added, "The land is the land and as First Nations we have a significant appreciation for that.”
The complex claims against Ontario Hydro’s various developments, and the provincial Transport Ministry’s road building projects, also glacially moved to resolution.
The wrongs committed against the resilient Mohawks through their onerous and polarizing migration from Kanesatake to Muskoka had become history – not forgotten, but no longer unreconciled.
Indigenous Land Sharing on Traditional Territory
As these land issues slowly proceeded to resolution, other matters of land occupation and Indigenous rights unfolded in Muskoka. In the centre of Port Carling, along the banks by a sharp bend in the Indian River, Ojibwe People had remnant land where their village of Obajewanung once thrived. Around 1860 most of its residents were relocated north by the federal government to Georgian Bay’s Parry Island and Wasauksing First Nation, though others went south to Lake Couchiching and their relatives at the Chippewas of Rama First Nation.
The site in Port Carling became a popular “Indian Village” for Rama and Wasauksing people returning in summertime. At their invitation, Wahta Mohawks began using this venue for traditional Indigenous summer vacations also, earning needed money selling tourists authentic craftwork made during winter months.
Today, although currently less used than during the 20th Century, this Indian River Reserve is shared by the Ojibwe and Wahta Mohawks. The two had an historic gulf between them, but in dealing with settler society, even despite some bad vibrations, they smiled to realize that strength in numbers and common unity is itself a transcending human bond.