The Toronto Islands were not always islands but actually a series of continuously moving sand-bars, or littoral drift deposits, originating from the Scarborough Bluffs and carried westward by Lake Ontario currents. By the early 1800s, the longest of these bars extended nearly 9 kilometres south-west from Woodbine Avenue, through Ashbridge’s Bay and the marshes of the lower Don River, forming a natural harbour between the lake and the mainland.
The Toronto Islands are traditional territories of the Wendat, Anishnabek Nation, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nations and the Metis Nation. Nations of people have lived in Canada for 11,000 years.
The Wendat, meaning "People of the Island", were a confederacy of four Iroquoian speaking nations. They occupied the Toronto area, northward to Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay in the 15th century. The Wendat lived in longhouses, in villages of hundreds to thousands of people. Villages were well located, usually standing on a slight rise, close by permanent water supplies and good farming soils. The Wendat were well known for their farming abilities and their communities’ food sources largely came from growing the “Three Sisters”: maize, squash and beans. The Wendat also hunted, fished and foraged for food. Wendat villages would be relocated every 10-30 years, when soil and wood were depleted.
French explorers arrived in the area in the early 17th century and nicknamed the Wendat “Huron”, a derogatory name. It is French for “boar” and was likely in reference to the central band of hair worn by Wendat men. The French and Europeans traded knowledge, goods and services with the Wendat. Unfortunately, the Europeans also brought with them many diseases, such as smallpox, tuberculosis and influenza. These diseases decimated the Wendat and other aboriginal nations’ populations. Continuing wars further decreased the Wendat population and peoples of their nation eventually dispersed.
Two nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, also Iroquoian speaking nations, lived in the Toronto area in the 17th century, following the Wendat dispersal. The name Haudenosaunee, means “People of the Longhouse". The Haudenosaunee are also known as Iroquois, but this is an inappropriate name as it was given to them by their enemies. The insulting nickname came from the Algonquians calling them Iroqu, meaning “rattlesnakes”, and the French addition “-ois” to the word.
The two Haudenosaunee nations that moved into Toronto were the Kahniakenhaka, “People of the Flint” (also known as Mohawk), and the Onondowagah, “Great Hill People (also known as Seneca). The Kahniakenhaka and Onondowagah are known to have lived in Teiaiagon, a large village on the east bank of the Humber River.
Teiaiagon was a large village with a population of 5000 people. It was well situated as the Humber River was an important trading route between Lake Ontario and Lake Simcoe. The Humber River is known today as the “Carrying Place Trail.”
In Kahniakenhaka language, “Tkaronto” means “where there are trees standing in the water”. This referred to the place where Wendat had driven stakes into the water to create fish weirs, between Lake Simcoe and Lake Couchiching. It was only in the late 18th century that the name Toronto became associated with the area which includes the city of Toronto today.
The Mississaugas, affiliated with the Anishinabe, moved into the Toronto area after the Seneca in the late 17th century. The Mississauga people in that time were not agriculture-based, they hunted and foraged their food sources. They lived in seasonal settlements, travelling in their territories to use different resources throughout the year.
It was during this time that the British developed a presence in the Toronto area. The French and British had been fighting in Europe and North America and the conflict continued into the 18th century. The primarily French presence in the Toronto area led to alliance-building with the various Aboriginal groups, through diplomacy, trade, gift-giving and personal relationships. The Mississaugas and Haudenosaunee nations, as well as others, were enveloped in the European conflict, which ended with the British driving out the French in the Toronto area. It was after the French fled to Montreal, that the British began negotiating with the Mississaugas for the Toronto area.
In the early 1760s, the British and Mississauga worked out a tense but manageable relationship with each other and for about two decades they lived as before, trading with a relationship of alliance during conflict with the Americans. In 1787, the Toronto Purchase was signed as a ‘sale of Toronto’. The British considered the Mississaugas to have signed over their claim to 250,888 acres of land for various goods said to value £1,700. The Mississaugas viewed the agreement as sharing the use of the land. It was a common practice for Europeans to gift goods to Mississaugas as gestures of “peace and friendship”. There had never been treaties for land settlement. The validity of the purchase is questioned as the boundaries of the purchase were not clear and the three signing Mississauga chiefs had not signed directly on the purchase document, but on pieces of paper attached to the deed. In 1805, the British entered a second Toronto Purchase agreement, perhaps feeling the first treaty insufficient. It is important to note the two parties had very different understandings and ways of recording these agreements which led to confusion and unfair treatment in the future. The original three Mississauga chiefs had passed away and there nation had no written record of the first agreement. The British developed a new deed, which included a far greater area of land than the 1787 agreement, to present to the Mississaugas, who were already being inhibited from using lands as they had before. The total sum of 10 shillings (or $60 Canadian dollars in 2010) was paid for the 1805 Toronto Purchase. The Toronto Islands were not part of the written agreement and are sacred grounds for the Mississauga and First Nations people.
In 2010, the Government of Canada settled a land claim
with the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation that
started in 1986 over the Toronto Purchase. The bulk of
the $145 million settlement was put in trust for the
community, but the agreement gives each adult band
For the British colonization, John Graves Simcoe was the first Lieutenant Governor for Upper Canada. He designated the Toronto location to be the capital of Upper Canada for several reasons: it was easily accessible by the most common form of transportation; water, and it was easily defensible due to the Toronto Islands (then a sandbar/peninsula) protecting the harbour and surrounding the area. In 1794 the British began building storehouses and a guardhouse.
In 1850, the young engineer Sanford Fleming studied the sand-bar movement and calculated that twelve hectares had been added to the western section of the sand-bars over the previous fifty years. During that decade, a number of severe storms and their strong wave action worked to erode the peninsula, requiring frequent repair to small gaps until finally, in 1858, an island was created when a storm completely separated the peninsula from the mainland and the gap was not repaired. The Eastern Gap has since become an important shipping route into the Toronto Harbour.
Dredging projects have been undertaken to stabilize shorelines, reduce sand-bar movement, create deeper boating channels, or raise land levels generally. During 1904-6, a channel was cut north of the Island Filtration Plant, alongside Hiawatha Avenue. In 1909, Long Pond was dredged to replace the regatta course previously located at Hanlan’s Point. The resulting material was used to enlarge Mugg’s Island. Similar projects created Olympic Island. High lake levels continually damaged island properties and, on January 1, 1956, the City of Toronto transferred responsibility for the Toronto Islands to The Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto (Metro) to be developed as a regional park.
Yalda's memories of her Island Natural Science School experience.
Origins of the Name Toronto