“Place Names Are Powerful”: Counter-Mapping Indigenous Spaces & Place Names

Colonialism & Erasure

Walking around the streets of Toronto, it is difficult to see traces of its long Indigenous history. As a direct result of colonialism, Indigenous ways of knowing and naming place were replaced with European knowledge systems. While Indigenous place names convey local knowledge about physical landscapes and their histories as a means for navigation, colonial place names in Canada are instead used to emphasize European monarchs, religions, prominent families, and meaningful locations in Europe.

European settlers also created gallicized and anglicized versions of Indigenous place names. Several of the place names in Toronto have their origins in Indigenous words, including the name “Toronto” itself. The name Toronto is believed to be derived from “Tkaronto,” which is a Mohawk word meaning “where the trees are standing in the water.” The term refered to a fishing weir which was constructed across the Narrows, between Lake Couchiching and Lake Simcoe. It consisted of a blockade of posts and nets for trapping large quantities of fish.

Between 1670 and 1710, this Mohawk term, with the spelling “Taronto,” was used to name present-day Lake Simcoe. According to the City of Toronto website, hand copied maps and descriptions of canoe routes, which incorrectly marked the location of Taronto, were then widely circulated. By the 1720s, the word “Toronto” became associated with “a post by the mouth of the Humber River, the starting place for the ‘Carrying Place,’ the canoe and portage route from Lake Ontario to the waters that flowed into the upper Great Lakes.” Today, the name “Toronto,” and many of its streets, lakes, rivers, and neighbourhoods are English words derived from Indigneous place names. As settlers renamed and remapped place, the original place names and their Indigenous histories were overwritten.

“Indigenous peoples across North America witnessed the surveying, mapping, and renaming of their homeland. Connections to their land, their pasts, and traditional knowledge disappeared from settler maps, words, and knowledge systems. The ‘linguistic contours’ through which Indigenous peoples gave meaning to places was typically not included within the language and place names of settlers. Place names are powerful; they embody histories and can ‘claim’ ownership over the spaces we inhabit. Many of us go about our daily lives taking for granted the names we use to locate ourselves…It’s important to think about the histories of place names, to appreciate where they come from, what they mean, and what they can teach us about our environment.”

—Kaleigh Bradley, “What’s in a Name? Place Names, History, and Colonialism” [1]

Restoring, Renaming, Reclaiming

Ogimaa Mikana Project

There have been several efforts to reclaim Indigneous spaces and restore Indigenous place names in Toronto. The Ogimaa Mikana Project restores Anishinaabemowin place names to the streets, roads, and trails of Gichi Kiiwenging, which is known today as “Toronto.” This project restores and reclaims Anishinaabeg history and territory in Toronto by replacing English place names with their original Anishinaabemowin names. In 2013, the project started by installing unsanctioned billboards, plaques, and streets signs to bring visibility to Toronto’s Indigenous history and their presence in urban spaces. This past September, the City of Toronto collaborated with creators Hayden King and Susan Blight to turn the makeshift signs into official Indigenous street names in the city.

“I want people to think about how renaming is used as a tool of colonial erasure…It’s an actual erasure of our history and a way of alienating indigenous people from our own places, our own lands, our own sacred sites, our own rivers.” 

—Susan Blight in “Aboriginal Sign Project Aims To Reclaim And Rename” [2]

First Story Toronto App

Prior to colonization, Toronto was home to multiple Indigenous groups who contributed to its development. Since 1995, First Story Toronto, which is based out of the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, has been researching, preserving, and building awareness for Toronto’s longstanding Indigenous presence and contributions to the city. First Story Toronto shares this history through a variety of initiatives such bus and walking tours, and their First Story smartphone app. Launched in 2012, the app maps Indigenous narratives of place across the city using archival photographs, documents, audio, and video footage. This app can be downloaded for free on both iOS and Andriod, and provides an engaging way to learn about local Indigenous history.

Indigenous Business District

Recently, Toronto councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam launched a plan to increase visibility and spaces for Indigenous peoples by constructing a district for Indigenous businesses, artisans, and food around Dundas and Jarvis Streets. The district intends to help strengthen Indigenous community building, promote Indigenous enterprise, and encourage greater understanding of Indigenous peoples. Wong-Tam is working with the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business and the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nations to finalize the plans. Although well intended, there are some within Toronto’s Indigenous communities who rightfully have concerns. Watch the VICE video below for Indigenous business owner Shawn Adler’s view on the potential district.

Throughout the streets of Toronto, colonial narratives still dominate the landscape. However, upon closer inspection, Indigeous spaces, place names, and histories can be found. There are a growing number of spaces, projects, and organizations that actively work to assert local Indigenous presence and challenge colonial ways of knowing place, not only in Toronto, but across present-day Canada.

2 Comments

  1. Very interesting and well written. The city and schools needs to do more to educate the public. This is a key part of our history.

    • Melissa Nelson

      April 2, 2017 at 7:21 pm

      Yes you’re right, our government needs to do more. Our education system especially should be decolonized. Many Canadians do not know anything about our Indigenous history, also many do not know that Indigenous people live and work right in their city or town.

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