The Anishinaabeg at Lake of Bays

On Thursday, October 25, 2017, the Ontario Heritage Trust, in partnership with the Chippewas of Rama First Nation and the Township of Lake of Bays, unveiled provincial plaques commemorating The Anishinaabeg at Lake of Bays.

The provincial plaque reads as follows:


    A water-based people, the Anishinaabeg – the original people of this region – were a hunter-gatherer society that often travelled here to the narrows at Trading Bay (Lake of Bays). The area that is now Dorset was a special, spiritual place abundant in natural resources. For thousands of years the Anishinaabeg set up small camps here harvesting maple syrup and birch bark, fishing and trading in the spring and summer, and hunting and trapping during the fall and winter. Eventually, the Anishinaabeg realized that their hunting and harvesting rights and territory had been lost through a series of treaties. They continued to travel to the region to work as fishing and hunting guides and trading with seasonal tourists and cottagers. The descendants of the Anishinaabeg are members of the seven First Nations of the Williams Treaties (1923), the nearest of which is the Chippewas of Rama First Nation. The legacy of the original inhabitants lives on through the many landmarks, rivers, lakes, and islands that bear Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe) place names.

Historical background

Muskoka and the towns and hamlets within it, including Lake of Bays, has become one of the busiest places in Ontario on any given summer weekend. The northbound highways are consumed by vehicles heading to smaller and quieter places - to the family cottage or cabin for a weekend well-spent on a dock with family and friends. It is easy to forget – amidst the developments and luxury cars - that before the 1850s, Muskoka was exclusively Anishinaabe territory (Watson, 2014).

The Anishinaabeg are a group of people who, traditionally, were a hunter and gatherer-style society. Rather than the more sedentary and agriculturally based Wendat or Haudenosaunee, the Anishinaabeg followed a seasonal cycle of tracking resources. Often mistakenly referred to as “nomadic,” the Anishinaabeg possessed intimate personal and community knowledge of the resources and landscape within a home territory (Ferris, 2009). This statement implies that in terms of resources (for example, food, medicine or supplies), the Anishinaabeg knew where, how and when to find them.

Muskoka was a place of an abundance of resources. Nearly everything that the Anishinaabeg needed for survival could be found in the dense forests of the Canadian Shield that typifies Muskoka. The Anishinaabeg would visit areas such as Lake of Bays in the spring and summer for harvesting berries, fishing and trading. Berries, such as the strawberry, were staples of the Anishinaabeg diet and would be harvested as soon as they were ready. Fishing camps would be set up alongside riverbanks or shorelines. It was at these camps that families would enjoy the rare opportunity of a large gathering (rather than the typical, small camp). These gatherings would be a time for renewing or creating relationships, holding meetings and, most importantly, catching and harvesting fish. There would often be trading with other bands and tribes, and the men would sometimes go hunting for meat and furs to supplement the fishing. Fall and winter were times of hunting and harvesting. Muskoka provided a wide variety of game, which provided meat, furs and skins – all important necessities of Anishinaabeg life. Maple sap, which was first discovered by the First Nations people, was also harvested in late winter and turned into sugar and syrup for a calorie-dense, energetic food. The coldest parts of winter were reserved for rest and storytelling, with venturing out occurring only if food supplies were insufficient.

Before the 1850s, the Anishinaabeg enjoyed exclusive domain over Muskoka and Lake of Bays. Except for a few prospectors and fur traders, the only other visitors to the territory were other First Nations groups allied with the Anishinaabeg, such as the Wendat. The latter half of the 19th century saw dramatic change in Muskoka, which occurred at an exponential rate. Word of the beauty of Muskoka and its many lakes began to spread. Euro-Canadians were enticed by the vastness of the landscape, particularly those who resided in cities. Once restricted by the lack of access, roads were literally being opened to Muskoka.

In the early days of settlement, travelling into the region was not easy. A stagecoach ride or wagon ride north to Muskoka was physically and mentally exhausting due to the ragged corduroy roads and length of the journey (Watson, 2014). Initially, steam-powered trains arrived south of Muskoka and travellers would need to make the rest of the trip on the dreaded stagecoach or wagon. Once in Muskoka, visitors were able to take advantage of the lakes and waterways. Travel could occur via steam-powered vessels, or human-powered vessels such as canoes and rowboats. Roads, such as the Muskoka Colonization Road, were carved into the Canadian shield in the 1860s. The railroad finally arrived in Muskoka in the 1870s. The arrival of the railway and the creation of roads resulted in widespread settlement. Muskoka became a busy hub of activity, especially so when the automobile became common.

Luxury resorts began popping up across the district. The Wawa and Bigwin Inn were two of the most famous, and hosted world-renowned celebrities such as Clark Gable. The beauty of Muskoka and its noted celebrity appearances furthered its allure. The Group of Seven, a group of Canadian landscape painters active in the 1920s and 1930s, added to the appeal of Muskoka and the seemingly untouched Canadian north through their works of art. People around the world wanted to visit the district.

What the public saw - and what the reality was that the First Nations in the region felt - were significantly different. The Anishinaabeg were marginalized. Muskoka up until the 1850s was Anishinaabeg territory. Only 50 years later, thousands of years of solitary occupation had been replaced by luxury resorts, Euro-Canadian visitors and settlers, and permanent ecological change. The place of vast resources was now suddenly a place of private properties and invisible borders. The Anishinaabeg were frustrated and they found that their ability to enter Muskoka to hunt and harvest was severely diminished (Watson, 2014).

A series of treaties signed between the Anishinaabeg and the federal government created misunderstandings, disagreements and further frustration. Treaties were often misinterpreted by the federal government to fit their needs. For example, the Anishinaabeg signed a treaty agreeing to permit settlers to develop land for agricultural purposes south of the Severn River. The government misinterpreted this treaty to mean that the Anishinaabeg surrendered all lands south of the Severn River (Watson, 2014). In signing the Williams Treaties of 1923, the Anishinaabeg and the Mississagas were attempting to clear up property ownership and hunting and harvesting rights. The treaty was misinterpreted as a way to remove the First Nations’ hunting and harvesting rights, stripping them of their livelihood and ability to self-sustain. In addition, millions of acres of land rich in spiritual, cultural and resourceful significance officially became property of the federal government (Watson, 2014).

Nearly all of the treaties and surrenders signed were centred on the premise of “progress.” The federal government wanted to encourage permanent settlement, cultivation and development. The north of Ontario was seen as a place of abundance to the settlers as well. Timber and minerals were valuable resources; obtaining the land on which these two resources lay was vital to the Crown. Some treaties initially only allowed for transportation corridors through First Nations land (later misinterpreted to mean surrender of all lands). The transportation corridors created villages nearby. These villages sometimes expanded to be towns. Lake of Bays was formerly little more than a trading post (hence its former name, Trading Lake). As roads reached the area, it gradually expanded. The same could be said for Huntsville. It was, at one point, a hamlet, but when the railway added a stop within its domain, the hamlet grew into a burgeoning town.

In having traditional harvesting, hunting and fishing rights removed, the Anishinaabeg created a different relationship with Muskoka and Lake of Bays. Rather than a place to obtain natural resources, Muskoka became a place to obtain economic resources. Many Anishinaabeg men became fishing and hunting guides. They used their knowledge of the land and their adept fishing, hunting and trapping abilities to take tourists and cottagers out for the Muskoka experience. Anishinaabeg women often sold their crafts, such as porcupine quill boxes and black ash baskets, to inquisitive tourists. No longer able to live off the land, the Anishinaabeg needed to earn money in order to survive. Muskoka provided the means to do so.

As Muskoka grew in size and reputation, the Anishinaabeg reluctantly stopped visiting the region. Work as guides dried up and desire for First Nations crafts dwindled. To the Anishinaabeg, who were unable to live off or on the land and unable to use traditional skills for work, Muskoka became a place that represented what once was. Names of landmarks, lakes and rivers tell a story of a time when Muskoka was an Anishinaabeg place (“Muskoka” itself is a derivation of “Musquakie,” a former Anishinaabe chief). Muskoka remains an importance place to the Anishinaabeg, if only as a reminder of their longevity and connection to the land.

In Anishinaabemowin, Muskoka translates to Musko (red) and ki (place on earth), believed to describe the plentiful red leaves on the ground in the fall in Muskoka. Today, the descendants of the Anishinaabeg still live nearby at Rama First Nation, Beausoleil First Nation, Georgina Island and Wasauksing (Parry Island).

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Sherry Lawson and Ben Cousineau in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2017


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