At the Bottom of the Lake

A Hidden Piece of Canadian Indigenous History

Driving north from Lake Ontario out Guelph Line road past the telltale markers of suburbia—strip malls, rows of housing and highway overpasses—the signs of urbanization near Hamilton gradually start to fall away. Two lanes in each direction turn to one. Fields of earthen brown separate clusters of barren trees. Dense forest emerges, and then just as quickly, is in the rear view. This was a journey I took frequently during my childhood, buckled up in the backseat, watching the picturesque landscape pass me by. Despite learning a version of First Nations history peppered into outdoors camps and history classes, however, it was hard at that age to appreciate the significance, complexity, and frankly injustice, that shaped the lives and homelands of the local indigenous population.

The road slopes sharply downward as I enter the historic town of Lowville. Named quite literally as the lowest point in the area, the tiny town established in the early nineteenth century is dotted with small homes, a restaurant bearing its name, and a stone church. Blink twice, go around a bend, and the scenic little town is replaced by more fields. To the right, a giant mushroom farm—often emitting a truly repugnant odor—sits in the foreground against the stunning cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment winding into the distance. If you take this road during the winter months, you’ll notice a giant reindeer, lovingly constructed out of oxidized metal barrels, guarding the entrance of a farmhouse.

Beyond all of this lies Crawford Lake. one of the many conservation areas dotted along the Halton region and Niagara Escarpment in Ontario. The escarpment is a long expanse of variable rocks and cliffs formed over millions of years. The result of erosion, the area—which includes the famed Niagara Falls—is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. As you near Crawford Lake, the sharp cliffs of the escarpment divide the wooded landscape.

The park lies on land previously occupied by the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) people. Excavations that began in 1972 uncovered the remains of a 15th century First Nations village and longhouses, which have been reconstructed adjacent to the park’s visitor center. Next to the longhouses are an imposing wooden wall and tall posts demarcating where other structures would have stood. The longhouses were built using imprints left behind by the wood used to construct them.

Inside the longhouses, replicas of everyday items are placed along the elevated platforms that would have been used as beds and storage: animals pelts, various tools, a turtle shell calendar, a birch bark canoe, food storage units, and a baby carrier. I remember visiting the longhouses in the early ‘90s, when I was still in the single digits, learning about indigenous cooking and hunting techniques.

Since that time, new excavations have taken place with more objects recovered. Funding from local donors has allowed for new exhibits showcasing several of the tools retrieved during digs, and some more modern tools given by the farmer who occupied the land before it was sold to the conservation authority. An installation of illustrations and writing portraying the clans of the Haudenosaunee by Iroquois artist Raymond Skye hangs from the ceiling in a warmly-lit room.. Skye’s work describes clan values and identity with the characteristics of each linked to the animal that symbolizes their clan: bear, wolf, deer, turtle, beaver, eel, snipe, hawk, and heron.

Skye himself was born on Six Nations of the Grand River territory, the largest First Nations reserve in Canada. The 46,000-acre piece of land represents only five percent of the 960,000 acres agreed upon in the 1784 Haldimand Treaty. On my most recent trip, a woman in her late thirties who worked at the park followed me and my companions into one of the longhouses and sat on a wooden stump placed among a circle at a would-be firepit. After a few moments she looked over and invited us to ask her any questions we may have. She informed us that we were, in fact, on Iroquois land based on the 1784 treaty. “But of course, you know, the treaties weren’t generally upheld.”

The 1784 Haldimand Proclamation stated that the Iroquois who had supported the British during the American Revolution would be entitled to land. The treaty was to…

“authorize and permit the said Mohawk Nation and such others of the Six Nation Indians as wish to settle in that quarter to take possession of and settle upon the Banks of the River commonly called Ouse or Grand River, running into Lake Erie, allotting to them for that purpose six miles deep from each side of the river beginning at Lake Erie and extending in that proportion to the head of the said river, which them and their posterity are to enjoy forever.”

However, as was generally the case, the extent of the lands was disputed and ultimately not honored. Treaties between the British Crown and First Nations people during this period were generally negotiated quickly in English with inadequate translation (or none at all), and on terms completely foreign to the cultural practices of the indigenous communities. The records of the actual negotiations tend to vary substantially between parties, with the chiefs often signing without adequate knowledge of the parameters of the document, or having been deliberately deceived. In some cases—as in the case with disputes surrounding the Haldimand Treaty—pertinent documents were said to have been damaged or destroyed.

Several trails lie opposite the village, just beyond the visitor’s center. Tree roots snake their way across dense jagged rock covered in moss and diverse fungi to create an intricate network of little nooks and crannies. If you wander down a gradual hill and follow the blue markers pegged to trees, you’ll arrive at the shores of the meromictic lake. The unique conditions of this body of water mean that the deeper parts of the lake remain virtually untouched.

A meromictic lake is one whose surface area is small relative to its depth. The result is deep water that does not mix with the top, allowing for preservation that would be impossible in a shallower lake. It was here that corn pollen was found in the sediment, which ultimately led researchers to determine that First Nations settlements had existed in the area. According to a 2007 paper published by John McAndrews of the University of Toronto, sediment dating between the thirteenth and sixteenth century contains fossilized dung pellets of Canada geese with pollen, weeds, and herb charcoal, indicating they fed in the nearby Iroquoian fields before relieving themselves over the lake. Guiding you around the stagnant water is a boardwalk, its circumference about half a mile. The wood becomes slick in the winter months and the slats creak from the cold.

As children, we would secure our cross-country skis to the roof of our station wagon, pile into the car and head out for a day of skiing, with my parents loaded down with backpacks full of snacks my mother had prepared. At the end of a long ski, we would rush back into the car to warm up with thermoses of hot tea or apple cider. Returning as an adult, the significance of the area resonates in a way it couldn’t to a child’s mind. The value of Crawford Lake as an educational landmark and nature preserve is tremendous, but it is also a stark reminder of a devastating history of national failure to address the rights of Canada’s First Nations communities that in many ways continues to this day.


Sarah El-Shaarawi

Sarah El-Shaarawi is a writer and media consultant based between Toronto and Cairo. She is managing editor of Arab Media & Society and a contributing editor at Africa is a County. Her work has also appeared in Newsweek Middle East, Foreign PolicyThe National, and Cairo Review of Global Affairs, among others.

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