One of the best ways to experience a new city is to take a walking tour. You can really connect with a place when you travel by foot, and discover the stories hidden in between the typical attractions. You can learn about a specific neighbourhood, or explore a well-known route through a new perspective.
Taking a walking tour in your own city, however, is a total shift in perspective. In Toronto, I pass by Yonge Street practically every day, but I never once thought deeply into where the name came from, let alone what was here before.
First Story Toronto is here to undo that casual apathy toward Toronto’s history as a city — our real history. The organization offers a variety of walking and bus tours with a specific focus on Indigenous Canadian history, by shedding light on the stories you seldom get to hear in textbooks — Toronto’s “First Story,” as it were.
“People say Fort York was the birthplace of Toronto — as if nothing was here beforehand. Toronto has a 12,000 year history. This land was lived on long before the British settlers arrived… But history books only talk about the last 200 years.”
“The part we focus on is only 2% of the story. What about the other 98%?”
This is the philosophy that fuels First Story. By exploring Toronto through the history of its indigenous peoples, participants can explore the truth of the land they live on — to facilitate awareness, and take steps toward reconciliation.
I had the opportunity to take one of these walking tours through the Jack Layton Leadership School, which was an eye-opening experience in itself. The tour was organized as part of a curriculum that included a keynote speech from Toronto City Councillor Mike Layton, a spoken word performance by Randell Adjei of R.I.S.E., a workshop on storytelling as a tool for social change by Olivia Chow, and panels on locally-relevant topics such as stigma, police brutality, and job precarity. The three-day series opened and closed with ceremonies in the Anishinawbek tradition.
Our tour — one of a growing list of over a dozen routes that explore Indigenous and settler history all over the city — begins at the statue of Egerton Ryerson, after whom Ryerson University was named. While lauded for his work to establish education as an equal right, his version of equality had a glaring blind spot.
On one hand, Ryerson fought for freedom of education. He felt education should be an uncontested right — like breathing air — and that social status or religion shouldn’t stop a child from learning. Admirable, right? On the other hand, he adamantly believed that Native children, conversely, “should be schooled in separate, denominational, boarding, English-only and agriculturally-oriented (industrial) institutions.”
It was his recommendation that provided the framework for Canada’s residential school system — where over 150,000 Indigenous children were pulled from their families and forced to live in substandard conditions. The alienation, cultural erasure, and rampant abuse within the residential school system has been the root of immense trauma on an individual and community level, rippling down through generations. How does this reality coexist with the ideals of free, accessible education that Egerton Ryerson is known for? Ryerson University has publicly provided a statement regarding its namesake, which can be found here.
Given Egerton Ryerson’s mixed legacy, there are mixed opinions on his statue. Groups have lobbied to have it taken down. Others say it should be left alone. Some have suggested that a plaque or visual reminder be erected alongside the statue, to draw attention to the reality of Egerton Ryerson’s actions without erasing the story — instead drawing public attention to the story behind the story.
Community organizer and tour coordinator Brian MacLean is keen to share the stories beneath the city’s collective conscious. He guides tours with historical expertise, and answers questions with academic accuracy — and with great respect and sensibility.
“We can tell these stories in a parallel way — no one’s history should be erased,” he says, gesturing toward Allen Garden, which has been named as a potential site for a Truth and Reconciliation project. “But the indigenous history that has been erased needs to be recovered. It’s good for all of us to look inside, and ask ourselves how we can do better. Who are we, and where did we come from — and who are we together?”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has released a series of reports and findings that can be read in full on their website. These reports include 94 calls to action, eight of which can be implemented within Toronto. The Allen Garden project falls under one of these calls to action — enhancing the name of the garden, and implementing a monument to honour survivors of the Residential School system.
Change is slow — but it is needed. The story non-Indigenous Canadians tell ourselves and the world about Canada is one of freedom, opportunity, and equality by virtue of diversity — but there are two Canadas. There have always been two Canadas. Even as far back as Egerton Ryerson and his disparate ideas of public schooling, the standards for Indigenous children reflect a duality that is unfortunately still around today, in a different form. Once we realize this truth, we can begin to try to reconcile.
We can’t erase the ugliness of the past, but we can openly and visibly acknowledge it, and support changes that improve the future. It doesn’t change what has happened — it doesn’t make it go away — but it is infinitely better than not acknowledging it.
“Look into yourself — into your roots. What do you bring to this city? If we had to say, ‘What’s the story of Toronto?’ — how can we answer that in an inclusive way?”
I love this city. Many of us do — it’s no secret. Torontonian pride is rampant, unapologetic, and a great way to sell t-shirts. No matter where we come from, or where our families come from, Toronto embraces us into its fold and provides a vibrant home to so many communities and individuals — who all uniquely contribute to its urban patchwork. Regardless — non-Indigenous citizens can’t take this land for granted. We can’t be passive toward communities that have been marginalized and displaced from a city on the same land in which their peoples have had 12,000+ years of history.
We owe gratitude to this land. We owe recognition to its people.
Listen to these stories. Fold them into your perspective. They are as much a part of this city as all the parts of this city we celebrate — they belong at the forefront.
- Truth and Reconciliation, and Toronto-specific calls to action
- Native Canadian Centre of Toronto
- Dodem Kanonhsa, a space for fostering understanding, learning, and harmony between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities
- Watch Erasing Cultural Genocide: Surviving St. Anne’s Residential School
- Keep tabs on Idle No More, a cultural and environmental movement for change
- Learn more about the Jack Layton Leadership School and its purpose
For more information about current tours and upcoming events, follow the First Story blog. An interactive phone app is also available for Apple and Android, allowing you to take the First Story into your own hands.