Wiigwaasikaa, seen in a photo taken last month. All photos by Luke Ottenhof
For over four months, a small community of Indigenous youth have reclaimed land in Toronto’s east end, turning it into an outdoor living and learning space.Wiigwaasikaa is mostly a collection of tents nestled among trees on land alongside Taylor-Massey Creek, which Indigenous youth have been holding since July 2. One tent acts as a community kitchen, while a small wooden structure houses lessons. Some people come and go (to shower or get a warm sleep, or as their needs change) but people, usually between five and 10 of them, are there 24/7—and are largely left alone.
The goal of Wiigwaasikaa—an Aanishnaabemowin word that means “there are many birch trees”—is to permanently reclaim the land from colonial control. It’s focused on four pillars: housing, assisting youth transitioning out of care, food sovereignty, and self-governance, said Sue Lynn Manone, an Indigenous sovereignty advocate who spearheaded the project. “We are proposing the idea to the city (of Toronto) and Ontario government that if they are truly serious about this truth and reconciliation, if they’re still down to back all of that work, then this is where we can start, in live time,” said Manone, who has ties to Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory and has lived in the neighbourhood for the past four years. Manone made clear she doesn’t claim leadership over the community but acts as a steward for the Indigenous youth.The Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, which submitted an official claim on the land in 2015 and support Wiigwaasikaa’s struggle for sovereignty, claim unextinguished title over the land under the Rouge Tract Claim. As such, Wiigwaasikaa is not part of the city of Toronto, nor should it be subject to the city’s bylaws, said Manone.
The land is also subject to the Dish With One Spoon agreement, and the two-row wampum agreement, contracts signed by the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe in 1701 that stipulate land sharing principles in Ontario and Quebec.
Under these contracts, said Manone, “nobody is supposed to have more than the other as far as basic necessities” like housing, food, and healthy ways of living. “We don’t even have those things,” she said.Wiigwaasikaa has largely been able to exist despite repeated visits from city bylaw officials and at least one visit from police on horseback . “The City supports such initiatives and recognizes the rights of the members of Wiigwaasikaa and others to gather and participate in peaceful protests and acts of political expression,” City of Toronto spokesman Alex Burke told VICE World News in an email. “The City also appreciates that Wiigwaasikaa's mandate is relevant to current political issues and ongoing efforts to advance reconciliation.”Burke said the city is scheduling a circle meeting with Wiigwaasikaa and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, and expects that relevant provincial and federal representatives will be involved.Beaches-East York NDP MPP Rima Berns-McGown said she has visited the camp on a number of occasions, and left her personal phone number with community members in case of crisis. She said her party, the official opposition, is engaged internally in “ongoing discussion” around giving land back and said if any government moves to displace Wiigwaasikaa, she will personally show up to defend the community.“We do these land acknowledgments and we don’t for a moment actually think about what that means,” said Berns-McGown. “How do we turn empty words into actual action? (This) is an obvious case to support.”
Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith said that “financial compensation” is the most likely resolution to the 2015 claim to the land.Going forward, Manone is hopeful that Wiigwaasikaa and other land back movements will force more equitable conditions for Indigenous communities.“Everything is changeable,” she said. “It’s just a matter of time.”Follow Luke Ottenhof on Twitter. Editor’s note: This story has been updated to use Sue Lynn Manone’s preferred surname.