With simple street signs, the folks behind the Ogimaa Mikana project are reminding Torontonians our local history stretches back farther than heritage buildings.
In late January, after intense public demonstrations in support of Idle No More and the day after Attawapiskat’s Chief Theresa Spence ended a six-week hunger strike, an oblong white street sign went up just off Queen Street West. If you were unfamiliar with local roadways, you’d never know McCaul Street had been unofficially renamed by a group of activists. For over a week, it was Ogimaa Mikana, or “Leader’s Trail,” in honour of women leaders like Chief Spence.
Five months later—last Friday, in fact—Hayden King and Susan Blight, the core members behind the Ogimaa Mikana (oh-ghee-ma mik-uh-na) project, met by the War Memorial in Queen’s Park to install another facsimile. This one, painted parliamentary blue and trimmed in gold, resembled the historical signs dotted around the park. Its six lines of text in Anishinaabemowin, a dialect spoken by a grouping of Great Lakes nations including the Ojibwe and Mississauga peoples, preceded an English translation: “Toronto (Place Where the Logs Flow). We all live on native territory. Our Anishnaabe land. Welcome to our community. How do you recognize it?”
The question is an interesting one for Toronto, a city with a burgeoning interest in its own history, and a place where passionate debates are waged about heritage buildings and cultural landmarks. But recognizing the history of the current community is one thing—it’s the pre-settlement history that’s unfamiliar to most.
King is a Ryerson University politics professor originally from Beausoleil First Nation in southern Georgian Bay. He said the project was conceived as an act of solidarity with Idle No More, but one that could continue independently. Since January, Ogimaa Mikana members have clambered up footstools to sticker or install over city signage at five sites—including Spadina Avenue (restored to its original Ishpadinaa) at Queen West. “We wanted to reclaim and rename places in Toronto that we know are of Anishinaabe origin,” said King. “Today, we’re presenting a counter-narrative to the Queen’s Park monument and the story of its construction.”
They don’t identify as guerilla artists. Instead, this is part of a long history of native resistance and activism in response to issues like land dispossession, as well as political, social, economic, and infrastructural exclusion. “Toronto’s an interesting city [in which] to do a project like this,” said Blight, a University of Toronto Aboriginal student services special projects officer. “It adopts this idea of being the most multicultural city in the world—and that’s a positive thing, but I think it can be to the detriment of the visibility of indigenous people.”
Originally from Couchiching First Nation, four hours west of Thunder Bay, Blight explained that the changing identity of a big city is encouraging. “Because a lot of people who are new to Canada live here, there’s the potential for coming to a different kind of understanding.” In particular, Blight wants to remind people that they are on indigenous land, and also that there are many urban Aboriginals who still live here. “But we mostly want to encourage Anishinaabe people to feel at home, which is something we struggle with. A lot of the time, we feel alienated from our own land.”
As King held up the sign, a legislative security officer walked over. “You can’t put that sign up because it’s not official from the Ministry of Culture and Communications,” he said. He scribbled down King’s name before dropping this bomb: If the sign goes up and isn’t taken down on request from security, King would be charged with trespassing.
“Indigenous activism is the oldest activism on the continent; we’ve been doing this since Canada became a country,” said King, unfazed and undeterred after the officer sauntered off.
This was the first time the group had been questioned, but it also happened to be Aboriginal Solidarity Day; by noon, a small gathering had assembled in the park. With security distracted, the sign went up declaring Toronto as Piitaapocikewaatikakocin.