As the Classic Theatre Festival’s historic theatrical walking plays bring history to life, its performers and crew often meet those making contemporary history. Last summer, troupe members were privileged to meet with MP Romeo Saganash (who has worked for over three decades to create and pass the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and who authored a Parliamentary bill recently passed to adopt and implement the Declaration in Canada). They also met tireless Indigenous rights activist Leah Gazan, a member of the Wood Mountain Lakota Nation and co-founder of the #WeCare campaign to end violence against indigenous women and girls. Saganash (upper left) is seen here with (clockwise, standing to sitting) director Joanna McAuley Treffers, performers Connor Williamson, Brooks Knapton, and Keegan Carr, and Leah Gazan (sitting, far left).
Every year, the Perth through the Ages historic theatrical walking play uncovers stories and characters from Perth’s past. Often, a historic event or character will be supplemented by fictional creations who are true to the era and which aid in the development of the story.
For playwright Laurel Smith, who writes both the morning walking plays and the evening Lonely Ghosts Walks, “I always find playwriting/storytelling to be a spiritual, mystical process, as well as a serious responsibility.” For the past two summers, her works have focused on historic wrongs committed against Indigenous people in and around Perth, one of many communities that was settled in what is still unceded Algonquin territory.
Numerous histories of Eastern Ontario still rely on the inaccurate notion that this area was uninhabited until European colonizers arrived, ignoring the fact that the Algonquin people have lived in the area since time immemorial, and still do. Much of Algonquin history is either buried or paved over and renamed.
In 2016, Smith’s play River of Memory reminded audiences that when Europeans first arrived in the area, they could not have survived were it not for the generosity and knowledge of the Algonquin people who were already here. The story focused on a young man discovering his Indigenous heritage following the death of his mother.
A Serendipitous Connection
Last summer, A Nation Lost and Found told a story of conflict at the time of Confederation, when a Scottish woman, Bridget O’Leary, experienced community disparagement after hiring an Indigenous man known as John Stevens to work on her farm. O’Leary was also criticized by her fiancé for helping care for Stevens’ baby, Marie.
Over the winter, Smith was contacted by someone researching their family history. While Smith had consulted with representatives of numerous Algonquin nations to ensure the play’s historical accuracy, the Stevens name never came up in her research, and was instead, she thought, a fictional creation chosen to help represent Indigenous-settler relations at the time.
But according to an email she received, the Stevens were in fact real people, and Smith’s choice of first names and approximate dates of both was uncannily in sync with family records. Indeed, Peter Stevens was the adopted name of Algonquin Chief Shawanipinessi, who along with his community at Bob’s Lake experienced an all too familiar tale of land dispossession and dishonourable treatment on the part of the Crown.
“Peter Stevens’ son was John Stevens who was born in 1831,” read the email. “Marie Stevens was born between 1863 and 1867, which was a perfect match for the baby in your play!”
The backdrop to A Nation Lost and Found was based on the less than savoury historical record, one of constant attempts by local Indigenous people to petition colonial authorities to end acts of violence and theft against the region’s first inhabitants.
According to archival records, “The Government of Sir Charles Bagot granted a license of occupation to Shwanapenesi and his band of 90 or so souls in 1844. They lived on an island in the East Basin of Bob’s Lake. Shawanapenesi and the people of the community dreamed of having a sawmill, school and farms. In that same year, loggers arrived in the upper watershed of the Tay River and began felling timber on the 2000-acre Reserve. Men were beat-up, women were raped and the only valuable resource was cut and floated down river.
“Shawanapenesi complained. He received a letter from the Government of Upper Canada explaining that he had received a license of occupation and that the timber license had been given to a Mr. Flint. Shawanapenesi complained of the treatment that the band members had experienced at the hands of the loggers.” But the Commandant at the Perth garrison, instead of protecting Shawanapensi and his people from sttler violence, instead wrote to “assure him that should the Indians harm the loggers or settlers he would dispatch soldiers to the area, but for no other reason. Within a few short years of the beginning of the Bedford Reserve it was devastated.”
As Joan Holmes wrote in a 1998 paper, Hidden Communities: Research Difficulties encountered in Researching Non-Status Algonquins in the Ottawa Valley, “The British Crown never entered into formal treaty relations with the Algonquin and Nipissing, despite the fact that the Algonquin and Nipissing repeatedly petitioned British authorities to compensate them for the loss of their traditional lands and the destruction of the resources upon which they depended for their livelihood. On several occasions, authorities acknowledged their claims but no action was taken.
An Untenable Situation
“….In the last half of the 19th century, the Algonquin and Nipissing occupying lands on the Upper Canada or Ontario side of the Ottawa River were in an untenable situation. They were not eligible for the free homestead grants being offered to settlers moving into the area, because they were Indians, nor could they claim squatters’ rights or exercise pre-emptory rights to lands they occupied like whites that had settled in the area. Thus, the free grants offered to whites from 1868 to 1908 were not available and lands upon which they were settled were not protected.”
The social and environmental destruction wrought at Bob’s Lake was no aberration, but rather a pattern that was repeated throughout the territory. Despite Indigenous people originally befriending newcomers to the area, settlers took over more and more of the traditional territory, pushing aside Algonquin people with little regard for their cultural, material or spiritual needs, nor for the land that sustained them.
In the book At Home in Tay Valley, Algonquin writer, activist and educator Paula Sherman quotes Kaondinoketch, an Omamiwinini leader from 1840, addressing a Perth council meeting with a complaint similar to that of Shawanapensi: “Our hunting grounds that are vast and extensive and once abounded in the richest furs and swarmed with deer of every description are now ruined. We tell you the truth, we now starve half the year through and our children, who were accustomed to being comfortably clothed, are now naked. We own, brother, that we are partly the cause of these present misfortunes; we were too good and generous; we permitted strangers to come and settle on our grounds and to cultivate the land; wood merchants to destroy our valuable timber, who have done us much injury, as by burning our rich forests, they have annihilated our beaver and our peltries, and driven deer away.”
Building Truth and Reconciliation
For a number of years, Lanark Neighbours for Truth and Reconciliation have worked diligently to ensure such history is not forgotten, while also addressing the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
In a presentation they delivered to numerous area town councils, they pointed out: “The land on which we stand was then and continues to this day as unceded Algonquin territory. No agreements have been signed to state how the land shall be shared. It is a fundamental truth of our collective history that the Perth settlement was established in contradiction to British law and the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which stated that no land could be granted to settlers without a prior agreement between First Nations and the Crown. The Proclamation was ratified at the Treaty of Niagara in 1764 where delegations from Indigenous peoples from across what is now southern Ontario met and exchanged wampum belts with a representative of the British Crown. Through this peace process the Algonquin people agreed to share the land but did not then nor ever since surrendered their title and rights to the land. The history of broken treaties began almost immediately as the Crown granted parcels of unceded land to reward soldiers for their service.”