While all of Ontario is First Nations’ traditional territory, reserves make up less than 1 per cent of the province’s total land area. By comparison, Ontario’s provincial parks and other protected areas total over 9 per cent. At 426 km2, Ontario’s largest reserve is Wiikwemkoong, located on the east end of Manitoulin Island in Georgian Bay. As a point of comparison, London, Ontario is 420 km2.
Generally, Cree and Oji-Cree reserves dominate the northern reaches of Ontario, with Ojibwe, Odawa, and Mississauga communities centred along the shores of the Great Lakes, and the Haudenosaunnee in the southwestern and eastern portions of the province. Other nations with reserves in Ontario are the Potawatomi of southern Ontario and eastern Georgian Bay, the Delaware and Munsee-Delaware peoples of southern Ontario and the Algonquins of the Ottawa Valley. Some communities have more than one reserve; for instance, the Batchewana First Nation has four: Goulais Bay, Obadjiwan, Rankin Location, and Whitefish Island. Additionally, 34 reserves — all located in Northern Ontario — are only accessible by air or winter roads.
The daughter of Alex Luke, pictured at Mattagami First Nation in 1958. Mattagami is a Ojibway and Oji-Cree community located between Sudbury and Timmins, Ontario.
As in other provinces, people living on Ontario reserves tend to be younger than Indigenous populations living off reserve. In 2016, 42 per cent of registered Indians living on reserves in the province were age 24 and younger, compared with 29.2 per cent of those living off reserve.
Before the arrival of Europeans, First Nations hunted, gathered, and farmed throughout Ontario and the surrounding region. When Europeans began arriving in the early 1600s, First Nations participated in the fur trade and at times warred over access to resources — for example, during the Iroquois, Fox and Dakota wars. From their arrival in Ontario, Europeans sought to create alliances with First Nations through treaties; however, it wasn’t until the 1850s that treaties began to include the concept of reserves. Up until that point, treaties did not mention reserves, although land for the First Nation signatories, along with money and other gifts, was often included as part of the deal. These lands eventually became a part of the reserve system following the creation of the Indian Act in 1876.
The first treaties in Ontario that directly led to the creation of reserves were the Robinson-Huron and Robinson-Superior treaties of 1850. Known collectively as the Robinson Treaties, these agreements were signed with Ojibwe communities along the northern shores of lakes Huron and Superior (see Treaties with Indigenous Peoples in Canada).
Treaties in Ontario continued to be signed, and continued to include reserves, until 1923 when Canada stopped making treaties. Agreements created during this period were treaties 3, 5 and 9, signed with Ojibwe and Cree communities in northern Ontario, and the Williams Treaties (the last to be signed in both Ontario and Canada) with the Chippewa of Lake Simcoe and Lake Huron, and with the Mississauga of the North Shore of Lake Ontario and central Ontario.
There are several First Nations in Ontario who live on unceded land, meaning that they never gave their territory to the federal government. These First Nations include the signatories of the Robinson Treaties. Unlike the treaties that came after them, the Robinson Treaties did not involve the surrender of the land chosen by the First Nation signatories for their reserves.
By comparison, the numbered treaties required First Nations to select reserves from the land that they were giving up. In addition to signatories of the Robinson Treaties, some First Nations live on unceded land because they refused to sign treaties. Wiikwemkoong First Nation, for example, refused to sign the 1862 McDougall Treaty, which dealt with Anishinaabe land on Manitoulin Island. Under the Indian Act, all land set aside for the use of a First Nation is treated as a reserve, regardless of whether it is on ceded or unceded territory. However, the fact that these lands were never surrendered is an important distinction for the communities involved.
Land claims, also known as modern treaties, began after 1972. Land claims attempt to address the rights of Indigenous Peoples who didn’t sign treaties, such as Wiikwemkoong First Nation, as well as the grievances of First Nations who did sign treaties but didn’t receive what they were entitled to (see Comprehensive Land Claims: Modern Treaties and Indigenous People: Specific Land Claims).
Women dry spaghnum moss at Neskantaga First Nation (formerly Lansdowne House), 1956. Neskantaga is an Oji-Cree community located on the shore of Attawapiskat Lake in northern Ontario.
There are many examples of First Nations in Ontario who have used the land claims process as a means of addressing treaty wrongs. Gull Bay First Nation, for example, located on the western shore of Lake Nipigon, thought the Robinson Superior Treaty promised them a reserve that measured 16 square French leagues, reflecting the distance measurement that they had learned from French fur traders. Instead they received a reserve that measured 16 square miles. This type of misunderstanding was a problem with all of the Robinson Treaties. While the treaties included descriptions of reserve lands measured in miles, First Nations assumed the land would be measured in French leagues, the only European unit of measurement known to them. Since a league was about two and a half times the size of a mile, the reserves were significantly smaller than what First Nations believed they had agreed upon. Problems also arose when surveyors and First Nations had difficultly locating the borders of reserves as they were described in the treaties. In addition, the surveyors, with the assistance of land and mining speculators, made sure reservation borders excluded areas that were already settled or that had valuable mineral resources. In 2016, Gull Bay First Nation filed a land claim, asking for $150 million in compensation for the years of lost income from mineral extraction and forestry had the reserve been the proper size.
The land claims process has also created entirely new reserves for specific nations. Missanabie Cree First Nation, for example, was promised a reserve in 1906 under the terms of Treaty 9. However, the lands promised were never surveyed or set aside for this Cree community. In 1993, Missanabie Cree First Nation filed a land claim asking for the reserve lands entitled to them. In 2010, 104 years after Treaty 9 was signed and 17 years after the land claim was filed, the Ontario government set aside about 39 km2 of land northeast of Sault Ste. Marie. In 2018 the land became a reserve.
First Nations throughout Ontario, such as the Six Nations of the Grand River, Fort Severn, Moose Cree, and Walpole Island, continue to negotiate with Canada to settle outstanding claims relating to the loss and return of reserve lands.
The rail bridge that passes through Garden River First Nation. Garden River is an Ojibway community located near Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
First Nation governance in Ontario has undergone various shifts over time. Traditionally, First Nations were governed by hereditary chiefs, appointed using various methods depending on the community. For example, in the Six Nations of the Grand River, elder women consulted their extended clans, and then selected hereditary chiefs, whereas among the Anishinaabeg at Sault Ste. Marie, hereditary chiefs were always chosen from the Crane clan. When reserves were first created, these traditional systems of governance continued to function. However, when the Indian Act was implemented in 1876, First Nation governance — in Ontario and across the country — began to be undermined.
Generally, under the Indian Act every reserve is entitled to one chief and one councillor for every 100 members of the First Nation. The chief and councillors are elected every two years. Initially, First Nations could choose whether or not they adopted the Indian Act’s system of governance; however, in 1884 it became mandatory. By imposing the electoral system laid out in the Indian Act, the federal government aimed to assimilate Indigenous peoples by streamlining their electoral processes.
The administrative office of Batchewana First Nation. Batchewana is an Ojibway community located near Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
In 1988, the federal government gave First Nations the option to customize their electoral process under the Indian Act. As a result of this new law, by 2015, half the First Nations in Ontario had customized their electoral process, while the other half continued to use the Indian Act’s original system. Custom electoral systems can differ widely between nations. The Chief of Six Nations of the Grand River, for example, is elected reserve wide, while 12 councillors are elected in pairs from six districts. At the other end of the spectrum is the Ojibway Nation of Saugeen, who, in 1997, opted for a lifetime chief. When the current chief of Saugeen dies a new lifetime chief will be selected to serve until his or her death.
In 2014, the First Nations Elections Act was introduced. It does not replace the Indian Act or custom governance systems. Instead, it allows bands to opt into a modified form of the Indian Act’s electoral system. For example, under the 2014 Act, a chief and council would be elected for four years instead of two. As of March 2019, eight First Nations in Ontario have opted to adopt this form of governance.
Regardless of which electoral system they use, First Nations in Ontario receive funding from the federal government through annual agreements. Revenues are also generated from interest on government held trust funds as well as economic developments, such as business parks, forestry projects, golf courses and tourism. Population growth and inflation without significant increases in federal funding have left reserves in Ontario with inadequate educational resources, housing and other infrastructure.
People living on reserves in Ontario often face challenges unfamiliar to their non-Indigenous neighbours. These may include lower levels of education, fewer economic opportunities, and inadequate housing. There are further disparities when comparing reserves geographically: reserves in the southern portion of the province tend to be better off than reserves in the north. While government funding for reserves is the same regardless of location, reserves in the south are closer to large urban centres, providing them with greater employment and educational opportunities.
In addition, reserves in the north, in particular air-access-only communities, tend to face housing crises in a way more southerly reserves do not. On 28 October 2011, for example, Attawapiskat First Nation, located on the eastern shore of James Bay, declared a state of emergency due to a housing crisis. As of the spring of 2018, 50 new homes had been built; however, the waiting list for housing is 300 families long and it’s estimated the community will need 595 new homes by 2030. There are approximately seven people per household in Attawapiskat, compared to the provincial average of 2.7. Similarly, of the 22 long-term boil water advisories affecting Ontario reserves, 18 are for reserves in the north. (A boil water advisory signals when water is unsafe to drink or to use for personal hygiene. The federal government defines “long-term” as an advisory that’s been in place for a year or more.)
Environmental pollution has also impacted the health and well-being of communities. For example, the people of Grassy Narrows have seen their Indigenous lifestyle destroyed by mercury contamination of their river system. This contamination destroyed their food fishery and has negatively impacted generations of people’s health and wellbeing. Grassy Narrows is still seeking proper remediation of the continuing mercury pollution of their community. Similarly, Serpent River First Nation has been affected by nuclear waste contamination from the former uranium mines in Elliot Lake, a town north of the reserve. The reserve lands and people’s health were also affected by a sulphuric acid plant built on the community’s land with the goal of employing local First Nations and supplying the product to the Elliot Lake mines. After a lengthy process, the federal government agreed to clean up the sulphuric acid plant in 1988-89. The land then became the reserve’s powwow grounds. When it was later discovered that moccasins were being eroded from remaining sulphuric acid, the pow wow grounds were moved to a higher elevation; the community is again (2019) negotiating for another site cleanup.
Arts and Culture
Reserves in Ontario have produced many famous actors, artists and athletes. Well-known actors include Jay Silverheels, from Six Nations, who was famous for his role as Tonto on the Long Ranger (1949-57). Graham Greene, also from Six Nations, is known for his roles on the television series the Red Green Show (1991-2006), as well as for movies including Maverick (1994), Dances with Wolves (1990) and Clearcut (1991).
Famous artists include Norval Morrisseau from Sand Point First Nation (now Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation). Morrisseau created the Woodland School of Art and is a member of the Indian Group of Seven. Morrisseau’s art drew on his Anishinaabeg culture for inspiration, leading to bright and vibrant works that were recognized around the world. Another member of the Indian Group of Seven is Daphne Odjig from Wiikwemkoong First Nation. Much of her work explores Anishinaabeg myth and history as well as the importance of relationships among all life.
Well known athletes include Tom Longboat (Six Nations) for running, Ted and Jordan Nolan (Garden River) for hockey, and Tara Hedican (Eabametoong) for wrestling.