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Elder and storyteller Gary Sault performs Friday at Fort York in Toronto during a War of 1812 commemoration. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Elder and storyteller Gary Sault performs Friday at Fort York in Toronto during a War of 1812 commemoration. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

New Credit First Nation gets a ‘thank you’ 200 years later Add to ...

Chief Bryan LaForme is unhappy with the War of 1812.

The rest of Canada may consider the conflict a thing of the past, and be largely immune to government-sponsored commemorations meant to boost the war’s image.

But on the Mississaugas of the New Credit reserve near Hagersville, Ont., within the confined 2,500-hectare homeland of an Ojibwa people who once roamed much of Southern Ontario, history persists in the present tense.

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“For me, the war is a disappointment,” Mr. LaForme says over a morning coffee at the native-owned Country Style Bistrodeli, as Stanley Cup highlights flash on a nearby TV. “It’s always about the British and the Americans, with no mention of the First Nations. So we were virtually invisible until a few of our people made this a focal point for us and got some recognition for our contribution – which is nice, but about time.”

History, at least when defined by other people, glossed over the Mississaugas in the two centuries since they fought at the battle of York, defending a territory that used to be theirs on behalf of an ally who betrayed their trust. They were paid a pittance for their appropriated land, which includes Toronto and Mississauga, the sprawling conurbation named after its displaced native people.

But on Saturday, the New Credit people are finally putting history in its place. To the sound of beating drums and prayers recited in the long-neglected Ojibway language they are now reclaiming, Mr. LaForme will lead the opening of a 12,000-square-foot community centre that symbolizes New Credit’s refusal to remain invisible.

That spacious gathering place was built with funds from a $145-million land-claim settlement with the federal government in 2010 over the invalid purchase of the disputed Toronto-area territory. As part of the grand opening, an exhibit created with the City of Toronto will also be unveiled. Its less-than-conciliatory title? Outcome of the War of 1812: First Nations Betrayed.

“They promised us a lot and the end result was we got squat,” says Mr. LaForme, as he ticks off 1812 battles where Chief Joseph Sawyer led his anonymous warriors. “The loss of land, that’s what we got.”

The Mississaugas proved less useful in peace than in war, despite efforts to assimilate to the newcomers’ ways. Threatened by the encroachment of non-natives, the New Credit people’s ancestors abandoned their settlement at the mouth of the Credit River in modern Mississauga and moved to their landlocked parcel on the edge of the Six Nations reserve, 40 kilometres southwest of Hamilton.

And 200 years later they finally get thanked. As he inspects the new community centre, the chief comes across a shiny object sitting in a display case beside a collection of millennia-old native artifacts. It’s a War of 1812 medallion, recently presented to the New Credit people by the Governor-General.

“In Defence of Canada,” he says, reading the inscription with skepticism. “But Canada wasn’t even Canada back then.”

He’s more enthusiastic about a replica Grey Cup on display. As part of the 2012 CFL championship in Toronto, Mr. LaForme conveyed the trophy from Union Station to city hall – one of the symbolic ways the New Credit people have asserted their visibility in a place they still consider theirs, the $145-million settlement notwithstanding.

The New Credit people – who number 600 on the reserve and another 1,600 off – are now trying to take a lead role in the Pan Am Games, which Toronto will play host to in 2015. But, says Mr. LaForme, “the Pan Am group really don’t understand the link between us and the land and our traditional stories.”

This aboriginal view of shared land tenure has never squared with the non-native idea of real estate exclusivity. “It all starts from a basis of mutual incomprehension,” says historian Donald Smith, who is launching his book, Mississauga Portraits, at the New Credit community centre. “The First Nations believed they were lending the use of their land. The newcomers felt it was an outright handover. The expectation was that these people would eventually disappear: They would either be brought into the larger society or perish.”

History has finally proved the colonists wrong: Two centuries later, the New Credit people are thriving on their Toronto connections. “The idea I’m always trying to push,” says former chief Carolyn King, “is that we were there, and we’re still here.”

The past is easily lost in a ruthlessly modernizing city like Toronto, where memory is obliterated by social change. “In another 20 years,” Mr. LaForme says, “the people governing us are going to be immigrants who have no understanding of the First Nations.”

Which is why Ms. King has established the Moccasin Project – native sites across cities and suburbs will be publicly identified with a moccasin symbol representing the tribe that inhabited each location.

“From this point forward, people will know whose land they’re on,” she says. “And that will go a long way to address the hurts of the First Nations. Because for most of the time, we have just been ignored.”

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