The sun is down, but the light standards from three softball fields guide my way as I walk west along the Toronto waterfront. As I enter Coronation Park, near the Canadian National Exhibition’s Princes’ Gates, I dodge cyclists, joggers and dog walkers. The spot I’m standing on used to be water, back when the shoreline ended at Front Street. There’s no way to romanticize lakefill — the park sits on sand sucked up from Toronto’s harbour in the early 20th century — but this place has a beauty that, like other changed areas of the city, tells a story of human interaction with the environment rather than destruction of it.
The hum of traffic on a nearby arterial road is counterpoint to the sound my shaker makes as I pull it out of my bag.
Coronation Park is the approximate site of the second American attack on Fort York, in 1813. Lakefill pushed the Lake Ontario shoreline south, and in 1935, the seawall was extended as part of an infrastructure project that offered relief pay for unemployed men during the Great Depression. The park was created two years later, when veterans’ groups organized a planting of 150 trees on May 12, 1937, the day George VI was crowned king. Oak and maple trees were planted around the “royal oak” to represent the British Empire and to honour veterans of Canadian battles.
As a Cree woman, the irony doesn’t escape me. I light a braid of sweetgrass and commemorate a past this park doesn’t acknowledge: the Iroquois villages, inter-tribal trade routes and Mississauga camps of Toronto’s aboriginal history.
As I conduct my ceremony, a resting cyclist watches from a picnic table. A homeless aboriginal man napping a couple of trees over tells me he’s from Manitoulin Island. “Oh, from Wiky?” I say, referring to the Wikwemikong Unceded First Nation, on Manitoulin Island. He laughs nervously and doesn’t answer, which suggests to me that he doesn’t know about his roots. It reminds me of my own journey, and why this place speaks to me.
Coronation Park has survived numerous threats in its 76-year history, yet today has fallen into what one Toronto city councillor calls a state of “disrepair.” But aside from haphazard pruning and wind damage that has some of the mature trees looking a little choppy, it’s hard to see what the problem is. This place reveals the true stories of the city: new terrain created by the dream of commerce and community; a tree-planting ritual memorializing the casualties of war; shiny new condo towers in an area once strictly industrial; the homeless man and me. There are layers here that demonstrate resilience and survival, renewal and change.
When people ask me how it’s possible for aboriginal people to live comfortably in the city, I tell them aboriginal identities have always been fluid, because culture is about adaptation. My Cree ancestors didn’t have a word for “park,” but a new term — ka kanaweyihcikatek askîy, which means “the ground set apart for public use” — has been created to reflect new concepts about land in contemporary Canada. Conducting a ceremony in a park is different, but it’s the way I celebrate an identity once hidden.
Aboriginal Peoples believe in interconnectedness. I am connected to the trees in Coronation Park — especially so, since my great-uncle Bernard Cleveland Dinsmore was a soldier in the memorialized Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force. But I’m also connected to the cyclist and the homeless man. Our stories are our own, but there is a larger story that binds us together. I don’t have to go somewhere else, somewhere remote, to know those stories. They are here, embodied in the spaces we share.
Aboriginal Peoples can create indigenous identities in urban spaces; this city has helped me create mine. We just have to remember what was here before, see what is here now, and create a story that links our past with our present. In aboriginal cultures, linking the past with the present is ceremony.
So I move my shaker and sing: to the water, to the trees, to the earth, to the grandmothers and grandfathers of the four directions. I sing for the man from Manitoulin Island who doesn’t seem to know his story. I sing for us all, so that we might find our own stories, here in the bright lights and gritty parks of the big city.