Aboriginal Land History
on the Bruce Peninsula

Aboriginal land history continues the story of aboriginal land issues on the Bruce Peninsula. How it happened is a point for discussion by everyone.

The release of the Truth and Reconciliation Report which investigated the tragedies surrounding the native residential school system called for many actions to be taken to rectify this wrong. Listening to discussions about the report prompted me to write the following article about a book written by a local Bruce County resident. This book, when it was first released was heralded as a fresh look at aboriginal land history by a non-native.

Two hundred years ago there existed a nation that spanned more than two million acres. Today its domain spans a little more than thirty thousand acres!

Canadians tend to think that history begins with the arrival of the first European settlers to North America. Unfortunately, this attitude ignores the fact that North American history spans a much broader time frame than a few centuries. Many will argue that because we are of European descent it is important that we understand our heritage. I agree wholeheartedly! However, it is also important that we know about what Canada was like before our fore-fathers arrived.

The history of our country before the influx of settlers from Europe can be more than merely an educational exercise, it can also be extremely entertaining and enlightening. Unfortunately for us, the native history of Canada, has not been documented in vast scholarly libraries. Instead, much of the native heritage and tradition has passed from generation to generation by word of mouth.  Fortunately, today efforts are being made to document the history of the territory that we call Canada. One of these efforts was written by Peter Schmalz, a Walkerton teacher. Although The History of the Saugeen Indians, was researched and written in the 1970s it contains a wealth of information about native life in the Grey/Bruce region before European settlement. 

Prior to the opening of this region for settlement the Bruce Peninsula and Saugeen River watershed had been populated by various native nations during the course of time. Prior to the mid-seventeenth century the Ojibway, Ottawa and Potawatomi nations lived in this region. The arrival of French explorers signaled the beginning of the fur trade. The natives, especially the Hurons, developed an active trade in furs with the Europeans. This circumstance led to tension between some of the tribes. Consequently, wars occurred and by 1649 the Iroquois had defeated the Hurons to the point of almost total annihilation.

With their ally defeated, the Potawatomi and Ojibwa moved further west leaving the Bruce Peninsula to the Iroquois. Half a century later the former inhabitants of the Bruce would return to oust the Iroquois from the region. For the next century the Ojibway nation would live in relative peace on the Bruce Peninsula and lands of the Saugeen River watershed. The Ojibwa Nation consisted of the Wahbadick, Newash, Wahwahnosh and Metegwob tribes.  

In the first decades of the nineteenth century the Colonial government of Upper Canada realized that it needed more land for settlement. This marked the beginning of the treaties which enabled the government to acquire more land for settlement purposes.

The man at the forefront of the movement to claim more land from the natives was the Governor of Upper Canada, Sir Francis Bond Head. Using the guise of concern for the natives, Bond Head started a campaign to remove the natives from contact with the white settlers. Writing in 1836 the governor stated that “the Indian breathes pure air, beholds splendid scenery, traverses unsullied water, and subsists on food which, general speaking, forms not only sustenance but the manly amusement, as well as occupation, of his life”. He also voiced concern about the impact of foreign diseases and alcohol on the native population.

For these reasons Bond Head then came to the conclusion that civilization was “against the Indian’s nature” and that they could never become members of the civilized community. Thus the governor began a quest, not to just move the natives onto small reserves, but to remove them to an area of land where they would be totally isolated from white society and all of the rest of the land in the colony would therefore be available for settlement. It was his idea to remove all of the natives in Upper Canada to Manitoulin Island.

The information used in this article came from many sources.  However, Peter Schmalz’ History of the Saugeen Indians was of particular importance for information.  This book may be difficult to find in a bookstore, so check with your local library for copies. It is well-worth the read!

A version of this article first appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times.

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