Before There Was Wilmot

Between the Lakes Treaty signed 230 years ago this week

Since March 2019, the Township of Wilmot’s councillors have taken turns reading a land acknowledgment at the beginning of every council meeting, recognizing the peoples who lived here before the arrival of European settlers.

A brief history of Wilmot on the Township’s website begins in 1824, when Mennonites from Waterloo Township and Amish from Europe started to make this their home.

A deeper dive into the past reveals that there was plenty of activity in this area prior to that, some of which led to the signing of the Between the Lakes Treaty on Dec. 7, 1792. That agreement laid partial foundations for what would become Wilmot township.

Darin P. Wybenga is the Traditional Knowledge and Land Use Coordinator for the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation. He explained that an agricultural society known as the Neutral People once occupied the land between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, where they grew corn, beans, squash and tobacco.

“When Europeans arrived in what became Southern Ontario, the Neutral People lived in the vicinity of Wilmot township during the mid-17th century until dispersed from their homes by the Five Nations Confederacy,” said Wybenga.

Five Nations is the name English speakers used when referring to the Haudenosaunee, who were forced out of Southern Ontario by the Anishinaabe, or Ojibway, in the late 17th century.

Wybenga said, “The Mississaugas, a sub-group of the Anishinaabe, drove out the Haudenosaunee at the western end of Lake Ontario”, including from what is now Wilmot and Waterloo region.

“Unlike the Neutral and Haudenosaunee that lived in longhouses and were agriculturists, the Mississaugas moved purposefully throughout their territory, fishing, hunting and gathering resources.”

The American Revolution placed pressure on the Crown to acquire land where Loyalists could settle, and it sought to take possession of highly desirable land that was occupied by the Mississaugas. The Mississauga Treaty of Niagara in 1781 acknowledged that they were the legal inhabitants of the lands at the western end of Lake Ontario.

In May 1784, the Mississaugas ceded approximately three million acres between Lakes Huron, Ontario, and Erie, in exchange for £1,180 worth of trade goods, such as food, blankets, clothing, guns and ammunition.

A tract of land six miles wide on either side of the Grand River was chosen, but before the land could be granted to the Loyalists, it first had to be acquired from its occupants, the Mississaugas.

On Dec. 7, 1792, the Between the Lakes Treaty was signed by Gov. Frederick Haldimand, on behalf of the Crown, and the “Wavakanyne, Nannibosure, Pokquawr, Nanaughkawestrawr, Peapamaw, Tabendau, Sawainchik, Peasanish, Wapamanischigun, Wapeanojhqua, Sachems and War Chiefs and Principal Women of the Messisague Indian Nation,” according to the treaty’s text.

“The fact that the principal women of the Mississaugas were mentioned in the agreement indicates that women were valued members of Mississauga society and that their opinions were esteemed,” Wybenga said.

“Our treaties were sacred, enduring agreements reached between our nation and the British Crown,” he added. “Between 1781 and 1820, Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation ancestors negotiated eight treaties with the British Crown that saw their territory of approximately 4 million acres at the western end of Lake Ontario reduced to 200 acres on the Credit River.”

Like other similar pacts, the Between the Lakes Treaty is a documented agreement reached between parties. However, the signatories viewed the contract in vastly different ways.

For the Mississaugas, treaties meant that they would peaceably share the land with newcomers and continue to pursue their own traditional lifestyle. Settlers, though, considered treaties as proof that they were the owners and sole proprietors of the land.

“The Mississaugas’ notion of sharing the land was not compatible with that of the settlers, who regarded the treaties as mere real estate transactions,” said Wybenga.

The Mississaugas entered into their first agreement with a spirit of cooperation and sharing, and they expected to be able to hunt, fish, gather and move freely about the land, as they had always done.

However, as increasing numbers of settlers occupied the land, the Mississaugas encountered fences, as well as angry farmers with guns. Rather than sharing the land, they were treated as trespassers.

Forests were cleared, fish and game were depleted, and the Mississauga’s land base shrank. As their traditional economy collapsed, disease and malnutrition caused their population to plummet. In order to survive and avoid extinction, they traded away more and more land.

Wybenga said that treaties were meant to last forever, and that the agreement to share the land “is just as true and valid today as when the treaties were signed over two hundred years ago.”

“There is a saying today, that ‘we are all treaty people,’ meaning that not just the First Nations have the responsibility to uphold the treaties, but everyone that lives on the land.”