Eel’s Creek (1979)
In which the author visits Kinoomaage Waabkong
Turning from 1989 to 1979, from the year I turned 21 to the year I turned 11.
In 2020, I had my father’s slides digitized. The result was 1,424 digital images, representing people, scenes, and events between the late 1950s and the late 1980s.
Most of the images are from the mid 1960s to the early 1980s, from my parents’ wedding in 1964 in London, U.K., to 1981 when we took a trip as a family to Western Canada.
My father was a professional photographer. He spent his career working in hospitals, photographing operations, putting together educational slide shows for doctors, and later taking pictures of eyeballs in the ophthalmology department at Toronto Western.
In 1979, we paddled Eel’s Creek, and my father turned it into a slide show. As a child, I was always being turned into the subject of a slide show. There was no social media, but my brother and I were early adaptors. We knew we were participating in an experience that would be mediated through my father’s photographs. He set up his shots. He told us where to be, how to look, when he would press the button. We didn’t need Susan Sontag to tell us about the terror and the beauty of the lens.
There was the experience and also the representation of the experience.
I think we canoed this river three times, twice with another family, a work colleague of my father’s, Stewart, and his two kids, a daughter, Moira, and a son, Duncan. On our side, it was my father, my brother, and I. The first time we did it in two canoes, the second time in three canoes. The third time, it was my father and I and friends from the neighbourhood, a father and son pair, Brian and Don. I’m going to guess this final trip was in 1986, the middle trip was in 1982.
The estimates for the years are influenced by the size of us in the slides. The slides got mixed up when they were digitized, but they are clearly not all from the same trip. We grew!
My memories of vacations as a child are twofold. Either we went to England to visit my mother’s parents, or we went camping. If we went on a road trip (Moosonee, 1979; Quebec City, 1980; Western Canada, 1981), we camped along the way.
Moosonee is interesting, eh? Perhaps for reasons that will be come obvious later in this piece. I remember an old Hudson’s Bay Trading Post building, still in use. We camped on the island in the river and took a large boat across. We’d taken the Polar Bear Express from Cochrane, which I remember had tasty hamburgers in the food car and no caboose. We stood at the end of the train, watching the receding rail lines behind us. Notably, Moosonee was the first place I’d been with a majority Indigenous population.
My mother did not come from a camping tradition (though she did sleep in tents as a British Girl Guide) but being in the woods was in my father’s bones. It was even perhaps his preferred habitat, the place where he seemed most fully himself, and my mother took to it naturally, as she took to Canada, her adopted country.
My father was born in Cobourg in 1937. He was a Depression Era baby and from a family that had been living, at the time of his birth, in the regions north of Lake Ontario for 100 years (his father’s family, who arrived from County Antrim, Ireland) and 150 years (his mother’s family, who came north from the newly minted USA in the 1790s, having arrived in the New World ~1640 and settled south of Boston. It’s unlikely they were United Empire Loyalists, as there is no evidence to prove it. More likely they came for the cheap land, which the British Crown was eager to populate).
This land where the Bradleys arrived was covered by what is now known as the Williams Treaties, which have a convoluted history, leading up to the 2018 Government of Canada apology.
Here’s the Canadian Encyclopedia’s introduction to treaty making in this area:
The Johnson-Butler Purchase of 1787–88 (also known as the “Gunshot Treaty,” referring to the distance a person could hear a gunshot from the lake’s edge) is one of the earliest land agreements between representatives of the Crown and the Indigenous peoples of Upper Canada (later Ontario). It resulted in a large tract of territory along the central north shore of Lake Ontario being opened for settlement. These lands became part of the Williams Treaties of 1923.
My great-great-grandfather, Sam Bryson, arrived in the late 1830s/early 1840s as a teenager, alone, according to family lore. It is said he worked as a sailor on Lake Ontario during the summer and drove a stagecoach during the winter. He lived in Bond Head, where he married, worked briefly on the railroad, which reached Newcastle in 1856 and put the passenger boats and stagecoach out of business, then moved to the lumber town of Kendal, where he worked as a labourer. He owned no land in his lifetime, though his widow purchased four acres the year after he died (1879). They had 10 children. Two went west. Two died in childhood. The three girls married and stayed local. My great-grandfather, also Sam, stayed in the family home and became a well-recognized barn carpenter.
My grandfather, JHB, was born in Kendal in 1898, which would have made him the perfect age to serve in World War One, but he did not. He took auto mechanic training at the new General Motors operations in Oshawa, then moved to Cobourg about 1922 or so. The date has remained mysterious. He worked as a mechanic and then bought a truck. His marriage license in 1927 gives his occupation as “trucker,” which he continued to do until 1932, when he opened his own garage – in rented space – in the hamlet of Grafton.
When my father arrived in 1937, he had an older sister, an older brother, and his parents had lost a four-year-old son, their eldest, through the ice of a local pond in 1934.
I’m sure it is no stretch to say that the Williams Treaties were not part of my father’s education growing up – or that they had had any place within the family’s consciousness – or the broader consciousness of the broader communities they were part of.
There’s a term for this. It’s Indigenous Erasure.
Later, my father would tell me there were Indigenous students in his Cobourg high school in the 1950s. They came down from Alderville First Nation, one of the Williams Treaties First Nations. So, on the interpersonal level there was awareness, connection. And my parents were progressive. My father stopped us from playing Cowboys and Indians when we were children. Yes, even in the 1970s. “What can we do then?” we asked. Cowboys and Cattle Rustlers was his solution.
In 2016, six months before he died, my father told me about a trip he’d taken to fly-in First Nations north of Lake Superior in the early 1970s. It was the first I’d heard this. He was working at the Hospital for Sick Children then and travelled with a group of doctors who were visiting the communities, including Pikangikum. My father was documenting the trip. He still had some of the negatives. (A story for another time.)
Where I’m going with this is, Eel’s Creek is in the Williams Treaties Territory. Eel’s Creek is also a hike through the woods away from what we called in 1979, the petroglyphs.
The stone is generally believed to have been carved by the Algonkian-speaking people between 900 and 1100 AD., if not somewhat earlier during the Archaic.
Originally two to three inches deep the 1200 carvings were made using gneiss hammers to incise human figures, animals, and a dominant figure whose head apparently represents the sun, onto the rock. (Source: Bradshaw Foundation.)
I have a slide of the carvings from 1979, but I saw online while researching this piece that photographs are not allowed at the site today – as it is a sacred site – so I will not post that image. In 1979, the site was unrestricted, and I remember walking upon it, fascinated.
Today I am curious to know how my father chose this canoe route, Eel’s Creek. I had always assumed that he’d found a route of reasonable difficulty, reasonable length, reasonable proximity to home. But now I see that the Petroglyphs Provincial Park was created in 1976, and maybe that sparked my father’s imagination to create this experience. Because it was a created, curated experience.
We are in the in-between area, the zone T.S. Eliot called “the shadow,” the space between the real and the idea.
In October 2021, I visited the National Canoe Museum with my mother. We went to Peterborough for the weekend. Just so we could get out of our houses and not go COVID stir crazy. We went to the canoe museum because it was where we were, and it was something to do. It had been recommended to me, but I didn’t have high expectations. Canoes, sure, okay.
But when I left there, I thought the museum is misnamed. It is a museum of conquest.
What I mean is, the history of the canoe in North America over the past 500 years aligns with the history of colonial expansion. Based on a single afternoon in the museum’s halls, I offer the following observations. They have amassed a remarkable collection of canoes. They are clear that the diversity of canoes in their collection stem from the diversity of Indigenous cultures across the continent—indeed, the world. The rivers of the continent were the highways of exploration and commerce, and the canoe was essential to both processes.
Do they take a decolonial approach to this most colonial of narratives? I can’t say they did, but at the same time I did feel that the Indigenous influence was heavily noted and emphasized. It was better done than I expected, for one, but I am open to being corrected.
Where the decolonial approach could have been more strongly noted, perhaps, is in the section of the museum that is more contemporary. The section on cottage colonialism. That’s not a term I found in the museum, but that’s where the history of the canoe ends up. At the cottage. The cottage built on the land granted by the Crown, traded away by, among others, the Williams Treaties First Nations.
The cottage is not something anyone could have imagined in 1787.
My family has never owned a cottage, but we did own two canoes, one a red-painted canvas Peterborough Canoe, a beauty that my parents bought at the Rouge River, used, in the late 1960s. It’s still in the family. It was one of the canoes we took down Eel’s Creek in 1979.
At age 11, I did not imagine I was participating in an echo of a colonial enterprise on land traded away for basically nothing, but when I saw those petroglyphs I knew I was in a land of mystery, bigger than I’d ever expected. It’s a mystery that continues to expand.
Murray Sinclair, former Justice, former Senator, former Commissioner for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has made statements along the lines of it took Canada seven generations to get so messed up, and it will take seven generations to sort it all out. But I was once in a room with other TRC Commissioners, and they said they weren’t prepared to wait that long. Reconciliation isn’t a process that requires action by Indigenous people; it requires action by the inheritors of colonial power.
It requires making changes to the narrative of this country.
The slide show of Eel’s Creek 1979 is about us paddling through the wilderness and encountering artifacts of an ancient civilization. It is the story of a father showing his kids the world he loved, as well, I don’t want to lose sight of that, the work my father did to give us that experience, share this world with us. But it would be years, decades really, before I could start to unpack what that confrontation with ancient rock really meant.
Canada is not Canada, Gord Downie said. He was both right and wrong. Canada is not the Canada we were told it was, yes. Canada is not the, in my lifetime, post-Expo ’67 nationalist juggernaut. This is the Canada Downie was reacting against. Canada is not that. But Canada is Canada, and confronting that is something Art can do, to make a minor point out of it.
There are many, many resources on this topic that folks can check out, including, of course, many, many Indigenous authors, many of which I could recommend, but that’s not the focus I’m concentrating on here. My focus here is on the so-called settlers taking a new look at their stories.
For example, Nathan Tidridge, an Ontario high school teacher with a special interest in promoting the role of the Crown, has a book called Beyond Mainland: Exploring History and Identity in Cottage Country (St*one Soup Publications, 2009). The subtitle is a good summary of the contents, but it’s a quotation from another of Tidridge’s books that I want to highlight. In The Queen at the Council Fire: The Treaty of Niagara, Reconciliation, and the Dignified Crown (Dundurn, 2015), Tidridge tells how his earlier book came to be:
I meticulously gathered everything together with the help of Professor Susan Scott of the Department of Religion and Culture [Wilfred Laurier University]. Susan and I would meet over tea at her home in Waterloo as she gently guided me though the passages and portages of recording personal history.
One day, as we approached what I thought was the end of the process, Susan asked me a question that changed my entire view of this world I had claimed as my own. “Nathan,” she asked, smiling at me with her hand covering her cup of tea as wisps of steam escaped through her fingers, “how are you going to handle the ideas of imperialism woven into your story?”
I could feel my canoe grinding against an unseen rock in the water.
Susan was merely enquiring about something that should have stood out as obvious to me: I had not just created my own world; I had conjured up an empire. I had projected my own identity onto the landscape of Buck Lake, and by doing so had displaced histories that had been laid down before I arrived. The very idea that other people existed on the lake and had their own world – just as personal and intimate – had never occurred to me.
One thing I can say about encountering Kinoomaage Waabkong in 1979 as an 11-year-old, is that I’ve known since then that the world of the woods belonged to others long before I arrived. What to do with that knowledge, I have often had no clue.
(And let’s just pause for a moment to note how Tidridge uses the metaphor of a canoe throughout the long passage quoted above.)
In the early 1990s, when I lived in Saskatchewan, I encountered rock circles, medicine wheels, remaining on the prairie, persistent evidence of the long-lost herds of buffalo and the people who lived amongst them. More ancient rocks, more scenes of mystery.
Friends in Saskatchewan invited me on a canoe trip, June 1994. They lived in Prince Albert and they were going with a group on the North Saskatchewan River, starting near PA and ending at the Forks, where the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers meet.
“Oh, sure,” I said. “I know how to canoe.”
But going from Eel’s Creek (or an Ontario cottage country lake) to the North Saskatchewan River is like going from pulling a red wagon along the sidewalk to entering the Indy 500. The North Saskatchewan must be 50 metres across in places. It begins at the Saskatchewan Glacier in Banff National Park in the Rocky Mountains and flows southeast at the speed of light.
It actually flows at 241 m3/s, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia, but I’m sure that’s pretty close to the speed of light. In any case, one does not need to paddle on the North Saskatchewan River, one only needs to keep the canoe pointed straight and avoid the frequent swells. I was a sterns man, so that was my job, and I did okay. We stayed out of the brink, but we did slam up against a rock and came to a sudden halt, kind of the way Tidridge describes above.
I was constantly scanning the horizon, trying to avoid the swells, following the canoes ahead of me, trying to keep to flat water as much as possible. One patch of flat water was flowing neatly over a rock. It was flat, and we hit it straight on and ground to a halt. If we had been four feet to the left or right, we probably would have flipped over, but we paused for a moment, dug in our paddles, got a big push from the water smashing us from behind, and then we were free.
What are my memories of the 1979 trip? I remember Kinoomaage Waabkong. I remember our camp site above High Falls and swimming in the water above, fearful of being swept over. I remember exploring caves and the portages. But these memories are probably not all from 1979, since I did this trip three times. The memories kind of blur together. I remember that one of our canoe trips started near an abandoned sawmill. It had been there over 100 years, surely, and it was falling apart, but my brother and I crawled over the boards and explored inside. The giant rusting saw blade was still there. Recalling that, I shudder at how unsafe it must have been, but I’m grateful for the memory and that peak into the past, when the woods were full of industry.
How are we going to handle the ideas of imperialism woven into our story?
Is it not, maybe, the whole cloth?
Addendum: So, my mother read this, and she said she remembered camping at Petroglyphs Provincial Park (she went on none of the canoe trips) and walking from the campsite to the rocks. I don’t remember that camping experience, but it would likely have been between 1976-78. I do have a memory from around that time, a faint image, of being in the trading store at Curve Lake First Nation — the Whetung Ojibwa Centre — because when I went there in 2016 I had a strong reaction. I’d been there before and I had picked up a small “Indian child” doll that I for years. It was a little plastic doll, dressed in buckskin and was eventually discarded with other childhood things. This fact strikes me as horrible now, and I hesitate to even tell this story, except it’s true. I say horrible not because it was a doll but because it was a person, and I had no right to it, to her. It’s a story now, part of the entanglement.