Toronto, Tkaronto, is located on the ancestral homelands of the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Huron-Wendat peoples. To occupy means to seize the land, in the advancement of settler wealth at the expense of those who are withheld from the land. Toronto is Treaty 13 territory, also known as the Toronto Purchase, signed in 1787 by representatives of the Crown and a band of Anishinaabeg known today as the Mississaugas of the Credit. The treaty was under dispute for over 200 years – the Mississaugas understood that they were renting the land, not extinguishing their rights to it. A land claims dispute was settled in 2010. Today, Toronto is home to many First Nations, Inuit, and Metis as well as many other diverse communities. I am grateful to the Indigenous people here and across Turtle Island for their hospitality and am committed to working toward decolonial justice with them.
Stills from Our Home and Haunted Land
The Gladstone Hotel
What’s in a name?
Our Home and Haunted Land has its origins in a chance encounter I had on the Queen streetcar in the summer of 2019 with an elderly gentleman from Guyana. He asked me for the time, then sat next to me and started recounting numerous stories about the street. When we reached the Gladstone Hotel, what he revealed about this Toronto landmark which is barely 5 blocks away from my house totally floored me. The hotel, built in 1889, and the adjacent street are named after British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, son of John Gladstone, who the man revealed, was the largest slaveholder not only in his home country, but in the entire British Empire. I was shocked, not only by the revelation, but by the fact that I was totally unaware of that history. It suddenly provoked a deep questioning around the names of the streets and the significant places that surround us.
The project uses 3D photogrammetry scans of significant Toronto spaces and tells their colonial history using their names as a starting point. It was an opportunity to pursue a deep exploration of virtual 3D space and the ways in which it could carry historical narratives while integrating a Black perspective. This use of virtual reality immerses the participant and invites them to look at spaces that they commonly see in a different manner, to question what has been omitted or erased from communal memory. It is a reminder that the historical past still lingers and shapes the contemporary present.
Canadians love to think of themselves as gentle and kind, particularly when they look to the south, but this vision is only possible because of the many very careful erasures and excisions that have been made to our national narrative. Our Home and Haunted Land is a decolonial act of memory and protest through the creation of a counter-archive. It puts technology in the service of 3-dimensional digital storytelling to reinsert the Black and Indigenous presence in the Canadian space. It firmly asserts the simultaneity and entanglements of past, present and future and our need to carefully attend to them because, to cite the title of a recent book by Nick Este, “Our History is the Future.”
The city as archive
The streets and spaces that we habitually walk through and whose names invoke a certain geography are also permeated with historical allusions that roll off our tongues even as we are unaware of what they refer to.
The site along the Humber River was part of the Carrying Place Trail which was used for millennia by Indigenous people to travel from what we now call Lake Simcoe to Lake Ontario, and later became an important route for European fur traders.
In 17th century, it was also the location of the Teiaiagon, a Seneca and Huron-Wendat Settlement. The point’s strategic location were part of the impetus for Governor Simcoe to settle what he called York as the capital of Upper Canada.
The point is now named after settler James Baby who purchased the land in the 18th century. The name Baby Point refers to an exclusive residential enclave, but also to the land which backs onto the Humber River and includes Étienne-Brûlé Park as well as the wooded area known as Magwood Sanctuary to the north. It is a poorly kept secret that some of the houses at Baby Point sit on the remnants of the Teiaiaigon. Human remains and artefacts periodically resurface during renovations and repairs.
The Gladstone Hotel was built in 1889 close to what was then the Parkdale Railway station, a major travel hub. It takes its name from the adjacent eponymous street meant to honour William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898), a career politician in Britain and the only person to have been prime minister of Britain on four separate occasions.
His father John Gladstone was a wealthy merchant and politician based in Liverpool. In 1803, he started trading cotton and sugar in the West Indies, soon establishing plantations in Jamaica and British Guyana and, becoming a strong defender of planter interests as well as an ardent anti-abolitionist. William was known as an ultra conservative and used his position in the House of Commons to support his father’s activities. Both father and son, once abolition seemed inevitable, lobbied for substantial compensation for slaveholders.
In 1933, when slavery was abolished in the British empire, John Gladstone received more than £90,000, the equivalent of 9.5 million British pounds in today’s currency, the largest compensation of any slaveholder.
Egerton Ryerson was a major proponent of free public education and helped establish what is now known as Victoria College at the University of Toronto. His 1847 study of Indigenous education informed the creation of the residential school system in Canada. He was against the education of women and believed that “Indians should be schooled in separate, denominational, boarding, English only and agriculturally oriented (industrial) institutions.” (Carney, R (1995). “Aboriginal Residential Schools Before Confederation: The Early Experience“. Historical Studies, 61: 25..)
Following the 2015 report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which outlined the great harm that was brought to Indigenous communities by the residential school system and how its legacy is manifest through intergenerational trauma, the university erected a plaque acknowledging Ryerson’s role in it and stating that “the aim of the Residential School System was cultural genocide.”
An afrofuturist narrative
Our Home and Haunted Land examines history through an overarching afrofuturist narrative. The frame and the grounding of the exploration are expressed through the character of Thérèse, a time traveller emerging simultaneously from the past and the future to meet participants in the contemporary present. She is based on a woman who was enslaved in James Baby’s household and brought to life using Saidiya Hartman’s method of “critical fabulations.” Her centuries of survival attest to her strength and resilience, and the breadth of her knowledge is as impressive as her opinions are forceful. She also embodies the denial of linearity, the fluidity and simultaneity of time, that is often characteristic of afrofuturism.
She invites the participant on a historical tour of the city, but also incites them to incorporate the knowledge they glean into a deep questioning of their position on this land and how they can contribute to the construction of a better society.
Produced as part of
the Digital Futures graduate program at OCAD University