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Treaty Recognition Week: The Williams Treaties (1923)

In our history highlight this week, we are widening our scope and considering the way in which Ontario was created, through the negotiations of treaties between colonial powers and First Nation bands. Since this week (November 1st - 7th) is Treaty Recognition Week, now is a perfect time to examine the place in which we live through the lens of the treaty relationship.

Now, most people are likely aware of the Toronto Purchase. It was created in 1787 and reaffirmed in stretches all the way up into present day King Township, Vaughan, and part of Whitchurch-Stouffville. You will notice that does not cover all of York Region; most of this area, including almost all of Durham Region and Northumberland County, was settled in the 19th century on land that was unceded by the First Nations groups already living there. In fact, arrowheads and pottery shards have been unearthed in archeological digs in Holland Landing and Mount Albert, affirming their enduring presence in the region.

Sometimes, tensions between First Nations and settler peoples could be rather fraught. One story that reflects this is told in the Women’s Institute history for the town of Mount Albert, which concerns Elisabeth Graham who was the daughter of Malon Graham which happened in about 1850. The story goes that on a certain day, Elisabeth was working for Mr. A. Cockerline, who had a house on the Centre Road, when a group of First Nations men came to the door asking for meat. Upon hearing this, “Elisabeth told them she could not give them meat as she was just working for Mr. Cockerline. Because she refused, [a First Nations man] drew his hunting knife and cut her across her hands, the scars of which she carried for the rest of her life.” (n.d., page 2)

The veracity of this story is certainly up for debate as we do not know the other side of the story; the Centre Road was previously used as a First Nations trail, which was likely why they showed up to Mr. Cockerline’s house in the first place. However, this story does seem to illustrate that the relationship between settlers and First Nations could be strained as people had different conceptions of how they were supposed to behave toward each other.

Since the lands occupied by settlers in York Region were never formally ceded by First Nations in this area, in addition to the lack of compensation for First Nations, the Minister of Justice Robert V. Sinclair appointed a commission to investigate the matter; this commission consisted of Robert Sinclair, a lawyer named Uriah McFadden, and Angus S. Williams, the provincial negotiator after whom the treaties are named.

Two treaties were negotiated that year: the first in October 1923 with the Mississauga peoples of Rice Lake, Mud and Scugog Lakes, and Alderville bands, and the second in November with the Chippewas of Christian Island, Georgina Island, and Rama First Nation. Part of the land ceded mentions that it goes “northerly along the Holland River and along the Westerly shore of Lake Simcoe and Kempenfeldt Bay to the Narrows between Lake Couchiching and Lake Simcoe”. The terms that were dictated to these bands did not include hunting, fishing, and other harvesting rights; in exchange for this land, each individual band member received the one-time payment of 25$, for a total of $233,425 for the Mississaugas, and about $233,375 for the Chippewa nations.

Figure 1: First page of the Williams Treaty, negotiated in 1923. Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

It was not until 1992 that this coalition of First Nation bands sought litigation seeking justice and fair compensation for their treaty rights. The legal case was not resolved until a few years ago. This occurred in 2018 when Carolyn Bennett, who was the Minister for Crown-Indigenous Relationships at that time, formally apologized to the affected First Nations groups for the negative impacts caused by the Williams Treaties.

Ontario is governed by more than 40 different treaty relationships and land agreements. For more information about treaty relationships with First Nations bands, and how they have forged the province of Ontario we know today, please visit

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