As Canada celebrates 150 years, it’s worthwhile to think back to an earlier time when southwestern Ontario was a collection of villages. The population of just the area between Lake Ontario and Lake Huron was around 20,000 or 30,000, spread out over about 20 small communities. The economy was different than it is today, but still strong by the standards of the time. People worked as farmers, potters, carpenters, and fishers. One of southern Ontario’s main exports was corn, and the people in the region tended to import clothing and exotic goods like fur and tobacco.
If you’re picturing a bunch of European settlers, you haven’t gone back far enough. The land I’m describing was not yet called Ontario, and the people were not Ontarian. South and western Ontario, before it was named that, was home to a confederation of nations who collectively called themselves Wendat. You’ve maybe never heard that word before, because when the French showed up they named the Wendat “Huron” instead (the French were always renaming everything), and that is the name that, unjustly, has stuck for the modern day county that was their land, and the lake that was their lake.
And even the Wendat confederacy — which yes, fit the above description, including many villages, defined systems of government, foreign policy, trade agreements, and a culture of art, sport, and cuisine (if you’ll pardon the contextually awkward use of a French word) — was just the latest configuration of an unfathomably long history of human occupation.
People have lived in the land now called Ontario for at least ten thousand years. At least. Ten thousand years. That includes many thousands of years when Ontario was covered in ice year-round. Then 5,300 years ago Ontario warmed enough, the ice retreating northward, to have “reached essentially present-day [climate] conditions,” writes Bruce Trigger in The Children of Aataentsic, his history of the Wendat. We know that by then people had copper tools, caught fish, enjoyed leisure time. Trade was already happening “over vast distances,” across today’s provincial and international borders. By at least 3,000 years ago people from the land now called Ontario were making pottery. As of at least 2,500 years ago, they built buildings.
Buildings in southwestern Ontario. 2,500 years ago. I didn’t know that, and my astonishment reveals a mixture of ignorance and, I think, racist assumptions about Indigenous peoples. My image of pre-colonial Ontario was more one of wilderness, which of course was at least partly true. But the more I learn about pre-colonial history, the more I feel a great number of things, including a dull horror and the scale of what was shoved aside by European invaders.
I mean, imagine. Imagine heading up Ontario’s highway 6 from Hamilton to Owen Sound, then turning left on route 21 and driving almost all the way to Southhampton, then jumping into your time machine and setting it to 500 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. Assuming your TARDIS or Infinite Improbability Drive or whatever works, you’ll soon be staring at some large houses, a nearby cemetery, and a group of people, looking up from their fishing, wondering who the hell you are and where you came from.
While we’re imagining you have access to a time machine, let’s imagine you’re also immortal. You like the looks of this country and decide to stay. You’d have to live here for more than 2,000 years before a European (he would more likely label himself a “Christian”) showed up. That’s not as long as Marvin waited for his companions to show up at Milliways, but still a longer time than is really conceivable.
You’d watch thousands of years of history happen around you. Births, deaths, parties, spiritual experiences, religious ceremonies, artistic creations, political machinations, trade negotiations, heroes, villains, war and peace, fallings in and out of love. For 2,000 years.
Then, after 2,000 years, after you meet that first Christian, you have to wait almost 500 more years before you find yourself suddenly surrounded by a bunch of people celebrating the 150th anniversary of “Canada.” At that point 150 years would include only 6% of the time you’d spent on the land, and in your 2,500 years you still would have witnessed only a small fraction of the land’s full human history.
I wrote at the outset that Canadian history needs to be understood in the context of world history, so I’ve been learning about the histories of other nations (especially France, Britain, and the United States) and how their stories have interfaced with ours. But we don’t even need to leave Canada’s current borders to have the histories of hundreds of nations to explore.
The immensity of that is daunting, but in the spirit of you-gotta-start-somewhere, I’ve started with the Wendat, the confederacy I described, along with their neighbours, above. I already wrote briefly about their attitudes towards sex and marriage. At least one future post — maybe several — will explore their culture and society in more detail.
Featured photo, “Camping & Lake Huron,” by Josh Farewell.