The ice sheet was grey at the edge of the lake. The air bubbles trapped in it created a frosty honeycomb lattice. A hike leader walked a few feet on to the ice, tapped it with his hiking pole, and then jumped up and down a few times. He said it was safe to walk across. He was petite, about my size. And I am as small as a cherry. But just as sweet. Most times. The group hesitated.
It was our annual snowshoe and cross-country ski weekend in Killbear Provincial Park. Some 32 members of my Toronto outdoor club were on the trip. The majority where white, with a minority of four Asian women (two with white partners), and one Black person. Me. About a dozen of us went on the eight kilometre trek to the lighthouse. It was minus twenty. Breathe froze in the air. A necklace of ice crystals dangled on the front of my scarf.
From a conventional standpoint, we were a typical outdoors group enjoying winter in the park. From a critical lens perspective the situation reads differently. Here my focus is not on the obvious race and gender dynamics, but on the land on which we hovered. I want to “move beyond the land as a geographical feature or surface to the land as a “meeting up of history,”” as Mishuana Goeman writes in her book Mark My Words.
Long Ago in Killbear Park
Killbear Park was part of the Ojibway territory, and intersected by complex trade routes between various First Nations. The Ojibways hunted. They traded fish and furs for beans, corn and squash with the Huron-Wendats who farmed the land further to the south. The Ojibways also traded for copper from the west coast, used to make tools, and for shells from the east to make decorative beads on clothes and shoes. Killbear Park had a long history before contact between Indigenous and European people.
Killbear Park was ‘acquired’ by Treaty 13 between the Ojibway nation and the Canadian government. In the 1830s European settlers flocked to the area, enticed by free land given out under the Ontario Government Free Grant and Homestead Act. They had five years to build a house and start a farm; if not the settlers forfeited the land. Dreams and reality soon collided as Killbear was poor for farming. The land is littered with massive rock outcrops. Logging became the main industry from 1860s to the 1920s. It declined once all the valuable mature trees were cut down. Killbear was eventually turned into a park to boost tourism in the area. We were snowshoeing on land with an ancient history.
We had started the trek at the lodge. We turned left, and ducked under the padlocked gates blocking cars from the road to the interior of the park. As we walked along, the snowshoes creaked on the deeply packed snow, sounding like rusty wheels in need of a good oiling. Puffs of kicked up snow covered our boots. On patches of ice the snowshoes squeaked like chalk on a blackboard.
Winter still ruled the surface of the land in early March. The birch trees and shrubs were naked, the leaf buds still cocooned in their warm protective casings. Deer tracks criss-crossed the land, disappearing into the thick strands of pine trees. I find much beauty in the simplicity of winter. In the woods, it is an endless canvas of lights and shadows, voids and shapes, fears and dreams.
We stuck to the marked trail, treading in each other’s path. Veer off and a snowshoe could plunge into a snowbank melting from the underside, twisting an ankle or trapping a foot in an icy bath. In minutes the limb would numb to the coldness, increasing the risk of frostbite. In the quiet snatches between the chatter and the squeaking snowshoes, I heard hidden water gurgling, a signal that spring was awakening under the bed of winter.
We turned right at a fork in the trail, and headed for the lake. The north wind blew off the bay, scouring exposed faces. Water dripped from eyes and noses not hidden behind protective barriers of cloth or glass. The lake looked like an enormous ice rink, with dots of tree-covered islands sprinkled on the smooth surface. The ice shimmered in the noon-time sun, blurring the boundary between land and water. Then as we filed along the shore, the snowshoe tracks became streaked with sand.
A rocky hillock stuck its tongue out into the lake. Snowshoes slid as they scraped away its thin layer of ice and snow. We could not climb over it. The choice was either an hour’s detour inland, or a ten minute walk on the frozen water.
History on the Land
Goeman writes that the “geography and the language we use to order space are formed in a “contact zone” in which various cultures interact.” At Killbear the official brochures and guides categorise the park into areas and routes for activities like camping, swimming, skiing and canoeing. They contain guidelines on how to deal with wildlife, such as grazing deer and angry bears. The brochures point out the remnants of the failed settler farms and the logged old growth forest. Thus, the Killbear land is ordered and sorted into recreational, wildlife and historical areas.
Nothing in the official materials indicate the Indigenous heritage in Killbear or the surrounding areas. It was only from researching for this essay, that I realised that there was an Ojibway reservation on Parry Island, just across the bay from the park. The reservation is visible from the lighthouse. I had seen it many times, but never associated it with an Indigenous community.
The absence of Indigenous references in Killbear Provincial Park is not accidental. It is a continuation of the government’s pattern of attempting to erase Indigenous history and ownership of the land.
The Parry Island reservation is a mere fragment of the former Ojibway territory. According to Goeman reservations are colonial spatial structures that attempt to limit Indigenous movement over the contested land. As a spatial boundary, separating Indigenous from white people, the settler-colonials, the reservation is somewhat ineffective in the case of Killbear. But, it is still a powerful psychological boundary today.
Today, there are more First Nations living in urban areas than on rural reservations. The visible presence of Indigenous people in the cities does two things. First, it refutes the white settler-colonial claim that they had disappeared, or belong only in the past. Second, it makes visible the unresolved issues around the ownership of the land called Canada.
A Lake of Ice
The second hike leader was a stout woman. She too walked on to the ice, tapping ahead with her pole, before taking each step. The echo was hollow, not the dull thud she was expecting. The surface of the ice was smooth, but underneath it hair-wide cracks were spread out like a spider’s web. The cracks can expand in seconds exposing the water below. I know of only one man who could walk on water, or so his followers claim. A decision was made – we would go inland.
We ate lunch on a sheltered rock outcrop, basking in the bright afternoon sun. There, most of the group abandoned the trek to the lighthouse. The temperature had warmed up a bit – it was now minus ten. The snow was patchy on the remainder of the lakeshore trail making it hard to snowshoe. The many detours inland made the route too long. Four of us made it out to the lighthouse. On the pinnacle of rock we gazed across the bay. To the north of the lighthouse the lake was frozen into white stillness. To the south, it was open blue water, gently lapping at the shore below us. To the west the land was filled with houses. I had assumed that they were summer cottages for people from the city.
The brochures at Killbear Provincial Park reflect the geography of hegemonic whiteness. By this I mean the standard world view that the park is a neutral space, open to all who enjoy outdoor recreation. The supposed neutrality of the space hides the dominance of white people as the managers, gatekeepers and users of the park’s land.
Goeman writes of the need to develop alternative spatialities. It is a way of seeing and mapping the Americas from multiple perspectives, at the same time. It brings into focus the histories of different groups, their relationship to each other, and most importantly, to the land on which they stand. The land is a witness that never lies.