As the renaturalization of the mouth of the Don River (Port Lands Flood Protection project) nears expected completion by the end of 2024, a new island is forming in the Port Lands – and this new island needs a name. City of Toronto staff are collaborating with LURA  and MinoKamik Collective on an Indigenous community engagement process to discover, reflect on and recommend Indigenous place names for “Villiers Island,” the parkland and connecting streets.

In April 2024, (EX13.5) Executive Committee and City Council directed the Waterfront Secretariat and Indigenous Affairs Office to further engage with First Nations, Inuit, Métis and urban Indigenous communities and report back on a permanent name for Villiers Island, as well as a framework for reconciliation projects that support Indigenous cultural revitalization in the Port Lands.

The 50 acres of unique parkland, greenspace and wetland system by the river valley will be open to the public by summer 2025. The 48 acres of developable land on the island will become available for transformation into a leading example of a contemporary, mixed-used community (currently referred to as the “Villiers Island Precinct”) with expected residents as early as 2031.

The initiative is centred on the Reconciliation Action Plan:

  • Actions #5 & #6: Improving relationship-building with Indigenous communities;
  • Action #15: Supporting Indigenous placekeeping;
  • Action #17: Supporting the revitalization of Indigenous languages;
  • Action #16: Celebrating Indigenous arts and culture; and,
  • Action #2: Enhancing Indigenous education and awareness among the public.

An Indigenous Advisory Circle, consisting of Elders, Knowledge Keepers, language speakers, and community members, will meet five times over the spring and summer. Together, they will discuss the history of the area, cultural values, and stories to uncover, identify, and recommend a name for the island as well as parkland and streets. This collaborative effort will entail developing a vision and guiding values to inform the selected names. At key points during this process, broader Indigenous communities, the public, and local stakeholders will have opportunities to contribute their perspectives. A recommendation will be shared in a report to Council in the Fall of 2024.

Timeline:

  • Indigenous Advisory Circle: April-September 2024
  • Broader Indigenous Community Engagement : April- July 2024
  • Public and Stakeholder Engagement: Summer 2024
  • Recommendation to Council: Fall 2024
Island area to be named through this process
Island area to be named through this process

Elder Shelley Mandakwe Charles with MinoKamik teaches us that place naming is about lifting up the language of the land into our everyday experience. Indigenous languages are tied directly to our relationship to the land and therefore the teaching of the land, Akinomaagewin, will lead the Circle and the naming process. We are reminded that names give us a responsibility and we must be mindful to walk with the responsibility of our names. As such, this process will be guided by Indigenous values, teachings and principles, including the Seven Generations Principle and Seven Grandfathers teachings.

Beyond an Indigenous name for the island, there is a vision to root these parklands and future neighbourhoods in Indigenous placekeeping, ensuring that waterfront revitalization leads to places where First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples, worldviews, cultures, and ways of life hold a respected, celebrated, prominent, and distinctive place on Toronto’s waterfront.

As the area takes shape over the next decade, there are many opportunities to advance the Reconciliation Action Plan, including: Indigenous language revitalization, arts and culture, placekeeping, land and water stewardship, affordable housing, economic development and most importantly, relationship-building throughout the process.

4.Image of the path of the renaturalized river mouth
Image of the path of the renaturalized river mouth

Since time immemorial, the mouth of the river now known as the Don River was a fertile wetland, fishing ground, and important gathering place for Indigenous people who lived in the region. Two hundred years ago, the area we now call the Port Lands at the river mouth was one of largest freshwater marshes on Lake Ontario and home to many species of wildlife.

Beginning in the 1880s, Toronto filled in the Ashbridges Bay Marsh, now known as the Port Lands, to make space for a growing industrial port and redirected the Don River with an unnatural ninety-degree turn. This history of settlement and lake-filling at the mouth of the Don River is a story of the damage of colonialism.

In early 2021, Waterfront Toronto excavated 7 metres down in the area to find seeds from plants that would have been growing in Ashbridge’s Bay Marsh before it was filled in to create the Port Lands. Tobacco offerings to the land were presented in Spring 2021 and in October 2022 to mark the significance of returning some of these Indigenous wetland plants to the mouth of the Don River.

This damage to the land is now being recognized and repaired, and so too must the damage to Indigenous People’s culture and ways of life. Over the last few decades, civic advocates argued it was time to recreate a natural mouth for the Don River and in 2015, Waterfront Toronto began the Port Lands Flood Protection project – which reconnects the Don River to Lake Ontario with a meandering natural pathway, creating a new island (“Villiers Island”) with parkland, enhanced access to the water, future neighbourhoods and public realm.

The restored riverbed is now full of water and the reconnection between the new marshy mouth and the Don River will be completed later this year. Now, this significant new island needs a name.

Celebrating the UN’s International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032), there is a unique moment to support Indigenous language and cultural revitalization through placekeeping along the waterfront, as called for by First Nations, Inuit, Métis and urban Indigenous communities in the City’s Reconciliation Action Plan and through discussions about the Next Phase of Waterfront Revitalization.