The town of Waterdown is not often associated with history. Situated just north of Hamilton, the one-time village has seen an explosion of growth in recent years, with thousands of new houses being built in subdivisions on every side of the old core. While by no means the most striking example of suburbanization in Southern Ontario, I grew up only a few kilometers from Waterdown, and for me this development remains emblematic of what is perhaps the most radical transformation currently affecting the landscape of our region.
There is something fundamentally ahistoric about suburban growth. In the typical development of a subdivision, the landscape is bulldozed, the hills are flattened, the watercourses are channelized, and traditional land uses are replaced with a form of human settlement that has never before occupied the site. Non-native trees are planted along the lawns and driveways of residents who might imagine them to be a tribute to the pre-suburban landscape rather than an integral part of its transformation. The result is a geography devoid of any tangible links to the past. In many ways, this is the entire point. As a landscape without history, the suburb is the ultimate blank slate, a place where an individual can begin a new life untouched by the complications of the past.
The ahistoric nature of suburbs can have a similarly soothing affect on Canadian society as a whole. Without knowing the exact details, we Canadians are haunted by the feeling that the transformation of northern North America from an Indigenous homeland to a Euro-Canadian colony took place under circumstances that were fundamentally unjust, and it is generally accepted that we owe far more to Canada’s first peoples for the loss of their traditional lands. But while it is relatively easy for us recent Canadians to imagine forests and fields as native land, it is nearly impossible to think of subdivisions as ever having been Indigenous. Everything we associate with indigeneity has been removed, from flora and fauna to the material remains of vanished inhabitants. During the construction of a subdivision, archaeologists comb over the ground one last time in order to document the remains of past Indigenous civilizations, before even the top soil is scrapped up and carted out on trucks.
This process of suburbanization could almost be viewed as a ritual of purification, as a potentially contested landscape is transformed into a sort of anti-Indigenous space, where not even memory of First Nations occupation is able to survive. While the process might not be conscious, it serves an undeniable purpose in Canadian society. Through a comprehensive transformation of the landscape, we are absolved of the sins of the past.
Similarly, many smoldering land claims burst into flames as soon the disputed land is slated for suburbanization. For the protesters at Oka and Caledonia, the development of their lands would have marked the point of no return, where their land would have been transformed beyond recognition or repair.
A small group of Waterdown residents recently took the initiative to challenge the subdivision as an anti-Indigenous space. Under the leadership of Nathan Tidridge, a history teacher at the local high school, the Souharissen Natural Area was established at the edge of a subdivision still under construction. The 27 acres of naturalized field and forest is accompanied by a plaque outlining the area’s local First Nations history, and points out that Waterdown is built on the traditional territory of the Credit River Mississauga. The dedication ceremony was attended by community leaders from both the New Credit Mississaugas and Waterdown, including Chief Bryan Laforme. In front of a crowd of some 60 onlookers, the different speakers praised the symbolic return of the Credit River Mississauga to Waterdown. The entire event seemed a real moment of reconciliation, and for a moment I felt encouraged that similar small acts might be enough to reintroduce memories of indigeneity into Ontario’s suburbs.
But small gestures can only go so far in the face of overwhelming realities. During the ceremony, the speakers were almost drowned out by the continuous roar of dump trucks loaded with freshly bulldozed soil.