500 Years of Building Communities and Changing Environments

By Thomas Peace, co-editor ActiveHistory.ca

You don’t have to pay too much attention to the news and world events to become familiar with the many perspectives on climate change – its significance, its impact, and its history.  The debate (as far as there still is one) has often been polarized by those who see the changes around us as natural and those who see them as human caused.  Although there are no longer grounds for the former argument – it is clear that burning products like coal and fossil fuel changes our climate – the historical argument used by global warming’s detractors is important to understand.

Humans and the environment have been interacting for at least 500 years along the banks of the Black Creek.  Back then there was a rather large aboriginal village, now called the Parsons Site, in the neighbourhood.  This was one of many aboriginal villages in North Toronto before Europeans arrived.  Until the early nineteenth century, when Europeans and Americans began to migrate into this area, both Algonquian and Iroquoian peoples inhabited this area.  The men and women who lived at the Parsons Site were Iroquoian, descendants of the Huron-Wendat people.

Sometimes we like to think that aboriginal people lived in harmony with nature, and that they had minimal impact on the land.  But centuries before Europeans arrived in North America, many aboriginal communities burned the forest to create agricultural land and to facilitate hunting and travel.  Likewise, village sites were strategically located to facilitate travel and defense.

Although by today’s standards aboriginal people lived – and in many cases continue to live – with sensitivity towards nature, they made significant modifications to their environment to meet their community’s needs.  They had a complex rather than simplistic relationship with their environments.  The Parsons site is no exception.  It was chosen for some very specific reasons, and the people who once lived here made some significant and intentional modifications to the landscape.

Take the Black Creek for example, although it looks like it would be of relatively little use to local residents – you would be hard pressed to get a canoe up it today – five hundred years ago it had a number of properties that made it a wise choice for settling beside.  When the village was at its prime, there was more water flowing downstream, making it an important transportation route down to Lake Ontario and also a source of fish and fresh water.

In fact, if you look at some of the first maps of the area you will see that many farm houses were also located along the river’s banks, suggesting that it continued to serve this purpose in the early-days of European settlement.  Proximity to rivers and other types of water ways were critical components for settlement in a period before large (and smooth) roads and railways.

As the European population grew, other types of infrastructure began to be put in place.  These new features on the landscape had a dramatic affect on the environment and how people interacted with the land.  First, roads, like Jane Street, were built to facilitate the growth of farming beyond the limited reach of rivers and streams.  Many of the first roads travelled through places like Kaiserville, where settlers had already begun to build their new lives.

Quickly, the network began to expand until most of Southern Ontario was accessible and turned into farm land.  By 1910 over 90% of the trees were removed from these spaces, and farming provided the backbone to the economy.  The lack of trees had a significant impact on the biodiversity of the region, as species retreated to the few places where their habitats remained intact.

Although roads helped increase the population and clearing of the land, they also remained enslaved to the environment for much of the nineteenth century.  They were often full of potholes and if recent enough may have still had stumps protruding from them.  For much of this period it remained wiser to travel in winter when snow and ice made for a smoother trip.

By 1860 the railway had also reached this area.  It was a blessing for farmers who were now able to move more goods down to Toronto faster and more efficiently; but made further negative impacts on the biodiversity of the region.  Although we cannot be certain about this, in other areas – such as on the Prairies – the building of the railway curtailed animal migrations.  When the Canadian Pacific Railway was laid, just a few decades after the railway that went through this area, the buffalo population was trapped south of the tracks – effectively stopping their annual northward migration.  Even though over hunting and other factors also lead to the decline of the buffalo, the arrival of the railroad played a critical role in their demise.  It is likely that the railroad had a similar affect when it first stretched north of Toronto.

These changes in the transportation landscape not only had serious environmental consequences, but they also affected smaller communities like Kaiserville.  As it became easier and easier to travel, people and economic resources began to gravitate to larger centres.

First, it was Edgely, the next community north on Jane Street, then the larger centres of Concord and Thornhill which are further along Highway 7.  To the south, Elia and Downsview began to become more important.  Eventually, two larger municipal structures would influence the region.  Where once Kaiserville stood as the centre of a community, by the early-1950s it had become a border between communities.  Today, Steeles Avenue, which would have run through the middle of Kaiserville, serves as the border between Toronto and York Region.

By the time that road and rail had reached maturity, many water routes had begun to diminish.  In an era before electricity, water was one of the few ways that power could be harnessed to manufacture goods.  Because of the relatively poor transportation, farmers needed to process these raw goods relatively close to the farm.  By the early 1800s, mills began to be built in order to create saw wood and grind flour.  Often they were located at places where it was easy to create a pond – they environment being the key criteria for the location of an important community institution.

The mill at Black Creek Pioneer Village for example, is located where the river made a sharp bend.  More importantly, in order for a mill to ensure it has enough water to continue running, it has to dam the river – creating an upstream pond.  This reduces the water flow downstream, and floods upstream – radically changing the local ecosystems in both places.  At Black Creek you will notice that there is a pond above and below the mill.  It has been dammed twice.  This was so that water was easily accessible for the operation of the farm.  In other words, although the environment was key in locating the community; the community quickly altered the environment to meet its needs.

Iroquoian society also altered its environment.  Primarily using fire, these people cleared fields and thinned the thickness of forests to create niches for animals through the use of fire.  They also consumed resources.  Villages would only last a couple of decades before the soil would become exhaust and new fields and village sites would have to be selected.  These changes affected the local eco-systems by encouraging certain animals and vegetation while discouraging others.  Sometimes fires would get out of control, plants wouldn’t grow, and communities suffered.  No system was perfect.

European agriculture differs for this, in method but also left its mark on the environment.  Europeans lived on private parcels of land, rather than living in a clearly defined village.  As such they slowly cleared the trees back until much of the landscape was under cultivation.  The scale of agriculture was significantly different; likewise Europeans used fertilizers in order to remain on their land.  This had important consequences on local climates.

Unlike Iroquoian cultures, who used both field and forest, Europeans had little need for the forest aside from the provision of fire wood.  The men and women who lived on the Parsons Site lived in a palisaded village, centralized on about 7 acres – concentrating agriculture to limited spaces and leaving much of the forest intact.

Agriculture around Kaiserville was decentralized.  Each farming family lived on their own agricultural property.  Over time this resulted in a massive amount of forest being turned into fields and pasture.

Historians working in this area have suggested that nineteenth-century farmers saw themselves at war with the woods.  The forest was not aesthetically pleasing – as we see it today – but rather a nuisance and enemy.  A land devoid of trees was their goal, not just for agricultural reasons but also psychological.

The significant difference in types of agriculture dramatically affected the environment.  As the number of trees dropped with the arrival of Europeans, local temperatures and water levels began to fluctuate.  Forests moderate the temperature, keeping air and water cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.  In the summer, fewer trees meant more exposure to the wind and sun, increasing the water temperature and rate of evaporation.  Likewise, in the winter fields often became windswept and retain less snow – minimizing and speeding up the spring run-off.  Forests and especially small shrubs and bushes prevent erosion and slow the pace of water as it moves towards the river.

Iroquoian changes to the land would have had a minor affect on rivers, but as the forest became field, run-off increased in speed and carried more sediment with it changing rivers in a way more rapid than before.  This not only changed the flow of the river, but also its variability.  At times, it can be a violent torrent and at others just a light trickle.

Would you believe that this small creek washed out Finch Avenue closing the four-lane street for nine months in 2005?  These types of events were less likely to occur before the majority of this area was converted to fields and then roadways and parking lots.

Iroquoian agriculture was, and remains, more sustainable and localized.  Agriculture 500 years ago was carried out on a much smaller scale, not only because land clearing technology was limited, but also because these communities needed the forest resources of wood, furs, nuts, and berries as part of their economy.  They also grew different types of plants.  Rather than wheat, which was imported from Europe and grown as a mono-crop, Iroquoian people use a combination of plants called the ‘Three Sisters’.

Also, unlike many European cultures, men had relatively little to do with agricultural production; rather they focused on hunting, trading, and diplomacy.  Women focused on the local food production and worked out in the fields, where they could keep a close watch over their children.

Today the changes that we have made continue to have environmental and social ramifications.  Since the 1950s this area has undergone intense urbanization with the creation of York University and housing developments around Jane and Finch.

Environmentally, these changes have meant replacing fields of wheat with fields of cement.  The shift from soil to pavement and large buildings has exaggerated the changes brought about when fields replaced forests.  These changes to urban areas have created micro climates that are generally warmer than the surrounding countryside.  Climatologists call these ‘urban heat islands.

These heat islands are important to understand because they affect how we live our daily lives.  What happens is that due to the heat absorbing properties of concrete, asphalt, and brick as well as the heat releasing properties of air conditioning, automobiles, and industry, cities can reach up to temperatures ten degrees above the surrounding countryside.  What this means for this area is that the weather here at Black Creek is often significantly different from  Toronto’s Greenbelt and that of the core of the city.  When winds are weak this temperature differential traps pollutants and smog within the city limits and decreases its overall air quality relative to the surrounding countryside.

The changes have also had an important social impact. Rather than the Black Creek being the centre of community and a medium for transportation, as it was for the Iroquoian people, or a source of energy, as it was for the residents of Kaiserville, the changes in the last fifty years have made Black Creek a barrier dividing the community of Jane/Finch from that of York University.  Despite the hundreds of people who cross this border daily during the school year, it is clear that two worlds remain.  On the one side is a residential area known more for its social challenges, while on the other is one of Canada’s largest centres of academic excellence.

Decisions since the 1950s have played a critical role in the development of this division.  York drew and continues to draw much of its population from outside the area, diminishing the important role university faculty and students play in strengthening local communities.  Municipal decisions – such as public transit – have also tended to focus on Keele Street – where the university’s neighbour is an oil refinery – rather than Jane, which is mostly residential.  These public transit decisions have made the subway – a relatively rapid link to Toronto’s key services – very accessible for the university community and much more difficult for local residents.

Many of the decisions for either of these two places has chosen to see them as separate entities, rather than as a joint community with common interests – like it was when the first immigrants arrived in the early nineteenth century.

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500 Years of Building Communities and Changing Environments by Thomas Peace is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.5 Canada License.

2 Responses to “500 Years of Building Communities and Changing Environments”

  1. Active History Announcements - Apr 24 to May 1 | ActiveHistory.ca Says:

    […] York Woods Public Library and ending at Driftwood Community Centre.  The walk’s website is http://www.blackcreekwalk.wordpress.com and e-mail blackcreekwalk@gmail.com.  If you are interested in the history of this area you can […]

  2. Historical Preservation in Comparative Perspective | ActiveHistory.ca Says:

    […] the community at Jane/Finch, and York University, the landscape and built heritage tells more than 500 years of human history in the region.  None of this is apparent to local residents or visitors and the area is seldom seen as a place […]

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