The paddles move peacefully in the water. The canoes drift to shore. The passengers calmly put their feet on dry land. They carry the canoe uphill, place it upside down and begin a celebration. It’s about peace, community and the sharing of an incredible land.
These actions take place every year on the weekend closest to May 22, along water in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, in South Eastern Ontario. The event is known as the Annual Landing Celebration and it involves a re-enactment of May 22, 1784, when 13 canoes, representing five Mohawk families – displaced amid American and British conflict — came ashore and built a new life in what is now the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte community.
Now, more than 230 years later, the community is as strong as ever. As of early 2017, Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte boasted more than 9,000 members of which about 2,000 live in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, located along Bay of Quinte water, just east of Belleville and west of Deseronto. That makes it among the biggest First Nations communities in Ontario.
The area is known for many things; it’s shops which will sell First-Nations themed art, its historic church, great recreational facilities and summer events and, of course, its many gas stations which offer lower-than-normal prices. But over recent years, the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte band has renewed its efforts to promote the area as a tourism destination, knowing their community has a picturesque feel but also a rich historic legacy worth celebrating.
“Often people think of this area as a place to live for financial gain,” said Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte Chief R. Don Maracle, in reference to the community’s strong economy. “But people don’t focus on the history enough.”
At the centre of that history is Christ Church, the Royal Chapel of the Mohawks, built in 1843. This church is located at 52 South Church Lane, just west of the Deseronto border. It’s historically significant because both Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles donated money for its restoration in the 1990s. The Royal Family also presented the church with a triptych in Mohawk language, a bell from King George III, a royal coat of arms from King George V and a bible from Queen Victoria, all of which are on display inside. It has become a popular spot for weddings. Also, bus tour groups, from as far away as California, have made trips there recently.
The gifts in the church pay homage to a long-standing relationship between Mohawks and the monarchy, as the Mohawks fought as military allies of the British during the American colonial rebellion of 1775 to 1783 and in other conflicts, spanning up to the Second World War.
The annual re-enactment ceremony also celebrates the long-standing partnership between the British and the Mohawk nation. Chief Maracle pointed out that in the 1700s, the Mohawks and the British had a strong friendship. “It was a relationship of peace, friendship and trade,” he said, during a the most recent landing ceremony, standing at a podium by the flipped canoe, which had a Crown-donated chalice on top of it.
Over decades and centuries, relationships between First Nations communities and what is now the Canadian government has changed, but the long-standing friendship between Mohawks and the Crown has remained strong, he said.
He hopes more Canadians will learn about his community and its deep connection to British history, which is intertwined with the making of Canada. He noted that one of the mandates of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an organization that aims to educate people on past injustices faced by First Nations people, calls for more Canadians to learn more about First Nations communities.
That includes a community like Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, whose story offers so many lessons about both the past and present.
Written by Stephen Petrick