Top Image: Photo by: Geoff Fitzgerald

Rivers, Parks and Reconciliation: Wonscotonach Parklands Proposal

Dec 13, 2018

The Don River Valley Park, a collaborative community project between Evergreen, the City of Toronto and the Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), has put new energy and urgency into an important conversation:

  • What is the nature of the city's relationship to the Lower Don? Can we better define the landscape and create a special identity for it?
  • Can we reclaim an identity lost through industrialization, river straightening and highways?
  • And while the Lower Don has many places and spaces with their own identities, such as Riverdale Park East, is there potential for an overarching identity from the river's mouth all the way to the "forks" near Don Mills Road, where the East Don, West Don and Taylor Massey Creek converge to become the Lower Don?
The lower Don.
Photo: Geoff Fitzgerald

This conversation has flowed through our art projects, our stewardship efforts and recently made its way to the floor of City Council. In April 2018, Council directed City staff to begin consultations on a proposal to name the large network of contiguous parks and trails in the Lower Don the Wonscotonach Parklands.

Through community meetings and outreach, the name Wonscotonach Parklands (or perhaps Waasayishkodenayosh, more on that later) emerged as a suggested name that could be used moving forward.

Wonscotonach was documented as the Anishnaabemowin place name for the Don River and likely translates to "burning bright point." This name may refer to the practice of torchlight salmon spearing on the river, where the Mississaugas of the Credit had a seasonal settlement and fished and hunted the marshlands for muskrat, duck and deer. The river, like many rivers and lakes, was essential to the Mississaugas and other Indigenous people in Toronto and it provided connections to other trail systems.

Old photo of the Don.

York as it appeared in 1793 from the mouth of the Don River, looking west, by Sir E.W. Grier in late 1800s, from a picture by Elizabeth Simcoe (1790s). From the Toronto Public Library Digital Collection.

In the 1790s, the river was re-named the Don River by John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, and his wife Lady Simcoe, who named local landmarks after favoured places and personages in England. (That practice extended to the town itself, which Simcoe named York over the older name Toronto. Later nicknamed Muddy York. His decision was overturned in 1834 when the first council of the newly incorporated city, backed by residents, decided the original Mohawk name was preferable; Tkaronto, later changed to Toronto.)

The proposed parklands name, Wonscotonach, would provide a unique opportunity to knit together this large urban green space and maintain the history and recognized identities of individual parks, while at the same time creating opportunity for Indigenous placemaking and programming that reflects the City's commitment to reconciliation.

This proposal has been discussed at City Council's Aboriginal Affairs Committee as well as at subsequent informal consultations with Indigenous community leaders, elders and knowledge keepers and has received positive response.

Formal consultations, led by Evergreen and the City in partnership, have now begun, starting with the Indigenous community and moving into the broader community in the new year. This process is integrated into a complementary review and update of the 2013 Lower Don Trail: Access, Environment, Art Master Plan. Produced for the City by landscape architecture and urban planning firm DTAH, the Master Plan reviewed previous work and laid out a logical and interconnected series of future projects that would support the ongoing revitalization of the Lower Don valley, including capital projects such as the new Pottery Road trail bridge and Belleville Underpass.

The Wonscotonach Parklands engagement process will include:

  • Program Vision: What would happen in the Wonscotonach Parklands? What ceremonies, activities, education and art would we bring to this place to live out the new name?
  • Placemaking Vision: What would the Wonscotonach Parklands look like? As part of the review of the master plan for this park, what needs to be changed or added to the plan so that the vision of the park is realized over time?
  • Language Circle: "Wonscotonach" may not be the correct spelling and pronunciation for this name. Some have suggested that is it an anglicized version of "Waasayishkodenayosh", or perhaps another spelling. A Language Circle will bring Anishinaabemowin speakers/scholars together to clarify the name spelling and meaning, which will inform the identity.   
  • Identity: How would the name take shape in visual identity, communications and outreach? What icons, symbols or images would be used on the web, social media, wayfinding, and so on?
  • Public Feedback: After these first phases of engagement, and communications about the outcomes, the process will move to public feedback on the proposed name.

As we move through the process, we will share more here about our consultations and what we're hearing – what would it take to make the Lower Don Parklands a focal point and living example of our commitment to reconciliation? Share your thoughts at