Council calls for report on next steps to turn Foresters Island over to Mohawks

Forester's Island from the top of the Skyway Bridge (Gazette Photo by Carrie Parks)



A County of Prince Edward Staff report on what next steps are required for turning Foresters Island over to the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte (MBQ)will be coming before council early in the new year.

The issue of turning over the the uninhabited island east of the Skyway Bridge and south of the town of Deseronto that is technically part of Prince Edward County but has special cultural and historical meaning to the Mohawks was discussed Tuesday evening at County Council’s regular meeting at Highline Hall in Wellington.

Prince Edward County Mayor Steve Ferguson virtually welcomed Chief R. Donald Maracle to discuss the propagation that has “been lingering for a considerable number of years” to return Foresters Island to  the MBQ.

“We have been waiting for 15 years for an answer from the County and I hope that we can have a positive answer,” Maracle stated. “We need to find out what we need to carry on.”

“We are not going to let you suffer another 15-year gap,” Mayor Ferguson assured. “For as long as I’ve known you since 2015, you have made it quite clear that this is important for you and your people, so we want to give it the attention and respect that it deserves.”

Maracle began explaining the historical background of Foresters Island by revisiting his prior conversation with then Council Mayor, Leo Finnegan. 

“In 2005, we made a request to see what would be required to have Foresters island returned to the Mohawks of Bay of Quinte,” he explained. “Of course, it was originally called Captain John’s Island. Captain John Deseronto (Deresontyou) was an ally of the British Crown in the American Revolution along with Mohawk Military Captain Joseph Brant, his cousin. They fought in the American Revolution. Captain Desertonyou and the Mohawks had been long and faithful allies and friends of the Crown … It should come as no surprise that the British wanted to make recompense to the Mohawk people for their tremendous sacrifice as faithful allies.”

The island was given to Captain John Deseronto, who was the first Mohawk Chief, Maracle said.

Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte Chief R. Donald Maracle (Adam Bramburger/Gazette staff)

As Maracle addressed the strong and intimate connection the island has to the MBQ community, he also briefed council on other history that is pertinent to the community.

“Dr. Oronhyatekha, we believe, was the first medical doctor to graduate from the University of Toronto in 1867, and later was appointed by Sir John A. MacDonald as the first medical doctor for this area and the island had been pretty much vacant until he put buildings there.” 

According to a letter provided to Council prior to the deputation, Maracle wrote that Dr. Oronhyateka had a home in Tyendinaga and built many properties on the island, including an elaborate summer residence, a hotel, gardens and an orphanage that housed 230 children. The orphanage, he explained, operated until 1907, when Oronhyateka passed away in March of that year. 

Currently, he continued, the island is “held in peace by the Order of Foresters (IOF) fraternal organization – minus two small cottage lots on the land. At a ceremony in August of 2005 for the unveiling of two National Historic Site plaques commemorating the significance of Christ Church and Dr. Oronhyateka, the IOF recognized the MBQ as the rightful owners of the island and ceremonially turned it over to their possession. 

“The island has a lot of connections and history to our people, and we’d like it to be back to us,” Maracle said. 

Maracle also said registry documents that showed the island rightfully belonged to Captain John Deseronto are held in the County of Hastings and County of Prince Edward registry offices. Documents show, he explained, that in 1988, the island was sold through an Indian sale with no Mohawk consent. 

Councillor Bill Roberts of Sophiasburgh ward, touched on the longevity of the issue.

Bill Roberts. (Jason Parks/Gazette Staff)

“It looks to me like Forester island has been granted to the MBQ several times since 1785 and yet here we are in the year 2020 and it still isn’t properly patriated to you,” he said. “Like you, I am hopeful that it will be fixed in the relatively new future, but I wanted to give you the chance to speak to more the ceremonial handover of 2005 by the Independent Order of Foresters.”

Maracle explained the IOF prepared a document ceremonial transfer. He continued by saying one of the issues they have been waiting to solve is what the interests of Prince Edward County are. 

“I sent a letter to Mayor Finnegan, with no final answer. It was apparently going to a specific committee for answers and went to the CAO of the County and but there was no answer.”

Mayor Ferguson explained there is no knowledge of what happened in that gap. Maracle, however, added that in his report, since 2005, an update to the policy states the MBQ would make best efforts to consult with local government to see what their interests are in the island.

While a motion forwarded by Roberts called for staff to return with a report before the end of 2020, Marcia Wallace, Chief Administrative Officer, asked council to consider extending this decision until Jan. 2021 so not to rush the importance of the matter and “get it right.”

Councillor Ernie Margetson of Hillier ward explained, “We are looking at the steps the municipality would have to take now to go through the process of repatriation of that island to the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte.”

Maracle said he thinks there will be a positive story to share and that as they move forward, there will be a Species-At-Risk assessment required for any development and then decide what to use the land for. 

Mayor Ferguson put forward a Roberts-Margetson motion to refer the deputation to County staff to explore next steps required in consultation with the MBQ. These details will be brought back to council by the end of Jan. 2021 to continue the conversation. 

Toward the end of the meeting, Council carried a motion to support the collaborative creation of a cultural and economic Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte. Under consideration, is the motion to build a new era of cultural and economic development opportunities between the two governments and that staff be in partnership with Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte staff to organize an annual June council meeting between members of Prince Edward County council and the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte council. 

Coun. Roberts commended council on moving this motion forward and taking this direction. 

“I think it’s money well spent. I don’t want to leave the impression that somehow, we are breaking absolutely new ground. This motion simply gives life and resources to realize a motion that we’ve already passed at council. It’s important to realize that the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) has been urging all of us – all of us as municipalities – and in fact, they now include in their strategic plan, this statement: ‘Canada must unfold as a four-cornered table with federal, provincial and territorial governments, alongside municipalities and Indigenous communities as equal partners, is the only way to truly realize our potential as a country.’”