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Skyline of Toronto from Toronto Islands | Image Source:

Since it’s inception in 1995, First Story Toronto’s mandate has been to increase awareness of Indigenous history surrounding Toronto. Formerly known as the Toronto Native History Project based out of the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, First Story has always been a community and volunteer driven initiative. While the name, The Great Indian Bus Tour of Toronto has changed to First Story- the group continues to make visible the rich Indigenous history within the GTA. In 2012, First story launched the first educational free mobile phone app available on iTunes. They continue to organize the popular bus tours, and recently expanded to walking and biking tours. First Story is connecting with many non-Indigenous Toronto based partners, whose appetite to learn more about history inclusive of Indigenous people, continues to grow daily.


The First Story tour guides have an important role as they are on the front lines to the public as representatives and educators of Indigenous history and culture. Indigenous artist and scholar, Phil Cote is one of them. He has been active in the Indigenous community for most of his life as a sun dancer, a pipe carrier, a member of the Eagle Society, running sweat ceremonies and by completing his master’s in Indigenous studies at OCADU. Cote brings all of his knowledge and expertise to share on the First Story Bus Tours. Erica Commanda from MUSKRAT Magazine talked with Phil Cote about his experiences as a First Story Toronto tour guide.

Thunderbird and Mishipishu by First Story Tour Guide Philip Cote, 2014
Thunderbird and Mishipishu by First Story Tour Guide Philip Cote, 2014 | Image Source:

MM: What are your favourite stories that you tell on the tour?

PC: I talk about all the different nations that were here, who were here as allies, but also who migrated here because of various things that were going on with the Wendats, the Haudenosaunee, and The Three Fires*. They were all part of this territory. I know they speak of the Mississaugas of New Credit as the main caretakers of this land, but there’s all these other relationships that are really important too.


I really like talking about the migration of the Wendats and how they got here because there’s so much mystery about why they were here. A lot of people just assume they were here as caretakers of the land, but I think it was because there was a lot of politics between them and the Haudenosaunee people. And not good – because there were battles over territory. Haudenosaunee people were really influenced by the fur trade so a lot of the things they did was connected to it. They actually came out to other Indigenous peoples territories, just south of the Great Lakes because they ran out of territory. The Haudenosaunee people had always been south of Lake Ontario and had this shaky relationship with The Three Fires*.


I haven’t found any really solid proof yet, but my thinking is that the Wendats were here on an invitation from the Three Fires. They were actually the buffer between these two powerful nations because, the Three Fires were a very powerful force up here, even right up until the war of 1812. That’s why the Americans didn’t come storming up here, because there was actually a powerful force here. When Tecumseh was defeated in that battle, there were others waiting in the wings; the American’s were going to continue forward and luckily for their sake they didn’t.


On the tours I also go back 13,500 years. We talk about history that is connected, not only with us in recent times, but also the Paleo-Indians. We talk about their movement through the land and we have traces of them being here. In 2012, they discovered a knife in the Credit River, where the Gardiner Highway is. This knife is 13,500 years old. This is the oldest evidence found of Indigenous people being here. Of course, Indigenous people have been here a lot longer than that. But there is no evidence that can be found because of the ice age; when [the ice] receded, we had tons of frozen water pulling across the landscape and taking every bit of evidence with it. That’s the main reason we can’t go back further than that. Someday we’re going to find it. It’ll be fantastic when that happens. We talk about the kind of Native people that would have been here using those kinds of tools. It was really amazing technology at the time. Even now, scientists are beginning to realize just how valuable that it is as a tool. The knife actually could be made much sharper than a scalpel. So doctors are thinking about using that technology in operations.

Artist and First Story Tour Guide, Phil Cote
Artist and First Story Tour Guide, Phil Cote| Image Source: Phil Cote’s Linkedin Profile

MM: What would you like to add to the tour?

PC: When we do a bus tour, I often like to do a smudge** and talk about how it is a really important part of our culture and how smudging is actually the beginning base of all of the ceremonies. I say this is about getting connected; we don’t just think about connecting our physical selves, but our spiritual selves as well. This is important in our relationship in how we connect to the land. The land has a spirit and so when we do our ceremonies we are connecting with the land, which is our original mother. That’s something that we like to include on our First Story bus tour.

MM: Do you talk about any traditional teachings?

PC: I talk about the Clan system, the clan system was the first form of governance. I talk about all these different nations that were a part of this clan system. The clan system has been around for thousands of years and I make the relationship between the animals that were in the clan system, that have attributes that are a part of the responsibility of the people in those clans. I do a ceremony where we do a tobacco offering, so that’s connected with the smudge and we talk about that relationship in connection to the earth and how the earth is in a relationship with the universe. All of these things are all tied together, that’s how Indigenous thinking is. The tour participants are surprised, but they are all really happy that they get to participate in this. I think there’s a lot of mystery around Indigenous people, our culture and ways. I think it’s really great that we are getting a chance to bring the truth out through our own teachers and wisdom keepers.

First Story Toronto App
First Story Toronto App | Image Source:

MM: Do you know of any other cities that want to follow in First Story Toronto’s footsteps?

PC: Yes, there are. There’s [going to be] one in Ottawa, and I think one in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. They are looking at what we are doing. They are thinking about presenting it in the same kind of format, making a bus tour, having people go on these tours to sites that have been discovered and just tracing the routes of Indigenous people on how long they have been there. There are different nations telling different stories about their history, and how they arrived on that land, and how they are connected with the land culturally and linguistically. In some cases it may be a migration that was part of their story.

MM: What kind of training did you go through? Are there any interesting fact that stood out while training?

PC: I did research on Rodney Bobiwash’s research (Founder of the History Project who passed away January 2002). I looked at what he did and tried to memorize that as best I could. I have a lot of my own knowledge that I put into the trips that I do. I went for my master’s for a few years and I did a lot of research around Indigenous leaders. I found the history around these leaders is connected to the history of the land, so I automatically incorporated it into my bus tours when I talk about the history of this land.


*The Three Fires were a confederacy that was formed in 692 AD, consisting of the Ojibwe, Potawatomi and Odawa. They all had very similar language and dialects so it was easy for them to associate and connect with one another. The Anishinaabe creation story can be traced back to all three of these nations.

**Smudging is a North American Aboriginal cleansing ceremony that burns sage and sweetgrass to get rid of negative energies and/or influence.


Phillip Cote
Phillip Cote | Image Source:

Philip Cote Bio Philip Cote is Shawnee, Lakota, Potawatomi and Ojibway from Moose Deer Point First Nation. He is a graduate of The Ontario College of Art and Design and has been at the forefront of a group of artists who are exploring new ways to imbue sculpture, painting and other installation art with traditional spiritual perspectives. Philip has been exhibited and commissioned for various galleries, festivals and residencies across Canada and the United States. His recent work includes the 5680 square foot “All My Relations” mural displayed at Allen Gardens until 2015. Philip co-managed and participated in designing one of the five murals. He also recently had a story published in Copper Thunderbird The Art of Norval Morrisseau 2012. Philip is currently a board member on the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective. Philip’s great-grandfather is the great-grandson of Tecumseh, and he has been exploring and researching the importance of the Shawnee leader’s life and spirit.

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About The Author

Erica Commanda

Born in Toronto, Erica Commanda (Algonquin/Ojibwe) grew up in the small community of Pikwakanagan. From there she moved across Canada living in Ottawa, Vancouver and now Toronto, working in the bar/hospitality industry, mastering the art of listening to stories from her regulars while slinging and spilling drinks (at them or to them). And now through a series of random decisions and events in life she is on a journey discovering and mastering her own knack for storytelling as Associate Editor for MUSKRAT Magazine.

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