Building heritage: Mississaugas of the New Credit Council House

When it was built in 1882, the Mississaugas of the New Credit Council House represented a new beginning for a community that had experienced tough times in previous years.
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Mary Baxter is editor of Morelmag.ca and a contributing editor of Better Farming magazine, the largest circulating farm magazine in Ontario and Canada’s top website for online farm news. In 2007, she, along with her former Better Farming colleagues won the Canadian Association of Journalists' Award for Investigative Journalism in the magazine category. In 2012, she also won the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists’ Star Prize for print journalism. Mary is based in London, ON.

 

 

 

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The room that served as council chambers for the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation for more than 100 years smells musty. The odour is caused more by the building’s age than the late March rain and fierce winds outside. Despite its high ceilings and breadth, the room offers a comfortable intimacy, fostered by the clutter of tables and other furnishings. It’s as if the building is a sturdily built vessel to safeguard community discussion and decision making from all the bluster outside.

When it was built in 1882, the New Credit Council House represented a new beginning for a community that had experienced tough times in previous years. Today, the historic building may be the oldest of its kind in Southwestern Ontario. Because of a possible renovation and addition in the near future, it is also poised to become a lasting reminder of how a community beat the odds to not only survive but also flourish.

New Credit built its council house 35 years after arriving in 1847 at a 4,800-acre section of the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve. Band members had previously lived in a village on the banks of the Credit River in what is present-day Mississauga. Encroaching settlement, government pressure to sell and the uncertainty of legal title to the land all contributed to the decision to move, and some people had already sold their homes when plans to move to another location fell through. Because so many were on the verge of homelessness, the community eagerly accepted the Six Nations’ offer of accommodation.

The band was only 266-members strong when it moved. It had suffered many blows, including the devastating loss of territory in the late 1700s and early 1800s and the end of their traditional hunting and gathering lifestyle. Band members had embraced Methodism and switched to farming when they lived by the Credit. The changes had helped stabilize fortunes and population numbers. Strong faith and canny appreciation of the business of farming continued to define community life as band members adjusted to their new home under the leadership of Rev. Peter Jones, a Methodist missionary of Mississauga heritage. Today, more than 900 of the New Credit’s total population (2,324) live on nearly 6,000 acres of band-owned land within Six Nations near Brantford and Hagersville.

Photo: With its cupola, the council house bears a close resemblance to New Credit's oldest building, the Mission Church.

The council house was New Credit’s second public building. (The New Credit Mission Church, still standing and a short walk away, came first, erected in 1852 — five years after the band had moved to its current home). Roward & Lewis, a Hagersville firm, successfully bid a project budget of $1,460 to build the council house. When finished, it provided enough room for 300 people. Visitors could observe council meetings from a balcony or on the ground floor within the chamber.

On this March day, Barbara Hill, New Credit’s director of public works, offered to walk me through the now mostly disused building. While we walk, Hill hints at the band’s journey to local nationhood and independence as she describes how the administration juggled limited space as authority and responsibility grew. We arrive in the former council chamber and she points to a corner beside the doors that lead to office space at the back of the building. “I used to work there.” She gazes at the open-format workstation near the door and into the past. “Every time there was a council meeting, I had to come and set up here.” She points to the office area tucked behind the former council chamber. “The recreation committee used to be in that one.” Then a social services department was developed and took over. Upstairs, she waves at one room toward the front. She worked there for a while, too. Daycare also once occupied the floor.

Hill has worked for the band administration since 1981. She retires this year. Her first seven years of work took place here. Today, she and most of the band’s administration services staff work out of a building built in 1988 across the lane.

Photo: Architectural detail above the council house's entrance doors.

The council house was “our place of business,” Margaret Sault tells me. Sault is a band councillor and former New Credit director of lands, membership and research. “It was where council held their council meetings.” In 1977 when she started, it was the only building in use for administration. Back then, administration included the band secretary and research. Next came employment programs. “Then we started taking programs from Indian Affairs.” Housing. Welfare. Economic development. Social services.

Over the years, the council house regularly doubled as a community gathering place and activity centre. In the 1930s, it temporarily served as a school when the reserve’s school burned down. During the 1960s and 1970s, it became a small secondary site for the manufacture of “burlap contours for the bottom of car seats.”1 Since 1988 it has at different times been home to several groups and services, including the Chiefs of Ontario and the OPP. In more recent years, it headquartered New Credit’s cultural committee.

Photo: Decorative eaves brackets are among this historic building's exterior features.

But with age came deterioration, and two years ago the community faced tough questions about its second-oldest building. Should it be torn down? Should it be restored?

Enter Laura Dent, a Stratford-based heritage planner hired by the band. Dent helped the community obtain a $48,000 Ontario Trillium Foundation grant to help fund efforts to figure out next steps. She surveyed the community members on the future of the council house. She held round-circle chats (one-on-one or group conversations), invited people through a word game to describe the council house today and in a decade, and conducted an online survey.

Dent discovered that many people saw the building as sacred. Everyone had a connection, either directly or indirectly, through family. “Overwhelmingly the community wants to keep it,” Dent tells me.

New Credit has hired John Rutledge, an architect based in Blyth in Huron County, to develop four concepts that offer restoration and expansion solutions at price points that range from $1.6 million to $2.4 million. Financing will likely come from government heritage grants and local fundraising, says Hill.

The concepts offer space for a meeting room, a museum, offices, basement storage and washrooms. All include an addition which, in some versions, suggests a traditional Ojibway lodge. (The Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation are part of the Ojibway nation. They refer to themselves in their language as Anishinabe, which translates into “human beings or men.”)2

Rutledge has also priced the restoration of some of the building’s original windows (they were removed in 1977 when the second-floor balcony was extended and enclosed to create a second floor) and the reintroduction of the wainscoting that would have been a part of the building’s original interior. He tells me that one of the building’s most remarkable features was tongue-and-groove herring-boned wainscoting that covered not only the entire wall surface above the vertical wainscoting but also the ceiling.

Hill initially didn’t warm to the idea of an addition. “I thought it took away from the building,” she tells me. “But the community from the survey wanted two things: restore the council house and make it usable. The only way they could make it usable is adding on.”

We’re outside now, at the back of the building. She points to a grove of trees where New Credit’s Three Fires Homecoming Pow Wow takes place every August. We circle around one side and walk through a native plant garden that includes three fire pits. The three fires symbolize “the Mississaugas’ traditional and political alliance with the Ojibway, Odawa and Pottawatomi Nations,” the New Credit administration’s website says.

At the front of the building are historic plaques detailing the early days of the community and the life of Rev. Peter Jones who led the band to its current home.

The rain has ended but the wind still stings and it’s time to say goodbye. Hill crosses back to the administration building where she has only a few weeks before she leaves the job that began here. Earlier, she told me this is New Credit’s first building restoration project. Now, watching her go, I think it’s too bad that she won’t be here to shepherd it through the process. Without a doubt Hill’s life has been shaped in ways both routine and profound by this building which, after more than a century, continues to stand strong.

In June, the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation band council will review recommendations about the restoration of the old council house.

— May 31, 2016

Notes

1. Darin P. Wybenga, A Celebration of Versatility: Mississaugas of the New Credit Historical Council House (Ontario: The Mississaugas of New Credit First Nation, 2015), 18. return

2. Darin P. Wybenga and Kaytee Dalton, Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation: Past & Present (Ontario: The Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, 2015), 2. return

Sources

Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation. http://www.newcreditfirstnation.com/.

Plummer, Kevin. “Historicist: The Credit Village.” Torontoist. June 13, 2015. http://torontoist.com/2015/06/historicist-the-credit-village/.

Wybenga, Darin P. A Celebration of Versatility: Mississaugas of the New Credit Historical Council House. Ontario: The Mississaugas of New Credit First Nation, 2015.

Wybenga, Darin P., and Kaytee Dalton. Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation: Past & Present. Ontario: The Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, 2015.

This story was edited by R. Franklin Carter.