What’s in a name? The muddy Maitland’s ties to Canada’s residential school system

Menesetung is a Chippewa word meaning “laughing waters”, a very pleasant name that brings to mind a river that could have been the main source of life for most of us in the Midwestern Newspapers reading area. In fact, it once was.

William “Tiger” Dunlop was ordered by the Canada Company’s first commissioner, John Galt, to take an exploring party on an expedition to the shores of Lake Huron. The small survey party left Guelph on March 9, 1827, and blazed a trail west through the Queen’s Bush, an area densely wooded and abundant with wildlife, to Lake Huron’s shore.

The party included the renowned surveyor Mahlon Burwell, his assistant, John MacDonald, who would later survey the Huron Road, a Mr. McGregor who provided a team of oxen, and another man history only identifies as Mr. Sproat.

An interesting aspect of the expedition was the significant Indigenous involvement of Captain Jacob, Louis Cadotte and John Brant, a son of the loyalist Mohawk chief, Joseph Brant, as guides, linguists and hunters for which Dunlop and the other members of the expedition gave full credit.

Upon arrival at Lake Huron in May, Burwell claimed the party to be “destitute” of provisions. He gratefully recounted that local Chippewas welcomed the famished party with fish and corn. A rather sad anecdote, which may have passed as humour at the time, was Dunlop was able to convince the Chippewa to abandon the river flats in exchange for a keg of whiskey.

Two days after the survey party’s arrival, the future Town of Goderich was officially founded. Burwell recorded that “we selected a site for the erection of a house in a beautiful situation on the left bank of the Menesetung River… the foundation for the first house of the town was Wednesday, May 29, 1827.”

What became known as “the castle” was a crude log structure located on what is now Lions’ Harbour Park in Goderich.

One month later, Commissioner Galt sailed into the basin of the Menesetung River aboard the H.M.S Bee. An unkempt Dunlop, flanked by a flotilla of Chippewas in canoes, greeted him with a bottle of champagne to celebrate their reunion and toast the King’s health.

Although Galt would leave the river basin within 48 hours, it was a historically significant visit for the Huron Tract. It was at this moment that the Menesetung River, as the Chippewa called it, was renamed the Maitland River, after Sir Peregrine Maitland, the Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada.

Dunlop reported that despite the difficulties of traversing the almost impenetrable forests of the Huron Tract, he believed there was rich agricultural potential in the land he had transversed to reach the Lake Huron shore.

For Galt, his first brief visit to Goderich was to mark the pinnacle of his tenure as Canada Company Commissioner. Within a year, Galt would be embroiled in the swirl of colonial politics that would soon lead to his controversial removal from office. Soon after his return to Great Britain, he spent several months in King’s Bench Prison for failure to pay debts.

But instead of travelling back to Europe, let’s travel back to our local waters, once pleasantly named Menesetung – Chippewa for “laughing waters” – and explore what the new namesake, Maitland, is remembered for. We are now living in an era when statues of John A. MacDonald are being toppled and his name is being removed from buildings it once graced, in disgrace, for his connection to Canada’s horrendous history of residential schools and oppression of Indigenous Peoples through the Indian Act.

The idea which would bring about the Canadian residential school system was first brought forward by Maitland in a proposal he made in 1820 to the Colonial Office “for ameliorating the condition of the Indians in the neighbourhood of settlements.” His proposal contained civilizing techniques and concepts which were adopted over the next three decades calling for the conversion of hunters into settled agriculturalists under the Indian Affairs Department and missionaries, with the focus of his civilizing plan aimed at children. He stated that in “prosecuting such a plan, little perhaps can be expected from grown-up Indians. Its success therefore will chiefly depend on the influence which it may acquire over the young.”

In his proposal, Maitland suggested, “school houses of instruction and industry” would give civilizers “influence” over the young. The schools were to be designed to prepare the children for life in an Indigenous community that would be remodelled to approximate a settler community.

Maitland’s plan was for all children to be boarded at the schools to remove them from their “savage” existence. They were to be plainly clothed and fed.

Although his plan remained mostly on paper, he did go on to cooperate with the Methodists to found one settlement – the River Credit Settlement of the Mississaugas. This turned out to be a significant initiative because it became the model on which Sir George Murray’s “Policy of Aggressive Civilization” of 1830 was based on.

What’s in a name? I can’t speak for everyone who lives on this watershed but the “laughing waters” of the muddy Menesetung River sounds a lot better to me than continuing to honour a man who planted a seed for generations of trauma. That’s just me though.


Colin Burrowes is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with Midwestern Newspapers.

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter