The Old Council House in the heart of Ohsweken is steeped in history.
And thanks to a group of 10 community members who are working hard to restore the old building, not only will the physical structure come back to life, but the history that accompanies it will as well.
The Old Council House, as it’s known, is older than Canada itself. It was built four years before Confederation in 1867 and was the seat of government for the hereditary chiefs until they were deposed by the federal government in October 1924 and an elected council system installed in it’s place.
As Six Nations nears the 100th anniversary of this pivotal moment in its history, the building will serve as a centrepiece for the commemoration of that event – an event that drastically changed the course of Six Nations’ political structure for the past century.
The impetus to restore the old building started when Six Nations man Derek Sandy was working on a project at Six Nations Polytechnic chronicling the activism of Cayuga Chief Levi General (Deskaheh), who is noted for travelling the world in the 1920s and advocating for Haudenosaunee rights.
Sandy said he wanted to use the building to commemorate Chief Deskaheh and “we ended up just jumping into this steering committee” and the project mushroomed from there.
“We’ve been working together slowly but surely to get this going to be able to use it again,” said Sandy.
To date, renovations have cost $50,000, funded through the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council, fixing up the building, including repairs to the foundation at the back of the building after noticing the small cubby space that serves as a basement had flooded.
Renovations were ongoing throughout the summer and the committee continues to meet weekly virtually to discuss updates. Clean up and abatement work to remove asbestos and lead from the building will continue throughout the winter.
Also assisting in the project are Todd Williams, a consultant for the Haudenosaunee Development Institute (HDI) and Rick Monture, a respected professor of Indigenous Studies at McMaster University and admittedly amateur historian who has written about Six Nations history at great length in his book We Share Our Matters.
The original brick building is in good condition, structurally, said Monture, but it needs a bit more work, including cosmetic touch ups to doors and windows. It was built entirely by Six Nations people.
“They constructed things right back then, which is why it’s lasted so long,” said Monture.
Monture said the committee plans to have the renovations complete in time for the commemoration of the events of 1924 for the 100th anniversary in 2024.
“It has a long history as being the site of our government. It was a site of great pride for our people,” said Monture.
On Jan. 1, 2007 the HCCC once again reclaimed the Old Council House and they have maintained stewardship of the building since.
Aside from the 2024 commemoration, the Old Council House could also serve as a tourist attraction and event space on Six Nations history, said Monture.
The committee is asking community members if they have any photos of the Old Council House that they can display during the commemoration.
“There’s a group of us who were always interested in maintaining that site, preserving it, restoring it, to bring it back to be a point of pride for the community, something we should be proud of, a focal point of our community, regardless if you went to church, or longhouse or followed the Confederacy Council or elected council,” said Monture. “So many decisions were made in that structure that impacted all of us in the past 160 years.”
The committee is looking to retain as much of the original architecture as possible.
“We want to restore it to be a useable space. We’re not entirely sure what it will look like, whether it will be a museum, but we kind of envision a space” for events and meetings, as well, said Monture.
“The first and foremost thing is to make sure it’s safe,” he said.
“A new roof was put on last summer. We need the asbestos abatement done so people can gather in there and do more work on the interior. We want to make it safe and put an accessible washroom in there, that kind of thing, just so it’s a very useable, people-friendly meeting space.”