Oronhyatekha built the Independent Order of Foresters and the tallest building in Toronto.
If Oronhyatekha were alive today, he’d be considered an expert networker. He jokingly referred to himself as a “joiner,” accepting memberships in many prominent social organizations of his era. Relying on his extraordinary social skills to overcome prejudice he faced as a Mohawk, he built the Independent Order of Foresters into one of North America’s largest fraternal insurers. A profile published in the Globe in 1896 was typical of contemporary accounts praising his amiability:
Dr. Oronhyatekha is a man beloved for his social virtues as much as for his executive ability. In his personal relations he is gracious and unassuming. He never turns anyone away with a short answer, save as “no” is a small word. Everyone who calls upon him may see him, unless the exigencies of official duties and obligations, or in conference, make it impossible to spare even a moment, and may talk to him as long as he has anything worth hearing to say. As a rule it is the visitor who does the talking, unless he be one in whom the chief has confidence, when he will open the doors of his speech and talk freely and most entertainingly.
Born on the Six Nations reserve near Brantford in 1841, Oronhyatekha’s name translates as “burning cloud.” Though baptized as Peter Martin, he preferred to use his Mohawk name throughout his life, a practice which contemporary chroniclers honoured. During childhood, he trained as a shoemaker at a missionary-run industrial school. Following a visit by a phrenologist who, after measuring his head, deemed him “educable,” Oronhyatekha attended schools in Massachusetts and Ohio before returning to the reserve as a teacher.When the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) visited the Six Nations in 1860, Oronhyatekha delivered a welcoming address. Despite an unremarkable speech, the 19-year-old’s dignified bearing and deep voice impressed the Prince. Oronhyatekha was invited to continue his studies at Oxford, under the tutelage of one of the Prince’s entourage, Regius professor Henry Acland. He stayed in England for the next three years, later acknowledging his respect for his tutor by naming his sons Henry and Acland. Upon returning to Canada, he married a great-granddaughter of Joseph Brant and studied medicine at the University of Toronto. One classmate, future U of T president Sir William Mulock, later recalled that because of troubles pronouncing his name, he was dubbed “Old Iron Teakettle.” His nickname was later shortened to “Dr. O.”
After earning his medical diploma in 1867, Oronhyatekha travelled Ontario to build up his medical career, stopping in Deseronto, Frankford, Napanee, and Stratford. To attract business and reduce the stigma attached to his Mohawk background, he overstated his medical credentials, claiming he was an Oxford-trained physician specializing in nervous disorders and respiratory diseases. He earned enough respect to serve as first secretary of the Hastings County Medical Association, and was appointed, based on a recommendation by John A. Macdonald, as consulting physician to the Mohawk reserve at Tyendinaga.
Following a personal bankruptcy, Oronhyatekha moved his practice to London, Ontario in 1874. To build his social network, he joined numerous fraternal organizations and temperance societies. He had been involved in such groups since his U of T days, having spoken at a conference of the Independent Order of Good Templars in 1863 on the dangers of “fire water” to the First Nations. Charm and persistence gained him entry to powerful organizations, such as the Orange Lodge, which rarely accepted aboriginals.
One membership would change his life. In 1878, he joined a local court of the Independent Order of Foresters (IOF). Since the organization’s membership rules stated that only white males aged 21 and over could join the fraternity, he received a special dispensation thanks to his Orange Lodge associations. He later joked that his sponsors “recognized that I belonged to a race which is superior to the white.”
According to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, “Oronhyatekha took to the IOF and the concept of fraternalism like a born-again Christian to the Bible.” He criss-crossed the province over the next three years promoting its fraternal principles and insurance benefits. With few government benefits available at the time and high premiums charged by private insurers, fraternal insurance policies offered protection for working-class families; it is estimated that by 1900, up to four in 10 North American men belonged to fraternal organizations. A typical death benefit assessment used a simple, inexpensive system: a fraternal member paid a $1 initiation fee. When they died, all the other members paid $1 each, up to a maximum of $2,000.Oronhyatekha had joined a troubled organization. Founded in 1874 in Newark, New Jersey as a breakaway group from the Ancient Order of Foresters, the IOF opened its first Canadian court within a year. The IOF quickly fell into debt, thanks to a high mortality rate among its members in the southern United States. Disagreements over payments led to a split in Canada, with some members forming a rival fraternity. Not helping matters was the January 1879 disappearance of treasurer Henry Griffin, whose theft of $17,000 emptied the IOF’s coffers. Oronhyatekha, who became High Chief Ranger of Ontario in 1879, assessed the situation and determined change was needed.
When the IOF was reconstituted at a June 1881 convention, it had 369 members and $4,000 in debts. Elected Supreme Chief Ranger, Oronhyatekha rebuilt the order from its new headquarters in London. To restore the IOF’s solvency, a reserve fund was created, and member levies were replaced with age-graded assessments. To minimize payments, he enforced strict medical examinations to weed out risky clients, especially anyone in the booze trade. Over the next decade, welfare benefits expanded to cover disabilities, illness, and funeral costs. Membership exploded, rising to 24,601 by 1890, 102,838 by 1896, and over 275,000 by 1907. During his tenure, $20 million in benefits were paid out to over 100,000 people.
Much of that increase was attributed to Oronhyatekha’s powers of persuasion. His brash, self-promotional nature was compared to showman P.T. Barnum. Following the order’s move to Toronto in 1888, it presented lavish displays at the Toronto Industrial Exhibition (the forerunner of the CNE). He travelled the world to build up the IOF, even if many of the new lodges he opened outside the order’s core regions of Canada, Great Britain, and the United States faltered after his death. His speeches and writings stressed the importance of brotherhood and supporting each other through hard times. “He was always elegant and faultlessly groomed,” noted Ethel Brant Monture in her book Canadian Portraits: Famous Indians. “People sought him, for his friendliness was unbounded. His conversation is said to have sparkled with his knowledge of man and books. In a social gathering of congenial friends it was his delight to start the group singing. His strong baritone voice never tired and in his enthusiasm he would catch up a plate or a book and tap on it like a tom-tom to carry the beat.” His debating skills were also praised: “Calm, courteous, imperturbable, clear and decisive, he is a master in debate,” one English writer observed. “His weapon is as smooth and decisive as a Damascus scimitar; his dexterity in wielding it, and his quickness in watching the fence of an opponent are extraordinary and admirable.”
Oronhyatekha liked to think big, which was literally the case when the IOF outgrew its office space in the mid-1890s. He commissioned architect/IOF member George Gouinlock to design a building at the northwest corner of Bay and Richmond, which projected the order’s size. The result was the Temple Building, a nine (later 10) storey structure which was the tallest building in Toronto for a decade. The organization’s prestige was such that Governor-General Lord Aberdeen laid the cornerstone in May 1895. When it opened on August 26, 1897, festivities included a parade (where the Supreme Chief Ranger was described as “a general enjoying a triumph”) and a large banquet. “’The Temple’ is a structure that Toronto and Torontonians will ever be proud of,” declared the Telegram. “It will take its place as one of the leading ‘points of interest.’ Until visitors have seen ‘The Temple’ they will not have seen Toronto.” Within a few years of opening, a life-size bronze statue of Oronhyatekha sculpted by Walter Seymour Allward (who later designed the memorial at Vimy Ridge) was installed in the lobby.
Besides the IOF’s offices, the Temple Building also held Oronhyatekha’s extensive collection of historical artifacts that he had collected during his travels. Flipping through a catalogue prepared in 1904 reveals items ranging from First Nations weaponry to mummies. It also included a replica of the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey, from which he occasionally ran meetings. The collection was later considered among the founding collections acquired by the Royal Ontario Museum.
His holdings were later viewed as an example of how First Nations coped with preserving their culture in an age of assimilation. He insisted on speaking Mohawk in his summer home near Deseronto, and supported efforts to extend voting rights. When franchise reforms to grant the vote to First Nations property owners regardless of whether or not they lived on reserves were proposed in 1885, he wrote a widely published letter supporting the idea. He argued that claims to deny the vote because the Indian Act made them dependents of the federal government were ridiculous, and scoffed at Liberal fears that the governing Tories would gain a solid voting bloc. The franchise wasn’t fully extended until 1960.
Thanks to his early brush with the Prince of Wales, he took every opportunity to honour the royal family. When the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George V and Queen Mary) visited Toronto in 1901, the IOF erected a massive arch adjoining the Temple Building on Bay Street to welcome them. The arch, which was strung with blue and white electric lights, was later given to the city.
One of Oronhyatekha’s last major projects was construction of a home for orphans on Foresters’ Island, a property he had purchased for IOF use near Deseronto. He considered the opulent castle the crowning achievement of his career; he once noted that he’d rather be remembered for aiding orphans than his other accomplishments. Opened in 1905, the home housed around 40 residents and proved a financial drain. By the time the orphanage moved to a modest site in Oakville in 1908, it racked up $232,000 in debt.
The effects of diabetes and a heart condition soon slowed Oronhyatekha. His final public appearance was at a banquet held in the Temple Building on January 21, 1907. When doctors told him to skip the engagement, he replied that “under no circumstances will I absent myself from that banquet.” A few days later, he headed to the United States, hoping the warmer southern climate would aid his health. After briefly visiting President Theodore Roosevelt (who, like Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, belonged to the IOF) in Washington, he moved on to Savannah, Georgia. There, doctors recommended he stay in bed. There he remained until his death on March 2, 1907.
Flags at the Temple Building flew at half-mast. Mayor Emerson Coatsworth praised his geniality and the millions the IOF had paid out to widows and orphans. The entire city council, along with other dignitaries, met Oronhyatekha’s casket at Union Station on the morning of March 6. A procession passed the Temple Building, then headed to Massey Hall, where 10,000 people viewed the casket over four hours that afternoon and 3,000 attended a memorial service that evening. As the News put it in terms no newspaper would use today, “a red man’s death had brought sorrow to thousands of white men’s hearts.” A Telegram editorial proclaimed that, thanks to his aboriginal ancestry, “his genius could not be traced to an origin in the old lands across the sea,” and that “he was a unique representative of his country, perhaps the greatest CANADIAN of his time.” He was buried on the Tyendinaga reserve.
Oronhyatekha left the IOF in a position to continue its growth as an insurer and philanthropic organization. His statue still greets visitors to its current offices on Don Mills Road. The Temple Building, which was constructed to withstand sledgehammers, was demolished in 1970, though pieces of it linger at Foresters HQ and on the grounds of The Guild. At the northwest corner of Allan Gardens, near where he lived on Carlton Street, a historical plaque recognizes his accomplishments.
Additional material from Prominent Men of Canada: a collection of persons distinguished in professional and political life, and in the commerce and industry of Canada, G. Mercer Adam, editor (Toronto: Canadian Biographical Pub. Co., 1892); Shaping Our Future Together by Marianne Gerdes (Don Mills: Independent Order of Foresters, 1997); Canadian Portraits: Famous Indians by Ethel Brant Monture (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Company, 1960); Catalogue and notes of the Oronhyatekha Historical Collection (Toronto: Independent Order of Foresters, 1904); the November 6, 1863, June 13, 1896, December 5, 1896, and January 22, 1907 editions of the Globe; the November 25, 1938 and August 5, 1966 editions of the Globe and Mail; the May 7, 1885 edition of the Montreal Gazette; the March 4, 1907 and March 6, 1907 editions of the News; the March 10, 2007 edition of the Ottawa Citizen; the April 3, 1897 edition of the Toronto Star; and the August 27, 1897 and March 4, 1907 editions of the Telegram.
CORRECTION: April 21, 2014, 10:10 AM This post originally stated that the IOF’s offices are in Don Mills, when in fact they are on Don Mills Road; it also stated that the Temple Building was situated on the northeast corner of Bay and Richmond streets, when in fact it stood on the northwest corner. We regret these errors.