History and Origins
The film excerpts in this theme look at the creation myth of the Wendat, the life of the Mi’kmaq before European settlement, the origin of the word “Canada,” and the question of territory under the English and French regimes.
Comments on the Excerpt from Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance
by Georges Emery Sioui, Historian and Traditionalist assisted by Miguel Paul Sioui, Ecologist and Traditionalist
The Mohawk or “Agniers” (“People of the Flint” for the French) of Kanesatake were mainly refugees from the wars being waged against them by the French in their ancient Iroquois territory south of Lake Ontario. A strong hostility had arisen between the Haudenosaunee (the Longhouse of the Five-Nations Iroquois) and the French in the summer of 1609 when the explorer Samuel de Champlain, taking part in an Algonquin and Huron skirmish against the Haudenosaunee, fired his harquebus at three Iroquois chiefs who wanted to hold talks with him, and killed or wounded all three. The state of war that followed was broken by peaceful periods but would last 92 years in all, until the Great Peace of Montreal, signed by 38 First Nations in 1701.
Before settling on the Lake of Two Mountains in Kanesatake (“the place where many rushes grow”), the Mohawk, uprooted from their ancestral lands, built a village for themselves on the island of Montreal at the foot of Mount Royal. They lived there with other displaced First Nations–Wendat, Erie, Neutral, Algonquin and others, for several decades. Around 1676, Sulpician missionaries began to put pressure on the French court to grant the Mohawk and other First Nations peoples who had converted to Christianity a reserve fifteen kilometres square on the Lake of Two Mountains. The lands they were occupying on the island of Montreal were not suited to farming and hunting. Moreover, Montreal was rapidly becoming too densely populated by immigrants from France. The Mohawks and other First Nations peoples began moving their village to Kanesatake. In 1720, the last Mohawk families on the island of Montreal were persuaded by the missionaries to leave the village and to found a new Sulpician mission at Oka, which the French king had given to the Mohawks and other Christian Indians. The colonial authorities had three goals: to convert the First Nations to the Catholic faith; to have a good line of defence in place in case of attack by the English; and to develop the economy by means of the fur trade.
As soon as the new mission was founded, and unknown to the Mohawk and other First Nations, the Sulpician fathers began to petition the French court to have the First Nations land titles transferred to them. The missionaries thus took advantage of the First Peoples’ inability to read to steal the most valuable thing they had–their land. And yet, the First Nations had, they had been told, a promise written by King Louis XV himself (then a child 6 years old!) that the lands would remain theirs as long as they lived on them. The Mohawks denounced the theft committed against them, but the clergy threatened to have them thrown in prison if they continued behaving badly. The Sulpicians quickly obtained the approval of the governor of Montreal and the Intendant, and the land titles were officially transferred to the Sulpicians. But the Mohawks and the other First Nations simply did not accept this kind of treatment and these injustices. The resistance that was formed at that time still continues today, and is even more deeply entrenched than ever as we saw in the Oka crisis in the summer of 1990.
Nicholas Vincent Tsawenhohi with Wampum Belt, 1825
McCord Museum of Canadian History, Canada M20855
Even if their territories were unjustly taken from them in the 18th century under the law of “the White Man”, the Mohawks of Kanesatake possess the proof – sacred in their eyes – that the land does still belong to them. The main proof lies in the wampum belts, made of tubular beads carved from shell. The beads are mauve and white. At the time of the treaty, the First Nation custom was to make these kinds of belts (a laborious task) as a way to cement an agreement, contract or treaty in the presence of all the parties involved and for all time. The wampum belt, confirming the original land concession at Kanesatake, shows the representatives of the Nations hand-in-hand as a sign of friendship. At the centre is a cross, signifying that the First Nations peoples would always be loyal to the Catholic Church; and at each end of the belt is a dog, representing the common will to protect and watch over the land.
When the British began to rule the territory in 1760, they were careful to confirm the First Nations’ possession of the land and their freedom to practice their own customs and religion and to do business with them, the new conquerors. The Mohawk of Kanesatake are, therefore, in their own eyes and those of many other people, sovereign owners of their own land which no one will ever be able to change. The only road to agreement is still respect. The circular vision of the First Peoples should perhaps be taken into account once again.
Georges E. Sioui, Coordinator, Aboriginal Studies Program, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario. Prof. Sioui received both his MA (1987) and his Ph.D. (1991) in History from Laval University. In May 1990, Prof. Sioui and his four brothers obtained a landmark victory in the Supreme Court of Canada (the "Sioui Case") over territorial and traditional land use rights. From 1992 to 1997, Dr. Sioui was associate professor of Indian Studies and Dean of Academics of the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College at the University of Regina. From January 1999 to December 2000, he was president of the Institute of Indigenous Government in Vancouver. During 2003, he was head of research of the Indian Claims Commission in Ottawa. In January 2004, he became the coordinator of the newly created Aboriginal Studies Program at the University of Ottawa. His writings on Indigenous philosophy, history and education have appeared in several journals, magazines and books, continent-wide and abroad.
Miguel Paul Sioui
Miguel Paul Sioui, a Huron-Wendat currently living in Gatineau, Quebec, speaks Spanish, English and French and is initiated in Mandarin Chinese and Brazilian Portuguese. He has attended the Environmental Studies program at the University of Ottawa. During the summer of 2005, he worked for the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples in Ottawa as a research assistant, conducting a study related to Aboriginal youth and youth organizations across Canada. One of Miguel’s talents is storytelling and he was once a special guest of renowned Native storyteller Joe Bruchac at the Pequot Museum in Connecticut. In 2003, he was the recipient of the Hudson’s Bay Company Aboriginal Futures Scholarship for academic achievement and in 2004 and 2005 was awarded a special grant for Excellence in Sports from his First Nation Council. He has travelled in Europe, China, Colombia and Mexico as well as the United States and all regions of Canada.