History and culture
The Collapse of the Quebec Bridge in 1907:Thirty-three Mohawk workers died in this disaster
In August 2007, a large Mohawk delegation from Kahnawake came to the south shore of the St. Lawrence River across from Quebec City to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the deaths of 33 members of their community during the collapse of the Quebec Bridge. On August 29, 1907, the Quebec Bridge collapsed while under construction. Seventy-six workers lost their lives in the disaster. Among the victims were thirty-three Mohawks from Caughnawaga (today Kahnawake). Renowned for their skilled work on tall steel structures, Mohawks have helped build the Victoria Bridge in Montreal, the Quebec Bridge, the Empire State Building, the World Trade Center in New York and many other major North American construction sites, a little-known but vital contribution.
An Innu Sparks Mining Development on the Labrador Plateau
In 1937, Mathieu André, a professional trapper and hunter, brought samples of highgrade ore that he collected during his hunting trips to geologist, J.A. Retty. This triggered intensive prospecting activities. In 1950, the Iron Ore Company began building the mining town of Schefferville. That same year, IOC started laying 600 kilometres of tracks to ship the ore from Schefferville to the port of Sept-Îles. Here too, several Amerindians helped with the “initial surveying and clearing in this region that they knew so well”(Radio-Québec, 1984: 39-40).
International Recognition for the Rights of Aboriginal Peoples
According to UNESCO, Aboriginal populations worldwide total some 350 million people in 70 countries.
They represent more than 5,000 languages and cultures. Despite their numbers and rich diversity, these peoples have been denied their most basic human rights. They have been “overlooked” by international law.
Thirty years of sustained efforts to obtain international recognition has finally borne fruit. On September 13, 2007 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The stakes were high because this Declaration finally recognized that Aboriginals were not racial, ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities, but free peoples equal with all other peoples and having “the right to self- determination”. According to Cree lawyer Roméo Saganash, you do not need to be an expert in international law to see that this confirms the right of a people to self-determination.
« “This is the basic right to exist and develop as a people and to be respected as such by other peoples. This is the collective equivalent to the human right to equality, dignity and liberty. From this perspective, the right to self-determination is inalienable, indivisible and universal.” (Saganash, 1993: 87)
The Indigenous peoples of the Americas have long turned to international law to obtain justice. Starting in the 18th century, Aboriginal delegations and ambassadors regularly went to London. This was true in 1825 of Huron Grand Chief Nicolas Vincent and three other Jeune- Lorette Chiefs. They met with King Georges IV in hopes of winning a land dispute concerning the Seigniory of Sillery. Unfortunately, the responsibility for settling this dispute was given to local authorities. The creation of the League of Nations en 1919 seemed promising, and Iroquois Chief Deskaheh tried in vain to plead the cause of his tiny nation.
In 1945, the creation of the United Nations raised new hopes. The UN Charter clearly affirms the right of all peoples and nations, great and small, to equality and liberty, as well as the fi rm determination to end colonialism in all its forms. The United Nations has regularly received complaints from Aboriginal individuals or groups claiming violations of their basic rights. Until the 1970s, however, they were systematically excluded. This explains how the condition of Aboriginal peoples, these “Nations within Nation-States”, remained beyond all international jurisdiction and under the exclusive authority of internal state affairs.
The Strange Dissappearence of Aboriginals from the Historical Scene
Why do we know so little about the Aboriginal peoples? And how could such a distorted and often scornful view of our Amerindian neighbours develop, especially in Québec during the past fifteen years?
Part of the answer is in the history courses and textbooks currently in use, and especially in what those courses and books did not teach us. Another part of the answer can be found in the upheaval that followed the crisis in Oka and Kanehsatake in 1990, a crisis that left its mark on Québec as a whole.
A look through the first pages of the old Manuel d’Histoire du Canada published by Father Farley and Father Lamarche in the 1930s shows how a negative image of Aboriginal people was passed on to generations of Québec students. In their “portrait of a savage”, the authors describe a fine physical appearance overall. But the description of morals is scathing. According to the authors, “the savage had a few superficial qualities,”but these were not enough to compensate for more serious defects: “unbounded pride”, the belief of being “clearly superior to whites”, “sensual”, “easily led into debauchery.” This unflattering portrait abruptly concluded: “Finally, the savage had no strength of moral character.”
During the 1960s, this open disdain for the First Peoples had been all but eliminated from schoolbooks. Strangely, in following editions, Aboriginal peoples had simply vanished from history books. From the time of the British Conquest, the Amerindians were no longer on the scene. (Arcand et Vincent, 1979) The only reference to Aboriginals was found in the Louis Riel episode at the time of the Canadian Confederation. There was nothing more until the Oka Crisis in the summer of 1990.
In the absence of an historic context, how can we understand the contemporary situation of Aboriginal peoples? Unfortunately, any Quebeckers discovered the existence of the First Nations during the dramatic events that took place in Oka in the summer of 1990. Prejudice quickly bridged the knowledge gap. Yet the history of the Aboriginal peoples is rich and fascinating. And their contribution to the development of Québec is much greater than we could imagine.
Thousands of years of legendary hospitality
On July 3, 1608, Samuel de Champlain and his men came ashore at a point where the St. Lawrence River narrows. The Amerindians called this place “Quebec”.
It was far from uninhabited. “The crew of some thirty Frenchmen settled into a summer community of around 1,500 Amerindians, mostly Innus (or Montagnais) whose land it was, as well as Algonquins, Micmacs and Maliseets.” (Delage, 2007). Quebec already had a long history at the time of Champlain’s arrival. During his second voyage in 1535, Jacques Cartier stopped at the mouth of the Saint-Charles River. From the heights of Cape Diamond, he discovered the settlement of Stadacona (Quebec). Continuing up the St. Lawrence River, Cartier counted 14 Amerindian villages along the north shore, the biggest of which, Hochelaga (Montréal), had about fifty longhouses. The Iroquois of the St. Lawrence lived along the shores. When Champlain arrived in Quebec in 1608, these villages had completely vanished. Could wars, epidemics, or climate changes that affected the culture of maize explain this disappearance? Nobody knows for sure. Quebec, which maintained its strategic position guarding access to the interior of the continent, had become a gathering place before dispersal for the winter hunting season. It was therefore in Quebec City that Champlain and his men erected the first “habitation”, the fi rst French settlement in North America.
In 2008, we had every reason to share our pride and celebrate the birth of French North America together. On this occasion, the Huron-Wendat community in the outskirts of Quebec City was the host nation during the festivities marking the 400th anniversary. This greatly contrasted with the role the Amerindian delegations played during the Tercentennial of Quebec. In 1908, Amerindian participation was limited to a simple presence during the great historic shows, in which they played their own role, according to the perception of the times.
But times have changed! Today, the First Nations still willingly take part in the commemoration of major historical events, but not as colourful figures. A sign of the times, these are now viewed as an opportunity to reveal the other side of the story, that of the First Nations, so vital to the understanding of our shared history.
Signing Treaties and Seeking Agreements
Sign treaties! This is both a very old and very modern way to establish peaceful relations between peoples and nations.
From the very first contacts between Europeans and Amerindians, the need to form alliances and make treaties was clear. However, these agreements did not deal with land claims.When Champlain concluded the first alliance with the Montagnais at Tadoussac in 1603, he was given the authorization to settle on Aboriginal lands in exchange for military support. At no time did the Aboriginals cede their rights to these lands. Under the British Regime however, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 marked a turning point in the nature of such agreements. It initially confirmed incontestable Aboriginal rights to these lands, recognition put down in writing! A procedure for consent by treaty was also provided for: “…but that if at any Time any of the Said Indians should be inclined to dispose of the said Lands, the same shall be Purchased only for Us, in our Name, at some public Meeting or Assembly of the said Indians, to be held for that Purpose by the Governor or Commander in Chief of our Colony respectively within which they shall lie…” (Extract from the Royal Proclamation of 1763) From then on, treaties became the Crown procedure for extinguishing the land claims of the first inhabitants. After the “peace and friendship treaties”, a new kind of treaty came into being, land cessions.
The first such treaties concerned Southern Ontario between 1780 and 1850. Then two major treaties were signed with the Ojibwa Indians of Lake Superior and Lake Huron. Finally, in 1867, the Fathers of the Confederation signed the British North America Act.
The great Canadian dream was built on the coloni-zation of the lands west of the Great Lakes. These lands, occupied by many different Amerindian nations and by the Métis, would be the objects of the eleven Numbered Treaties of the Confederation.
Looking at the map of land treaties ratified in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we can see that none were concluded in Québec. The same holds true for British Colombia, in most of the Northwest Territories and the Maritimes. In Québec, the first land claim settlement was signed in 1975 because of the James Bay hydroelectric dam project. The James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement signed with the Cree Nation and the Inuit of the Far North is the first treaty of the modern era. In 1978, the Naskapis Nation of the Schefferville region signed a similar agreement called the Northeastern Québec Agreement. In Québec, no other treaty has been concluded since. However, treaty negotiations continue with the Innu Nation concerning independence, economic development, access to natural resources, sharing and cooperation and good neighbour policies.
The True Nature of the Indian Act
From the beginning, Indian status was considered to be temporary, as the ultimate goal was complete integration and assimilation into Canadian society.
The Aboriginal population was in decline by the middle of the last century. They were expected to disappear under the pressure of colonization and development. The Indian Act was meant to ease the transition toward assimilation.
Until recently, the idea of enfranchisement was at the heart of the Indian Act. The demand for enfranchisement was the preferred means of relinquishing legal Indian status and obtaining all the attributes of citizenship. Up to 1985, members of the First Nations had two options: remain an Indian and a minor under Canadian law or demand enfranchisement, which signified assimilation. To enjoy all the attributes of Canadian nationality, an Amerindian had to renounce his national identity. Unfortunately, most non-Aboriginal citizens are completely ignorant of these retrograde provisions of the Indian Act, seeing it instead as a law that gives Amerindians special status and multiple privileges.
Early laws gave the government broad powers to control Indians living on reserves. Under federal guardianship, Amerindian communities first lost the political capacity to define their members. The Federal Government decided for them by setting the rules defining who was an Indian and who was not. This is how the categories of “Status Indians” (or registered Indians) and “Non-status Indians” (or unregistered Indians) came into being.
Because the ultimate aim of the law was independence, meaning the loss of status through enfranchisement, as of 1880 any Indian who earned a university diploma was automatically enfranchised. He was no longer an Indian, nor was his family or his descendants. A 1933 amendment went even further by giving the Governor in Council the power to enfranchise an Indian without his consent upon the simple recommendation of the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs. These provisions remained in effect until 1951. The aim of imposed assimilation was clear.
Very early on, sex discrimination occurred. Any Indian woman who married a non-Indian automatically lost her status and had to leave the community. This exclusion applied to both her and her descendants. Yet this exclusion did not apply to Indian men who married non-Indian women, who became Indians under the law. It was only in 1985, after a long, hard struggle by Aboriginal women’s associations and a decision by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, that Canada put an end to this sex discrimination.
New France, a Broad Network of Alliances Across North America
To understand the nature of relations between European countries and Aboriginal peoples from the very first contacts, it must be understood that war and trade are closely linked.
The European powers that sought to extend their hegemony over the territory needed the Amerindians to make war. They also needed the Amerindians for the fur trade. In this context, alliances were the only logical choice. Before settling in Quebec City, Champlain concluded the fi rst alliance at a place known as Pointe St-Mathieu on the western shore of the mouth of the Saguenay River in 1603, where he met with Montagnais Chief Anadabidjou. In exchange for French military support, the Montagnais (the Innus, in their own language) gave the French permission to conduct the fur trade. Upon their arrival a few days later, the Micmacs and the Maliseets joined the alliance. Such an alliance was not an isolated event. While it is true that the French authorities acted, at the beginning, with the aim of imposing their authority and assimilating the Aboriginals, they soon realized that it was not by dominating and subjugating these people that they could conduct the fur trade. There was only one way, in fact. Rather than by force, it was through trade and military alliances, and by concluding many peace and friendship treaties that solid relations between the two peoples could develop. And good thing too! Here is at least one aspect of our history of which we can now be proud. The alliance between the French and the First Nations constituted “a decisive factor in the continued French colonial presence in North America despite the huge numerical advantage of the British colonies.” (Delage, 1991) This certainly sheds a different light on our national history.
Gabriel Commanda, the Algonquin! Surely a stranger to most of us! However, most primary and secondary school students in Val d’Or have likely heard of him. That is because, over the past few years, so many took part in the Marche annuelle Gabriel Commanda, an initiative by the Centre d’amitié autochtone de Val d’Or. Each year, groups of students invade the streets in support of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. That is because Gabriel Commanda was a model of neighbourly relations and mutual cooperation. Jean Ferguson, who published a biographical novel based on the character (Éditions du Septentrion 2003), introduces him thus: “One has to say that, without this Algonquin, never would there have been mines like La Lamaque or others that have been and still are the livelihood of the Valley of Gold. He is owed, notably, the marking out of the first copper mine and the discovery of the fi rst gold nugget, in the 1920s… Moreover, his name is often mentioned along with the chance of a discovery.” Says Ferguson: “Commanda had his very own way of looking for and discovering minerals… a young Algonquin – among others who often tagged along – told that Commanda went alone by canoe and that, once arrived at the exploration site, started with an incantation. Then, using a stick with a curved fork, carved out of a moose antler, he walked along the ground and you were sure to find a large mineral vein where he planted his stick. A pioneer, Gabriel Commanda is a legendary character in the history of Abitibi-Témiscamingue.