The one thing we can be sure of, when discussing the presence of First Nations on the island of Montreal, is that there has been a continuity down through the ages. So, the oldest place where Indigenous people were known to exist dates back 3,500 years.
At that time, we weren’t yet dealing with nations as such because things were still somewhat vague. People hunted, fished, moved around, but distinct nations did not yet exist.
This was during the Lithic period… the period when people used stones as tools. So, we know that people came here mostly to quarry stone.
Later on, there were other sites… starting around 2400 BCE… We’ve discovered sites where people would come to set up temporary encampments — hunting and fishing camps — for example. Specifically, we’re talking about the Lachine Rapids… Heron Island, where we’ve found remains of encampments that date back 2,400 years.
Dating back some 650 years, we can find sites where people settled a little more regularly. So here, we mean domestic zones. People stayed on the island to get their food, to live, and for all of their rituals.
So, people lived on the island. For the most part, we mean the Hochelagans. We know these people lived on the south side of Mount Royal because we’ve found evidence to support this, but also because it was a strategic place to protect their agriculture.
This was when the first contacts were made with Jacques Cartier, who had come to the island of Montreal.
From the arrival of Jacques Cartier until the time Champlain arrived, we know that various groups lived on the island sporadically — various nations that came to either fish and hunt, or to trade with other nations.
The beginnings of Ville-Marie came about because the people who settled here — the missionaries, Marguerite Bourgeoys later on — wanted to convert the First Nations to get them to change their lifestyle, to stop them from moving around… because they considered leaving one place for another to be a primitive way of life.
So, there were wars between the Iroquois and the French, giving rise to alliances with various nations that were here on missions — the Hurons and Algonquins — who had settled in Ville-Marie.
But later on, there were other missions that settled a bit further away from the slope of Mount Royal… with, for example the Sulpicians… the Nipissing who came from the west… with other nations who were also allies of the French.
There was a First Nations chief named Kondiaronk, who took it upon himself — because, at that time, it could be tricky — to go meet with the various nations to ensure that peace could be achieved… to finally prepare the Great Peace of Montreal.
But this took four or five years of preparation, since meeting all the nations and convincing them to come to the island to sign a treaty with the French was no easy task.
It is estimated that there were about 1,300 First Nations delegates who arrived in all of the different colours of their various nations — from the Mississippi, the Lower St. Lawrence, and other places — who came together in Montreal.
This put an end to the French and Iroquois Wars — an important event in the history of New France — and it also put an end to the war over the fur trade. So, this was really a high point for New France and for all of North America. This was something that was not seen again for hundreds of years.
Taking a big leap forward, we find ourselves in 1967, in Montreal, where the entire world was heading, converging on Montreal.
To me, this was a bit reminiscent of the Great Peace, when 39 nations came to Montreal. Now, all of a sudden, there were nations from around the world making their way to Montreal, on a man-made island… St. Helen’s Island.
There were a lot of jobs available at the time and this was an opportunity for First Nations people to live on the island… to make their way to the island.
This was important for both Montreal and the First Nations, because First Nations people ended up settling here. Many of these people, who came here in 1967 to work at Expo, ended up staying in Montreal and now live in Montreal.
Today, there are some 40,000 First Nations people living on the island of Montreal. And these 40,000 people are multi-national. Some come from the west, others from the south, from the St. Lawrence, from everywhere… and they now live on the island.
What’s interesting about these urban First Nations people is that there is a generation born on the island that has never lived anywhere else.
For these people, the Montreal community is their community. There are no other communities that exist for them. They have lived in Montreal and were raised in Montreal.
There was also an event that was significant, not just for Montrealers, but for all Quebecers.
The Iroquois nations came together in solidarity to defend what was, in their view, something important: saving their territory.
What people don’t know is that, earlier in history, once colonization had taken hold, the First Nations were pushed to the periphery.
This crisis, in fact, was about sacred territory that had been used as a cemetery.
Today, no one would even think of allowing a golf course to be built on this land, but this is what was happening at the time and what set off the crisis that escalated.
I don’t think this could happen today, but back then, people didn’t know—in fact, they learned—that there were First Nations still living on the land here.
People didn’t know that so-called “Indians” were still around, that there were 54 communities in Quebec. We were completely ignorant of this. But then, we were made aware of their existence, during a conflict that lasted all summer long… because in summer, the news cycle is slow and the crisis was emphasized precisely to make news, I think.
So, there was negligence on both sides, and there was some negligence on the part of the governments too. But the result is that we can no longer forget about the First Nations. They are here. They’re not always in conflict. There are people who want to form alliances. So, this was the impact it had.
It also got people talking about Quebec on the international stage… perhaps not in the best way, but it did get them talking. People didn’t understand the dispute at all… in fact, Quebecers still don’t understand it, I think.
But it was nevertheless an important moment in time that saw the existence of First Nations in Quebec emerge from the shadows.
It can be said that now, First Nations occupy the island of Montreal in a permanent manner, but on the cultural level… in a very strong way. The exchanges and alliances of the past were for survival, whereas now the exchanges are more for cultural survival, I would say.
First Nations people who are here now have a strong cultural presence, also providing services for other First Nations people who come to live here.
People come here to study, of course, but there are also people who come for work. There is the whole cultural milieu.
For example, there is a theatre group that has been around for thirty years. The First Peoples Festival, which is held in the month of August, has also been around for thirty years.
These are important markers for First Nations people, as well as for the population living in Montreal. And of course, there are all the artists showing their work in galleries, who also raise awareness of the culture, thereby developing another type of alliance with the First Nations.
Skip social share links