by Anne Thornley-Brown, President, Executive Oasis International
Special thanks to Greg Horn, Editor of Kahnawake News for his assistance, patience and support in preparing this information about the First Nations People who originally lived on what is now known as the Island of Montreal.
This entry is part and parcel of the blog entry focusing on Montreal’s historical sites and the people and events that gave them significance. After consulting with Greg Horn, it was clear that there were even more misconceptions than I had realized about the First Nations People who originally lived in what was to become Montreal. With the information that I did gather, I felt that it was important to devote a full blog to clearing up some of these misconceptions. This is just an introduction. I know that I am just barely scratching the surface. However, I will point you in the direction of additional resources for further exploration.
The First Inhabitants of the Island of Montreal
Before its colonization by France and later England, First Nations people had at least one village on the Island of Montréal. In 1535, when Jacques Cartier’s sailing vessels pulled up on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, he was greeted by residents of a nearby village and invited for a visit. Jacques Cartier was invited to visit. There were a number of misunderstandings during this visit that are still being taught as facts in Canadian history books.
Common Misconceptions About the Original First Nations Village on the Island of Montreal
According to Jacques Cartier’s writings, the First Nations village located near the banks of the St. Lawrence River in the shadow of a large mountainin was called “Hochelaga”. However, this is not correct. What Cartier actually heard was the word “Oshahaka” which means “people of the hand”. The First Nations people who greeted Jacques Cartier’s party were actually using the word “Oshahaka” to refer to the Europeans. The Europeans had the habit of shaking hands, a greeting that was foreign in native culture. Jacques Cartier misunderstood and thought that the name of the village was Hochelaga. There were about 1500 Iroquoian-speaking Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) living in the village when Jacques Cartier arrived from France in 1535.
Jacques Cartier also wrote that he was greeted by the chief of the village. He recorded the chief’s name as “Agouhanna”. I have spoken with a native Mohawk speaker and he has confirmed that there is no way that this is accurate. This name is not recognizable and he has no idea what Jacques actually heard.
How Canada Got its Name
Another misunderstanding is the meaning of the word “Kahnata” from which Canada gets its name. “Kahnata” actually means “village” or “town” but again, Jacques Cartier misunderstood and thought it was the name of the country in which the First Nations village was situated.
Location of the First Nations Village
The precise location of the village where Montreal now stands is not clear. It has long been believed that the boundaries were Sherbrooke Street to the North, de Maisonneuve (formerly Burnside) to the South, Mansfield to the East and Metcalfe to the West. This was based on archeological work conducted by Sir John William Dawson, principal of McGill University from 1855 – 1893.
(If it was believed that Dawson had discovered a community that played an important role in the history of First Nations Peoples, it is hard to understand why this area was paved over during the course of extensive urban development. To me, this shows a total lack of respect for Canada’s First Nations peoples and their history. Now, it will be difficult for there to be further exploration of this area.)
At Chateau Ramezay you’ll find photos and exhibits with some of the artifcats from what is referred to as Dawson’s “Hochelaga” archealogical digs.
You’ll also find more of what Dawson uncovered at:
Sorting Out Fact From Fantasy
On the basis of Dawson’s work, the “Hochelaga Rock” was placed at McGill University’s downtown campus in 1925. The plaque on the “Hochelaga Rock” reads:
“Near here was the site of the fortified town of Hochelaga visited by Jacques Cartier in 1535, abandoned before 1600. It contained 50 large houses, each lodging several families who subsisted by cultivation and fishing.”
I played around that rock as a child and the inscription certainly fueled a rich fantasy life for play. However, just because something is written on a plaque, does not automatically make it accurate. As the following article strongly cautions, if you want to learn about a people’s history and culture, it’s best to go directly to the source and not make assumptions:
How Mont-Royal and Montreal got Their Names
Et au parmy d’icelles champaignes, est scituée et assise ladicte ville de Hochelaga, près et joignant une montaigne… Nous nommasmes icelle montaigne le mont Royal.
Translation:And among these fields is situated the said town of Hochelaga, near to and adjoining a mountain… We named this mountain, Mount Royal.”)
Today the name Montréal refers to the city and mountain retains the name that Jacques Cartier gave it. Mont-Royal is the mountain that you can see from just about anywhere in downtown Montreal.
Clearly, the residents of the First Nations Village were warm and very friendly towards Jacques Cartier and the other members of his party. It is important for me to point out some of the terms used to describe his hosts in his writings were most derogatory and highly disturbing. In fact, they will make you cringe. This is also true of writings of Father Barthelemy Vimont in 1642 and the book by Montreal After 250 Years that one can access on-line at the Gutenburg website.
At the official website for the Province of Quebec, you can read a:
Detailed Description of First Nations Village as it was perceived by Jacques Cartier. (Please note the bolding.)
While this first contact, on the surface, seemed informal and pleasant, it was the beginning of centuries of injustice towards First Nations communities. There have been apologies by the Canadian government for some of these injustices but no apology can repair the damage that has been done. It will take some time and a lot of effort for the nation to fully heal. I had goosebumps as I watched the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. It is the first time that the International Olympic Committee has had indigenous people as full partners in the games. There were 5 hosts nations from the western provinces and native youth from all across Canada shared their culture in song and dance and welcomed Olympic athletes from all around the world. This is long overdue but a sign that the healing is slowly beginning.
Giving Your Team a Sense of First Nations Communities Near Montreal
I highly reccommend that you give your team an opportunity to learn about the history of this area’s original inhabitants and the cultures of the First Nations communities near Montreal. Build in some time to visit Montreal’s neighbouring communities like Kahnawake and Kanehsatake. Alternatively, invite a cultural officer to speak to your group and arrange a cultural showcase.
Take some time to visit the McCord Museum or Chateau Ramezay in Old Montreal where you will see some artifcats from First Nations communities on the Island of Montreal before the arrival of the Europeans.
The Official Six Nations Website is currently going through an upgrade, however, you can get more information about Montreal’s original inhabitants and today’s First Nations communities from:
There are events throughout the year and, for a truly meaningful experience, schedule your visit to Montréal to coincide with:
My parents took me to a Pow Wow at Kahnawake as a child. I remember it vividly and it was a truly meaningful experience.
These books were written by an accomplished Métis journalist, teacher and author.
- Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times by Dr. Olive Patricia Dickason
- Concise History of Canada’s First Nations by Dr. Olive Patricia Dickason
- The Myth of the Savage and the Beginnings of French Colonization in the Americas by Dr. Olive Patricia Dickason
Special thanks to Greg Horn at Kahnawake News for reviewing, fact & cultural sensitivity checking the section of this blog related to the history of First Nations people in the Montreal area. Greg Horn is ioriwase on Twitter.