Indigenous history in Ottawa

What do we call the original people? Indians was eventually the common name that the English gave to the original or Indigenous peoples they encountered in what is now Canada (before, the French called the original people les savages). More common terms for Americans are Amerindian, American Indian, or American Native.

The term “First Nations” is a recent Canadian invention, from the early 1980s. While this is sometimes used as a general term, such as describing a person as being “of First Nations heritage,” the term is usually restricted to the more than 600 aboriginal or Indigenous groups across Canada that are registered under the Canadian government’s Indian Act. The First Nations in Canada are called “tribes” in the United States.

mural by Daphne Odjig

But Indigenous or aboriginal self-identity in Canada is wider than just the registered First Nations. There are many non-registered Indigenous people. There are also the ethnically separate Inuit in the Arctic and sub-Arctic, and the large population of Metis, a distinct culture that claims Indigenous identity and which developed from the intermarriage of European fur traders and Indigenous women during the three-century-long reign of the fur trade.

The name that Indigenous or aboriginal people in Canada most definitely do NOT want to be called is “Indians”, a term now associated with the long history of white domination, colonization and the marginalization of aboriginal peoples.

The 2015 report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, on the legacy of the Indian residential school system, uses “aboriginal” which is the term used in Canada’s 1982 Constitution Act: “In this Act, “aboriginal peoples of Canada” includes the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada.”

However, the acceptable term today in Canada is indigenous, (and it is usually capitalized, as in “Indigenous people”, just as one would normally capitalize English when referring to English people). The federal government has renamed its Aboriginal Affairs department to be the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs and so we will follow this practice in this blog post and use the term “Indigenous” as the general term for Canada’s aboriginal or Indigenous people.

(If you wonder where these words originate, both aboriginal and indigenous come from Latin words meaning native or original inhabitants.)

Aboriginal Life in the Ottawa Area

When the French explorer Samuel de Champlain traveled up the Ottawa River in 1613 the Indigenous people in the eastern boreal forest ranged from semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers to semi-permanent farming settlements of various sizes. The Algonquins of the Ottawa Valley shared the same material culture and lifestyle (groups of usually about 20 individuals living in wigwams covered with bark) of the Indigenous people that the French had encountered along the St. Lawrence River valley and the Atlantic coast. Just to the south, the Iroquois and Huron, lived in longhouses in semi-permanent settlements for large parts of the year, where they practiced agriculture. There was, however, one major Algonquin village in the Ottawa Valley which grew crops, upriver at what is now called Morrison’s Island, near Pembroke.

Indigenous camps were generally along rivers because travel along river networks using that genius Indigenous technology, the birchbark canoe, was the easiest and quickest way to travel and transport goods through the eastern woodlands and sub-Arctic of North America. And rivers also provided the opportunity to catch fish, which were probably the major source of protein in most Indigenous diets. Hunting game was common but depended on seasonal availability.

With rivers as the highways through the forest, where several rivers came together, or where rapids or falls interrupted travel forcing a portage to walk or drag cargo around the falls, these became natural sites for Indigenous camps.

Ottawa was such a natural meeting place, with tributary rivers flowing into the Ottawa from the south and north and a 17 meter (50 foot) falls situated just to the west of where Parliament Hill is now, where the Ottawa River spills over a limestone ridge. (These falls are much less spectacular now, having been dammed in 1910 to provide power for a paper mill on the Quebec side of the river.)

This was an obvious and natural stopping place for an encampment, a place for gatherings with kinship groups from outside your immediate area and a convenient place to challenge strangers traveling through your territory, where there could be opportunities to levy tolls and to trade, and the chance to satisfy normal human curiosity.

When Champlain arrived at what would eventually become Ottawa, he named the falls “Chutes de la Chaudière” (which translates into English as Kettle or Cauldron Falls) as the rising mists from the whirlpool at the bottom of the falls looked like steam rising from a kettle.

This is a translation of Champlain’s own description “the water falls with such violence upon a rock, that, in the course of time, there has been hollowed out in it a wide and deep basin, so that the water flows round and round there and makes, in the middle, great whirlpools. Hence, the savages call it Asticou, which means kettle. This waterfall makes such a noise that it can be heard for more than two leagues off.”

The aboriginal people saw much more than a kettle. In a place where “Kichi Sibi” (“Great River” in the Algonquin language), the source of much of their food and the focus of Indigenous life, showed such drama, the whirlpool below the waterfall was seen as the bowl of a pipe, and its mists imagined as smoke rising to the Creator.

Here is how Champlain describes an Algonquin ceremony he witnessed in 1613:
“Having carried their canoes to the foot of the falls, they assembled at one place where one of them with a wooden plate takes up a collection, and each one of them places in this plate a piece of tobacco… the plate is placed in the middle of the group, and all dance about it, singing in their fashion; then one of the chiefs makes a speech, pointing out that for a long time they have been accustomed to making this offering, and that by this means they are protected from their enemies…the speaker takes the plate and throws the tobacco into the middle of la chaudière [kettle] and they make a great cry all together.”

(While tobacco in the eyes of Europeans and up to modern times has been viewed as a pleasant vice, an industry and more recently as a health hazard, it had a different dimension in traditional North American Indigenous culture, tobacco was a sacred plant and important sacrament).

Below the Chaudiere Falls, on the north side of the Ottawa River, across from Parliament Hill, where the Museum of History stands now, there was an easy slope to access the river and high, dry woodland behind it. Here, Champlain found the Indigenous encampment and burial ground.

The consensus of expert opinion is that this site by the Canadian Museum of History was used sporadically as far back as 5000 years ago. The earliest artifacts found in the Ottawa valley, stone lances or spear points, date from about 8000 years ago.

And before humans lived here?

Long before Champlain’s arrival 400 years ago, a long time before, 15,000 years ago, towards the end of the last Ice Age, the Ottawa Valley still lay under the vast ice sheet that for more than 80,000 years had covered almost all of Canada and reached as far south down into Pennsylvania. Here in Ottawa, the ice sheet was probably several kilometers (over a mile) thick before the Ice Age started to retreat.

By 12,000 years ago, the melting ice had created an inland sea in the Ottawa Valley where the enormous weight of the ice sheet had depressed the earth’s crust. At first, this Champlain Sea was brackish meltwater covering an area running from the Eardley Escarpment that can be seen just north of Parliament Hill, hundreds of kilometers to the west, and south and east as far as the Adirondacks. After a thousand years, when the retreating ice sheet had retreated far enough to open the Saint Lawrence Valley to the Atlantic Ocean, the Champlain Sea became an inlet of the ocean. The water level then was about 150 meters (450 feet) higher than the Ottawa River is now, and the Champlain Sea was home to whales, seals and various types of saltwater fish.

The legacy of this ancient inland sea can be seen in the older Ottawa neighbourhood of Sandy Hill. It sits on the hill that rises behind Ottawa’s Lowertown, just to the east of the Rideau Canal. Sandy Hill was the first well-to-do neighbourhood in Ottawa, home to several Canadian Prime Ministers in the early 1900s. Not only is Sandy Hill a hill, it is also very sandy, below a few feet of soil and clay there is almost pure sand, a giant sandbar created by the ancient Champlain Sea.

By 10,000 years ago, the earth’s crust was rising and the Champlain Sea had mostly drained away. It then took several thousand years for forests of first spruce and then white pine to gradually colonize the area. Following that, between 8000 and 3500 years ago, these spruce and pine forests were succeeded by the mixed forests of hemlock, white pine and hardwoods. This was the type of forest that the Europeans found when they arrived in this area 400 years ago, although the trees were much larger than what we now see after more than a hundred years of logging in the 1800s stripped the Valley of all commercially valuable lumber.

From archeology sites up and down the Ottawa Valley, there is evidence that the Indigenous people in these eastern woodlands were using ceramic containers for cooking as early as 2500 years ago.

While hunting and fishing was a major source of protein, many of the woodland tribes were farmers. Companion planting of the “three sisters” corn, squash and beans, was done on land cleared by slash-and-burn. After 8-10 years, the fields were left to recover and new land was cleared.

Bows and arrows were used for hunting, having succeeded the spears and javelins used by the first people. These later woodland dwellers had developed the technology to heat copper (which they obtained by trade with aboriginal groups around Lake Superior) and could shape the metal using stone tools to produce a variety of tools and ornaments.

The original people had developed far-ranging trade networks to source highly-prized different types of stone. Tools and blades have been found in the Ottawa Valley made from stone from as far away as the western end of Lake Ontario, from northern Labrador, from the Hudson Bay lowlands and from central Quebec.

An early European account of Indigenous trading on the Ottawa River noted there was trade “chiefly in cornmeal, sunflower oil, furs and skins, rugs and mats, tobacco, and medicinal roots and herbs.”

The Indigenous people who moved into and through the Ottawa area in the centuries before contact with whites called themselves Anishinabe (the plural is Anishinaabeg). The Indigenous groups in the Ottawa Valley were eventually called “Algonquin” by the French, and this is the name that is commonly used today. But this is really because Europeans insisted they be identified as different tribes, analogous to the national identities of nation states that Europeans invented as a result of their religious wars in the mid-1600s.

The clan was the primary identifier for the Anishinabe. If one was asked who they were, they would say first they were a member of the Beaver, or Crane, Catfish, Bear or Cat, or some other totemic identity. Band identity was secondary and much weaker. The different bands each had their own chief, who depended on political approval from each of the band’s clan leaders.

These clans are part of a much larger Anishinabe heritage, comprised of a number of tribal groups who all speak related and usually mutually intelligible Algonquin languages.

According to Anishinabe tradition, their people migrated from the eastern areas of North America, and from along the East Coast. In old stories, the homeland was called Turtle Island. This comes from the idea that the universe, the Earth, or the continent of North America are all sometimes understood as being the back of a great turtle, a mysterious natural consciousness. The Anishinabe oral history considers their peoples as descendants of the Abenaki people and refers to them as the “Fathers”. Another Anishinabe oral history considers the Abenaki as descendants of the Delaware, thus refers to them as “Grandfathers”.

The Anishnabe homeland covered a territory that stretched from the Atlantic coast through the Great Lakes to beyond Lake Superior and down into the Mississippi system. This huge area was shared with other aboriginal groups, the main group in the area north of Lake Ontario and below the Cree homeland of the far north were the more numerous Huron or Wyandot people, a confederacy of four tribes that was centered between Georgian Bay and Lake Simcoe having migrated from the northern shore of Lake Ontario in the early 1500s.

The Hurons were linguistically and culturally related to the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy of the Five Nations (later the Six Nations), who lived to the east of the Great Lakes in what is now New York State and Pennsylvania.

Life before the Europeans was never static. Indigenous peoples were often nomadic, even if semi-permanent camps were kept in one location for many years. Social cohesion was maintained by the strong totem/clan system.

Balancing this, linguistic boundaries and cultural groups were fluid and often intermixed. Smaller groups were sometimes welcomed into or absorbed by larger groups.

Relationships between groups was also complex and fluid, usually about sustaining alliances and managing rivalries. If conflict could not be avoided, the weaker group would often choose to migrate to avoid contact with their rivals. When conflict could not be managed or negotiated, warfare would break out.

As is common everywhere, disputes and blood feuds could be long running, and span generations. Compared to today, the lack of guns and modern weaponry meant that physical conflict was more personal and could be very brutal. Often, the most valuable booty from warfare were captives, especially children, who could be taken and raised by the victorious group.

In the eastern woodlands of Canada and the northern United States, the arena where the British and French empires clashed, there were two large, competing and historically hostile alliances, the Huron and Algonquin alliance stretching from the Great Lakes to the Gaspe and north to the sub-Arctic, and the five-nation (later six-nation) Iroquois Confederacy centered in northern New York state and Pennsylvania.

The coming of the white man

News of the Europeans arrival at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in the early 1500’s would have spread through the trading networks into the interior, these strange white visitors and their metal implements, their guns (the smoking sticks that could kill at a distance). These Europeans kept wanting to talk about their search for something called “gold” but they also seemed intent to trade their strange material goods and odd clothes for fur pelts, especially beaver.

So, who exactly was first? The first European… that is. The quasi-official narrative says it was Christopher Columbus in 1492, followed by John Cabot in 1497. However, there are accounts of Basque and Breton fishermen reaching the New World as much as a century before. The Basque whalers claim that they originally pursued whales across the Atlantic and came upon the rich cod fishery on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. By the time of Columbus, these trips to the New World were apparently routine, drawn there by whaling and especially the rich cod fishing.

Following the news of Columbus and Cabot’s discoveries, the Portuguese in the first quarter of the 1500’s scouted the coast of the New World from Hudson Strait down to New England, looking for opportunities for plunder or trade. They found none but were excited for a short time at the possibility of the Indigenous Americans becoming a source of slaves. The Portuguese brought several boatloads of captives home to Portugal.

Transporting Indigenous Americans to Europe as slaves obviously didn’t work out, but not for want of trying. It flopped probably because the captives died after being brought to Europe where they were exposed to the pathogens incubated in European animal husbandry (chickens, sheep and cows).

The draw to the New World for Europeans continued in their search for a way to reach the riches of China and the East. The urgency of this search was helped along by the tales of vast wealth plundered by the Spanish in their conquest of Mexico in 1520. This was a powerful draw to bring Europeans to explore other parts of the New World, hoping for the same quick and lucrative reward. French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1534 is the best-known example.

But there were other more immediate draws in the New World. The rich cod fishery in Terranuova continued to draw more and more French, Basque and Portuguese fishermen. The Basques were also drawn by the bowhead and right whales which feasted on the zooplankton in the cold Arctic waters off Labrador and Newfoundland.

These informal contacts by European fishermen and whalers who established seasonal camps along the coasts began to have a significant impact. These fishermen traded with Indigenous groups for furs and animal skins. There was a growing marker in Europe for these furs. During the 1500’s, beaver pelts were becoming highly prized in Europe as the beaver fur could be felted to make waterproof hats. And a secretion from the beaver anal glands was used for its medicinal properties and for perfumes.

(Looking back from today’s vantage point, it was the fur trade and the cod fishery, these two lucrative industries, that for the next 250 years drew Europeans to fight over, develop and settle what would later become Canada.)

The European explorers continued for some time to hold out hope of finding a passage to China (Champlain named the rapids he encountered at Montreal La Chine, hoping them to be the way to find a route through to China) but the Europeans were becoming more and more intent on trading for fur pelts, especially the prized beaver.

When European incursions into the interior of North America began in earnest in the early 1600s, contact with the white strangers had already had an impact. The Micmac along the Atlantic coast had obtained enough metal weapons from their trade with Europeans that they had displaced the native Iroquoians from the Gaspe region.

Further up the St. Lawrence River valley, in the early 1500s Jacques Cartier had found Iroquoian-speaking villages at Quebec City and Montreal but when Champlain arrived 80 years later, these groups had been driven out by an alliance of Algonquin, Montagnais (Innu) and Malecite.

In 1603, Champlain encountered a mixed group of Algonquin, Montagnais and Malecite warriors at a seasonal trading post at Tadoussac, at the mouth of the Saguenay River where it empties into the Saint Lawrence River. These warriors were celebrating a victory over the St. Lawrence Iroquois.

The Algonquin warriors were led by Chief Tessouat and had come all the way from their encampment at Morrison’s Island on the Ottawa River (upriver from Ottawa near the present town of Pembroke, this was the largest and most permanent Algonquin village on the Ottawa River).

Tadoussac itself, at the mouth of the Saguenay, had developed in a few decades as  the trading post where the French could trade directly with the Innu from the interior of Quebec. The Innu, in turn, bartered trade goods for furs from the Cree farther inland in the sub-Arctic up to James Bay and Hudson Bay. This pattern would repeat itself over the coming centuries, eventually stretching across to the Pacific and north to the Arctic Ocean. The European traders establishing trade with one group who then drew more remote tribes into the trading network, until the European traders in their voracious appetite for more furs pushed farther inland, often invited by the tribes in the hinterland who wanted the advantage of trading directly with the Europeans.

When Champlain eventually tried to travel up the Ottawa River in 1613, he was stopped at Morrison’s Island near present-day Pembroke where the Algonquins clearly dissuaded him from traveling any further. They were determined to prevent the French from developing their own relationship with groups further into the hinterland, and counted on demanding tribute from aboriginal traders who passed through their territory.

(The Anishinabe word “odawa” means trader and is the word from which the name Ottawa derives.)

To the Indigenous people, the Europeans at first were hardly seen as a threat. The Europeans arrival in their territory in the 1500s and attempts to establish permanent settlements had been marked by starvation and a shocking ignorance of how to survive on the land. The Indigenous groups probably saw the Europeans more as an opportunity. The different and exotic material goods of the Europeans would be highly prized as items to trade and the Europeans might be useful allies to impress and ally with them against rival tribes.

Indigenous societies were dynamic and used to adaptation to times of plenty and times of scarcity. European trade goods were highly prized, but it is important to understand that Indigenous peoples initially neither feared nor felt inferior to these European visitors. They were an opportunity to be exploited.

That seems to be how the Hurons saw the French. The Hurons had been in conflict with the Iroquois Confederacy in the century before in the area now known as West Virginia. In 1609, one of the Huron chiefs, when learning of the French arrival in Quebec, traveled from the Huron home territory to Quebec to make an alliance with the French.

As for the French, they saw themselves in competition for beaver pelts with the English and Dutch along the Atlantic coast, and were intent on securing access to the aboriginal groups that had the best access to beaver. The Algonquin were promising but the more numerous Huron seemed to also provide a better opportunity and Champlain cemented an alliance with the Huron in 1614.

A very vivid portrayal of this Indigenous world of the 1600s in what is today Ontario, during the first decades after the arrival of the French, can be found in ‘The Orenda”, the 2013 novel by Indigenous author Joseph Boyden. This Canadian masterpiece is highly recommended.

The expansion of the fur trade

From there, everything began to change during the next hundred years during the 1600’s. Contact with the French and the Dutch, (who had established a trading post at present-day Albany, New York in 1634) established the fur trade, and this almost certainly intensified the competition between the Indigenous tribes.

The tribes who made original contact with the French, the Anishinabe and the Hurons, became natural partners, employees and allies with the French. These groups both traded for furs on their own account and the Indigenous men were hired as guides as the French pushed further afield in their voracious search for furs. The Anishinabe women (as well as other aboriginal groups) began to intermarry with fur traders and trappers and their descendants would eventually form a Métis culture.

From free agents known as couriers de bois, to the voyageurs regulated by the French colonial government, the French pushed farther and farther into the interior of North America, as can be seen in the plethora of French names throughout the Great Lakes and westward, in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, and through the Ohio River valley down through the Mississippi system.

While this was going on, the Iroquois Confederacy established their own trading ties with the Dutch and later the English.

There seems to be a scholarly consensus (some might call it a stereotype, as the truth is usually more complex) that the adaptation by the Indigenous groups to the French in the 1600s and 1700s was probably less disruptive than the English. The French were mainly trappers and traders and more likely to intermarry with aboriginal women, while the English were settlers and took the land from the Indigenous inhabitants of the country.

Certainly, there were immediate, negative consequences from contact with Europeans in general by the mid-1600s – (1) disease and (2) the use of European firearms to scale up intergroup conflict and wage war as devastation, ethnic cleansing, and resource capture.

The immediate impact on the Huron Confederacy is a good example. From a population estimated as high as 40,000 at first contact with the Europeans in the early 1600s, European diseases like smallpox had within 25 years reduced their population to 12,000. (This was more accidental than planned, unlike the British’s army distribution to Indigenous tribes a century later of smallpox-infected blankets.)

The population loss of the Huron from disease was followed by a savage and bloody conflict called the Beaver Wars, a campaign by the Iroquois Confederacy to expand their territory and monopolize the fur trade. Beginning in the 1640s, after the Dutch traders began supplying them with firearms, the Iroquois used scorched earth tactics, destroying Huron villages along with villages of other tribes like the Shawnee and Susquehannock, across Pennsylvania, the Ohio valley, lower Michigan and southern Ontario. The entire Michigan Peninsula was emptied of people. Entire populations were scattered and displaced, as the survivors of these tribes fled westward and southward.

A large number of the Huron were taken captive by the Iroquois and many of these were eventually integrated into Iroquois tribes, especially the Seneca. The remnants of the Huron split into two groups, one fled to the far side of Lake Michigan, the other sought sanctuary and protection from the French at Quebec and established a settlement there. In less than 50 years, they had gone from being the largest aboriginal group in southern Ontario to almost disappearing.

A key reason for the dispersal of the Huron was the effect of the Jesuit missionaries in the 16 years before the dispersal in 1649. Religious fanatics, the Jesuit were determined to convert the Huron and split the Huron villages into Christian and traditional factions. The Jesuit also tried to insulate the Huron from interactions with the French settlers in Quebec and insisted that the French only supply guns to the Christian Huron. Together with the loss of population from European diseases, the Huron society was unable to fend off the Iroquois.

The colonial period

The impact of the French fur trade on the Algonquin people was substantial, but their clan-based social structure was adaptable to this trade. Hunting, fishing and trapping were traditional activities and small family groups were able to travel their lands, trap furs, and exchange these furs for French trade goods within the traditional context of their social order.

Obviously, these hunting, fishing and trapping patterns would have been altered, but they were engaged in on traditional lands, by loosely organized bands. At the same time, hunting, fishing, and trapping boundaries were expanded by increased demand, putting bands in contact with other Algonquin people. While there is no question that these changes might have posed challenges or caused conflict, the Canadian shield was a remote region, with a small population.

Many Indigenous families along the Ottawa River had adapted to a seasonal migration pattern of trapping in the woods during the winter, and in summer traveling to the Roman Catholic missions at either Oka, close to Montreal, or at Trois Rivieres.

Besides the draw of trading their fur pelts, it is worth noting that the Indigenous people were assiduously courted by the Catholic missionaries. As it did elsewhere in the Americas, the church went to some length to adapt its message and align its appeal to the Indigenous worldview.

Much more than the competition for territory and furs, the Indigenous people were very much players, allies and combatants in the larger and ongoing colonial war between the French and English in North America.

The British fur trade extended west from Albany to the Great Lakes, then into the same country that French fur traders exploited – and lands that France claimed as its own. The British also opened a second route to the West through Hudson’s Bay with the chartering of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670.

France and Britain were involved in this hard fought colonial war along a front that extended from western Pennsylvania along the frontier to Quebec and into the Atlantic Provinces.

This conflict between two European empires lasted in North America for over a century. There were seven periods of open hostilities, and the European armies depended on, were enabled by, and worked hard to involve their Indigenous allies in what was often a brutal and grinding conflict. The aboriginal groups were active participants in this, seeking to exploit their opponents weakness and gain whatever advantage they could. The depredations on both European and Indigenous settlements, including non-combatants, were severe and unremitting.

The ongoing conflict with the English meant that the Iroquois, allies to the British, came marauding into traditional Algonquin territory, through the Great Lakes region and well up into the Canadian shield, the shores of Georgian Bay, around Lake Nipissing and along the Ottawa River.

This forced many of the Algonquins in the Ottawa River to either hide in the woods or to move east, to Oka, and the protection of the French in Montreal. The French had already drawn some Mohawk and other Iroquois Catholic converts to Oka (which the Mohawks called Kanesatake), and they were joined by the seasonal migration of Algonquins from the Ottawa Valley and Lake Nipissing area.

These hostilities finally ended a century later with the defeat of the French at the end of the Seven Years War (known in North America as the French and Indian War), in 1763. The French crown ceding almost all of their North American territories, known as Nouveau France, except for the Louisiana Territory and a few small islands off the Newfoundland coast.

The influx of settlers and the lumber trade

Within 20 years of the takeover of Nouveau France by the British in 1763, the American Revolution was completed, followed by the influx of Loyalist settlers who fled northwards across the Saint Lawrence River in order to remain under British rule.

In 1783, the British government appears to haven chosen to ignore the Algonquins in the lower Ottawa Valley and purchased parts of eastern Ontario from an Ojibwe chief located near Lake Ontario. This began the loss of Algonquin territory to individual land sales and encroachment by settlers moving into the valley.

This was followed 20 years later by the Napoleonic Wars in the first decades of the 1800s, which spurred the creation of the lumber industry in British North America. At the same time, the new American government was forcing aboriginal people out of the Ohio Valley and Michigan Peninsula and many of these Algonquin people came north to settle with their related kin around Lake Huron.

The Napoleonic Wars were still ongoing when Britain and the United States fought the War of 1812-15. The end of this conflict led to British effort afterward to increase settlement, and invest in fortifications, such as the Rideau Canal, to prepare against future American incursions.

The Indigenous population was continually forced to go further afield by this ongoing encroachment and displacement. Looked at from today’s perspective, it was willful theft of aboriginal land.

The worse blow occurred when the British in 1822 were able to induce the Ojibwe living near Kingston on Lake Ontario to sell most of what remained of the traditional Algonquin land in the Ottawa Valley. Whether the aboriginal signatories knew what they were signing, and whether they had any authority to sign on behalf of the Algonquin are questions that don’t seem to be part of the historical record.

The building of the Rideau Canal, from 1826-32, especially changed forever the rhythm and pattern of Indigenous life in the Ottawa Valley.  It brought in thousand of workers, many of whom stayed on as settlers. The hunting and trapping, which was the economic basis of Indigenous life, was displaced and pushed well back into the wilderness.

The Indigenous land was surveyed into townships and either settled or taken possession of by squatters. The operations of the lumbermen reached into a still broader area than just settlement, frightening away game.

By the 1840s, lumbering was moving into the heart of the Algonquin territory in the Upper Ottawa Valley.  Aware of the threat, the Algonquins petitioned the government for help and eventually were given two protectorates or reserves in the Lower Ottawa Valley (what are called reservations in the United States). The closest is Kitigan Zibi, at Maniwaki (Algonquin for “Mary’s Land”) 135 kilometers (85 miles) north of Ottawa in Quebec, established in 1853. The second is Pikwakanagan, at Golden Lake, 145 km (90 miles) west of Ottawa, established in 1873.

Not all Algonquin people settled on these two reserves. Some found security deep in the bush, where they could operate trap lines and obtain seasonal work in the woods just as their settler neighbours did. There are several groups of these, perhaps one of the best organized is the Ardoch First Nation, 155 kilometers (95 miles) southwest of Ottawa, spread across Frontenac and Lanark counties at the headwaters of the Madawaska and Mississippi River systems.

Another group of Algonquin settled in the Pembroke area and in the last 30 years has started to assert its right to participate in any land claim negotiation.

After Confederation in 1867

Following Confederation, the new Canadian federal government passed an Indian Act in 1876, to fulfill its mandate under the 1867 Constitution which gives the federal government the responsibility for “Indian” matters. This legislation, amended several times, continues to govern how the Indian bands that are recognized (that have “status”), are governed and how membership is determined.

The 1876 Indian Act was and is a pernicious document. Among other indignities to what we today see as basic human rights, the Indian Act outlawed traditional Indigenous religion and governance, denied Indigenous people the vote, and made them subject to the personal decisions of individual bureaucrats, such as requiring a pass to leave the Indian Reserve. In stark terms, the Indian Act made it illegal to be Indigenous.

Looking at the history of the federal government’s actions in the Canadian prairies, which were transferred to Canada by Great Britain in 1870, a region where traditional Indigenous peoples were not yet disrupted by settler activity, the next 40 years saw the settlement of the prairies with the coming of the railroad, tribes were confined to reserves, and often subjected to starvation and lack of medical attention. It was a shameful period in Canadian history.

The Indian Act’s original language authorized the arbitrary removal and relocation of Reserve lands. For greater certainty, amendments to the Act in 1927 made it illegal for First Nations peoples and communities to hire lawyers or bring about land claims against the government without the government’s consent.

As part of this federal government’s management of Indigenous affairs and people, the Indian Act authorized a system of residential schools that were established with the explicit goal of erasing “Indian” culture. This system was in place for more than a century. Indian children as young as age 5 were sometimes forcibly removed and sent to these schools where they were forbidden to speak their language. It is estimated that about 150,000 children went through this system and about 6,000 died.

The conditions at the residential schools were horrific and the Government seemed determined to ignore them. Enforcing schooling of Indigenous children was justified as in the name of assimilation, a “final solution of (Canada’s) Indian problem”.

A 1907 report on conditions at the residential schools in western Canada by the government’s chief medical officer was very damming, a death rate of almost 50 per cent after three years, almost all due to tuberculosis, a disease that spread rapidly among malnourished children in crowded classrooms and dormitories.

The report called the state of the schools a “national crime” and demanded “equitable health care to Indians,” a plea that was ignored by the government. The report was suppressed until the doctor self-published it in 1922.

Apart from the horrific health conditions, the residential school system is now termed a cultural genocide, the impact of the residential school system on Indigenous communities, through the alienation of children from their language and elders (and from a sense of self), and the contribution of this to the significantly higher rates of suicide, drug abuse and family breakdown in the Indigenous community has been an increasing focus over the past 20 years.

The federal government issued a formal apology in 2008 at the start of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission process. The Commission reported in 2015 and implementation of its recommendations is now ongoing. The focus of the move “from apology to action” is to educate the wider Canadian society about the need for reconciliation and healing.

If we look across eastern Canada today, the Mohawk are the Indigenous tribe who have fared better than most in remaining intact after four centuries of contact with Europeans. The Mohawk dislike the apartheid-like Indian Act as much as anyone, but their larger populations on reserve have enabled them to maintain their language and provide primary schooling. Secondary schooling has been at high schools in nearby towns where the students from the reserves have attended as day students and were not subjected to the residential schools.


This brings us to today. Ottawa the city, as Canada’s federal capital, has a significant number of Indigenous Canadians living here who come from all parts of Canada. Many of them are middle-class, work in the federal bureaucracy and in national Indigenous organizations. There is also a significant Inuit community who are here for the same reasons and because modern Ottawa with its air service to Baffin Island is where Nunavut residents come for medical services. Indigenous people are like many Canadians, gradually moving from rural areas to the cities, attracted by schooling, access to services, and the excitement of going to the shopping malls and other attraction of city life.

In conclusion, I think it important to recognize that Parliament Hill and the entire Ottawa Valley remains unceded Algonquin land. And that below and upriver from Parliament Hill at Chaudiere Falls was a significant Indigenous spiritual site. The  word Ottawa is from an Algonquin word meaning “trader”, this side of the Ottawa River is in the province of Ontario, which is from an Iroquois word meaning “sparkling”, across the river is the province of Quebec, from an Algonquin word meaning “where the river narrows”, and this country called Canada is from an Iroquoian word meaning “settlement”.

The fur trade initially brought the Europeans to this past of the New World. The fur trade relied on Indigenous participation and technology, and increased trade and involvement between Indigenous groups and the Europeans. It also introduced foreign diseases that decimated Indigenous society, introduced European weapons and contributed to the devastating warfare that for more than a century laid waste to many of the Indigenous groups in eastern Canada.

In the Ottawa valley, the fur trade was followed in the early 1800s by the lumber trade which changed the environment in very profound ways, brought in European settlers by the thousands and largely marginalized the remaining Indigenous population.

This remains the situation that exists today, one which Canadian society is still coming to terms with.

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