Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
July 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Folklore in Canada


[This article was written in the 1930's and published in 1948; for the precise citation, see the end of the document.]

Folklore in Canada consists of two elements; the folk tradition of the aboriginal peoples, Indians and Eskimo, and the intrusive folk tradition of the French and British races. The development of each has been, to a considerable extent, influenced by contact with the other. A great deal has been achieved in recording the folk tales of the Indians, Eskimo, and French Canadians; but little has been attempted in the fields of English and Gaelic folklore.


Among the French Canadians, much folklore is still current, and is still firmly believed by the country people.


Formerly the "conteur" or story-teller was a well-known and important personage. One of the most ancient of the primitive beliefs is that of buried treasure, a legend which exists in various forms all along the St. Lawrence from Gaspé to Quebec. A typical story is that of the gold buried by sailors at the foot of the Sauteux mountains and now guarded by the Little Gray Man. Gnomes and goblins frequently appear in the folklore of French Canada, and many stories of haunted houses and other places are current. Souls of the damned are often supposed to paddle a huge magic canoe through the air; those remiss in performing religious duties, while still alive, are transformed into various animals. In addition to those stories which concern some general belief, there are also many about specific characters such as Sleeping Beauty, Blue Beard, and Little Red Riding Hood.


Scotch Gaelic lore still exists in large sections of Nova Scotia , Cape Breton, and (to a lesser extent) in Glengarry county, Ontario. Witches and witchcraft are firmly rooted in the county of Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and in Cape Breton. Innumerable tales of haunting by animals can be collected throughout Nova Scotia ; while tales of people supposed to have bartered their souls to the devil for supernatural power, are by no means rare. The interaction of native and intrusive folklore is suggested by the resemblance between the Gaelic and Micmac Indian legends of how the haddock and the squirrel respectively acquired their stripes.


A large body of Indian lore still exists, although it has received numerous additions from contact with the whites.


The lore of Indians in Canada possesses the general characteristics of North American Indian folklore. This includes mythological tales concerning the world before assuming its present state. True creation myths are almost wholly lacking; but origin myths, often explaining some phenomenon in present-day life, are common. Glooscap, the man-god, known among the Indians of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland as well as elsewhere, is typical of the hero (in a world already assumed as existing) who was responsible for various aspects of culture, and for many changes in topography. A second class of legend is concerned with the pranks of a trickster who was either a buffoon or an animal endowed with human characteristic. Often the trickster is identified with the culture hero. A third class describes the life of human beings under conditions at least remotely resembling the present; they are, however, largely occupied with the marvellous and abound in transformations, magic, journeys to the other world, ogres, and beast marriages. The Eskimo are poor in explanatory myths and trickster tales; animal stories and accounts of monsters and pursuits occupy a large part of their mythology. The stories of the Alaskan natives, who have a passion for stories, are more sophisticated, more detailed, and more complete than those of the Copper Eskimo, in northern Canada in the vicinity of Coronation gulf. The stories of the Copper Eskimo bear a greater affinity to those recorded from Hudson bay and Baffin land than to those from Alaska . Unlike the Alaskans, the Copper Eskimo believe all their tales to be equally true.

See C. M. Barbeau, The field of European folk-lore in America (Journal of American Folk-Lore, April-June, 1919), Mabel Burkholder, Before the white man came (Toronto, 1923), F. O. Call, The spell of French Canada (Boston, 1926), D. Jenness, Myths and traditions from Northern Alaska, the Mackenzie delta and Coronation gulf (Report of the Canadian Arctic Expedition, 1913-18, vol. xiii), B. M. H. Shaw, The vanishing folklore of Nova Scotia (Dalhousie Review, vol. iii), Stith Thompson, Tales of the North American Indians (Harvard University Press, 1929).

Source  : W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. II, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 411p., pp. 357-358.


© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College