Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

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


Indians of Canada and of Quebec




[This text was written in 1948. For the full citation, see the end of the document.]


The aboriginal inhabitants of Canada were what are now known as "Indians" - a misnomer which was due to the mistaken belief of Columbus that he had in 1492 reached the Asiatic Indies rather than the West Indies [Today the term Amerindians is most frequently used.]. How long the Indians had been in America before the coming of Europeans is a matter of conjecture. Attempts have been made to prove that man reached America in inter-glacial times, since supposed traces of his occupation, such as worked flints and other remains, have been found in American inter­glacial deposits. There is no doubt that the American mastodons of inter-glacial times must have come from Asia by way of the land connection which once existed between Siberia and Alaska ; and if mastodons came, man may have come also. On the other hand, no con­clusive proof of the existence of man in America before the last glacial period has yet been found; and it is clear that, during this glacial period, man could not have existed in the northern part of the continent which now constitutes Canada .


From the time of the arrival of the first Europeans in America to the present, the origin of the Indians has been the subject of many speculations. The theory of Cotton Mather, a famous New England divine of the seventeenth century, was that they were an accursed race which the devil had inveigled to America to remove them "beyond the tinkle of the gospel bells." Other writers have maintained that they were the descendants of the lost tribes of Israel . More recently it was believed that the Indians were not the aboriginal inhabitants of America , but that they had been preceded by a race known as "the Mound Builders," who had built mounds found in many parts of America , typically in the Ohio valley. It is now known, however, that these mounds were built by the Indians themselves, and not by any prior race. The theory now held most widely by anthropologists is that the Indians were not indigenous to America , but that they emigrated from Asia . With the melting of the glaciers and the gradual retreat of the ice that marked the close of the Pleisto­cene age, bands of nomads must have pushed their way into north-eastern Asia in their constant search for new areas in which the food resources had not been depleted. At Bering strait, Asia and America are separated by only fifty miles of water, and it must have been by this means that the greatest flood of immigration into Amer­ica took place. The coast of Alaska is discernible on clear days from the Asiatic side, and natives to-day make their way in boats from one coast to the other, making use of the Diomede islands which lie midway between the two continents. It is probable that the migration continued for many thousands of years, since the Indians, lacking wheeled vehicles and beasts of burden, moved slowly. Moreover, because of the high development which was reached by the autochthonous cultures of cen­tral America, and because of the great diversity of linguistic stocks in aboriginal America , fifty-six occurring north of Mexico alone, and for kindred reasons, some writers have concluded that the migration to America began not less than fifteen thousand years ago. On the other hand, others would ascribe a much more recent date to the first migration of man into the western hemisphere.


Other theories tend to supplement rather than displace the Bering strait theory. For many years scientists toyed with the idea of a lost continent of Atlantis which might have served as a stepping-stone from Africa to America, but it is more probable that Atlantis had no existence outside of classical legend. Some writers, however, believe that [native Africans] made frequent voyages to America in ancient times, although the American Indians appear to reveal no traces of mixture with that stock. Others again hold that the civilizations of central America were derived from Egypt by means of trans-Pacific contacts, so similar were they in several respects. According to another theory, many parallels exist between the grammatical structure of the Melanesian languages of the East Indies and that of the Hokan group in California. These parallels have been cited in support of the theory of trans-Pacific contacts between the Old World and the New. Another group of scientists, approaching the problem from a different angle, have claimed to discover certain similarities between the Melanesian type of skull and that type found in parts of America, notably at Lagoa Santa in Brazil, and in southern California. Some have attempted to explain these American and Asiatic similarities by asserting that a vast archipelago once stretched across the southern Pacific, bridging the gap between. the two continents. It is said that Easter island, the closest of the Polynesian group to the American coast, is a remnant of this once large and populous archipelago, which was inhabited by a people who built the large monolithic statues still to be seen on the island. Other students of the subject maintain that this archipelago never existed, since in their opinion the ocean floor is slowly rising rather than falling. But it is not difficult to assume, even under existing geological conditions, that Asiatic peoples may have reached America by way of the Pacific, when it is remembered that the Polynesians sometimes made ocean voyages of over a thousand miles in open boats, and that, two thousand years ago, some adventurous Malay groups are said to have made their way across the Indian ocean to Madagascar.


However plausible many of these theories may be, it is certain that the American aborigines are closely akin in their physical features to the Mongoloid peoples of north-eastern Asia . Many of their cultural characteristics display a marked similarity, and the languages of some of the Indian groups, such as the Athapaskan and the [Inuit], are in certain respects not unlike Tibetan, Turkish, Magyar, and Finnish. It used to be thought that the [Inuit], who inhabit the northern fringe of the American continent, and who were found in historical times as far south as the gulf of St. Lawrence, were a race quite distinct from the Indians. But recent investigations have established the fact that they too are largely of Mongoloid stock and not sharply distinct from many of the neighbouring Indian groups. It is thought that the [Inuit] and the Athapaskan of the North-West Territories represent recent migrations from Asia; whereas the Siouans of the Plains, and the Iroquoians and Algonkians of the eastern woodland areas, were perhaps among the earliest peoples to enter America.


During the many thousands of years which elapsed between the first coming of the Indians to America and the arrival. of the Europeans, the Indians achieved in some parts of America a considerable civilization. The Peruvians, the Mayas, the Toltecs, and the Aztecs, of South and Central America, constructed magnificent stone buildings; they acquired the art of working the softer metals; they made elaborate and artistic pottery; they developed agriculture to a relatively high level; and they knew something of astronomy and surgery. But unlike the western European peoples who were closely connected by trade routes with Africa and Asia, the American aborigines were isolated in the western hemisphere from those important discoveries and inventions which permit a very high degree of civilization. They had no knowledge of the wheel and its uses; they did not learn how to make tools and weapons of iron and steel; fire-arms and paper were unknown to them; and they never acquired, save in a very elementary way,, the art of writing. As for the Indians of Canada, the material aspects of their culture were still relatively simple when the first white men reached America in the sixteenth century. Their clothing was made of the skins of animals, sometimes ornamented with beads or porcupine-quill designs; and feathers were sometimes worn on the head by persons of a certain status for ceremonial and other purposes. They had no metal implements, but used stone hatchets, gouges, chisels, and scrapers, and stone and flint spear and arrow heads, together with other tools and utensils of bone, wood, bark, and antler. Some peoples, such as the Ojibwa and the Indians of southern British Columbia, made excellent baskets, but pottery was generally made from thick clay, crudely when compared with the higher developments of the Old World . All the Indians lived on fruit, nuts, fish, and game animals which the country afforded. Some, such as the Iroquoian peoples, cultivated corn, or maize, beans, pumpkins, and squash extensively, the seeds of which


they planted in clearings in the forest. Wild rice was an important food among the Ojibwa of the Great lakes. The dwellings of the Indians varied from the permanent houses of solid lumber on the Pacific coast, the bark longhouse of the Iroquois, and the snow but of the Eskimo, to the conical skin tipi of the Plains and the dome-shaped bark lodge of the Montagnais. It was in the realm of transportation that they excelled. Their most important invention, when considered in the light of colonial history, was the birch-bark canoe, in which they travelled far and wide over the natural waterways of the country. They also invented the snowshoe, which enabled them to travel over the deep snow in winter.


The clan system of society prevailed among such peoples as the Iroquois and the Pacific coast Indians; but whereas the Iroquois were essentially democratic, the Pacific coast tribes knew nobles, commoners, and slaves. In the league of the Five Nations, the Iroquois attained a more efficient political organization than the nations of western Europe have ever been able to achieve. Other Indians, such .as those of Athapaskan and Algonkian stock, wandered about their territories in small bands of closely related families, and were generally without any clan organization. Polygamy was not uncommon among most of the Indian peoples. All possessed rich mythologies, and the curative, properties of herbs were well-known. Their art was generally confined to bead, porcupine-quill, or moose-hair embroidery, painting, and wood-carving. The totem pole art of the Pacific coast attained its greatest development under European stimulus in the nineteenth century. A considerable variety of religious beliefs prevailed among the Indians. In general it may be said that they personified the mysterious forces of nature which they sought to placate or control in order to ensure abundant food, general well-being, and to avert disasters. The next world was conceived of as an idealized replica of this. The "Great Spirit" and the "Happy Hunting Ground" were largely the imputation of Europeans.


At the time of European discovery, the Indians of Canada numbered about 220,000, whereas to-day there are about half that number. Linguistically, they were divided into eleven distinct stocks, six of which were confined to British Columbia alone. The most widely distributed were the Algonkian which included among others, the Micmac, Abnaki, Montagnais, Ojibwa, Cree, and Blackfoot; the Iroquoian, which included also the Hurons and the Neutrals; the Siouan, which was spoken by the Assiniboin; Athapaskan, which was the language of the Chipewyans, Slaves, Yellowknives, and others; and the Eskimo. Notable among those of British Columbia were the Salish, Haida; and Tsimshian.


The French Period.


When John Cabot sailed into the gulf waters of the St. Lawrence in 1497; he opened the period of contact with the Indians which has lasted to our own day, although it has been claimed, without complete authenticity, that the Basques, Bretons, and Normans preceded not only Cabot, but Columbus. The Norse voyages of the tenth century appear to have left no mark upon the cultures of the Indians in Canada . From 1504, the year of the first authentic French voyage, to 1534, when Cartier skirted the coasts of the gulf   of St. Lawrence, intermittent but not infrequent contacts were made by the fishermen with the eastern Indian bands. In 1535 Cartier encountered on the banks of the St. Lawrence a people of Iroquoian stock who have been variously supposed to be Mohawks, Onondagas, Hurons, or a related people who were later destroyed by the Five Nations Iroquois. When Champlain arrived at the St.. Lawrence in 1603, they had disappeared. Some writers believe that they themselves were representatives of the Five Nations and that they were driven out of the St. Lawrence valley by hostile Algonkians. The removal of these Iroquoians from the St. Lawrence enabled the French to found colonies from which they could prosecute the fur-trade, an industry which assumed great importance at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Beaver, the fur which was most highly prized by the Europeans, rapidly became depleted in the areas inhabited by the Indians who were nearest the French, with the result that these Indians became inter mediaries in the trade between the French and more remote peoples. The position of these intermediaries was made precarious by the Iroquois, who hoped to secure the fur-trade to the Dutch, and later to the English, rather than to the hostile French. With this purpose in view, they had all but destroyed the Algonkian and Huron allies of the French by the middle of the seventeenth century. Other forces were at work which tended to deplete the ranks of the Indians, not only those who were allied to the French, but the Iroquois themselves. These were the disrupting influences of European civilization.


The native crafts in stone, wood, and other materials were disrupted by the introduction of European iron and copper ware, particularly by the axe and the kettle. As the household arts had occupied so much of their time, the Indians were now committed to a life of enforced idleness, and lingered about the trading-posts when they were not hunting for furs. Trade and war became the major occupations of the men. War waged with European weapons rendered the - death rate high, and left many women without mates among their own kind. This in turn encouraged miscegenation with the European traders, which facilitated the spread of such diseases as syphilis, smallpox, tuberculosis, and measles; diseases probably unknown among the Indians prior to the coming England and France for the control of the continent. A division in the allegiance of the Five Nations Iroquois split the confederacy and resulted in the migration of large numbers to the vicinity of Montreal . The French were unable to prevent the encroachment of large numbers of English farmers into their fur-trading area on the Ohio , and the doom of the Indians of this area was sealed with the cession of Canada to the English in 1763.


The British Period, 1763-1830.


In colonial times each English colony had dealt independently with the Indians, but with the example of the successful Indian policy of the French before them, the British military authorities were constrained to appoint Sir William Johnson to deal with the Iroquois and other northern tribes. This policy was continued after the cession of Canada in 1763. The Indians were to be regarded as independent nations under the protection of the Crown, which, while recognizing their absolute political independence and their actual ownership of their lands, claimed for itself an option on the purchase of these lands. j Although no foreign state might buy, the occasion sometimes arose whereby subjects of the Crown encroached upon the domains of the Indians, as in the case of the Brantford reservation of the Iroquois in :the middle of the nineteenth century. Moreover, after the cession of Canada to the British, farmers pushed across the Ohio into the "Old North West" and established themselves on the hunting territories of the Seneca, Huron, and central Algonkian peoples. Treaty presents decreased in value, and the British officers who now occupied the posts accorded less dignity to the chiefs in political conferences than had been the custom of the French. Pontiac, chief of the Ottawa, believing that the French would again return to power in America, tried to get the tribes to abolish war among themselves and to turn their united energies against the English. Because, however, of an intrigue at Detroit, Pontiac failed to capture that strategic post, and his eventual failure was due to the fact that the various tribes would not stand together against the English.


The situation of the tribes in the "Old North West" was radically altered by the American War of Independence, after which this territory was ceded to the United States. The British, however, perhaps less because of pressure from their own fur-trading interests than of fear of trouble from the Indians, to whom the trade was still essential, retained their posts until 1796. Tecumseh, a chief of the Shawnese, began about this time to organize the tribes in a further attempt to oust the American farmers from the area between the Ohio river and the Great lakes. During the War of 1812 he was defeated by the American forces at the battle of Tippecanoe. This was the last attempt of the Indians of the "Old North West" to regain their status as hunters and traders. From that time onward, with the influx of white settlers, they were segregated on reservations, and as a consequence of so-called civilizing processes they suffered considerable degradation and tended to shrink in numbers. Some, such as the Iroquois whose territories lay both in Canada and the United States, retained the right to cross the international boundary at will.


While wars, migrations, and settlement, were radically altering the status of the Indians in the eastern woodland, the fur-trade continued to expand in the territories west of Hudson bay, and had, by the last decades of the eighteenth century, brought most of the Athapaskan peoples within the sphere of European influence. The rivalry between the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company, which had developed after the British conquest in 1763, in some respects favoured and in others injured the position of the western Indians with respect to the advantages to be secured by trade. The situation was altered by the amalgamation of the companies in 1821, and the general position of the Indians with respect to the company was one of debt peonage after that date, since they could no longer trade on the jealousy of the rival companies. Smallpox had spread to the Indians of the Canadian West in 1738, and David Thompson, a prominent fur-trader, noticed its ravages among the Cree in 1781. Disease, drunkenness, and social disruption played the same devastating part which was to be observed among the eastern Indians at an earlier period. Moreover, settlement began with the establishment of Lord Selkirk's colony on the Red river, and the old story of Pontiac and Tecumseh was re-enacted in the half-breed risings under Louis Riel, which are known in Canadian history as the North West Rebellions.


The acquisition of horses and firearms by the Plains Indians rapidly transformed their economic and political life, making them powerful and swift-moving warriors and hunters. In the latter sphere they attained to such proficiency that they seriously diminished their food-supply, which consisted largely of buffalo meat. Some of the British Columbian tribes also became expert horsemen, and have, up to the present time, been successful ranchers, whereas others, such as the Salish and Carrier bands of the interior, have failed to adapt themselves to an agricultural existence, and in consequence have declined rapidly. Of all the Canadian aborigines, the [Inuit] have resisted best the degradation inherent in the spread of European civilization, partly on account of their isolated position and partly on account of their great resourcefulness, although they too, have suffered depletion by the spread of disease.


The Canadian Period, 1830 -


In 1830 the administration of Indian affairs was transferred from the British military authorities to the provincial government. Not long afterwards Upper and Lower Canada began a systematic endeavour to educate the Indians, with the cooperation of the missionaries as to finances and system. It is claimed that their methods have been successful. and that many of the Indians are adapting themselves to the ways of modern Canadian life, although it is probable that all of these contained much white blood in their veins. Shortly after Confederation, the Dominion government extinguished the aboriginal title to the vast areas east of the Rocky mountains by annual gifts of cash, together with promises of assistance in agriculture and education, and the reservation system was extended to the Plains. In British Columbia no attempt to extinguish the Indian title has been made, but the provincial government has set aside reserves, and the Dominion government has followed the same policy there as on the prairies. The coastal Indians are an important labour factor in the fisheries of the Fraser and Skeena rivers. Both the western and eastern Indians have benefitted from the medical service extended to them by the Department of Indian Affairs, but in spite of this they have declined considerably and their future is uncertain. Doubtless all tribes will eventually disappear. The period of their greatest influence upon European civilization was probably in the seventeenth century. As one eminent authority has said, "Culturally they have already contributed everything that was valuable for our civilization beyond what knowledge we may still glean from their histories concerning man's ceaseless struggle to control his environment."




The most complete and authoritative work on the Canadian Indians to date is D. Jenness, The Indians of Canada (Ottawa, 1932). This book contains detailed information upon their origin and prehistoric migrations, upon all aspects of their culture. And upon their. interactions with the white race. The bulk of the material on the French period is contained in the seventy-three volumes of The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents , edited by R. G. Thwaites, and in the Champlain Society publications of the works of Champlain, Lescarbot, Denys, Dièreville and LeClercq. Additional material may be found in the Grand voyage au pays des Hurons of Sagard-Theodat, and in the Voyages of the Baron Lahontan , edited by R. G. Thwaites. Printed sources on the British period are less full, but much information may be gleaned from the chapters on Pontiac and Tecumseh in The American Indian Frontier by W. C. MacLeod, in F. Parkman's Conspiracy of Pontiac, and in the biographies of Pontiac, Joseph Brant, and Tecumseh, in the Chronicles of Canada series. The fur-trade of this and all other periods is covered thoroughly in H. A. Innis, The fur trade in Canada (New Haven, 1930). De Smet's Life, letters, and Travels (New York, 1905) is a valuable source of information on the Plains Indians; the articles of A. C. Parker, scattered through the volumes of the American Anthropologist, are authoritative with respect to the Iroquois, as are those of F. G. Speck on the Algonkians in the same publication. The works of Catlin and Petitot contain many points of interest not to be found elsewhere, and an article by D. C. Scott in The Book of Canada, published by the Canadian Medical Association in 1930, gives an outline of the Department of Indian Affairs in recent years. In 1915 the Manual of the Indians of Canada, under the editorship of J. White, was published as a supplement to the annual report of the Department of Marine and Fisheries. It is a full reference work, published in dictionary form, and is a reproduction of much of the information contained in Bulletin 30 of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution.

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Source: W. Stewart WALLACE, "Indians", in The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. 3, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 396p., pp. 257-264.



© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College