Linguistic History of Canada

First Nations

Terminology Problems

Prior to the European invasion, there were small pockets of indigenous peoples spread all across the land that is today Canada. Native history goes back at least 12 millennia, yet is conspicuously absent from most school textbooks, which generally associate early Canadian history with the arrival of Jacques Cartier in 1534.

While aboriginal peoples had long inhabited all regions of the country, they tended to be concentrated in pockets along the rivers and bays of the British Columbia coast, all around the Great Lakes in Ontario, in the St. Lawrence River Valley in Québec, and along the Maritimes coastline. The land was very sparsely populated, with communities living mostly in semi-permanent villages. Some anthropologists estimate aboriginal populations in the early 16th century, before the Europeans arrived, at approximately 1.5 million in all of North America. In Canada alone, that number was nearly 300,000. So Canada was not the "vast deserted region" Europeans believed it to be in the 16th century. But over 200 to 300 years of contact with the white man, diseases such as smallpox, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, and measles, combined with armed conflict and famine, decimated a large part of the population.

Indians, Red Indians, or Savages

From coast to coast to coast, the northern part of North America—what was to become Canada—was inhabited by peoples the European explorers, in their ignorance, called Indians. Believing they had landed in India, they misnamed the natives Indians. Later, the French also referred to the aboriginal peoples as Indiens or Sauvages, the latter term only falling out of favour in the 20th century.

The term Red Indians was long used in reference to the aboriginals, who in turn called the Europeans Pale-faces. According to historians, it is possible that the term Red Indians was coined after the habit of the Newfoundland Beothuks of painting their bodies with red ochre. Given that the Beothuks were among the first native peoples the Europeans encountered in Canada, this practice could explain the use of the term to apply to all the aboriginal peoples in North America.

Indigene and Aborigine

Other more generic terms such as indigene and aborigine have also been used over the years. The word indigene (from the latin indigena) was used both as a noun and adjective by 15th century Europeans to refer to individuals belonging to ethnic groups in foreign countries prior to their colonization. As for the term aborigine, from the latin plural aborigenes or "name of the people," derived from indigena or ab origine ("from the origin") in the 15th century, it referred to a native person whose ancestors were considered to have been at the origin of the settlement. However, today the term aborigine tends to be used strictly in reference to Australia's indigenous peoples ("the aborigines of Australia").

In South America, the official terms used to refer to the native peoples of a country (in Spanish or Portuguese) are Indio (singular) or Indios (plural), Indígena(singular) or Indígenas (plural), Comunidade indígena (singular) or Comunidades indígenas (plural), occasionally grupo tribal (tribal group), and lesscommonly nativos (natives). The term that appears most frequently in legal texts is certainly Indio/Indios. These terms are sometimes used in apposition to civilizados.

Aboriginal and Native Peoples
Aboriginal People

In Canada, the preferred terms for "Indians" are aboriginal or—more generically—native peoples. Certain aboriginal peoples on Québec's Lower North Shore and Labrador refer to themselves as Innu ("man" or "human"). However, most native peoples prefer to go by the name of their nation: Naskapi, Ottawa, Mohawk, Nipissing, Ojibwa, Cree, Salish, Tlinkit, etc.

The Canadian Constitution (1982) recognizes the existence of three main native groups in Canada: First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. Since the 1970s, Canadians have used the expression First Nations to designate peoples previously known as "North American Indians," that is, any native peoples who are neither Inuit nor Métis. Today, Canada's native peoples speak some fifty different languages, most of which are spoken nowhere else in the world.

Origins of the Native Peoples

At the beginning of the Ice Age, 100,000 years ago, virtually the entire northern part of the North American continent was covered with ice. But by the time the Europeans began colonization—episodically from the 10th century and more systematically by the 16th—the continent was already inhabited. The exact date of the arrival of indigenous peoples in Canada is unknown, but archaeological discoveries have revealed that eastern Canada has been inhabited for nearly 12,000 years, while other parts of the continent, like the Yukon, that were not affected by glaciation were first inhabited over 30,000 years ago. However, ice covered most of Canada up to 10,000 years before our time, which is why it is generally agreed that native peoples did not occupy Canada until that period.

Asian Migration

There is much speculation about the actual origins of the native peoples, and scientists have advanced a number of possible theories.

Mongloid migration

© Jacques Leclerc

One of the most widespread hypotheses suggests that small groups of hunters from tribes in Mongolia and Siberia emigrated from Asia via the Bering Strait (named after Vitus Behring, a Danish navigator, working for the Russians, who explored the region in 1728).

Its proponents believe that at that time sea levels were very low, resulting in a partial drying of the strait and creating a land bridge about 1,000 kilometres in width that allowed passage between the two continents.

According to this theory, after the glaciers retreated (8,000 years ago) towards the North Pole, the native peoples migrated back to the North and repopulated a good part of the continent, including Canada. They inhabited the entire continent, from the Pacific coast to the southern tip of South America, where the Inca and Aztecs created great empires. Other groups of hunters then migrated north to the Great Lakes and east to the Atlantic Ocean.

These Mongoloid peoples have long been considered the ancestors of all today's Amerindians. They left behind vestiges of a culture named Clovis hunters after a village in New Mexico where, in 1932, archaeologists discovered spear points and other tools carved using a special technique. Later, similar finds were made at hundreds of other sites in southern Canada, the United States, and even Panama. The entire prehistory of the Amerindians has long rested on two main tenets: One, that North and South America have only been inhabited for the last 12,000 years and, two, that all today's aboriginal peoples are descendants of these Mongoloid peoples from Asia.

Other Theories

Certain archaeological discoveries made in recent years have cast these longstanding beliefs into doubt. Today, it is thought that Amerindians may not have been the first aboriginals and that other peoples may well have settled here before them. The problem lies in our inability to explain how native languages could have diversified so widely and, in some cases, without any linguistic link whatsoever. Moreover, DNA tests have shown no relation between certain native groups. Why, for instance, have no Clovis hunter sites been found in Russia or Mongolia, where the culture is supposed to have originated?

Furthermore, the conventional theory of the intercontinental "Asia/America land bridge" via the Bering Strait would only have been possible 14,000 years ago while, according to archaeologists, certain peoples inhabited the continent well before that. Scientists believe that immigrants may have arrived on the northern shores of the continent 17,000 years ago with the deglaciation of the North.

Did They Hail from the Pacific?

Other scientists believe the first inhabitants sailed across the Pacific Ocean, landing first in South America. Human skeletons dating back 15,000 years have been discovered in Chile. Furthermore, since the discovery in 1996 of the now-famous Kennewick Man on the banks of the Columbia River in Washington State, many internationally acclaimed anthropologists have disputed the widely circulated "intercontinental land bridge" theory. While tests proved the skeleton was some 9,000 years old, its elongated skull and narrow face do not match the usual description of Amerindian populations. According to American archaeologist Dennis Stanford, its features are closer to those of the inhabitants of Southeast Asia or Polynesia, or the aboriginal Japanese from the island of Hokkaido.

A number of other sites have been discovered in recent years, including Meadow Croft in Pennsylvania (15,000 years) and Old Crow and Bluefish in Alaska (over 20,000 years). There is also the Pedra Furada site in Brazil (estimated at over 20,000 years, and possibly even as old as 50,000 years) and two sites in southern Mexico, El Cedral and Tlapacoya, dated at over 35,000 years.

Did They Hail from Europe?

The most recent theory suggests that human migration may have started in Europe some 19,000 years ago. A number of studies have brought to light genetic similarities between certain Amerindian groups and the Solutreans, who originated in Europe, notably in Spain, Portugal, and the South of France. According to two American archaeologists, Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley, it is quite possible that the Solutreans sailed along the edge of the glacier that once covered the North Atlantic in small animal skin boats and colonized part of the Americas some 18,000 years before Christopher Columbus and also prior to the possible use of the Siberia-Alaska land bridge by Asians (their arrival is estimated at around 13,500 years ago). The theory's proponents believe that the Solutreans colonized the entire eastern part of North America—stopping at the American desert and Canadian tundra—and even parts of South America. It is thought these populations were forced south when the Clovis hunters arrived on the scene.

Following is a quote by American archaeologist Dennis Stanford, former Chairman of the Anthropology Department at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington:

Today, scientists are rewriting the history of the peopling of the New World, which now seems to have been a much longer and more complex process than previously thought. The continent was apparently colonized in the dawn of time by waves of people of many different origins, some arriving by land and others by water from both the Atlantic and the Pacific. This new paradigm is still very controversial, but it would appear that the scenario traditionally presented in history textbooks is no longer adequate.

From a strictly geological standpoint, the North American continent has been inhabitable for some 50,000 years, however, only in regions like the Yukon that didn't undergo glaciation. Traces of human occupation dating back 24,000, and even 40,000 years in some cases, have been found in these regions.

Regardless of the controversy, we know that the Americas were not settled all at once, but rather in successive waves of migration over the millennia. It is still unclear whether North or South America was occupied first. Scientists, for their part, believe that Amerindians originally came from either Asia, Europe, or Oceania. The various groups then mingled over the course of alliances and wars. It appears likely that peoples of various origins successively landed in the Americas before further migration and climate change scattered them. One thing we are certain of is that the European explorers encountered civilizations with a complex history whose origins are lost in the mists of time.

First Nations and First Languages

Most of Canada's native peoples were hunters and gatherers. Their lifestyle relied heavily on natural resources and, as a result, communities were constantly on the move in search of new lands to live off.

However, two regions in particular, the Pacific Coast (what is today British Columbia) and southern Ontario around the Great Lakes, gave rise to more sedentary societies. The former was certainly the most populated given the abundance of natural resources from the Pacific Ocean (fish) and the rainforest. Before the arrival of the Europeans, this was the most densely populated area in Canada, and home to probably half the native population in the country. The climate and fertile soil in southern Ontario, for its part, made it more amenable to agriculture (mainly corn, squash, and beans).

Native Groups

Prior to the European invasion, it is believed there were seven main native groups in Canada: the Inuit, Beothuk, Algonquin, Iroquois, Sioux, Pacific Coast Indians, and Cordillera Indians:





Aleutians, Inuit et Yupik

Arctic and Northern Canada (Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut), but also Labrador and Québec (North Shore)




Algonquin, Micmac, Malecite, Montagnais (Innu), Naskapi, Ottawa, Nipissing, Ojibway, Cree, and Plains Indians

From the Maritimes to the Rockies


Huron, Petun, Neutral, Five Nation Iroquois

Around lakes Champlain, Ontario, Simcoe, and Huron


Southwest of lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba

Pacific Coast

Tlinkit, Haida, Tsimshians, Kwakiutl, Bella Coola, Nootka, Salish

Alaska, Yukon, British Columbia


Salish, Kootenay, Chilcotin, Carrier, Tsetsout, Tahltan, and Tagish

Southern British Columbia and the Rockies

The following map shows where these different peoples lived:


Native Groups

It is important to remember that these groups didn't occupy the entire territory of present-day Canada. Rather, the map shows possible areas where native peoples lived corresponding to the distribution of the various ethnic communities of the time. In actual fact, we know, for instance, that the Inuit lived only in coastal areas of the Far North, notably all around Hudson Bay and James Bay. Likewise the Athapascan and Algonquin didn't occupy every square kilometre of their territory, but were scattered throughout.

Distribution of the Native Peoples

In the Pacific Coast regions of British Columbia, the Tlinkit, Haida, Tsimshians, Kwakiutl, Bella Coola, Nootka, and Salish erected permanent villages along the coast and navigable rivers. These peoples depended on fishing and lived in large wooden houses, sometimes surrounded by defensive earthworks. For a number of centuries, they were the most active traders among Canada's native peoples. To enable ocean travel, these coastal groups built the largest and most intricate canoes of any native group. Their total population likely numbered over 100,000.

In the Prairies (Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba), nomadic tribes like the Nipissing, Ojibway, Cree, Sioux, Assiniboine, and other Plains Indians were hunters (buffalo) and gatherers, although they occasionally settled in temporary villages. Well before they acquired horses or rifles, these Plains Indians were remarkably adept at hunting buffalo, and given the abundance of the animals at that time, they were virtually the only species they hunted. Prior to European colonization (in the early 1800s), nearly 33,000 natives lived on what are today the Canadian Prairies.

Autochtone Map Languages

The Great Lakes region (Ontario), for its part, was the domain of the Algonquian and Iroquoian. Among the Iroquoian peoples were the Huron, the Iroquois, the Petun, and the Neutral. The Huron or Wyandot ("the island people"), as they called themselves, lived at the very southeast tip of Lake Huron, and at the north/south crossroads of the trading networks that criss-crossed native North America. They occupied a territory of some 2,300 square kilometres, a region once known as Huronia. The Huron traded agricultural products for wild game. Being mainly sedentary, the Iroquoian peoples appear to have had a more structured social organization than the Algonquian.

To the south and east of Lake Ontario, the Five Nation Iroquois (Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk), who later became the Six Nations, controlled the main routes linking the East Coast to the inland. In its heyday, the Five Nations group occupied a vast territory bordering lakes Ontario, Huron, and Erie, and comprising the current states of New York and Pennsylvania, as well as southern Ontario and Québec.

The Iroquois (from the word Irinakhoiw, a name meaning "rattlesnakes" given to them by their enemies) were Woodland Indians who lived in villages with up to 2,000 inhabitants. But the Iroquois referred to themselves as Haudenosaunee or "people building a longhouse" since they lived together in groups of six to eight families in longhouses. The most feared warriors in North America, in 1649 the Iroquois succeeded in laying waste to Huronia. In 1600, native Indian tribes from New York State founded the Iroquois Confederacy known as the Five Nation Confederacy (or Haudenosaunee). In 1722, the Tuscarora nation joined the Confederacy, which changed its name to the Six Nations Confederacy. The Six Nations were linked by a common constitution called Gayanashagowa or the Great Binding Law. The Huron became the most faithful allies of the French, but their alliance didn't last long. It began in 1615 with Samuel de Champlain and ended in 1649 with the dispersion of the Huron nation at the hands of the Five Nation Iroquois. In 1740, there were only between 400 and 1,000 Hurons left, and by 1829, those numbers had dwindled to 179.

The Algonquian occupied a broad swath of present-day Canada, primarily in the Canadian Shield and the Appalachians—lands with an abundance of wild game The group included the Algonquin, Micmac, Abenaki, Malecite, Innu, Naskapi, Ottawa, Nipissing, Ojibway, Cree, and Plains Indians. The Micmac, Malecite, and Naskapi lived in the east, while the Plains Indians made their home in Alberta. The Algonquian were primarily nomadic, living in wigwams (tents) and hunting (moose, caribou, deer, beaver, and hare), fishing, and gathering fruit.

In the northeast in the St. Lawrence River Valley were Abenaki, Naskapi, Cree, Algonquin, Micmac (or Mi'kmaq), Montagnais (Innu), and Malecite. The Abenaki were also found in New England, where they were even more numerous. There were also pockets of Malecite and Micmac in the Maritimes.

The first inhabitants of Newfoundland were the Beothuk (now extinct), an Algonquian people who lived in tents in the summers and in dug-out dwellings in the winter. The Beothuk numbered only about 1,000 to 2,000. They lived on the coast and fished and hunted marine animals. Newfoundland was also home to groups of Naskapi and Montagnais (today, called Innu) as well as Micmac. The Inuit and Micmac also lived in Labrador and points further north.

Canada's Inuit people lived in the Far North. The Dorset lived in the Arctic until the Inuit ousted them. Up to just a few decades ago, the Europeans and certain tribes referred to the Inuit as Eskimos. This derogatory designation meaning "eaters of raw meat" was dropped in favour of the name Inuit.

The native peoples of the North were mainly big game hunters (whale, beluga, seal, walrus, and polar bear). In the winters, they stored their food in permanent shelters made of stone and dried sod and lived in tents made from seal or caribou skins. In the tundra, they hunted caribou, brown bear, and muskox. The Inuit communities had populations of between 500 and 1,000, and gathered together for brief periods at winter camps. The rest of the year, smaller groups of two to five families made up the main social unit. In the minds of Europeans, the igloo has remained the most widely recognized symbol of Inuit life. In the northwest and along the Labrador coast, native peoples also built semi-underground wooden structures covered with wooden planks or ice-encrusted chunks of earth.


Canada's first inhabitants spoke some fifty different languages, half of which were spoken only in British Columbia. The languages stemmed from 12 linguistic families, primarily the Iroquoian family, the Algonquian family, the Na-Dene family, and the Eskimo-Aleut family.

Iroquoian Family

The Iroquoian language family included some ten languages spoken on the south shore of Lake Ontario, around Lake Erie, and south of the St. Lawrence River Valley: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, Susquehannock, Huron (or Wyandot), Erie, and Cherokee. These languages were all related and were mutually comprehensible.

Algonquian Family

The Algonquian family included at least twenty languages spoken by natives scattered across a wide area: Blackfoot (Prairies), Cree (James Bay), Attikamek (St. Maurice River basin), Naskapi (south part of Ungava Bay), Montagnais or Innu (north shore of the St. Lawrence River), Ojibway (around the Great Lakes), Potawatomi (west of Lake Huron), Micmac (Chaleur Bay), Malecite (Saint John River Valley in New Brunswick), Abnaki (south of the St. Lawrence River and in Maine and Vermont), and Beothuk in Newfoundland.

Na-Dene Family

The Na-Dene family included nearly fifty languages in three main linguistic groups: Haida, Athapaskan, and Tlingit. Most of these languages were spoken in the United States, however twenty or so were in use on British Columbia's Pacific Coast and in the Prairies (Alberta and the Northwest Territories).

Eskimo-Aleut Family

The Eskimo-Aleut family included two language groups (Aleut and Eskimo) into which some twenty languages fell. These languages were completely different from other native languages and were grouped together with other Inuit dialects such as Inuttut in Labrador to the east, Inuttitut on South Baffin Island, Inuktitut on North Baffin Island, and Aivilik and Kivalliq in Keewatin, Ontario. These groups together with three varieties of Greenlandic—West, East, and Thule—as well as those of the Western Arctic—Natsilik, Inuinnaqtun, and Inuvialuktun—and Alaska—Northern Inupiat, Malimiutun, Qawiaraq, and the Bering Strait dialect—form to this day a single language: Inuit. Before the Europeans arrived, all these languages were spoken in a linguistic area that now covers four countries, stretching from Russia, the United States (Alaska), and Canada to Greenland.

The Most Widely Used Languages

The most widely used languages would have been Cree and Ojibwe in the Algonquian family, Mohawk and Wyandot (Huron) in the Iroquoian family, Inuktitutand Yupik in the Eskimo-Aleut family, and Haida and Slavey in the Na-Dene family. The region with the greatest number of languages appears to be the area known today as British Columbia. In fact, six of the ten Amerindian language groups were concentrated on the Pacific Coast (Kootenay, Salish, Wakash, Tsimshians, Haida, and Tlingit). This was probably due to the presence of the towering mountains and a coastline punctuated by fjords and numerous bays, which would have limited contact between the tribes and eventually fragmented the languages.

Vehicular Languages

According to the first Europeans, especially the missionaries, the Huron in Wendake (on the shores of what is today Lake Huron), maintained trade and diplomatic ties with more than fifty nations. The Huron language (or Wyandot) was considered the vehicular language that all the neighbouring nations had to speak to some degree in order to trade with the Huron.

By the time of the Great Peace of Montreal (1701), French had become the language of trade with the natives (including the Iroquois) throughout most of North America. The governor of the colony of New York (1674–1681), Sir Edmund Andros (1637–1714), stated that none of his interpreters could rival the French for their great fluency in the native languages. In 1836, American writer Washington Irving (1783–1859) wrote in Astoria or Anecdotes of an Enterprise beyond the Rocky Mountains that the language of the fur trade west of Lake Superior was a "French dialect entwined with English sentences and Indian words."


Canada's first inhabitants didn't know how to write and therefore did not leave any written documents—usually the primary source of information for historians. Within each nation, the culture, know-how, customs, and legends of the people were traditionally handed down orally.

European Colonization and the Native Peoples

The first known contact between Europeans and native Canadians occurred in the 10th century in the Arctic, Greenland, and Labrador when the Vikings landed on Baffin Island and along the Atlantic Coast. The Saga of Eric the Red is a detailed account of the voyages of Eric the Red (or Eirik Thorvaldsson), Leifr heppni Eiriksson, Bjaarni Herjolfsson, and a number of other known Vikings. Eric the Red's son made other voyages to the Island of Newfoundland (then called Vinland). Not much is known of this time, but the natives seem to have held their own against the Europeans as mounting hostilities between Vikings and natives—the Beothuk of the Island of Newfoundland—put an end to attempts to establish a European settlement on "Canadian territory." Nothing significant came of the Vikings' voyages to Canada, although Scandinavian attempts to colonize northern Newfoundland may have continued for up to six decades (between 990 and 1050).

Later contact in Eastern Canada was very short-lived. In 1497, Giovanni Caboto (called John Cabot in English and Jean Cabot in French), an Italian explorer in the pay of England, travelled to Newfoundland and later Cape Breton (now in Nova Scotia), believing he had discovered the Indies. As Christopher Columbus had done before him on arriving in the Caribbean in 1492, Cabot called the people he met Indians. Giovanni Caboto took possession of the terra nova he called St. John's (in honour of the saint of the day) on behalf of King Henry VII of England. Some historians consider him the first discoverer of Canada, but no settlement was established.

In 1524, Giovanni da Verrazano made an exploratory voyage to North America for the king of France. After reaching North Carolina, he sailed up the coast to the mouth of the Hudson River, then to Cape Breton Island. Because of the beautiful trees and landscapes he admired in what is now Maryland and Virginia, Verrazzano supposedly called Eastern Canada Arcadia (Acadia). But some historians instead believe that Acadia comes from the Micmac word Algatigmeaning "campsite," while others consider it a variant of the Malecite word Quoddy meaning "fertile place." Later, in 1603, Samuel de Champlain revived the word Arcadia, writing it alternately as Arcadie or Acadie. In any case, Verrazano knew he was in neither Asia nor Africa, but on another unknown continent.

A few decades later, between 1576 and 1578, Martin Frobisher made three expeditions to the Canadian Arctic via Labrador. He also believed he had found the legendary Northwest Passage and thought he had stumbled upon gold deposits on Baffin Island. However, the further explorers penetrated into the icy northern expanses, the fewer riches they discovered. Contacts with the Inuit were highly sporadic. In 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert took possession of the Island of Newfoundland on behalf of England in order to settle the area, but he also found many Spanish, Portuguese, and French fishing boats. On his return, his ship, the Squirrel, sank in a storm and Gilbert and his entire crew perished, leaving the English settlers they had brought to the island to their own fate. According to historians, the colonists made life difficult for the Beothuk, driving them inland.

Start of the European Invasion
North America Around 1730

Contact became more frequent toward the late 16th century when Europeans (Scandinavians, Bretons, Basques, Normans, etc.) began frequenting the North Atlantic fishing grounds. The natives generally tolerated foreign fisherman, as long as they focused on trade and did not attempt to settle on their land. During this same period, many French (Breton, Basque, and Norman), Spanish, and Portuguese come every spring to fish off Newfoundland, returning in autumn with their salted cod cargo. The island and southern Labrador where the Basque hunted whale consisted only of fishing stands, but that had been there long before Jacques Cartier officially took possession of these territories on behalf of the king of France. The real European invasion is estimated to have begun in the early 17th century when some 1,000 ships arrived each year for fishing and fur trading in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and along the Atlantic coast. The Newfoundland region became a sort of "European annex" for fishermen.

Among the Europeans, however, the French and British had the most contact with native Canadians. At first, the French were concentrated on the island of Newfoundland, in Acadia, in the St. Lawrence Valley, and a bit later around the Great Lakes and as far as the Ohio Valley (a bit further south). The British were left with Hudson and James bays and later laid claim to Newfoundland, Acadia, and then the entire east coast of North America. We also know that the Dutch and Spanish occupied land in the south, and the Russians in the northwest, but none of these areas were in Canada per se.

Trading Posts and Missions
Jacques Cartier

Chosen by King François I of France to lead an expedition in search of "gold and other riches" as well as a western passage to Asia, explorer Jacques Cartier set sail from Saint-Malo with two ships and 61 men in April 1534. After twenty days at sea, he caught sight of the island of Newfoundland, passed through the Strait of Belle-Isle between Newfoundland and Labrador, and travelled along the island's western coast, making the entire trip around the Gulf of St. Lawrence. During this initial voyage, he arrived in sight of Prince Edward Island and the coast of New Brunswick, sailed into what he named "Chaleur Bay," and landed on the Gaspé Peninsula, where he erected a cross on July 24, 1534, with the inscription "Long live the King of France." But this upset the natives, and Chief Donnacona (whom Cartier called "captain") told Cartier so. Cartier's account gives some idea of the natives' reaction to the cross erected in Gaspé:

We had returned to our ships when the captain came wearing an old black bear skin in a boat with three of his sons and his brother [...] and held forth at us, pointing at said cross and making a cross with his two fingers, and then pointing to the ground all around us as if he wanted to say that all the land was his and we should not have erected said cross without his permission.

Initial contact with the natives remained tentative, although Cartier obtained permission to bring two young Indians (Domagoya and Taignoagny) back with him. On his second trip to Canada (1535–1536), Jacques Cartier discovered many Amerindian fishing and farming villages dotting the north shore of the St. Lawrence, from the gulf to Hochelaga (Montréal) via Stadacona (City of Québec). The Micmac and Iroquois were suspicious of this foreign explorer seeking a route to Asian gold, silver, and copper reserves.

Linguistically, Cartier's voyages helped establish the toponymy of Eastern Canada very early; remember that Jacques Cartier introduced the toponym Canada to Europe. Below is linguist Marthe Faribault's (Philippe Joutard et Thomas Wien (Dir.), Mémoires de la Nouvelle-France, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2005) description of Cartier, who was strongly influenced by Amerindian names:

In his second voyage (1535–1536), Jacques Cartier travelled up the St. Lawrence for the first time. He met Iroquois at Stadacona ("large cliff" in their language, now Québec City) and named the area the "Kingdom of Canada" from the Iroquois word kanata, meaning "village," while the Montréal area was named the "Kingdom of Hochelaga."

In the late 16th century, the Laurentian Iroquois withdrew from the St. Lawrence Valley. The Maritime Micmac, who had long travelled there over a portage road along the Restigouche, Matapédia, and Matane rivers or further south via the Etchemin and Chaudière river basins, became more present in the valley. Thus, toponyms from the Micmac language were adopted by the French in the late 16th and early 17th century. Gaspé, from the Micmac word gespeg meaning "extremity," replaced the Iroquois toponym Honguedo used by Cartier. Similarly, Québec—from the Micmac word gepèg meaning "strait"—replaced the Iroquois name Stadacona. Anticosti, from the Micmac word natigosteg("headland") replaced the toponym Île de l'Assomption given by Cartier. Last, Tadoussac—from the Micmac world giatosog meaning "between the rocks"—was named by the French around 1600.

Most of the Iroquois villages Cartier mentioned in 1536 no longer existed in 1608 when Samuel de Champlain founded Québec City. We know the natives had a strong warrior tradition. Their goal was rarely to gain land but generally to take prisoners. On his arrival in Canada, Champlain was quickly forced to take a stand in support of the Algonquin in their wars against the Iroquois. The Iroquois managed to virtually decimate the Huron, France's most loyal fur trading partners. The Inuit, Montagnais (Innu), Naskapi, Micmac, and Malecite also established lasting ties with the French, who had continuing difficulty maintaining peaceful relations with the Iroquois nations, at least until the Great Peace of Montréal in 1701.

The establishment of trading posts and missions altered relations between Amerindians and Europeans (mostly the French), especially in eastern North America in the pays d'en haut or Great Lakes region. This led to a rapid increase in trading and a growing mixed population. Speaking both local languages and French, the Métis became valued intermediaries between the Europeans and natives. The arrival of missionaries led to cultural and linguistic interference. While these men wanted to transform native culture into something more similar to the European Christian model, they learned native languages instead of trying to eliminate them. Nonetheless, the missionaries' arrival kicked off a systematic attack on the traditional religion, beliefs, and customs of native communities, not to mention the spread of disease. This attack continued and intensified when both French and British colonial governments took charge of "Indian affairs."

French Influence

French colonization began in earnest when Samuel de Champlain founded Québec City in 1608. But successes were slim—by 1627 New France included only a hundred-odd inhabitants split into two groups, one in Québec and the other in Port Royal (in Acadia, now Nova Scotia). Canada was still a tiny country in terms of population, although it included much of North America. It was nothing compared to New Holland (Dutch New York), which already boasted 10,000 inhabitants, and the British colonies with 80,000. And until 1660, France considered abandoning the shores of the St. Lawrence.

localisation des peuples autochtones

© Jacques Leclerc

Then, between 1627 and 1663, the population rose from 100 inhabitants to some 2,500. In 35 years, approximately 1,250 French immigrants moved to the little colony; the birthrate doubled the contingent. At the time, the French colony had settlements in the St. Lawrence Valley, Acadia, and Newfoundland; Louisiana was added in 1682. Until the Treaty of Utrecht (1763), New France included five territories, each with its own government: Canada, Acadia, Newfoundland, Hudson Bay, and Louisiana. And the western frontier of Canada and Louisiana opened onto the rest of the continent (see map of New France before 1713). In the late 18th century, the territory known as New France covered a large area extending from Baffin Island in the north to Mexico in the south, and including practically half of modern-day Canada and the United States. In itself, New France had made remarkable strides between 1663 and 1754: French Acadia had 10,000 inhabitants, Canada had 55,000, and faraway Louisiana had 4,000. In contrast, native populations had dropped dramatically due to fatal diseases transmitted by the Europeans: Of 300,000 natives, not even 200,000 remained.

New France was highly vulnerable compared to the British colonies, for while the French had space, the English had numbers. New France was constantly under threat of being swallowed up by England's territories in the north (Hudson Bay since 1713) and south (New England) with their total population of one million plus a workforce of 300,000 slaves.

Alliances with the Natives

To maintain its North American empire, France depended on its alliances with the natives. France had an amazing number of Amerindian allies including almost all the Algonquin in Canada, Acadia, and south of the Great Lakes, i.e., the Abenaki, Micmac, Montagnais, Malecite, Algonquin, Huron, Ottawa, Chippewa (Ojibwa), Cree, Erie, Blackfoot, Illinois, Miami, Potawatomi, and others.

In Louisiana, the French had established alliances with many nations, including the Choctaw, Creek, Natchez, Ouma, Nakota, and Lakota.

Having strengthened their alliances with the natives, the French controlled not only Acadia and the St. Lawrence Valley, but also the Ohio Valley, which stretched from Fort Detroit to Louisiana and the mouth of the Mississippi. The following table provides details on these alliances:

Ethnic Group

French Name

English Name

17th Century Location















Innu (Montagnais)








Outaouais, Outaouac


Québec, Ontario, Ohio










Illinois, Illiniouk





Black Foot

Alberta, Montana




Ohio, Indiana


Saulteur, Odjibouek


Minnesota, Michigan
























Ohio, Pennsylvania



Huron, Pétun, Gens du Pétun

Huron, Wyandot, Tionnontati

Ontario, Québec, Ohio


Tuscarorin (Six Nation)




Chat ou Érié








Agnier (Cinq Nations)




Onontagué (Cinq Nations)


New York


Sénéca (Cinq Nations)











Mississippi, Alabama








Mississippi, Louisiane









































Missouri, Kansas




Minnesota, Dakotas




Saskatchewan, Montana







Black Feet








The table above shows that the French had formed alliances with some 23 nations and the English with 7, while 15 others remained neutral. Since the English were more numerous, the support of Amerindian allies seemed less important. On the whole, it may be said that the French forged fairly cordial—although highly paternalistic—ties with native peoples except the Iroquois, with whom they were often at war, at least until the Great Peace of Montréal in 1701.

Historic writings also mention the "colonial genius" said to have characterized the French in North America. Apparently, their approach with the natives was more conciliatory and open than that of their European rivals. In France and England in North America (1865 – 1892, print Guttenberg), Boston historian Francis Parkman (1823–1893) clearly expresses this theory: "Hispanic civilization crushed the Indian; British civilization scorned and neglected him; French civilization adopted and took care of him." In reality, the French were no more virtuous than other European colonists, but French imperial policy was entirely based on alliances with the natives. For the governors of New France, the "Indian policy" took precedence over all else, for without their Indian allies, the New France colonies would have been empty shells destined for rapid extinction. And under pressure from dissatisfied Indians, the governors did not hesitate to dismiss the offending officers. Sir Raymond de Nérac, a young French officer who came to fight the Iroquois, wrote in his Mémoire sur les postes du Canada (Raymond, Charles de, d. 1774. Mémoire sur les postes du Canada. Archives de Québec, 1929) of the price of allying with the natives:

The politics and consideration we must have for the Savages to keep them loyal are incredible. [...] That is why, to serve effectively, a commander must turn full attention to earning the trust of the Savages in his area. To do so, he must be friendly, he must seem to empathize with them, he must be generous without extravagance, he must always give them something.

In other words, the policy of French-Indian alliances required a great deal of skill on the part of the French and no doubt involved a certain degree of frustration. Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, an aide-de-camp to Montcalm, regretted this "obligation of being slaves to these Savages," of giving in to "all their whims," of tolerating their "insolence," etc. In reality, the natives were defending their own interests while also accommodating the Europeans. In 1681, Louis XIV1] wrote the following to Intendant Jacques Duchesneau (1675-1682):

It is also very important to treat the Savages with [...] gentleness, to prevent the governors from requiring any present from them, to insist that the judges severely punish inhabitants who commit any violence against them. It is in this manner that we will succeed in taming them.

This directive clearly reflects France's paternalistic attitude toward the natives. Assimilating them would have been ideal, but accommodating them seemed the wisest approach since their support was essential. Compromises went so far that colonial authorities punished French colonists who committed crimes against the natives, while a native who killed a French person risked only a simple reprimand. In New England, an Indian who killed an English colonist was put to death, while a colonist was never punished for killing an Indian. This shows how dependent the French were on their military alliances with the natives in order to remain in New France.

 [1) Footnote : Source: Marcel Trudel, "Louis XIV et son projet de déportation — 1689." Revue d'histoire de l'Amérique française 42 (1950): 157–171. DOI : 10.7202/801632ar

Indians or Savages?

The French called the natives "savages" (plural), but this term did not have the pejorative connotation that is known to it today. The word "forest dwellers", that is to say, the peoples living freely "in the natural state", was akin to the term used today for so-called "wild" animals.

At that time, the French also used the expression "the natives of the country" to refer to the natives. When it was a particular individual, the French used his name or that of his nation: Iroquois, Hurons, Algonquins, Montagnais, Micmacs, and so on. In New France, the word "barbarians" was also used to describe the enemy natives as the Iroquois, while in Louisiana the same term was synonymous with Natchez.

The ideology of a lower human race applied to "savages" appeared only in the nineteenth century. The native word ("born in the country") was not known to the French until the middle of the eighteenth century, and it was negatively connoted, for it was associated with the word indigent ("needy"), which was not Not a characteristic of the "savages."

Political Vocabulary of Alliances
Charles Huault de Montmagny

The French and the Canadians had a whole political vocabulary for their alliances. France's native allies were the "children" of the governor and king of France. This "father/child" metaphor was the basis for French-Indian relations in North America. Amerindians in Canada called the governor Onontio ("great mountain"). This term corresponded to the Huron name of first governor, Charles Jacques du Huault de Montmagny (1636–1648), or "Mons Magnus." It was passed down as the official name for all governors of Canada. When a governor died or was replaced, ambassadors from the different nations observed the same ritual: they travelled solemnly to Montréal to meet the new Onontio. The king of France, who lived across the "great lake" (Atlantic Ocean), was the Grand Onontio or Onontio Goa ("highest mountain on earth"). Indian chiefs frequently visited the French court to strengthen French-Indian alliances. The children of Onontio were called Savage allies, allied nations, or Savage nations. They were all under the "protection" of the king of France, who was recognized as the "lord of the land," but were not subject to his laws. Since they were not subjects of the king of France, they were exempt from French justice, as well as seigniorial rent and enrolment in the militia. Over time, the French had to learn to negotiate with the Amerindian nations in the same way as with other European powers, and welcomed the native chiefs as "ambassadors." However, if the French had had the time, they would very much have liked to make the Indians into "French subjects" under French law with a place in the Empire.

The influence of any Onontio in Canada depended on how readily he adapted to the rules of Indian chieftainship, or "savage ways." He had to inform his native allies of his plans and consult them regularly. His "orders" were actually "proposals": The governor (Onontio) proposed but did not dispose! And to maintain harmonious alliances, he had to "clear away the clouds" by giving ceremonial speeches and presents. The French and the natives developed a whole ritual for giving gifts and countergifts through a "good trade" policy that consisted of offering the natives more goods even if they brought fewer furs. The French had learned that the natives were receptive to rewards, so they lavished them with gifts. Remember that in addition to their military value, the Amerindians were an economic necessity, as they supplied the French in furs, whether beaver pelts in Canada or deer skins in Louisiana.

Drawbacks of Alliances

But alliances with the French also led to the decline of the natives. Samuel de Champlain spent 1615–1616 in the pays d'en haut or Great Lakes region to promote fur trading as well as missions among the Amerindians, first by the Recollets (1615) and later by the Jesuits (1626) and Sulpicians (1669). Although the missionaries learned the native languages, they tried to make the natives French by converting them to the Christian faith, but mostly only succeeded in transmitting European diseases against which the poor natives had no resistance. For example, the Huron slowly came to understand that, contrary to the missionaries' warnings, God's wrath was not crashing down on them to punish them for their impiety, but the "black robes" themselves were the main cause of the curse on their land. In the 1630s, smallpox and measles decimated the Huron population, killing thousands. By the 1640s, the population had shrunk by half. Despite the efforts of missionaries determined to treat them, many allied tribes suffered the same fate.

Christianized Iroquois living in Akwesasne, Kahnawake, Kanesatake, and Oswegatchie also joined the French in fighting the British forces positioned along the Atlantic coast. In 1667, the Iroquois converted by the French Jesuits left the Iroquois Confederation to settle along the St. Lawrence River near Montréal. In 1690, the Mohawk, Onondaga, and Seneca sided with the British against the French, but the Oneida and Cayuga refused to follow suit. In 1710, four Iroquois chiefs (nicknamed the "four Indian kings" by the British) visited Queen Anne of England, to whom they pledged their allegiance.

Colony of Newfoundland
New Foundland

It is believed that the Beothuk settled on the island of Newfoundland around 200 A.D. Before the European invasion, it is estimated that about 2,000 lived along the entire island coast except the south portion of Avalon Peninsula. The natives quickly came to mistrust the Europeans, whether Spanish, Basque, French, or English.

The French government founded a royal colony in Plaisance, Newfoundland in 1662. Many small French villages had long dotted the entire west coast, the north coast to Cape Bonavista, and south to the tiny archipelago of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon. Initially cordial, French-Beothuk relations began deteriorating in 1613 when a French fisherman killed a Beothuk attempting to rob him and the Beothuk rose up and killed 37 French fisherman in retaliation. The French then encouraged their Micmac allies to hunt down the Beothuk, who took refuge inland.

Only Avalon Peninsula to the east had a good number of English attracted by the exceptionally abundant fish. A 1680 census shows that 1,700 people lived on the English coast from Bonavista to Trepassey. But at the height of French inhabitation on the island—between 1678 and 1688—some 20,000 French took to the water during fishing season. During that time, England set up its capital city in St. John's (Avalon Peninsula).

This entire lot settled in the coastal regions where the Beothuk had originally lived, leading the natives to retreat inland, where resources were scarcer. Their relations with European merchants and fisherman were generally somewhat hostile. Yet French and English fishermen—too busy with their commercial pursuits to make war—cohabitated peacefully for some time until the French military positioned at Plaisance began to harass English villages with the help of their Micmac allies, even destroying the little town of St. John's. To summarize the situation, one could say that the Europeans completely drove the natives from the island.


Acadia was founded in 1604, four years before Québec City, with its capital of Port Royal on the Annapolis Basin. French Acadia more or less corresponded to today's province of Nova Scotia. In 1631, the region was integrated into New France as an independent colony under the name Acadie. At its greatest extension, Acadia covered Gaspé (Québec), Chaleur Bay, current New Brunswick and part of Maine, Île Saint-Jean (Prince Edward Island), Nova Scotia, and Île Royale (Cape Breton Island). In the early 18th century, most of the French immigrants to Acadia lived along the Nova Scotia coast.

©Jacques Leclerc 2018

But French Acadia soon spurred British distrust. By 1613, English settlers from Virginia destroyed French settlements in the Port Royal area. In 1621, England laid claim to Acadia, which it renamed Nova Scotia, but the Treaty of Saint-Germain (1632) recognized French sovereignty in Acadia. However, the English threat remained ever-present, as Acadia remained under French rule for 32 years, versus 31 years under the English, until the Treaty of Breda restored the territory to France in 1667. Militarily, the Amerindians were a major defence for the French against the British. This is the main reason that formal contact between the French and the Amerindians was more developed than anywhere else in New France (Canada, Acadia, and Louisiana).

Originally, Acadia was inhabited by two large Algonquin family tribes: the Micmac (also called the Sourquois by the French) and the Malecite (also called the Etchemin). The Malecite occupied the south and west of today's New Brunswick and part of New England (Maine), while the Micmac occupied the rest of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Île Saint-Jean (Prince Edward Island). While the Amerindian population probably varied between 5,000 and 8,000, a Jesuit missionary estimated the Micmac population at approximately 3,500 in 1611.

In 1607, a good part of the little French colony returned to France, but some French decided to stay in Acadia. Some took refuge with the Micmac. Many Acadians followed suit, often partially adopting Amerindian culture. Remember that Acadia spent equal time in English (31 years) and French (32 years) hands. After certain British victories, most Acadians took refuge with their Micmac or Malecite allies, which obviously led to cohabitation and intermarriage. Unlike in Canada (St. Lawrence Valley), mixed marriages occurred not only with coureurs des bois (woodsmen and fur traders), but also with militiamen and even certain members of the French nobility, including Charles de Menou d'Aulney and Charles de Saint-Étienne de La Tour, two competing governors who waged war on each other.

One of the best-known cases of assimilation to native culture involves Baron Jean-Vincent d'Abbadie de Saint-Castin, a French soldier who lived with the Micmac of Maine. He married Pidianske (Marie-Malthilde in French), the daughter of Micmac chief Madokawando. He embraced Amerindian culture to the point of speaking Micmac and becoming tribal chief. Close French-Amerindian relations were apparently approved by France, which considered "Christian Amerindians" as "French citizens." There was much intermingling between the French and Amerindians in Acadia, which was not the case in the St. Lawrence Valley. Some Micmac became Catholic and took French first names, including a number of tribal and band chiefs. In fact, Catholic priests and missionaries enjoyed great influence over both Acadians and Amerindians. Protestant pastors held similar sway over other Amerindians, leading some to adopt French culture while others were Anglicized and Anglicanized. But the Micmac and Malecite were gradually forced inland as French and English colonists monopolized the coastal areas.

Still today, Acadia has many toponyms of Micmac or Malecite origin. One might even say that New Brunswick is the Atlantic province with the most native names for rivers, towns, and other places. Amerindian toponyms generally describe a geographic feature and are never derived from a person's name as in French and English: Cobscook ("boiling tides"), Quispamsis ("little lake"), Aukpaque ("where the tide stops rising"), Wolastook ("beautiful river"), Mactaquac("where the river is red"), Gaspé ("land's end"), Shubenacadie ("where wild potatoes grow"), Restigouche ("river with a pleasant current"), Wagmatcook ("where the water is clean"), etc.

In sum, relations between Acadians and the Micmac and Malecite were very cordial, leading to a certain number of lasting unions.

St. Lawrence Valley

In the St. Lawrence Valley, things were different because the Europeans came to outnumber the natives. On arriving in what was then Canada, the French tried to apply a policy of Amerindian "integration" or assimilation through marriage, culture, and language. Hopes and efforts were big, judging from a letter written in 1668 by Mother Marie de l'Incarnation, head of child education and founder of the Québec City Ursulines:

We have made French a number of Savage girls, both Huron and Algonquin, who have then been married to Frenchmen and proved to be excellent homemakers. There is one among them who can read and write to perfection, both in her Huron language and in our French; no one can tell or be convinced she was born a Savage. [...] His Majesty [...] wishes us thus to make all the Savages French little by little, to make them a polite people. We are starting with the children. Mgr. our Prelate has taken a great many for this purpose, the Reverend Fathers have also taken some into their Collège de Québec; all are dressed in French clothing and taught to read and write as in France. We have taken charge of the girls, as befits our spirit [...].

Mother Marie de l'incarnation

The "civilization" program was based on educating young children in boarding schools. However, the French soon realized the fairly utopic nature of their undertaking, for those they called "Savages" were quite resistant to assimilation. "They care not about learning our languages," we read in Relations des jésuites. The colony's boarding schools quickly lost their native students, who could not adapt to such strict schedules. Powerful minister Colbert tried to relaunch a "Frenchification program" in 1668. But he was dreaming! Mother Marie de l'Incarnation (1599–1672) ultimately admitted the inevitable: "It is yet very difficult, nigh impossible, to make them French or civilize them." French authorities realized that making the Amerindians French, even those taken "from the breast" (from the cradle), was a fantasy. Intendant Jacques Raudot (from 1705 to 1711) estimated in 1710 that this would be "a task of several centuries." The French gave up their efforts.

Instead, they were forced to "go to the school of Savages" and learn native languages. For example, missionary Jean de Brébeuf spoke fluent Huron barely three and a half years after his arrival. Interpreters who had learned Amerindian languages were well respected and highly popular with New France merchants and companies. At the time, many young Frenchmen chose to live with Amerindians to become interpreters, a well-paid job with certain rewards and many privileges.

According to Mother Marie de l'Incarnation: "It is easier to make a Savage of a Frenchman than a Frenchman of a Savage." Thus, the French did not impose their language on the natives because they were unable to, as most continued to live apart from Europeans and their language. With some exceptions, the colonizers spoke the language of the colonized. From the start of colonization, interpreters had to be trained and friendships built with the Indians. Many officers spoke one or several Indian languages. Most governors appreciated having bilingual or multilingual officers at their sides, as they mistrusted the coureurs des bois, accusing them of misrendering the "harangues" of Indian chiefs. For example, Charles Le Moyne, Lord and Baron of Longueuil, was the personal interpreter of Governor Frontenac in Huron and Iroquois.

Contrary to popular belief, there were very few marriages between the Amerindians and the French at the start of the colony. Only four such unions were reported up to 1665. Records compiled between 1621 and 1765 indicate some 78 marriages between male natives and Frenchwomen, 45 between Frenchmen and female natives, and 540 between two natives, out of more than 44,500 total marriages. There is no way to count the marriages of whites (e.g., coureurs des bois) contracted by Amerindians (according to the "custom of the land") because there is generally no official record of these often temporary unions. Historians believe that especially at the start of the colony, the surplus of single men must have spread a fair number of white genes among the natives, while the white colony was not enriched with much "Indian blood."

We also know that France's Amerindian allies took many Anglo-American prisoners and married them to inhabitants of their own villages. It is believed that 500 such prisoners remained in Canada, some integrating with the French colonists; generally, they were naturalized French, educated in the Catholic faith, and took a French name. According to mission records, e.g., from Québec, Montréal, and Tadoussac, the natives were baptized with Amerindian names, although European first names gradually replaced them. In contrast, European first names seem to have quickly replaced native names in Acadia.

In the St. Lawrence Valley, the French were quite the exception in forming alliances with the First Nations. The French were never powerful enough to take the same approach as the Spanish and Portuguese, who built their empires on conquest, subjugation, and servitude, or the Americans, who massacred the natives to take their land. The French instead lavished the natives with gifts to gain their cooperation in the fur trade and, after 1680, their military support. Thus it was that the French practised a more subtle version of European colonialism. Like other Europeans, the French did not consider the natives as equal partners, but as unruly subordinates in need of proper handling lest they forget their "duties." And even though the natives lived in the very heart of the French king's Canadian colony, they never recognized his sovereignty, retaining their independence throughout the French regime.

On the whole, alliances with the French—although peaceful—harmed the natives, who suffered from diseases and epidemics that decimated their population. Half the Huron were wiped out by epidemics in the first decades of New France.

Pays d'en Haut (Ontario)
Pays d'en haut Regions des grands lacs
©Jacques Leclerc 2018

The main economic interest of the pays d'en haut region (now Ontario) lay in the fur trade. Understandably, French authorities were initially suspicious of men who became coureurs des bois and spent years roaming the pays d'en haut, or Great Lakes region. Some 2,000 Frenchmen lived in this fur treading area where, with their Indian spouses and mixed children, they formed a much different class than the French of the St. Lawrence Valley. Still, these officially single men brought a French presence to the western part of the colony. Officials in the St. Lawrence Valley then began encouraging miscegenation as a way to assimilate the natives and populate the colony without massive immigration from France. Contrary to expectations, miscegenation did not assimilate the natives, but instead gave rise to a distinct people, the Métis, who founded their own communities along the shores of the Great Lakes.

Most coureurs des bois learned Amerindian languages but also taught the natives basic French, such that the vehicular language between Europeans and Amerindians quickly became French in most of North America. The pays d'en haut thus provided a pool of interpreters sought throughout the continent, including in Louisiana and the New England colonies. In sum, Canada's coureurs des bois were effective in spreading French among the natives.

Linguistic Contribution of Natives

Native languages had minimal impact on the French spoken by early Canadians, except with regard to place names, where the Amerindian influence is obvious. The very first Amerindianisms in French include achigan (a fish, 1656), atoca (cranberry, 1656), babiche (rawhide strip, 1669), cacaoui (duck, 1672), carcajou (a mammal, 1685), etc. Many words borrowed in past centuries are no longer used, generally because the realities they denoted no longer exist. These include micoine ("large wooden spoon"), ouragan ("large wood or stoneware bowl, or birchbark plate"), macak ("type of birchbark basket"), machicoté ("skirt or petticoat"), nagane ("small board for carrying a baby on the back"), sacacoua or sassaquoi ("battle cry, yell; racket"), etc.

This borrowing from Amerindian languages continued throughout the 18th century but remained relatively modest, never exceeding twenty-odd words. Linguistic borrowing increased slightly in the 19th and early 20th centuries. A certain number of words borrowed from Amerindian languages are now part of "Canadian French," e.g., achigan, atoca, babiche, carcajou, caribou, maskinongé, ouaouaron, and poulamon.

Note also that Amerindianisms were probably used far more commonly before the 20th century, especially by the coureurs des bois and voyageurs. Contact between the natives and the French in the St. Lawrence Valley declined considerably after the 17th century, albeit without stopping completely. Consequently, borrowings from Amerindian languages gradually declined. Fur traders and explorers continued to visit the Amerindians faithfully until the 20th century, whereas farmers broke ties with the natives sooner, leading to an inevitable decline in borrowed words. Still, a number of words related to fauna (achigan, caribou, maskinongé, wapiti) and flora (pécan) remained in French, if not in English

In all, the number of Amerindian words that passed into standard French does not exceed 30. Le Robert dictionary lists the following words: achigan, algonkin, cacaoui, caribou, iroquois, manitou, maskinongé, mocassin, opossum, pacane, pécan, pembina, pemmican, plaquemine, québécois, sconse, skunks, squaw, tabagie, tobaggan, tomahawk, totem, wapiti, wigwam. And most of these words entered into standard French by way of American English.

While Amerindian and especially Algonquin languages gave few words to Canadian French (anorak, manitou, mocassin, squaw, tobaggan, tomahawk, totem, wigwam) and Canadian English (anorak, canoe, totem, sachem, moccasin, papoose, etc.) besides those that reached these languages via standard French or American English—except certain words related to fauna (achigan, caribou, maskinongé, wapiti) and flora (pécan)—native languages made a significant contribution to Canada's original toponymy which, as we know, includes Amerindian, French, and English words.

Borrowings from Amerindian languages—both common words and place names—generally come from Algonquin languages and fall under the same semantic fields (fauna, flora, and local customs). Borrowings from Amerindian toponymy increased in later centuries to the point of forming a large portion of the place names not only in Québec, Ontario, and Acadia, but also all Western provinces. Thousands of place names have Amerindian roots, from Canada, Manitoba, Nunavut, Ontario, Québec, Saskatchewan, etc., to many cities (Ottawa, Toronto, Québec, Shediac, Shippagan, Rimouski, Kelowna, Iqaluit, Saskatoon, Tadoussac, etc.), lakes, and rivers (Athabasca, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Manicouagan, Mistassini, Ontario, Erie, Nipissing, Manigotagan, etc.). All these names reflect Canada's native heritage and greatly contribute to its unique toponymy. However, by the end of the French regime in New France, Amerindians represented no more than 10% of the population of the colony (today's Québec). A number of Amerindian communities that settled near urban centres began speaking French.

English Influence

The first overseas British colony ("plantation") was founded in 1607 in Virginia. The second was established in 1610 by John Guy in Cupids in Conception Bay (Newfoundland). Later attempts to set up colonies were made throughout North America, not only in Newfoundland, but also in Acadia and especially along the east coast, a region that soon became known as New England.

The British set their sights on areas north of New England starting in 1610. But the English emigrants had little interest in the colony of Newfoundland, especially since they had to share it with the French. The British population remained weak and fragile for decades. Given that fishing was possible only four to five months a year, investors eventually pulled out. Like the French, the English easily forced the Beothuk inland.

Henry Hudson

In 1609, British King James I recruited Henry Hudson to explore the Arctic seas. British presence in these regions started in Hudson and James bays. Hudson made expeditions via the arctic seas in search of the famous northeast passage. In 1609, he discovered the river later named after him linking the New York region to Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence Valley. He disappeared without a trace in 1611, abandoned by his crew on icy Hudson Bay. The toponymy preserves the memory of this explorer with English names such as Hudson, Frobisher, Southampton, Coats, Mansel, Belcher, James, etc. English contact with Amerindians and the Inuit was highly sporadic.

The linguistic influence of English was weak throughout the 17th century in Canada, except for place names adopted in the Hudson Bay region (Hudson, Frobisher, Southampton, Coats, Mansel, Belcher, James, etc.), Newfoundland (St. John's, Cupids, Goose Bay, Corner Brook, etc.), and Acadia (Campbellton, Bathurst, Moncton, Fredericton, Yarmouth, Amherst, etc.). This would change dramatically in the 18th century.

Colonial Battles

The Amerindians played a key role in the colonial battles between Great Britain and France. France's main allies were the Huron, followed by the Abenaki, Micmac,Malecite, as well as many Algonquin. Britain's primary allies were the Five Nations of the Iroquois. As we saw earlier, the French formed alliances with some 23 nations and the English with 7, while 14 others remained neutral.

Luttes coloniales

The first Iroquois war lasted nearly a century and ended with the Great Peace of Montréal in 1701. This treaty put an end to both a sixteen-year war and the English-Iroquois coalition. The Iroquois declared at that time that they "would accept neither the English tomahawk nor the French axe." The second conflict was the Seven Years' War (often called the French and Indian War), which ended only with the final defeat of New France in 1760. The last colonial war was fought in 1812–1814 following the U.S. War of Independence (or American Revolution).

Throughout the British-French rivalry, the natives were sometimes shrewd enough to threaten the French with trading with the British if they did not get what they wanted. Obviously, the British and French encouraged their native allies to join them in fighting their adversaries, or to remain neutral. Both militarily and commercially, the natives acquiesced to these requests only when it served their own interests, while pitting the British and French against each other to their advantage. But the end of the colonial conflicts marked the end of what is now called the "active partnership" between natives and Europeans.

After the Treaty of Utrecht

In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht—which ended the War of the Spanish Succession—changed the North American political map. England received Newfoundland, Hudson Bay, part of Acadia, and a protectorate over the Iroquois. New France was limited to Canada, part of Acadia (Île Saint-Jean and Île Royale, today Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton Island, respectively), and Greater Louisiana.


Today's New Brunswick became a "disputed land" between the British and French, as England maintained under Section 12 of the Treaty of Utrecht that this territory was part of "Acadia, according to its former boundaries." Starting at that time, the British dealt with native populations in the conquered lands, especially in "English Acadia." Certain Amerindian alliances changed, but the French managed to retain the loyalty of the Micmac in a large portion of English Acadia—then Nova Scotia.

However, the British were suspicious of the good relations between Acadians and Amerindians. Colonial authorities prohibited interaction between Acadians and the Micmac, and accused the Acadians of encouraging the Micmac to attack British colonists. In addition, the British, who believed that their taking of Acadia gave them authority over the local natives, interpreted French-Indian treaties to their advantage. But the natives had never ceded their land to the French and wanted to retain it under the English regime.

During the French-British conflict, France's Amerindian allies in the St. Lawrence Valley, Great Lakes region, and Ohio Valley had previous agreements with the Grand Onontio ("father" in Huron), the governor of New France and "war chief" of the French. Under these agreements, the natives were paid to transport goods and received a monthly payment for supplying troops with game. But it was even more profitable for them to bring in scalps and capture English prisoners: They received up to 33 pounds for an "English scalp" and 120 to 140 pounds for an "English prisoner." A black man, for example, was worth 600 to 1,500 pounds since he was considered "permanent property." And for participating in organized raids in the southern British colonies, the natives were allowed to help themselves to the "spoils" of pillaged sites.

The French also guaranteed the Amerindians compensation for land used to build forts, even paying them toll charges. Similar agreements were signed between the British and their Amerindian allies (including for "French scalps"), but the natives generally found that the British gave them better goods and paid higher prices on furs in trade negotiations.

After the Conquest

After the French defeat on the Plains of Abraham in Québec City (1759) and the capitulation of Montréal (1760), the British conquest in Canada led not only to a political schism, but also to economic and social disruption. Under the 1763 Treaty of Paris, the French ceded Canada, all of Acadia (including Île Royale and Île Saint-Jean), and the western shore of the Mississippi to Great Britain. Clearly, the new political deal rendered French-Amerindian alliances completely null and void.

During this initial period of steadier contact with the natives, linguistic problems were negligible since the whites—French and English alike—did not and could not stifle the native peoples nor their languages. French and Canadian explorers and missionaries learned Amerindian languages to communicate with native peoples. Obviously, natives and whites had to exchange and borrow words from each other. This changed significantly after the French defeat, to the detriment of the Amerindians.

British Authorities' "Indian Policy"

When it officially became a British colony under the Treaty of Paris in 1763, Canada was stripped of its French ruling class and saw its political and economic powers transferred to the new English conquerors. French soldiers and officials immediately left the colony and returned to France. The aboriginal peoples had to learn to live under the new British regime. At times backed by soldiers, the Iroquois allies of the British decided to compensate for the costs incurred in the Franco-British war by burning and pillaging the Algonquin villages and making off with everything they could.

Chief Pontiac's Rebellion

The fall of New France left most of the aboriginal communities at the mercy of the British. Many soldiers were arrogant; greedy land speculators applied pressure; and unlike the French, the new government officials were not eager to shower the native people with presents to become allies. The French had long excelled at the art of giving gifts to the aboriginal peoples. This was also the era when aboriginal prophets made their appearance in the tribes. Their words garnered enthusiasm as they preached Indian identity and the rebirth of Amerindian values.

The impostor

One of the most famous prophets was Neolin, a Delaware known to the Amerindians as "The Enlightened" and to the British as "The Imposter." He upheld that the "Great Creator" had revealed to him in person the "true way" and advocated a return to their roots. The "Master of Life" also allegedly ordered him to "push the whites into the sea," the English in particular: "I warn you that if you suffer the English in your home, you are dead. Illness, chickenpox, and their jails will destroy you totally." Neolin became quite popular among the Amerindians, who came from all around to hear him speak. He converted Pontiac (c. 1720-1769), the great chief of the Ottawa and a former Algonquin ally of the French, and supplied him with a battle doctrine, for Neolin's nativistic discourse fuelled the rebellion against the British (the redcoats).

Chief Pontiac conceived a plan to thwart the violent acts of the soldiers and the Iroquois by attempting to form an Amerindian federation that would group all of the Eastern tribes together. Seemingly backed by France, Pontiac set a goal to drive the English away from their border posts and re-establish the autonomy of the Amerindians in Canada. The news of the Treaty of Paris (1763) persuaded the Amerindians to go back to war—they had never been defeated and they did not accept that the Great Onontio (the king of France) could hand their land over to the British. With thousands of natives at his command, Pontiac ordered an attack and easily seized all of the forts from Michillimakinac to Pittsburg.

The Anglo-Indian war was marked by great cruelty on both sides, aboriginal and British. The natives massacred or took into captivity the defeated garrisons and refugees, and killed more than 2,000. General Jeffrey Amherst, then Governor General and Commander-in-Chief of the British forces, even contemplated relinquishing the North American colonies.

Amherst and Bouquet

The British used the opportunity to wage a bacteriological war against the Amerindians. While Pontiac and his allies were beginning to seriously imperil the British forces, General Jeffrey Amherst sent the following message to the Swiss colonel Henri Bouquet (1719-1766), who served in the English army: "You will Do well to try to Innoculate the Indians by means of Blankets, as well as to try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race." The British were well aware of the weakness of the aboriginal peoples' immune systems and the devastating effects that smallpox would have on them. In a letter to General Jeffrey Amherst dated July 13, 1763, Colonel Bouquet wrote, "I shall attempt to contaminate the Indians by putting Blankets into their Hands, while taking care not to fall ill myself."

"The Spaniard's method," which consisted of using dogs to chase the Indians, was also discussed, but it was dismissed due to the shortage of hunting dogs. So the English soldiers distributed contaminated blankets and poisoned alcohol to the populations in question, particularly the Delaware, Shawnee, and Mingo. The strategy succeeded in setting off a widespread epidemic among the ranks of the aboriginal peoples, who had very little immune resistance to the "white man's diseases." Colonel Henry Bouquet even offered a reward for each Indian scalp brought back to camp. Captain Siméon Écuyer, the defender of Fort Pitt (now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), gave the order to "cut into pieces the wives and children of warriors who attack the fort." The British authorities were determined to quash the rebellion, by spilling blood if necessary. The words most on British tongues were "vermin," "savage," "execrable race," "total extermination," and "total extirpation." In this way, the British officers let the Amerindians know that the rules of trade were going to be different and that instead of being their allies, they were their new "masters." They blamed the native peoples, saying they should be ashamed for accepting "charity" as they had with the French. General Amherst's unyielding policy managed to stir discontent among the aboriginals and rekindle the Franco-Indian alliance throughout the "upper country."    

The conflict wore on, and the Catholic church managed to convince the Canadian militiamen to fight the uprising of the aboriginal peoples. Pontiac's warriors were unable to take Fort Detroit, defended by General Henry Gladwin. After this, the various tribes made peace one after another until 1766, at which time all the Amerindians had buried the hatchet. The native peoples had managed to stand up to the French during the New France era, but they submitted to the new colonial regime and at the same time found themselves accepting a long period of dependence and subjection. What's more, the years following the French defeat brought an extra dose of sickness, famine, and cultural decline to most of the aboriginal peoples, given the increased contact between them and the Europeans, with harmful consequences for the First Nations.

Usefulness of the Aboriginal Peoples
Anglais de l'amérique du nord

The aboriginals of New France were used to keeping a certain distance between themselves and the French—they were allies, not subjects. Under the British regime, this situation was changed. At first, the British authorities used the Iroquois to subjugate the nations formerly allied with the French. Thus, the Algonquian (Abenaki, Algonquin, Huron, Nipissing, and others) of the St. Lawrence Valley were subordinated to the Iroquois, who henceforth would serve as intermediaries for the British. Despite this, many Iroquois in Canada were inclined to keep out of the conflicts between the whites because they mistrusted them.

Nonetheless, the Amerindians were no longer able to play the French against the English (or vice versa), as they had done when the two countries were fighting over territory. In fact, after Pontiac's aborted attempt at an uprising, the Amerindians did not have much choice other than to rally around the new "masters" of the country. In the beginning, the British still considered the native peoples to be useful in putting the finishing touches on the conquest of the territory, especially in the Great Lakes region and the Ohio Country, as well as in pursuing trade and exploration. The British authorities felt obligated to grant the aboriginal peoples an near-sovereign "Indian Territory"—the north of the new "Province of Québec" and all of the Great Lakes region and the Ohio Country (between the Ohio and the Mississippi rivers). The Royal Proclamation of 1763 also recognized the existence of the rights of aboriginal peoples and designated the English Crown as protector of these rights:

And We do further declare it to be Our Royal Will and Pleasure, for the present as aforesaid, to reserve under our Sovereignty, Protection, and Dominion, for the use of the said Indians, all the Lands and Territories not included within the Limits of Our said Three new Governments, or within the Limits of the Territory granted to the Hudson's Bay Company, as also all the Lands and Territories lying to the Westward of the Sources of the Rivers which fall into the Sea from the West and North West as aforesaid.

Gratitude is not what prompted the British to "give up" the greater part of the conquered territory to the aboriginal peoples; rather, it was that they could not ensure its defence, so they might as well temporarily leave the ungovernable territories to the aboriginal peoples. The colonial authorities already knew that the situation was only temporary and that eventual immigration by English colonists would make it easier to dislodge these allies once they had become too burdensome. Soon the "Indian reserves" would be created.

Everything was about to change very quickly. The Royal Proclamation could not long withstand the appetite of speculators. In 1768 the "Indian Territory" south of the Ohio River was taken away from the Amerindians to oblige the English colonists advocating expansion of the colonies. Six years later, when the Québec Act (1774) pushed back the borders of the Québec colony to include the entire Great Lakes basin, the "Indian Territory" was simply wiped off the map.

With the American War of Independence (1776-1783) between the British and the insurgent Thirteen Colonies, the situation deteriorated for the aboriginal peoples. On July 4, 1776, the American colonies adopted the Declaration of Independence, but not all of the American colonists showed solidarity. The "Loyalists" faithful to the English Crown stood with the British before fleeing to Canada.

Until then, the European population of British North America numbered not more than 100,000 inhabitants, mainly concentrated on the Atlantic coast (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island) and in the St. Lawrence Valley. The even more numerous Amerindians (approximately 200,000) were dispersed throughout the rest of what is today Canada—the Eastern forests, the Great Lakes region, the Western plains, and the Pacific coast.

After the end of the American War of Independence (1783), some 50,000 Loyalist refugees emigrated to the Canadian territory, settling in Nova Scotia and along the upper part of the St. Lawrence River. The massive arrival of white American citizens brought about the creation of a new province, New Brunswick, and radically transformed British North America. The slow populating of the island of Newfoundland wiped out the Beothuk, who were expelled from their coastal villages and partially exterminated by English colonists and punitive military expeditions, notably that of Lieutenant Buchan in 1817. In 1810 the British government issued an official proclamation to protect the Beothuk, but it was already too late. The last surviving Beothuk, Nancy Shanawhdit, died of tuberculosis in St. John's in 1829 at the age of 23. Already few in number in the Maritimes, the Micmac and the Malecite succumbed to illness. In the Great Lakes region, the aboriginal population also fell victim to illness, alcohol, and guns, and their numbers were reduced by half over a period of several decades. Only the Inuit in the Arctic, the Naskapi and the Montagnais in northern Québec, the Plains Indians, and the Pacific Coast Indians continued for a while to live apart from the European populations.

Province du Québec en 1783
©Jacques Leclerc 2018

The redrawing of the Canadian borders after the American War of Independence brought about other radical changes for the Amerindians. Given that the southern regions of the Province of Québec became territories of the United States in 1783, many Amerindians became American citizens overnight. The Treaty of Paris (1783) left most of the Iroquois of the Six Nations Confederacy straddling the new border that separated Canada from the United States. The political separation of the Iroquois became so pronounced that they ended up mistrusting all governments, Canadian and American alike. American troops crushed the Iroquois Confederacy, which handed over western Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and New York State to the U.S. government. At the end of the War of Independence, there were only 8,000 "American" Iroquois left, and they were completely isolated from the "Canadian" Iroquois.

After the War of 1812, the colonial authorities decided that the Amerindians were of little use to them anymore as allies. Their greatest concern was to have access to the rich soil of the aboriginal peoples' lands at the lowest cost possible and without bloodshed. Thus the British government adopted a new policy for the native peoples of Canada. Officially sanctioned in 1830, the policy encouraged the "civilization" and conversion to Christianity of native peoples by means of the "Indian reserve lands," which would later become the Indian "reserves."

Creation of Indian Reserves

The aboriginal peoples did indeed have to learn to live on "reserves" under the treaties negotiated with them by means of persuasion (if not "force" of persuasion). From the aboriginal peoples' standpoint, the treaties were written in a foreign language and couched in legal concepts totally unknown to them. The British saw to it that the aboriginal peoples' lands could be sold to the colonists, and the proceeds used to finance the administration of the "Indian reserve lands." This practice, already in systematic use in the United States, resulted in the transfer of thousands of acres of native peoples' lands to the colonists. The colonial government also required the aboriginal peoples to subdivide the "Indian reserve lands." The aboriginal leaders were opposed because for them the idea of private property flew in the face of their tradition of collective property.

Other aspects of the "Indian policy" consisted of making the aboriginal peoples live in houses, making them practise agriculture, and educating them in English in boarding schools run by missionaries. The government started giving gifts, generally tools and instruments, to "encourage the transition from nomadic life" to agricultural societies. Beginning in the 1840s, a new "Indian program" was set up to assimilate the aboriginals within white society, which involved the elimination of ancestral languages. Despite criticism of this British policy, attempts to assimilate the aboriginal peoples became more intense and frequent.

Numerous treaties intended to "free up" great stretches of land for the purpose of colonization were signed. In the Prairies, the Hudson's Bay Company governed the territory called Rupert's Land. In British Columbia—at the time a colony separate from Canada—Governor James Douglas (1851-1864) negotiated as many as 14 treaties on the Island of Vancouver alone.

In Lower Canada, the 1857 Act to Encourage the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes defined the word "Indian" for the first time, which served as a basis for definitions in future laws concerning Indians. The notions of "registered Indian," "status Indian," and "non-status Indian" were introduced. Then in 1860 Great Britain gave the responsibility of Indian affairs to its colonies, which pursued the assimilation policy of the preceding decades, notably that of Indian reserves. The policy of bringing individuals together on reserves would be fraught with consequences for many aboriginal peoples. Henry Youle Hind (1823-1908), an observer of Amerindians and a geologist from Trinity College in Toronto, wrote the following in 1863:

We soon noted that the Montagnais and Nasquapee who remained on the coast (in the reserve) quickly lost the energy and physical strength that characterized them when they lived inland, and which they absolutely needed in order to survive in a mountainous land where game was scarce. Once on the coast, their habits change quickly; they begin to live off the seals and fish, become sensitive to the change in climate and, in the spring, suffer through long bouts of the flu; the young are consumptive, the elderly racked with rheumatism, and death quickly thins the ranks of this once plentiful and particularly interesting race.

Henry Youle Hind

Henry Youle Hind deserves credit for recognizing that the contact between the aboriginal peoples and the Europeans was denatured by trade, disease, and alcohol. Nevertheless, the solutions he proposed were still those of a paternalistic colonizer. After writing numerous reports, he recommended to the colonial government that the Indians be evangelized as soon as possible and that they be persuaded to "renounce their wandering lifestyle and resign themselves" to settling on the "Indian reserve lands." The Canadian government would take twenty years to apply all the measures Hind proposed. One by one, aboriginal people settled on the reserves where missionaries and government officials would teach them to sing hymns and cultivate potatoes.

Before the early 1800s when many aboriginals were lost to epidemics, close to 33,000 native people lived on the territory that is today the Prairies. Over a period of more than 500 years of contact with Europeans, the natives lost some 50 to 75% of their populations, although some researchers put the decline more at 90%. Not only that, the aboriginal peoples' customs were profoundly altered—besides experiencing a change in housing, work, clothing, and so forth, many also ended up losing their ancestral languages. Even the Inuit were affected by "civilization." In the second half of the 19th century, some 30,000 white fishermen frequented the Far North, bringing illness, changes to traditional diets, and an abrupt decline in the Inuit population.

Canadian Authorities and Native Peoples

The British North America Act (now officially known as the Constitution Act, 1867) was adopted by the British Parliament in March 1867 and enacted in Canada on July 1. This was the first time a colony had gained control over its government without leaving the British Empire—Canada was still a British colony, and it would remain so until 1931 when the Statute of Westminster (London) would be enacted. The union of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec (Lower Canada), and Ontario (Upper Canada) into a federation gave rise to the "Dominion of Canada," or Canadian Confederation.

Under the British regime, the native peoples had had to learn to live on "reserves," educate their children at schools run by whites, and elect band councils. In return, the colonial government saw to their needs, an arrangement that kept them in a state of dependence. With the adoption of the 1867 constitution, the federal government gained sole responsibility for the affairs of Aboriginal peoples and their lands.

Indian Act

As with the changes in previous policies, the aboriginal peoples were not consulted. The Canadian government would inherit the paternalistic traditions of the British administration. The first federal law on "Indians," the Indian Act, was adopted in 1876 and was still centered on protection, assimilation, and conversion to Christianity. The goal was to induce Indian communities, and eventually, all of the aboriginal peoples, to renounce their "primitive," destitute state in favour of "civilization" and autonomy, while at the same time making Canada a homogeneous community—that is, non-aboriginal and Christian. The Indian Act of 1876 instituted a legislative framework typical of a "white" way of life. The act governed all aspects of life on the reserves until 1951, covering a period of 75 years. The wording of the act has remained for the most part unchanged, although it has been modified numerous times. Most of the data that follow is taken from the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, published in October 1996 by the Federal Ministry of Indian and Northern Affairs.

"Wards of the State"

In 1869, An Act for the gradual enfranchisement of Indians, the better management of Indian affairs, and to extend the provisions of the Act 31st, Victoria, Chapter 42, S.C. 1869, c. 6 was passed. The act set up municipal-like governments on the reserves in order to teach the aboriginal peoples how society as a whole functioned and to ease their assimilation into it

The policy on "Indians" (as they were then called) was built on the postulate that aboriginal peoples were clearly inferior to the rest of society. Moreover, the 1876 annual report of the Department of the Interior enunciated the ideology that Indians were "wards of the state" in the following terms:

Our Indian legislation generally rests on the principle, that the aborigines are to be kept in a condition of tutelage and treated as wards or children of the State....the true interests of the aborigines and of the State alike require that every effort should be made to aid the Red Man in lifting himself out of his condition of tutelage and dependence, and that is clearly our wisdom and our duty, through education and every other means, to prepare him for a higher civilization by encouraging him to assume the privileges and responsibilities of full citizenship.

The policy on aboriginal peoples seemed clear, and David Laird, the Minister of the Interior at the time, expressed his own paternalistic thoughts when legislation was introduced in the Parliament: "Indians must be treated like minors or whites." In the Indian Act, as in the previous acts on the subject, an "Indian" was defined as someone with "Indian blood" or, in the case of mixed marriages, a non-Indian woman married to an Indian man. Indian women who married non-Indians were not recognized under the law as "Indians."

In 1884 Parliament adopted the Indian Advancement Act, which conferred municipal powers on "advanced bands." Canada continued to sign treaties just about everywhere in the country. Generally, the treaties stipulated small, fixed yearly allowances for each inhabitant as well as the granting of "Indian reserve lands," generally one square mile for a family of five.

Difficulties with Paternalism

This policy from another era could not last forever. Like most other countries harbouring indigenous populations, Canada ran into troubles with its aboriginal peoples. The decades following the birth of Canada in 1867 were rough for certain Plains nations, particularly the Cree, Ojibway, Saulteaux, Assiniboine, and Blackfoot. In the 19th century, the question of aboriginal lands led to confrontations between Canadian authorities and the Métis on two different occasions.

Thus, the creation of the province of Manitoba in 1870 was in ways the result of disputes between whites and the Métis in the Red River region. The Manitoba Act, 1870 addressed a great number of the Métis' demands, including a bilingual Legislative Assembly (English and French) and some 1.4 million acres of reserve lands "for the families of Métis residents." But Manitoba was very small at the time—a little more than 160 km² compared to 649,950 km² today—and was clearly inadequate for communities that subsisted by hunting and trapping.

Between 1873 and 1899, Western Canada welcomed more than one million new anglophone immigrants, which angered the "Plains Indians." Shortly after the creation of Manitoba, many Métis left the province to live farther west, on the banks of the Saskatchewan River. The lands they cultivated were part of the Northwest Territories, so they remained under federal jurisdiction. At the time, the term Métis was reserved for people of French and Catholic descent, and the term Country-born (as opposed to Foreign-born) applied to those whose father was Protestant and British or Scottish. Mixed Blood or Burnt Wood designated children of European men and aboriginal women. For a long time, the Métis were described as breeds, half-breeds, settlers, and many other pejorative names, such as Black Scots, Métis anglaise, Flower Beadwork People, Buffalo People, and Breeds and Half-breeds.

In 1885, during the North-West Rebellion, some of the Plains Cree, in despair over the disappearance of the bison, joined the Métis, who were defeated at Batoche, Saskatchewan, by troops dispatched by the Canadian government. Métis leader Louis Riel was tried and hanged, but his death left the country profoundly divided. Throughout the following decades, the conflicts between whites and Amerindians provoked animosity among the Cree and the "Western Indians." There then followed a period of repression during which successive Canadian governments attempted to curtail the freedoms of the native populations, who were generally herded onto "reserves."

In 1889 the federal Ministry of Indian Affairs was created to implement federal Indian policy. Over a period of decades, the Indian Act authorized the Ministry of Indian Affairs to provide health services and take steps to prevent the spread of disease on the Indian reserves. At the same time government authorities, backed by the Mounted Police, redoubled their efforts to put an end to the cultural practices of the aboriginal populations. Thus, Amerindian dances and ceremonial rituals not only were forbidden, but were stopped by the police as well. In British Columbia, police officers intervened to prevent Amerindians from holding their potlaches, sacred communal ceremonies. On the Prairies, Amerindians were imprisoned for participating in traditional dances. Some Aboriginal leaders dared to publicly condemn the government's repressive policy, but to no avail. The ban on traditional ceremonies remained in effect until the early 1950s.

Schools for the Aboriginal Peoples

There was also the issue of schools for the aboriginal peoples in the West, particularly in Manitoba, Alberta, and British Columbia, but elsewhere as well. Federal authorities encouraged the foundation of new boarding schools and new "industrial schools." These schools—all located off the reserves—taught manual skills in order to give the aboriginals training in agriculture or a trade. They also sought to instill religion. The Davin Report (after its author, Nicholas Flood Davin) recommended that children be taken away from home, given that "influence of the wigwam is greater than the influence of a day at school," and that they be "kept in a civilized setting"—in other words, in boarding schools where they would receive "a mother's care" and an education that would prepare them for life in modern Canada. In 1920, an amendment to the Indian Act made education mandatory for children aged 7 to 15, and discipline officers were authorized to impose penalties on parents who refused to send their children to school.

The schools and boarding schools were numerous in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, and the Yukon, but there were also some in Nova Scotia (in Shubenacadie) and as many as six in the province of Québec (in Amos, Pointe-Bleue, Sept-Îles, and La Tuque, with two at Fort-George—one Catholic, the other Anglican). The use of Aboriginal languages at school was forbidden, and the students were severely punished and even beaten for speaking them. School subjects were taught to meet predetermined objectives. However, many native peoples wanted to get an education in order to better retain—and avoid losing—their identities within white society. The countless reports denouncing the conditions in which the aboriginal children were living did not succeed in getting the churches or the successive governments to adopt measures to remedy the situation.

School for aboriginal Students

It wasn't until 1988 that the last federal boarding school was closed in Alberta in recognition of their failure. The concerted efforts to eradicate the Aboriginal peoples' customs, languages, traditions, and beliefs were made worse by bad management, a lack of financing, teaching of inferior quality, and deplorable abuses inflicted upon many native children. On September 25, 1963, speaking on behalf of the Indian Affairs Branch, R.F. Davey told the Standing Committee of Ministers of Education that the actual instruction the students received "leaves much to be desired, for it mainly consists of rote learning that has practically no educational value." He cited a departmental study which found that even in 1950, "over 40% of the teaching staff had no formal training." Some of the teachers had not even finished high school.

More Promising Changes

After World War II, the rise in anticolonialism made the Canadian public aware of the culture and heritage of the aboriginal peoples. Many white Canadians began to realize that the former goal of assimilation had not been reached and that the native peoples must be granted a larger role in Canadian society. Attitudes also changed in the face of the movement called "Red Power." Toward the late 1960s, non-aboriginal society started to grasp the failure of its policies.

Despite the zeal of the missionaries, the majority of aboriginal children did not go to the schools built for them. Nevertheless, during the last century, about ten aboriginal languages in Canada have disappeared and at least a dozen more are now on the verge of extinction. Of the some 800,000 people who claimed to be "aboriginal" in the 1996 census, only 26% indicated that their mother tongue was an "aboriginal language," and even fewer said they spoke that language at home, signifying that many native peoples have let their ancestral languages go. Demolinguistic analyses estimate that during the course of any given generation there is a "partial loss" of a solid fourth of mother tongue speakers. Until 1969, the goal of assimilation continued to dominate federal policy, although the federal government took care to use terms like "equality" and "citizenship" instead of the blunt language formerly used.

A Distinct Character
Carectere distinct

In 1960 the federal government granted the Amerindians the right to vote in federal elections without losing their status. The provinces followed suit, the last being Québec in 1968. Most Aboriginal communities gradually succeeded in administering their own school systems on the "reserves." They now generally manage the bulk of their health and welfare programs themselves, and they sometimes have their own police forces. The Cree-Naskapi (of Québec) Act, adopted in 1984 by the federal Parliament and Québec's Parliament, was a step toward self-government for the Aboriginal peoples. In addition, the Constitution Act, 1982 recognized the "existing rights—ancestral or treaty" for all the aboriginal peoples of Canada—the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit. The adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 ensured that the Canadian government would abandon its assimilation policy and recognize the distinct character of the aboriginal peoples. The most obvious result was the creation of the territory of Nunavut on April 1, 1999. It is located in the eastern Arctic and covers one-fifth of Canada's surface area. Nunavut's creation was a watershed moment for Canada, and news of the exceptional event circled the globe. The establishment of a government that reflected the cultural traditions and socio-economic aspirations of the Inuit people drew the interest of the entire international community.

Languages of the Aboriginal Peoples

Today Canada has at least 65 aboriginal ethnic groups and probably even more languages. However, not all native peoples speak their ancestral languages, even if they belong to a particular ethnic group. In 1996, 67.8% of the aboriginal peoples spoke English as their mother tongue and 5.8% spoke French, which translates to 45,955 "francophone" aboriginals. Canada has only 15,165 people whose native language is aboriginal and who do not speak English or French, or 8.1% of those who identify an aboriginal language as their mother tongue. But 187,670 people speak an aboriginal language as well as one of the official languages, generally English.

Most of the Amerindian languages belong to one of four linguistic families: the Eskimo-Aleut family in the North, the Iroquoian family in east-central Canada, the Algonquian family east of the Great Lakes to the Maritimes, and the Na-Dene family in the North and the West.

In 1990 and 1991, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) led an inquiry on the state of First Nations languages on the reserves of Canada. The results were published in the reports Towards Linguistic Justice for First Nations (1990) and Towards Rebirth of First Nations Languages (1992). The results for aboriginal languages were alarming: the survey showed that out of roughly 53 languages in Canada, 50 were becoming extinct. The report emphasized that only one-third of the 151 communities surveyed (out of approximately 630) could be classified as having a language that was truly flourishing (i.e., with over 80% of all age groups fluent in their mother tongue) or stable (i.e., with over 60% of all age groups speaking it fluently). In over one-fourth of the communities, the language was "declining," meaning that there was a decrease in the number of speakers in each age group. Unfortunately, it is estimated that at least 80% of Canada's aboriginal languages are currently on their way to extinction. There are only a few dozen—and sometimes not even that—speakers of a number of aboriginal languages, such as Chinook, Comox, and Kutenai. Although the loss of an aboriginal mother tongue does not necessarily lead to the disappearance of the ancestral culture, it is nonetheless a step in that direction. Only Cree, Inuktitut, and Ojibway are spoken by sufficient numbers of people to be considered safe from extinction in the long run. These three languages represent more than 90% of the native speakers of aboriginal languages, leaving little hope for the dozens of other languages.

Conclusion: The End of the 20th Century

Clearly, conflicts still surface sporadically. Four centuries of friction between the aboriginals and whites of Canada takes time to mend. The problems facing aboriginals—health, crime, alcohol, education, self-government, and so forth—are far from solved, but there is increasing room for hope. In 1995 the federal government fulfilled an election promise with the announcement of a policy recognizing the inherent right of aboriginal "self-government," as per section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, and setting out a method for negotiating self-government agreements. However, aboriginal groups and the government do not agree on the nature and scope of the powers at issue. A new bill on Aboriginal governance set outs procedures for band council elections, local administration, and accounting practices, among other things. This will replace Bill C-7, the First Nations Governance Act, which provoked an angry response from aboriginal leaders when the government introduced it in June 2002.

Whatever happens, it can be expected from here on out that the aboriginal peoples of Canada—the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis—will be called on to play a much larger role in directing the country's affairs. In addition to the action on long-standing territorial claims, the issue of "self-government" still needs resolving, and measures need to be taken to ensure the survival of those Aboriginal languages still spoken by sufficient numbers of people.

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