Sunday, March 9, 2014

A Stolen Land of Immigrants

Spanish Conquistadors... conquisting!
There is a certain argument that you invariably hear when advocating independence for Quebec which basically says that Quebec has no right to claim its independence since it is built on stolen land. It takes a jaw-dropping level of hypocrisy for an English Canadian to throw that accusation at us but it does happen… regularly! After all if that makes Quebec illegitimate, it should also make Canada illegitimate. I guess being the default position bestows legitimacy. In any case, from my experience, the person who most often makes this accusation is someone from an immigrant background with a limited understanding of our history. They just know that nasty things were done to the Native people and they see us as a bunch of white people who have been here a while so we must be guilty. Personally, I get somewhat annoyed with this type of simplistic narrative which basically says “white people exterminated the Native people”. It’s a bit like saying “white people exterminated millions of Jews during World War II”. I’m not saying that my ancestors were all saints but I don’t like seeing other people’s crimes being attributed to them nor do I accept the claim that they came to this land as thieves.

Who knows what brought the Innu, Cree, Inuit or Iroquois to this part of the world. It may have partly been warfare or bad directions but I would bet that the main reason was resources. Resources (the fur trade) is what lured my ancestors here.  The fact that they came late to the party doesn’t seem relevant to me since the inhabitants of Quebec at the time did not object to their arrival.  Over seventy years separated the first known European contact with the St Lawrence valley by Jacques Cartier and the first permanent European settlement established by Samuel de Champlain in 1608. During that time, Europeans (Scandinavians, Bretons, Basques, Normans, etc.) began arriving to fish and trade with the native people. European goods were very much coveted by the native people who began competing for access to them turning the St Lawrence valley into a kind of war zone. In fact, by the time Champlain arrived, the people and settlements encountered by Jacques Cartier had all disappeared. 

The fate of these people, known as the St.Lawrence Iroquoians or Stadaconans, is unknown. However there is evidence that they may have been eliminated by the Mohawk, who lived to the south in the Mohawk Valley. The Mohawk had no easy route to participate in the St Lawrence fur trade and may have decided to take one by force. Evidence shows that some Stadaconans survived among the Algonquin and others found refuge with the Huron. Archaeologists have found St Lawrence pottery among the Huron, evidence that some of them at least were adopted by Huron villages. 

When Champlain established permanent settlements in the St Lawrence valley, this wasn't seen as an invasion by the native people but rather as greater access to European goods. Champlain began establishing alliances with most of the Native peoples he encountered. The only enemies he made were the Iroquois and the reason for the conflict was Champlain’s alliance with the Huron. The first thing the Huron asked of their newly found French allies was the use of their guns against their Iroquois enemies. Unfortunately, the Iroquois were the most powerful people in the region at the time and Champlain’s alliance with the Huron would result in decades of war with the Iroquois Confederacy.

As any glance at a map of the time will show you, the French claimed a huge part of North America. This does not mean that they militarily invaded every inch of this land and subjugated its inhabitants. Europeans of this time considered any land not claimed by a Christian monarch as “Terra nullius” and therefore up for grabs. The St Lawrence leads to the Great Lakes and other river ways are not too far off, including the Mississippi basin. The French explored these regions and established forts and trading posts along the way. The English colonists, on the other hand, had established themselves on the east coast and were only slowly moving westwards. However, their growing numbers was creating pressure to expand. New France was standing in the way of this.

Seven Years’ war and its consequences

If you look at the list of belligerents in the Seven Years’ war (North American version) otherwise known as the French and Indian War, you’ll notice that most Native people were on the side of France. I think they probably understood that the main threat to their lands and way of life came from the growing English colonies. This war had profound effects on Native Americans, particularly those in the Ohio River and the Mississippi River regions. After the war, the Ohio Valley tribes lost a powerful ally in France, and therefore their ability to counteract English colonial intrusions into their territories. 

The defeat of the French in this war essentially began the process of opening up the American frontier for British and later American settlers. The French no longer stood in their way, and no longer served as a counter-balance used by the Native tribes to curtail English settlement. The tide of settlers sweeping west across the Appalachians proved devastating for tribes already weakened by warfare and dispossession. They were also being stressed by other, eastern tribes being pushed west into their territories. Inter-tribal warfare erupted in the Ohio River Valley and soon spread to the Mississippi region.

The British took retribution against Native American nations that had fought on the side of the French by cutting off their supplies and then forcibly compelling the tribes to obey the rules of the new mother country. Native Americans that had fought on the side of the British with the understanding that their cooperation would lead to an end to European encroachment on their land were unpleasantly surprised when many new settlers began to move in. Furthermore, with the French presence gone, there was little to distract the British government from focusing its attention on whatever Native American tribes lay within its grasp. All of these factors played into the multinational Indian uprising called "Pontiac's War" that erupted directly following the end of the French and Indian War.

So what's your point?

My point is that for most of human history, the entire planet was a big game of musical chairs. Shit happened, people moved around and they ended up where they ended up. Quebec is no different and is no more a "stolen land" than Algeria or Japan. There certainly was plenty of nasty stuff done to Native Americans, I don't deny that. Some Native peoples were enslaved and worked to extermination, others had their way of life deliberately destroyed in order to drive them to starvation. Even when the Native people basically submitted, their children were taken away from them in order to beat the "Indian" out of them in residential schools. France is not without guilt in all this. Native tribes that stood in the way of their fur business like the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi were dealt with harshly. 

But overall, any rational person has to admit that France also play a positive role in North America in regards to the Native people. Perhaps the best that can be said is that they helped delay the inevitable but I'll take that over the legacy of Cortés or Pizarro any day. In any case, my ancestors came to this land because of the lucrative trade in fur. Their arrival was not very different from the arrival of all the other people who came to this land before them. They certainly were no more land thieves then the Mohawk whose arrival in the St Lawrence valley was likely more violent and less welcomed than that of my ancestors.

A land of immigrants

You'll often hear that Canada is a land of immigrants. There's no denying that immigration has played an important part in Canada's history but to simply say that this is a country full of immigrants seems to be a whitewash of a big part of our history unless you redefine the word "immigrant" to apply to everyone. Calling Canada (and Quebec) a land of immigrants implies that it is a land that belongs to no one (except for the First Nations but we can ignore them) and it is therefore a land that belongs to everyone. Quebec nationalism is then portrayed as something illegitimate because it is supposedly claiming a part of this land for a group of people who came over from France. I would argue that we are claiming Quebec for all Quebecers regardless of their origins but as with many countries, there is a certain ethnic group that forms the backbone of this nation. And in Quebec's case this group would be the decedents of the French settlers of New France. But is our history in this land really so different from every other country? So different, in fact, as to render our desire for independence illegitimate? Let's compare with another country...

Hungary, a land of immigrants?

The Hungarians, otherwise known as the Magyars arrived in the Carpathian Basin roughly a thousand years ago. That land was already occupied by a number of peoples (Avars, Slavs, Bulgarians, Vlachs, etc). Nonetheless, the Hungarians established themselves there and built a kingdom which later became a regional power. Centuries later, Hungary was conquered by the Ottoman empire. The 150 year occupation decimated the Hungarian population. The Turks were eventually driven out by the Austrians and Hungary was then ruled by the Habsburgs until the 20th century. During that time Slavic and Germanic people from other parts of the empire settled in Hungary. Somehow the Hungarian culture and language survived all this. In more recent decades, Hungary has welcomed immigrants from countries like China, Vietnam and Mongolia. These last groups are clearly immigrants but can we say that Hungary is a land of immigrants? Are the Hungarians themselves immigrants since their ancestors came from the Russian Steppes a thousand years ago? The Hungarians certainly don't see themselves that way. They see Hungary as their country, as the country that they founded and built.

I don't think Quebec's history is so different. However, unlike Hungary, there are still other nations that exists in Quebec and their cultures, languages and rights should be respected and valued but their existence does not invalidate ours. We aren't trying to rewrite history or fight old battles. We aren't claiming all the land that was once part of New France nor are we claiming the predominantly French-speaking parts of Ontario or New-Brunswick. We live in a state which is currently a province of a federation. We believe this province should leave the Canadian federation and become an independent country. Everyone who lives in Quebec gets a say and there is absolutely nothing illegitimate about that.


  1. The French - and the CanadiEns - traded with Indians, they had alliances, pacts that were respected and, a thing that was unusual at that time, Indians were considered humans hence the evangelization attempts upon them (there is no point pushing religion onto animals).

    An other interesting piece of info : The Great Peace of Montreal :
    The Great Peace of Montreal was a peace treaty between New France and 40 First Nations of North America. It was signed on August 4, 1701, by Louis-Hector de Callière, governor of New France, and 1300 representatives of 40 aboriginal nations. ...

    In that page :

    The French, in negotiating followed their traditional policy in the Americas, where the relationship with the natives was characterized by mutual respect and admiration and based on dialogue and negotiation. According to the 19th century historian Francis Parkman:

    "Spanish civilization crushed the Indian; English civilization scorned and neglected him; French civilization embraced and cherished him"
    —Francis Parkman.

  2. I forgot to say : Thanks for this great text, V&J

    I will not provide source for the following but it seems to be common knowledge now that the Viking Leif Erikson came from Groenland to l'Anse aux Meadows (New-Foundland) around 990 and tried a permanent establishment there but was repelled by the Natives (the Vikings were not the let's make friends type of explorers .. )

    Then different European fishermen kept coming to the Atlantic near New-Foundland and Gaspé and in the St-Lawrence gulf only during summers for centuries until Cook, Verazzanno and Cartier were sent to officially take possession some lands.

    The greatest achievement of Jacques Cartier is to be the first European to have established an amicable relation with the Natives which made it possible for him to pursue two long exploration journeys into the St-Lawrence, spend two winters in America, bring some Indians back in France, etc.


  3. Also, whatever anglo-imperialists say about the way the real Canadiens and the French have treated the Natives, I always let them know that New-France Native's were considered equal citizens, given full freedom and control over their territories and that it is not the French nor the real CanadiEns that are currently keeping Canada Natives in concentration camps, for more than two centuries ...

  4. Quote " I don't think Quebec's history is so different. However, unlike Hungary, there are still other nations that exists in Quebec and their cultures, languages and rights should be respected and valued but their existence does not invalidate ours." That is correct but immigrants and Anglos have to realize that they must adapt and assimilate to the French Language and culture of the Quebecois. To do other wise is very disrespectful and arrogant. When my parents moved to the US, they made sure they learned English. They did not complain because nothing was translated in French. They did not complain that their children had to go to English schools.

    Quebec has other nationalities living there but the vast majority of the population is pretty solidly french Quebecois. Not all nations are melting pot nations like the US or Canada. If unrestricted immigration is allowed the culture and language of any nation will die out. France is dealing with this right now.

    1. Serge: je suis d'accord avec vous. Etant qu'anglophone qui vient de la Colombie-Britannique, et qui parle un peu de francais (et un peu de quelques autres langues aussi), je crois que ca serait plus facile pour moi d'assimiler a la culture francophone du Quebec, qu'aux cultures de la plupart d'autres pays. C'est le Canada quand-meme; le Quebec, c'est plus semblable au Canada anglophone qu'a la France dans plusieurs respects, meme si le francais se parle au Quebec comme langue principale.

  5. I see that Pauline Marois is saying that an independent Quebec would keep the Canadian currency. Before, I recall that she was complaining Canada retaining the British monarchy, and V&J has also said "I hate the Queen's face on our money and our stamps" (in another post on this blog).

    Well, if an independent Quebec keeps the Canadian currency, then the Queen's visage will continue to be highly-visible there. I also want to have the British monarchy removed from Canada, and the Queen's face removed from Canadian banknotes and coins, though I don't really care if the name of my province, British Columbia, is kept the same. It's no worse than "New England" in the U.S.

    I'd prefer that Quebec remain in Canada, and that like-minded francophones and anglophones work together towards this.

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