The Changing Face of Canada
Through the Eyes of the Montagnais Women
I do not ask that flowers, should always spring beneath my feet;
I know too well the posison and the sting from things too sweet
   
Adelaide Anne Proctor
'Songs  From the Hearts of Women'
When Champlain first met up with the Canadian people on the rugged St. Lawrence shoreline, near the mouth of the Saguenay, he referred to them as Montagnais, which meant 'Mountaineer' the only comparison he could make.  At the time however, they called themselves Innu, which was simply their word for people, (not to be confused with the Eskimo).  They were also known as Kebik, since they could be found near the narrow passage, Neenoilno (perfect people) and Tshetsiuetineuerno (people of the north-northeast). Naskapi (Nascapee) from a Montagnais word meaning "rude or uncivilized" was used to describe their eastern relatives.  

It is believed that they had been inhabiting the region for more than 2,000 years, one of the group of Asian
emigrants who followed the retreat of the glaciers at the end of the last ice-age. There is evidence that a group of  Cree-speaking Algonquin began to occupy Labrador and eastern Quebec about that time, and the Naskapi were living on the Labrador peninsula when the Vikings first arrived. As a matter of fact, both the Montagnais and Naskapi had extensive contact with the European fishermen who frequented the Grand Banks during the 1500s, and by and large their encounters were friendly.  It was their exchange of furs for European goods that actually created the fur trade that would bring  a mass influx of traders to the region in the early 1600s.
But even before their arrival, the Montagnais nations maintained an extensive trade network with each other.

Living in small nomadic bands, they originally followed the caribou migrations, supplementing their diet with fish and other small game.  More hunters than gatherers, their dwellings were designed to be lightweight and portable, which they would cover with caribou hide in the colder weather to insulate them from the arctic chill.
Their clothing was made from animal skins and fur, and in the winter months they would dress more in the fashion of their enemy, the Eskimo.  Birchbark canoes were used for summer transport, and in the winter they travelled on foot with the use of snowshoes; a Native innovation.  

The group who occupied the forest areas along the north shore of the St. Lawrence at the time,  were a woodland people, moving between summer villages near the river and winter hunting camps in the interior, like the one at
Tadoussac.   After the French fur trade concentrated them near the St. Lawrence in the early 1600s, the southern Montagnais bands were forced to organize themselves within fixed hunting territories. They wore buckskin clothing like their southern neighbors and began living in birchbark covered wigwams. Their diet was mostly moose and seal, but also included salmon and eel. They considered porcupine a delicacy and as such were often referred to as the "Porcupine Indians.

When Champlain established his first trading post at Tadoussac, he began a friendship with the Montagnais people that would last throughout his lifetime.  They would often rely on him, to a certain extent, to help them out throught the long winter months, but in return he got the loyalty of these proud Canadians, and the access to some of the best furs in the country.

But he would also be drawn into a war that had been raging since about 1550.  Though
the Iroquois had left the region, they still posed a major threat to trade, and when the French attempted to extend their business west of Kebec in 1608, they renewed their agression against the Montagnais and other Algonkin nations.  This would set the tone for the next several decades, and many would pay the price. 

The Montagnais were among the first converts to Christianity,
though their souls came with a price:  French firearms.  At first the missionaries limited the amount of ammunition they gave them, to ensure they didn't use them against wach other.  This was enough to allow the Montagnais and others, like the Huron, to keep the Iroquois at bay, at least temporarily.   

Bound to the French through religion and intermarriage, the Montagnais provided warriors during their four wars with the British between 1689 and 1763, but things changed for them after the British gained control of their country.  About this time, lumber interests moved into the Saguenay River Valley and the upper north shore of the St. Lawrence, which brought increased settlement. This cost them greatly, as they began to lose much of their original homeland, and were constantly exposed to epidemics. Beaver hats gave way to silk during the 1830s ending one their major sources of income, and the use of firearms in hunting for profit depleted much of available wildlife.

In general, the Montagnais are not well-known outside of Quebec and Labrador. Many of their important contributions to the early history of Canada have been obscured by their frequent confusion with the Algonkin or Cree.  

Currently there are about 13,000 Montagnais residing at Nitassinan, their original homeland, made up of three  divisions: the
Montagnais along the St. Lawrence between the St. Maurice River and Sept-Iles; the Naskapi east of them in Labrador; and the Attikamek on the upper St. Maurice River north of Montreal.
Daily Life
As a semi-nomadic people, life for the Montagnais women was often difficult, with seemingly few rewards.  They could never really 'nest' anywhere, as they moved back and forth from summer and winter residences, first following the caribou and then merely moving inland in the winter, where hunting was best, and back to the shore in summer to fish and engage in trade along the river highway. 
As they travelled, they would have to carry their children, the bark for their new homes, kitchen utensils, firewood and fir branches for their beds.  In winter, they would often have to cross the rivers, from ice floe to ice floe, or try to manouver their canoes through limited open water.
Champlain describes an incident his first winter at the Kebec Habitation when he had already lost ten of his men to scurvey.  One day they were aroused by the sound of screams of men, woman and children, who had found themselves trapped on Pointe Levis not far from the habitation.  The ice floes that were roaring down the river crushed their canoes and the survivors had managed to swim to one of the floes, which led them to the shore at Kebec.

They were little more than skeletons, and Champlain doled out what little food they had, beginning with the nursing mothers and small children.  He then ordered his men to assist in building small dwellings nearby, covering them with layers of bark to keep out the cold.  Still more perished.  Mothersí milk dried up, resulting in the deaths of many infants, and the residents resorted to eating their dogs and even the bait left out by the French to trap wild game.  By the time the spring shad began to run, ending the famine,  there was nothing left to do but
bury the dead and comfort the living.
Sadly, this was not an unusual occurance.  In 1720, the Jesuits describe similar hardships, once witnessing a young family trying to make their way to shore from ice floe to ice floe, dragging their canoe behind them, and another of an elderly woman and her son stranded in the middle of the river, surrounded by 'great masses of ice.'  The only thing that saved them was to fire a shot from their gun, which was heard by the camp, who sent out a rescue team of canoes, fighting the elements, but bringing them back to safety.
When the first missionaries arrived at Tadoussac , they described the Montagnais as "wretched tribes with universal ignorance and with moral depravity, idolatry, brutal savagery and foul nudity", but in fact they were a rather mild and affiable group, genereous to a fault, with a ready smile and hearty laugh.  Like most North American people of the time, they dressed to suit the weather and in summer, clothing was optional. 

They also took part in many symbolic dances, that required disrobing, that were more spiritual in nature, but not without a sensual element.   Sex was not a sin, as the missionaries believed, but a natural thing.  Later as some converted to Christianity, they were able to adapt to more modest attire and 'moral' conduct. 

Unlike many other Canadian Nations at the time, the Montagnais women were not expected to do all the work, but domestic duties were shared, with the men handling the more ardous tasks, leaving the women and children to do the less fatiquing chores. 

Men were always served their meal first, and would begin eating before the women, but women made all the major decisions; like future plans, when to leave their current location and which direction to take.  Like the
Huron Women they would agree to arranged marriages that would strengthen their trade relation and alliances.

During war, men would take women prisoners but never kill them on their own.  Instead, they would be brought home to meet their fate at the hands of the Montagnais females.  Death would often be slow and painful, depending on how much they themselves had suffered as a result of the conflict.


The Montagnais  absolutely adored their children, and considered them to be treasures, never to be taken for granted.  It was difficult for them to understand how the missionaries could consider their nudity indecent, and yet the striking of a child a necesssay thing.  You never struck a child, no matter what.  They also had their own brand of justice, that the French found difficult to understand.  One incident that occurred at Tadoussac in 1617, showed just how far they would go to protect their children.

When Champlain had to return to France on a business matter, he left
Sieur Du Parc in charge, and the man got along very well with the local people.  However, one of the Montagnais was beaten up by the new locksmith at the post; who felt that the deputy commander was showing him favor.  The man became so enraged that a few days later when he saw the French locksmith out fishing with a sailor, he ambushed them, killed them both and tied their bodies together.  He then weighted the bodies with stones and threw them into the stream.   However, they eventually rose to the surface and were recognized.  The murdererís accomplice gave him away and Du Parc was left with deciding his punishment. 

The Canadians wanted to settle it in their own way, by presenting gifts to the relatives of the victims, but the French wanted the two men executed.  Soon the entire colony was involved, and there was nothing left to do but summon Champlain to act as mediator.  He arrived at Tadoussac on June 24, 1618;  bringing along his 18 year old brother-in-law; Eustache Brouille.

While the prisoners were being held inside the habitation, the Montagnais tried to storm the building to rescue them, but Champlain put down the drawbridge and posted arquebusiers at the entrance, forcing the mob to retreat.  Later the murdererís father got down on his knees to plead for his sonís release, so Champlain, understanding the father's devotion, decided to hand him over with instructions to keep him under control.
For the most part, the Montagnais people were relatively poor, with very few personal possessions.  More 'stuff',  just meant more to move, and they needed to travel light.  When the French settlers began to arrive they would often hire the young girls and women as domestics, and would give them dresses and other items to help them 'blend in'.  The young men could also find employment with the construction of forts and homes, and were usually paid in kind, since money had little, if any, value.  Knives, hatchets, and even guns might be acquired for a few days work.
The convents would also take in the young girls, dressing them in French fashion and instructing them in the Christian faith, but rarely would a family allow their daughter to stay on a permanent basis.  When Champlain adopted his daughters; Faith, Hope and Charity, it was an isolated incident with extenuating circumstances.  You simply did not desert your children and definitely did not give them away.  The girls would later prove just how tough the Montagnais women could be.
Though there was a definite clash of cultures, the French and Montagnais-Canadians had a mutual respect.  Whenever a group of Natives crossed a river, especially in winter, they would fire four shots once they arrived safely on the other side, to which the French would answer back.  Their version of 'call me when you get there'.
When the British took control in 1763, life began to change drastically for this Nation, as hunting and fishing were no longer enough to feed a family.  Many had embraced Christianity and a western lifestyle, but alcoholism became a major social problem.

However, the women still hold their place of prominence in the family unit; still adore their children; and still love to laugh.  Some things never change.
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