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Québec: French Culture, First Nations & Folk Music

Indigenous Peoples of Québec and Eastern Canada

Rachael Romero, designer. Free Skyhorse & Mohawk and all political prisoners. 1977. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

In Canada, the term Indigenous peoples encompasses the First Nations, the Inuit, and the Métis. In French the term is peuples autochtones du Québec. First Nations peoples are considered the original inhabitants of modern-day Canada. They typically inhabit the southern part of the country. The Inuit people live in the northernmost regions of Canada. They call their homeland Inuit Nunangat, which makes reference to the land, water, and ice found in the Arctic. The Métis are peoples who have mixed French and Cree ancestry. They live mainly in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, which altogether are known as the Prairie Provinces.

Québec is shared by three geo-cultural groupings of aboriginal peoples: the Eastern Woodlands Indigenous Peoples, the Subarctic Indigenous Peoples, and the Arctic Indigenous Peoples. Each designation is comprised of a variety of indigenous groups, principally, a mixture of First Nations peoples, Inuit peoples, and Métis peoples. The ten First Nations of Quebec External include the Abenaki, Algonquin, Attikamekw, Cree, Huron-Wendat, Mohawk, Malecites, Innus, Mi’qmaq and Naskapi.

The Eastern Woodlands Indigenous Peoples inhabit southern Québec, along the St. Lawrence River. In addition to Québec, they live in present-day southern Ontario, the Atlantic Canada provinces (e.g., New Brunswick and Nova Scotia), and New England. These tribes are further categorized under the Algonquian or Iroquois language groups. The Algonquin and the Iroquois (i.e., the Haudenosaunee), two of the most prominent tribal groupings, only form part of these language families, respectively. There are numerous other tribes that belong to these language groups. Some other southern Québec-based tribes that speak Algonquian include the Ojibwe, the Abenaki, and the Wolastoqiyik. The Huron-Wendat are another tribe of Iroquois speaking-peoples in the region. It is important to note that the Iroquois Confederacy is not an individual tribe, but rather it is composed of several tribes: Seneca, Cayuga, Tuscarora, Oneida, Mohawk, and Onondaga.

The Subarctic Indigenous Peoples live in the mid-section of the country which extends from the Bering Sea to Labrador and Newfoundland. This vast geographical region is made up of deciduous forests, mountains, plains, and tundra. Some of the Subarctic Indigenous Peoples that inhabit Québec include the Naskapi, East Cree, the Atikamekw, and the Innu. The East Cree is a linguistic and cultural subgroup of the Cree, one of the largest and most well-known indigenous groups in North America. The Naskapi, the Atikamekw, and the Innu, are distinct, but related to the East Cree. Similar to the Eastern Woodlands Indigenous Peoples, many of these peoples speak an Algonquian or Iroquois-related language. For example, the Atikamekw speak the Atikamekw language, which is a variety of the Cree language. The Cree language is a dialect continuum of the Algonquian language. In other words, there are language variations between subgroups of the Cree, but they become less linguistically-similar the farther apart they are in terms of geography.

Nipissing Indian in Canada, 1717. 1717. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The Arctic Indigenous Peoples mainly refers to the Inuit, a tribe that lives in Northern Canada. They mainly inhabit Nunavut, Northwest Territories, Labrador, and the northern-third of Québec called Nunavik. Overall, they refer to their vast land as Inuit Nunangat. Today, there are over 64,000 Inuit people living in Canada. Moreover, there are numerous Inuit communities in Greenland and Alaska. The foremost Inuit language is Inuktitut. It is spoken by over 39,000 Inuit people and is written in Unified Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics. Inuktitut covers a range of dialects and Inuvialuktun, the latter being mostly spoken in Nunavut and in Northwest Territories. The main dialect in Nunavik is Nunavimmiutitut. Due to their physical separation from Nunavut, where the majority of the Inuit live, those in Québec have developed their own government and education system.

Upon the arrival of the Europeans, the Algonquians, the Iroquoians, and the Inuit were the foremost aboriginal peoples in Québec. The French colonists had the least contact with the Inuit, who were more isolated in Northern Québec. On the other hand, the Iroquoians and the Algonquians traded frequently with them. All parties engaged in the profitable fur trade, which helped the French bring settlers over to the New World. From 1534 to 1763, France established a colony called New France. This region spanned modern-day Québec, Ontario, Manitoba, the Great Lakes, and the Mississippi River Region. David Treuer, author of The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890-Present, asserts that "The French mode of settlement was for Indians in many ways preferable to that of the British and the Spanish. Instead of following a pattern of conquest, subjugation, settlement, and displacement, the French, preferring to trade rather than to settle, were much more inclined to adapt to the new country and its inhabitants." (p.47). After 1763, the British took control of Québec following the Seven Years’ War. The subsequent American Revolution dragged Native populations all over North America into the politics of Europe and what was soon to be the United States.

Current scholarship has sought to change the narrative from the trope of the vanishing Indian to one which recovers the dignity, sovereignty, courage and power of the Native American experience. Nevertheless, the Indigenous peoples were irrefutably exploited under both French and English colonial control and even after Canada officially established its independence, many First Nations peoples continued to face systemic discrimination. There were merciless attempts by the government to erase the culture and ethnicity of the indigenous peoples. The federal government passed the Indian Act of Canada (Loi sur les Indiens) in 1876 which states that they have the power to administer the status of aboriginal peoples. This means that they define who is considered “indigenous” and can dictate how reserves behave. In order to strip indigenous people of political power, colonizers forced regulatory systems onto them and the Indian Act is one example of this. The law is still in place today, and is considered controversial due to its role in permitting human rights violations. There have since been a number of attempts by parliamentarians to revise or repeal the current law.

Indigenous women have suffered a sort of double oppression. Many argue that since the Indian Act defined women's status as inferior to men's, indigenous identity and status were now determined based on a patrilineal blood line, which cost women much of their social and political power. Indigenous women were not allowed to vote until the 1960s. It has also been documented that indigenous women are disproportionately represented in statistics around missing and murdered persons. Indigenous women between the ages of 25-44 in Canada are five times more likely than other women of the same age to die as a result of violence. In 2014 the Royal Canadian Mounted Police released Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women; A National Operations Review, which documented these grim statistics. The Native Women's Association of Canada, or Association des femmes autochthones du Canada External [AFAC] is a national Indigenous organization representing the political voice of Indigenous women, girls, and gender-diverse people in Canada, inclusive of First Nations on and off reserve, status and non-status, disenfranchised, Métis, and Inuit. Native Women of Québec, or Femmes autochtones du Québec External, founded in 1974, represents women from the Indigenous Peoples in Quebec and Indigenous women living in urban areas. Issues continue to emerge into public debates about Indigenous people in Canada including: Social Economies in Indigenous Communities, Indigenous Knowledge Systems, Protection of Biodiversity, Impact of Globalization on Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous Women's Rights and Food Sovereignty. Efforts to reconcile and unite the indigenous populations include celebrations such as Journée nationale des peuples autochtones (National Indigenous People's Day).

Another dire issue concerns Canada's residential school system which began operating in the 1870s. Run primarily by the Catholic (or in some cases Anglican) Church, these boarding schools were established to remove the influence of their native cultures. Some such as journalist Terry Glavin have used the term "cultural genocide" to describe the stripping away of all "uncivilized" influences of the indigenous culture in favor of the dominant, Christian and Western values. Cultural aspects aside, the malnutrition and abuse (often sexual) these children suffered, and their removal from their homes is universally viewed today as criminal. Québec was rather late to institute these schools and in 1948 when Canada at large recommended shutting them down, Québec was opening new schools. These schools had a racist curriculum: students were punished if they spoke Cree, Algonquin or other Indigenous languages, and beaten as a form of discipline. By the 1970s schools were closing but it was not until the 1990s that a spotlight was put on these institutions. In 2008 the Truth and Reconciliation Committee would be established to document the lasting damage done to the indigenous population during these decades and Justin Trudeau would accept all recommendations. In Canada September 30th marks the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to honor survivors as well as the children who have never returned. In total Québec ran a total of 12 residential schools (Federal Hostels) over these years in the following locations: Payne Bay, Porte Harrison, George River, Great Whale River, Fort George Roman Catholic Indian Residential School, Fort George Hostels, Fort George Church of England Indian Residential School, Mistassini Hostels, Notre Dame de Malioténam, Pointe Bleue, Amos, and La Tuque.

Jules-Ernest Livernois, photographer. Quebec and Lake Saint-John Railway: Innu (Montagnais) Indians at Pointe-Bleue on Lake Saint-John. [1887 to 1890]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

In the past several years, there has been a push for reconciliation between indigenous peoples, Canadians, and the local and national governments. Poverty is a problem for many Indigenous people, and can be traced back to the colonizers. To advance progress, some stakeholders have engaged in social and political activism, taking the form of peaceful protests, marches, and occupations. Organizations such as the Centre d'Amitié Autochtone de Montréal or Native Friendship Center of Montreal External, continue to serve the needs of urban native populations.

Today there are two urban reserves in Québec. Wendake 7 and Wendake 7A, (formerly known as Village-des-Hurons, or Jeune-Lorette), are settlements for the Iroquoian-speaking Huron-Wendat Nation. The Huron-Wendat Nation has over 4,000 members and about 1,500 live in the settlements located in Québec City. This page in the guide has digital resources on Indigenous People.

To search the Library's collections use the following Library of Congress Subject Headings in a Browse search "SUBJECTS beginning with":

Indians of North America--History
First Nations

The bibliography below includes books on Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous Feminism in Québec and Canada.

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional digitized versions are included when available.