Decolonizing Travel is a series aimed at shedding light on the colonial past of major European and North American countries through the revisiting of monuments, streets, and sites particularly related to it. 

Long before European colonizers ever knew the area existed, the southwest of what is now known as Québec (including current Montreal), was an important route for nomadic Iroquoian people. Back then, from what we can tell by the records, the Island of Montreal was known as Kawenote Teiontiakon, a documented Kanien’kéha name for the territory, while today’s Montreal city was called Tiohti:áke in Kanien’kéha language, and Mooniyang in Anishinaabemowin. 

Along with the Oneida, Seneca, Onondaga, Cayuga and Tuscarora Nations, the Mohawk achieved major development prior to colonization by forming the Iroquois Confederacy, which included a system of governance known as the Great Law of Peace.

During his arrival in 1535, explorer Jacques Cartier encountered the city of Hochelaga, based on the south side of Mont Royal. Dutch explorers were the first to encounter the Indigenous populations who would soon sustain resistance in this area, and gave them the name “Mohawk” based on how their Algonquin neighbors referred to them. Mohawk resistance ensured that French settlers and missionaries weren’t able to create a permanent settlement in the territory until 1639. In 1642, a mission named Ville Marie was founded as part of a project to create a colony dedicated to the Virgin Mary. 

There begins the colonial history of Montreal, marked by conflict between the Iroquoians and the French. The latter insisted on changing the former’s nomadic living, which they considered primitive, as well as forcing them to adopt European costumes, religion and language.

As a nation, Canada has recently and forcefully confronted the history and legacy of the cultural genocide inflicted against its original inhabitants. This included, but was not limited to, restrictions on cultural practices, such as a ban on the wearing of Indigenous regalia in public, the imposition of new political systems that impeded their ability to function as independent, self-governing peoples, the establishment of a definition of “Indiannes” based on colonially imposed criteria that separated people into “Indian status” and “non-Indian status”, and the creation of the Residential School system, which not only deculturized, but gave place to tremendous abuse, neglect and exclusion to its student body. 

Between 1927 and 1951, Indigenous peoples were banned by law from hiring a lawyer, while their right to vote in national elections wasn’t installed until the 1960s. These examples tell us how hard Canadian policy worked to eliminate any separate Indigenous identity for a long time, using cultural repression and educational subjugation as its tools. 

Montreal First Peoples Festival.

While the installment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) in 2008 served as a way to document the history and legacy of Residential Schools, Indigenous-settler relations and Canadian “Indian” policy, the need to confront how this history affects present day Canada and its relationship with indigenous nations remains strong. 

The modern-day legacy of this historical mistreatment is apparent in poor water quality on reserves, overcrowded housing, a lack of substantial health care, and lack of justice in cases of abuse and murder of, particularly, Indigenous women and children. 

In the case of Montreal, organizations such as the Montreal Indigenous Community Network, and the Indigenous Solidarity group, part of the Quebec Public Interest Group at Concordia University, work hard to share information and develop projects that address the issues of de-colonialism and reconciliation, such as the Indigenous Ally Toolkit.

The First Peoples Garden in the Monreal Botanical Garden. Photo credit: Marie Deschene.

On this guide, we’ll go through a few key spots in Montreal that serve as reminders of Canadian colonial history and can help us gain a better understanding of it, and its consequences. 

A decolonizing tour through Montreal:

Hochelaga-Maisonneuve Neighborhood

The Hochelaga-Maisonneuve neighborhood was named after the Iroquois village of the same name, which was first visited by Jacques Cartier in 1534. While it was at one time believed to be the exact location of the historic village, modern anthropologists and historians are not entirely sure this is the case: several theories situate it at an Iroquoian village discovered near McGill University, others place it at now upper Outremont district or on the terrace on the south side of Mount Royal, around today’s Dr. Penfield Avenue. 

Hochelaga is an Iroquoian term, which is either a variation of the word osekare, “beaver path,” or of the word osheaga, “big rapids.” According to Cartier’s travel logs, the village of Hochelaga was located “about a league and a half” (8 kms) inland from the docking point, which should be somewhere around the actual Port of Montreal. 

It consisted of about 50 wooden houses and was surrounded by corn fields; its inhabitants are theorized to be the St. Lawrence Iroquoians, a group of indigenous sedentary farmers who lived in the area of the St. Lawrence Valley between 1200 and 1600.

John A. Macdonald Monument, at Place de Canada

As Canada’s first prime minister, Macdonald was chief architect of its residential school system and promoted genocidal policies against Indigenous peoples.

Erected in 1895, the monument was meant to celebrate the character and his role in Confederation. However, in the past few years it became a target of vandalism, until it was finally toppled down in August 2021.

macdonald monument in montreal

To get more of an idea of who Macdonald was and the type of policies he implemented and promoted, we’ll refer to one of his most infamous quotes, told to the House of Commons in 1882,: “I have reason to believe that the agents as a whole … are doing all they can, by refusing food until the Indians are on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense”, referring to the famines that killed almost 12,000 people in the Plains First Nations during the 1880s. To read more about John A. Macdonald’s legacy, we recommend this article by the National Post. 

La Maison Amérindienne

La Maison Amérindienne is a site of national reference that mostly showcases maple products, while at the same time serving as a place of cultural exchange and approximation towards the history, gastronomy and culture of First Nations. Their museum offers multiple environmental, agricultural and gourmet activities and permanent exhibits, including guided tours, workshops and conferences, interpretation trails and tastings of Indigenous-style meals. 

Pointe-A-Calliere, Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History

Before the Pointe-A-Calliere Museum ever existed, First Peoples — mainly Algonquins, Hurons and Iroquois — used it as a camping spot. In 1642, it was on this same spot where Fort Ville-Marie, the first French Colony in Canada, was founded. This stretch of ground had initially served as a meeting point between French settlers and indigenous communities, known then as Place Royale. interactive exhibit at history museum in montreal

Today, the Pointe-A-Calliere Museum chronicles the history of the Island of Montreal from when the Natives first arrived, to the present day with a series of workshops and exhibitions, covering archaeological findings as well as cultural, economic, political and social practices of First Peoples.

Kahnawake Reservation

The Mohawks of Kahnawake are one of the eight communities that belong to the Mohawk (Kanien’kehá:ka) Nation.

Based approximately 10 kilometers from the city of Montreal, the Kanien’kehá:ka territory became wedged between the French fur trading posts of Quebec City and the British settlement of Albany. Thanks to their independence, diplomatic skills and military forces, they managed to organize their community and take economical and political advantage of their location, resisting the expansion of the fur trade and conserving their cultural heritage up to this day. 

Once the War of 1812 came, their independent and self-sustaining way of living was dramatically altered. The debilitating circumstances were legitimized through the Indian Act of 1876 which suppressed their traditional government and forced them to become “civilized,” prohibiting the use of their language and practice of their culture. It also seized their territory, diminishing their land base and placing them under the supervision of the Department of Indian Affairs, which left them without the right and authority to determine their own affairs. 

Today, the Reservation serves as a place of cultural resilience, providing visitors with a museum and cultural center where they can learn more about the Kahnawake culture and gain a better understanding of their relevance in Canadian history. While the pandemic has forced it to close its territory to tourists, they continue to offer online tours through their official website

Montreal’s First Peoples Festival

Every August, Montreal celebrates the nine day First Peoples Festival, celebrating Indigenous groups not only in Canada, but throughout the Americas and the world with a series of film exhibitions, concerts, seminars, art shows and Indigenous street food venues. In the year 2020, they moved their activities online through their official website, while extending the festival duration from the month of August up to November.

Photo credit: Mario Faubert.

McCord Museum

Hosting the permanent exhibition “Wearing our Identity, The First Peoples Collection,” along with many other interesting, contemporary Indigenous art exhibits, the McCord Museum is a must-see if you want to learn more about the work of Indigenous artists.  

Photo credit: SMQ

Ashukan Cultural Space

Completely dedicated to aboriginal arts, culture and artists, the Ashukan Cultural Space is a unique place to visit in the heart of the tourist district in Montreal. Based on the mission of generating exposure for Aboriginal artists through exhibitions and events, at the same time it serves as a place of cultural connection between First Nations, Métis and Inuit artists and peoples and the rest of the world. While you’re there, don’t forget to visit their 100% native, fair trade boutique!

decolonizing mural in montreal

Works of Public Art

As you walk around the streets of Montreal, pay attention to its walls, as many of them feature murals by Aboriginal artists such as Meky Ottawa, Nadia Myre and Camille Larivée. Larivée is the founder of Unceded Voices, a Decolonizing Street Art Convergence, which takes place in the city every year. Murals, stencils, and even sculptures can be found all around the main districts of the city such as in Sherbrooke Street, right in front of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, where Kwakiutl artist Charles Joseph erected a tremendous Totem Pole in 2017.