Settler Colonialism in Quebec: a blind spot of academic research? Part 2: The Land

By Kathleen Villeneuve

Translated by Robert Twiss from an original publication in HistoireEngagé

On November 25 to 26, 2021 the Université de Montréal hosted the workshop “Settler Colonialism in Quebec: a blind spot of academic research?” Organized by professors Catherine Larochelle and Ollivier Hubert, the aim of the workshop was to survey the state of research in settler colonial studies, a field which, while it is more developed outside the province, is still in its infancy in Quebec. The workshop was therefore conceived as a first step in the development of the study of Quebecois colonialism, in a context in which “colonial agnosia” still limits debate, in this province perhaps more than elsewhere. The presentations were grouped into thematic panels representing the physical and symbolic spaces through which settler colonialism carves a path.

This week in a five part series, we are sharing with you the ideas discussed in November. Today, in our second instalment, we focus on Jean-Philippe Bernard, Mathieu Arsenault, Adèle Clapperton-Richard, Caroline Desbiens and Justine Gagnon presentations about the land. In Quebec, as in other settlercolonial sites, the settlers came to stay and to take over Indigenous territories.

While the study of words permits the exploration of colonialism’s rhetorical universe and collective representations, the way in which colonialism operates in physical space is also a fundamental component that must not be neglected. With this in mind, Jean-Philippe Bernard et Mathieu Arsenault propose to distance themselves from the grand theoretical structures of colonialism, turning instead to its local expression through a microhistorical approach.

Jean-Philippe Bernard focuses on the Timiskaming reserve, which during the Great Depression and the back-to-the-land movement, was ceded to the neighbouring parish of Nédelec in 1939, after years of aggressive campaigning on the part of white colonists who wanted to monopolize the fertile land. Through this case, Bernard studies the involvement of various colonial agents: the mayor, the local priest, and the bureaucrat from the Department of Indian Affairs.  These three men, although motivated by their own individual interests, reproduced the language and mechanisms of colonial occupation.

The mayor of Nédelec employed the rhetoric of terra nullius and justified fighting for the transfer of land by arguing that the reserve’s fertile land was of no use for the indigenous inhabitants, and that leaving it to them would be an obstacle to colonization.

The role of the priest, who used his influence among Indigenous Christians living on the reserve, testifies to the central place of the Church in the colonial project.

While the bureaucrat from the Department of Indian Affairs, through his interpretation of his prerogatives, determined the ways in which the Indigenous population experienced the colonial policies of the state at the local level. Each in their own way and in line with their own interests, these men played an important role in the success of the colonial project of which they were the agents.

Mathieu Arsenault studies municipal colonialism in the nineteenth century through two examples of Indigenous lands that neighbouring white colonists attempted to monopolize: the Maliseet territory of Viger and the Kahnawá:ke reserve.

As in Timiskaming, the municipal administrators mobilized colonialist rhetoric to get what they wanted. In the case of Viger, one petition presented the reserve as an “obstacle” because the Maliseet living on it were supposedly uncapable of exploiting it correctly. The urgency of the monopolization was justified by the emigration of French Canadians to the United States, then reaching troubling levels; transferring the reserve was presented as beneficial for the colonial project of settlement because it would help keep Canadians in the country.

As for Kahnawá:ke, its lands were coveted for their beauty and the vacationing opportunities they would offer to Montreal’s middle class. A fantastic image of Indigenous people living in the woods, hunting and fishing without cultivating the land, was put forward so that the reserve could be convincingly represented as a waste.

The communities of both reserves turned colonial rhetoric to their advantage in interesting ways by appealing to the protection of the Crown. They tried to present themselves as “more colonial than the colonists,” affirming that they did not want to return to life in the woods. The Maliseet of Viger went as far as accusing the government of being an “obstacle to colonization,” because it was not providing them with grain and other support necessary for them to live a sedentary lifestyle. In the end, the community of Kahnawá:ke would win its case and conserve its territory, but that of Viger would not.

The ways in which colonisers appropriate territory are not always as overt as the legal seizure of a reserve. Adèle Clapperton-Richard, Caroline Desbiens et Justine Gagnon have investigated the sociocultural effects of the economic development of the Côte-Nord for the Innus of the region.

Adèle Clapperton-Richard’s doctoral dissertation takes a geohistorical approach to studying the monopolization of the Nitassinan (the ancestral Innu territory) through various industrial-development projects throughout the twentieth century. She wants to assess the effects of these projects on the knowledges and practices of the Pessamit Innus tied to the territory, and, in particular, how women have experienced the region’s development. Her research on forestry, hydroelectricity, and tourism-development projects, evokes a mechanism of monopolization: forestry, through clear cutting, opens the territory for tourism development, then cottages and private fishing and hunting clubs multiply, establishing themselves on Innu land without consultation.

Her research reveals the incommensurability of two visions of space: while the colonizer sees the forests and rivers as resources to be developed, for the Innu, these are the foundation of their relationship to the territory, a relationship whose structure is destabilized by this development. The harnessing of rivers by Hydro-Québec is a particularly significant problem, as rivers are fundamental transportation routes for the Innu.

Caroline Desbiens and Justine Gagnon further the investigation of waterways by taking a critical-geography approach to their socio-cultural dimension for the Innu of the Côte-Nord. The point of departure for their reflection is the play J’aime Hydro by Christine Beaulieu, with its “structuring absences,” which include an Indigenous ontology of rivers and a humanized representation of the land. Despite its good intentions, by representing rivers as unoccupied natural spaces, the play perpetuates the colonial vision in the idea of terra nullius and the conquest of wild nature. The two researchers invite us to recognize the river system as a cultural and cultured space instead, one associated with a spirituality, a lifestyle, a topographical memory, and a lived experience.

The public debate on energy issues related to hydroelectricity in which J’aime Hydro participates does not account for the historical occupation of waterways by indigenous populations; it thus constitutes a form of symbolic “occupation” of Indigenous territorialities. According to Desbiens and Gagnon, integration of the expertise and memory of Indigenous communities is necessary in order to “decolonize the narrative about rivers in Quebec.”

Kathleen Villeneuve is a masters student at the Université de Montréal.

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