The colonisation of Canada by French and English explorers, trappers and prospectors had a disastrous impact upon the Indigenous peoples of that land.  For example, at first contact with Europeans there were many tribal groups and many more linguistic sub-groups living in what was to become the Province of Ontario. These included: Cree, Ojibwa, Algonkin, Ottawa, Montagnais, Huron, Petun, and Neutral peoples. Tribal and clan relationships were complex and subgroups included those whose traditional sites were connected with forest, lake or seaboard.

For example, the Iroquois included the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, oneida and Mohawk tribes, with the later addition of the Tuscarora. Tribal groups that were extinguished as a result of the warfare the spread after first contact include the Huron, Petun, Neutral and St Lawrence Iroquoian tribal groups. The term used to describe this language group is ‘Iroquoian’. Along with a shared language, cultural patterns of the Iroquois were broadly similar and included the building of large settlements composed of longhouses, and with an advanced economy based upon agriculture. Dress and ornament of body and weaponry, drums, bowls, cradles and cooking vessels was highly developed, and had symbolic and spiritual importance.

Song and dance too were interwoven into all aspects of ritual and social life.

French explorer Jacques Cartier’s first voyage to Canada in 1534 took him up the St Lawrence seaway, where his men, who were dying of scurvy were treated by the native people. They took him to Hochelaga – a huge settlement of some 50 longhouses with bark roofs and walls. The town was defended by a palisade with watchtowers, stones to use for defence against aggressors, and water in case of fire.  some distance from the seaway to avoid the risk of invasion. He reported that it was surrounded by fields of corn. Cartier estimated that there were between 1500 to 2000 people in the village. The relative comfort and affluence and the agricultural economy of the native peoples impressed, as did their health. A staple diet of corn, beans and squash was extended with wild fruits, fish and meat.

The ample leisure time of the native people also impressed Cartier – who noted their rich oral tradition, the creation of ornamented clay and wooden pipes, pots and fabric clothing, and the complex religious structures and societies of the tribal groups. The first traders were also impressed by the skill the Iroquois showed in negotiation, and their political astuteness in dealing with the Europeans. In contrast, the traders were aware of the reputation of the Iroquois warriors as ferocious in conflict – and renowned for their torture and cannibalistic consumption of captives.

Impact of colonisation

In the short term the alliances the Iroquois made with the French brought them great wealth and power in the region, so that their dominance spread – to the cost of other tribes. However, the next ship that visited the area found Hochelaga gone without any trace – along with the St Lawrence Iroquois. It may be that other tribes (possibly Huron) destroyed the group, as the Huron themselves were destroyed a few years later in the tribal warfare that expanded after first contact.

Diseases brought by the first traders from Europe – the common cold – and Smallpox in particular – also decimated the native population who had no defence against these illnesses.

So – how do these colonising patterns impact in the early 21st century? Surely Europeans and white settlers who have lived alongside Indigenous Canadians over generations will have developed a rich understanding and awareness of the culture, history and diversity of Canada’s First Nations?


Activity: Media Exploration – Stereotypical representations of ‘Indians’

Explore this site (News Stereotypes of Aboriginal Peoples) and

1) Gather examples of stereotypical representations of ‘Indians’ in the media.

2) Now do the same for the first peoples of Australia.

3) Select a third country where colonisation has impacted upon the Indigenous people(s) of that geography.

Curate and share here…