By Laurie Leclair
Today if you travel to the port lands in Old Montreal you’ll see the Pointe-à-Callière, Montréal Archeology and History Complex. This impressive collection of buildings sits upon the foundations of Montreal and visitors can walk through the ruins of its ancient streets and sewers, now preserved as archaeological excavations. It is also the site of one of the most important diplomatic meetings of Canada’s early history. On August 4, 1701 the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and several Anishinabek Nations agreed to a peace treaty that covered most of Quebec and Ontario, a large part of northeastern America, and parts of Ohio, Michigan and Missouri. Anishinabek from Michilimakinac, St. Joseph’s Island, the Sault and Timiskaming all participated. The Nipissings also sent their own representative, an orator named Onaganonitak. All together, the Treaty of Montreal involved almost forty Amerindian groups represented by 1300 delegates. Along with their families, they gathered on the bank of the now-extinct Rivière Saint Pierre to speak, listen, negotiate and trade.
By 1701, all major parties involved in the great peace were ready for a collective rapprochement. Historian Gilles Havard argued that the battle-weary Haudenosaunee tried for years to cultivate a peace between the League and the Anishinabek, however the latter had been wary of ruining their alliance with the French who provided powder and shot as well as occasional military support. Yet the Anishinabek were growing concerned over the dwindling fur market, which by 1690 became so saturated that France could no longer absorb the materials coming in from its posts. This combined with recent events such as New France’s nascent trade alliances with the Sioux and the closing of some of the French posts made peace with the Haudenosaunee an attractive possibility. For their part, the French were willing to participate in the conference as peace could provide France with greater access to the North American interior.
Preparation for such a major event involved nearly a year of planning. Beginning in September 1700 Louis-Hector de Callière, the Governor General of New France, began the process by dispatching emissaries throughout the Great Lakes, inviting all allied nations to attend.
Once a First Nation received an invitation, councils were called to decide whether it would participate. If a group decided to go, then it initiated discussions among the community to determine what it would bring to the event, and what topics it wished to broach with the other nations. Finally, delegates were chosen and a representative or orator would be appointed to attend the meetings.
Not everyone accepted Callière’s invitation. There were several reasons why some Anishinabek groups chose not to go: Some preferred to make their own treaties and alliances with both the French and Haudenosaunee, others did not wish to exchange prisoners as many had become naturalized into their own communities. Also, there was a very real fear of dying from disease as an epidemic was sweeping through the Montreal area.
But for those who attended, including representatives from the Nipissings, the diplomatic advantages of being a part of such an important meeting trumped any threat posed.
The Anishinabek delegates travelled as part of a large flotilla of 200 canoes. The Nipissings allied themselves with a group of Algonquins, landing at Montreal around the 23rd of July.
At every political meeting throughout the conference, the Native orators accompanied their speeches with presents that included bundles of beaver pelts and other furs alongside the more conventional wampum belts. Callière in turn had to follow a similar ritual and with the help of his interpreters closed off each meeting with various gifts, including the traditional European offer of ‘bread and wine’.
Onontio, the title given to the Governor General by the Five Nations, made the most of this practice and hoped to impress the delegates with New France’s show of largess. To help with the presentation, the Governor set up a display area 43 x 23 meters in size, situated on a height of land just south of the point. De La Potherie, the Comptroller of the Marine, was a witness to the proceedings and remarked that this grand gift pavilion had a double enclosure or alley made from tree branches and those who wanted to look at the gifts before the ceremonies began could walk down the yard-wide pathway to a large hall, square in shape and sheltered by a canopy of leaves.
Along with Haudenosaunee and Anishinabek diplomats, French politicians such as Callière, the Marquis of Vaudreuil, then the commander of the French forces in New France and Jean Bochart de Champigny, the Intendant, were present with their families and fellow socialites. The local citizenry made up of farmers, tradesmen, clergy, soldiers, and merchants also came to be witnesses to the event.
The festivities began with Callière’s words of welcome to the delegates. Each interpreter had a written copy of this speech that they read out to their group. Nicholas Perrot, a former trader from Green Bay, acted as the translator for the Anishinabek and other western groups. After the native delegates gave their approval, their representatives, each in turn either carrying their wampum or pelts, stood up to speak. Others waited by sitting quietly on the ground and smoking. According to the words recorded on the treaty, the Nipissings presented the Governor General with a pipe, telling him that he could, if he chose to, give it to the Iroquois. They also expressed the desire that they would all smoke the pipe of peace together one day soon.
The following day, the huge delegation broke into smaller groups and intense debating sessions began.
When the delegates were not meeting, they could conduct trade in one of Montreal’s shops. Eyewitness accounts reported that the entire city was in a mood to celebrate and trade. Many shopkeepers hired interpreters to help facilitate negotiations.
Unfortunately, during these discussions, the Huron Chief Kondiaronk fell ill from the epidemic and passed away. Politics were set-aside for a day in order to give the great Michilimackinac chief a full diplomatic funeral. His body was buried in Notre Dame church on August 3rd.
The treaty was signed on August 4, 1701, but talks continued for several days afterwards. On August 6th the Governor General met with France’s aboriginal allies. La Potherie wrote that the Nipissings arrived with the Algonquins for their meeting with Callière, together bringing a delegation of ten canoes. They were given an early morning audience the following day. The discussions surrounded the return of prisoners, reduced hunting territories and the debt system.
When he met personally with the Nipissings, Callière asked about a young prisoner who the Iroquois had brought back to them the previous year. Onaganiouitak answered that this person had belonged to their grand Chief Ouboutchik. The discussions also concerned another individual, a young girl, supposedly the sister of the returned prisoner who unfortunately had died the same year. In order to help clear up any misunderstandings the parties began to recite their wampums, however, for the full story they needed the presence of the Algonquin Chief Ounanguice to give a reading of his own. Although a runner was sent to fetch him, the chief could not be found and the question of the prisoner exchange was deferred.
Onaganiouitak then, in a grand gesture, made a present of beaver pelts by throwing them into the middle of the council, reminding Onontio that the Nipissings had always been a good neighbour to the French, better than others. Even their chief Ouboutchix, who was sick, as was his wife and children, made the trip to Montreal because he felt it was so important to maintain this alliance. The Nipissing orator then complained that they wanted better treatment from their creditors, otherwise they would be unable to survive because they could not afford powder and shot. Along these lines, Onaganiouitak informed the Governor that his nation did not have the kind of hunting territory enjoyed by the Ottawa and most of what they did have had been destroyed.
Callière’s response must have been unsatisfactory to the Nipissings. After Onaganiouitak spoke, the Governor responded by telling them that they should honour whatever agreements they had made with their creditors, otherwise they could not complain if they were mistreated. On the subject of a reduced hunting ground, Callière suggested that they follow the example given by the Abenakis of St. Francis, who had for the most part given up hunting and were presently involved in clearing the land and sowing Indian corn. Farming would make them less dependant on the hunt, Callière reasoned, and less likely to perish if the big game disappeared. He then offered the delegates bread and wine.
None of the Nipissing delegates placed their totem on the treaty. Respected scholars of the period such as Denys Delâge and Mathieu d’Avignon have found this omission curious, as the group had brought Onaganiouitak to represent them. Did the Nipissings allow their travel companions the Algonquians to sign on their behalf? Did the delegates show their dissatisfaction over their meeting with Callière by refusing to put their totems upon the paper? These questions remain for future research to resolve.
Ultimately, the Great Peace of Montreal brought closure to almost 60 years of hostilities, or rather, the period that history books would label as the era of the “Iroquoian Wars”. This time was followed by decades of relative peace, a respite that would have been impossible without the diplomacy and subsequent cooperation of the Great Lakes Anishinabek.