Institute of International Peace Leaders

Institute of international peace leaders

"Empowering Leaders, Building Bridges, Creating Peaceful Communities."

Balancing Competing Interests in Canadian Federal Electoral Systems

By Dr. Austin Mardon & Benjamin Turner


The influence of early French colonialism on Indigenous populations in what is now Canada is often thought of in one-sided terms of French priests and traders imposing European values. The reality for the Huron and the Montganais-Naskapi nations, however, suggests a much more complicated relationship that was coloured by religious influence on both sides, gender politics, and trade relationships. There is evidence to indicate that the French were relatively successful in their attempts to convert and subjugate Indigenous populations that were already experiencing hardship, but that French methods were less effective when facing more secure communities that had large centralized populations.


Colonialism by major European powers had broad and long-lasting impacts on the Indigenous societies of North America. Indigenous populations in territories that are now part of Canada were affected by colonial Europeans in a variety of ways, but the politics of Europe also influenced the colonial system, so while the history of colonialism in modern Canadian territories reasonably focuses on the activities of French and English colonizers there were also direct and indirect impacts triggered by Dutch and Spanish colonization activities on other parts of the continent as well. French colonizers took many actions that struck at the social foundations of Indigenous societies, some intentional and some not; this paper discusses some of those actions and their effects.

Leaders in New France and back in Europe recognized the need for strong relationships with Indigenous peoples for multiple reasons. These populations held value for colonizers for economic reasons that included supplying the fur trade and potentially labour, but also for basic survival skills in what was proving to be a challenging environment beyond the skills of many French settlers. Indigenous populations could also help to bolster population numbers which was an attractive prospect due to limited emigration figures from Europe. For these reasons, there was a strong desire by colonial leadership to assimilate the Indigenous population and make them into French subjects. The intentional efforts by the French to assimilate Indigenous peoples can be separated into two primary but occasionally overlapping strategies: religious conversion[1] and economic incentives[2][3].

Religious conversion was an important element of assimilation, and largely attempts to spread Christianity to Indigenous populations were carried out by Jesuit missionaries who often went to great lengths to carry out their missions, living with Indigenous peoples for extended periods and occasionally sacrificing their own lives in the process[4]. Jesuit missionaries were a consistent source of information

[1] Karen Anderson, “Commodity Exchange and Subordination,” 60.

[2] Bruce Trigger, “Natives and Newcomers,” 204.

[3] Karen Anderson, “Commodity Exchange and Subordination,” 59.

[4] Bruce Trigger, “Natives and Newcomers,” 226.

regarding the state of Indigenous life, and frequently raised concerns over the social structure of non-Christian communities. In the case of the Huron and Montagnais-Naskapi, Jesuit missionaries were concerned that marriage was a largely informal arrangement that was frequently and easily ended; even more concerning to them was the fact that men and women had equal autonomy in marriage[1]. Women in traditional Huron and Montagnais-Naskapi communities also had sexual autonomy, and were just as empowered as their male counterparts to initiate sexual encounters[2]. Also concerning to the Jesuits was the frequently extramarital, non-monogamous nature of sexual behaviour in Huron settlements[3].

Jesuit missionaries attempting to convert both Huron and Montagnais-Naskapi people worked with the colony of New France to make an attractive offer: anyone who converted to Christianity would be provided a plot of cleared land at a dedicated settlement called Sillery and taught how to grow crops in European style[4]. The offer attracted 35-40 families from the Montagnais-Naskapi band, but none from the Huron[5]. Part of the aim with the settlement of Sillery was to undermine the largely egalitarian gender politics of the residents, and reinforce the patriarchal structure of a Christian society. They achieved this by encouraging couples to have church weddings, and for those who moved to Sillery the land was placed strictly under the names of husbands and fathers[6]. Granting property rights to men upended the balance between men and women. It also marks an area of overlap between economic incentive and religious conversion.

While conversion efforts with the Huron met with limited success, there were some Huron men, mostly trappers participating in the fur trade, who converted to Christianity. This is another area of overlap between the two strategies because Christian trappers were given preferential treatment in their trading relationship with the French in addition to French protection from enemies of the Huron[7] [8]. There was also incentive to convert because a Christian man was not expected to follow traditional redistribution practices, allowing him to personally keep more of his material wealth[9]. Women in Huron society had a large degree of leverage over the men, however, since women were responsible for growing and preparation of food[10]; therefore, if a woman divorced her husband, he suffered an  immediate dramatic reduction in his quality of life. Additionally, traditional Huron settlements were relatively large communities consisting of several hundred or even a thousand residents. These settlements were made up of long-houses where several families lived together, and when a couple was married it was the custom for the man to live with the family of his wife. A husband’s conversion to Christianity may have been grounds for a wife to initiate a divorce, but it could also be cause for his mother-in-law to kick him out of the long-house[11]. So men faced the possibility of homelessness, malnutrition, and social exclusion if they opted to convert to Christianity to obtain an improved business relationship with their French counterparts.

There were other economic impacts triggered by the French that affected Indigenous populations. The availability and use of European goods altered life as well. Items such as copper kettles, iron axes, longboats, and firearms changed some traditional practices and life for many Indigenous people[12]. The use of such items did not remove Indigenous peoples ability to construct traditional items, but there was great demand among Indigenous communities for certain trade goods. A few examples include iron axes being far more durable than stone equivalents, longboats were more sturdy and safer than canoes, and copper kettles while relatively flimsy were very light and portable[13]. Demand for trade goods lead to changes in the activities that were prioritized among the Huron. European demand for cornmeal meant that Huron women prioritized the growing, drying, and milling of corn for the purpose of trade to colonizers, enabling greater access to the desired trade goods[14].

The most lucrative trade relationship available for the Huron was the fur trade, however, which affected several important changes in Huron life. Huron men who had access to trade goods from the French saw increased influence over household economic matters[15], although that influence may not have been a significant disruption to Huron society overall since matrilineal residence patterns survived into the late 18th century[16], indicating much of the leverage of residence and food remained with women. The incentive to participate in the fur trade did impact Huron society in other ways. Beaver pelts were a high priority item for the French, and Huron hunters responded by expanding their targeting of beaver to the point that the animal was soon extinct in Huron territory, at which point hunters began entering agreements to hunt the animals in neighbouring territories or simply trading European items for beaver pelts with other bands[17].

Many of the effects the French had on Indigenous populations were unintentional. One has been touched on briefly already in the overhunting of beaver by Huron fur traders, but beavers were far from the only animals affected by unsustainable rates of hunting. In fact, game animals of all sorts experienced scarcity due to the fur trade and destabilized food supplies for Indigenous groups throughout the region[18]. It is also important to note that food was not the only purpose of hunting game animals for Indigenous peoples; hides were used for clothing, shelter, and transportation. Bones were useful materials for tools and structures, and could be shaped to expand their utility. Scarcity in animal populations did more than threaten the food security of Indigenous populations, it may have unintentionally contributed to greater Indigenous demand for European goods related to clothing and shelter.

There is room for discussion over the extent to which the French intended to damage Indigenous populations with epidemics, but certainly the initial transmission of European diseases to the Indigenous populations of North America was unintentional. The impact of that transmission was massive, spreading across the continent and killing Indigenous peoples en masse by taking advantage of their lack of immunity[19]. By the end of the epidemics, half of the Huron population had been wiped out[20] Jesuit missionaries had the greatest exposure to Indigenous populations, who came to blame them for the epidemics; missionaries were accused of witchcraft, rumours spread that communion wafers were infected human flesh given for the purpose of making the Indigenous people ill[21]. Many cited the Jesuits ability to beat the flu in as little time as a week or just a few days as evidence of their witchcraft and ability to control the disease[22].

Another source of unintentional impact can be seen in the Indigenous practices regarding the slave trade. French observers incorrectly assumed Indigenous practices regarding the treatment of war captives was equivalent to European style chattel slavery[23]; while the practice of capturing enemies in wartime included a number of harsh practices, the primary end goals were the spiritual revival of war dead and expansion of reproductive capacity of the tribe, or if surviving captives were not assimilated into the tribe it was possible to trade captives or offer them as gifts to other bands in an effort to mend relationships and build alliances[24]. Initially the French refused to participate in the system when offered captives as a gift, but due to low emigration and chronic need for labourers New France eventually sanctioned Indigenous slavery as a legal practice in 1709[25].

Among the harsh practices traditionally included in Indigenous treatment of war captives was the execution and mutilation of some, possibly to encourage obedience in others[26]. This practice changed when Indigenous war parties, due entirely to French demand for slaves, came to view their captives as valuable commodities rather than as symbols of alliance, renewal, or power[27]. In this way, the French impact could be considered contradictory; on the one hand, they created massive demand for human trafficking which widely expanded the prevalence of the practice of taking war captives among Indigenous groups[28], but at the same time mutilation and humiliation of captives reduced their value as commodities and those practices were ended[29].

In conclusion, there were many effects that French colonialism had on Indigenous populations in North America. Many of those effects were by design, intended to further the French goal of ultimately assimilating the Indigenous peoples into the society of New France and making them subjects of the French crown. In pursuit of their goal the French aggressively pursued efforts to convert as many people as possible to Christianity, and they also provided economic incentives to those who cooperated through preferential trading practices and protection from their enemies. Many of the impacts were unintentional as well including the initial exposure to European diseases that wiped out massive numbers of Indigenous people, destabilizing animal populations through overexploitation, or simply changing the resources that were prioritized for production to feed Indigenous demand for European goods.


[1] Karen Anderson, “Commodity Exchange and Subordination,” 57.

[2] Karen Anderson, “Commodity Exchange and Subordination,” 58.

[3] Karen Anderson, “Commodity Exchange and Subordination,” 58.

[4] Karen Anderson, “Commodity Exchange and Subordination,” 55.

[5] Karen Anderson, “Commodity Exchange and Subordination,” 56.

[6] Karen Anderson, “Commodity Exchange and Subordination,” 56.

[7] Karen Anderson, “Commodity Exchange and Subordination,” 57.

[8] Bruce Trigger, “Natives and Newcomers,” 204.

[9] Bruce Trigger, “Natives and Newcomers,” 207.

[10] Karen Anderson, “Commodity Exchange and Subordination,” 58.

[11] Karen Anderson, “Commodity Exchange and Subordination,” 59.

[12] Bruce Trigger, “Natives and Newcomers,” 204.

[13] Bruce Trigger, “Natives and Newcomers,” 204.

[14] Bruce Trigger, “Natives and Newcomers,” 209.

[15] Bruce Trigger, “Natives and Newcomers,” 207.

[16] Bruce Trigger, “Natives and Newcomers,” 208.

[17] Bruce Trigger, “Natives and Newcomers,” 207.

[18] Bruce Trigger, “Natives and Newcomers,” 243.

[19] Bruce Trigger, “Natives and Newcomers,” 246.

[20] Bruce Trigger, “Natives and Newcomers,” 249.

[21] Bruce Trigger, “Natives and Newcomers,” 247.

[22] Bruce Trigger, “Natives and Newcomers,” 246.

[23] Brett Rushforth, “A Little Flesh We Offer You,” 780.

[24] Brett Rushforth, “A Little Flesh We Offer You,” 808.

[25] Brett Rushforth, “A Little Flesh We Offer You,” 777.

[26] Brett Rushforth, “A Little Flesh We Offer You,” 783.

[27] Brett Rushforth, “A Little Flesh We Offer You,” 808.

[28] Brett Rushforth, “A Little Flesh We Offer You,” 808.

[29] Brett Rushforth, “A Little Flesh We Offer You,” 808.


Anderson, Karen. 1985. “Commodity Exchange and Subordination: Montagnais-Naskapi and Huron Women, 1600-1650.” Signs 11 (1): 48-62.

Rushforth, Brett. 2003. “‘A Little Flesh We Offer You’: The Origins of Indian Slavery in New France.” The William and Mary Quarterly 60 (4): 777-808. doi:10.2307/3491699.

Trigger, Bruce G. 1986. Natives and Newcomers: Canada’s “Heroic Age” Reconsidered. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.



About Writers:

Benjamin Turner is an article writer at the Antarctic Institute of Canada.

Austin Mardon, PhD, CM, FRSC, is an Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta