Old Montreal souvenir shops awash in culturally appropriated handicrafts

A plethora of Indigenous-themed products not made by Indigenous people are still being sold as "genuine Native Indian crafts" in tourist shops in Montreal's Old Port.

'Made in China' Indigenous-themed objects 'concrete example' culture's marginalized, says Nadine St-Louis

Nadine St-Louis, the owner of Ashukan Cultural Space in Old Montreal, thinks it's time for policies that protect Indigenous artists and craftspeople from the cultural appropriation of their work. (Radio-Canada)

Halloween is upon us, and with it the controversial topic of cultural appropriation.

Walmart Canada decided to pull certain costumes deemed culturally insensitive off the racks this year, including one that depicted a "Native Princess."

Still, what some would consider appropriation of Indigenous art and culture is rampant right here in Montreal.

Radio-Canada's investigative show Corde Sensible explored how Indigenous-themed souvenirs, most of them made in China, are being sold as "genuine Native Indian craft" in the souvenir shops that dot Place Jacques-Cartier in Old Montreal.

Cultural appropriation defined

Solen Roth, an anthropologist specializing in cultural appropriation, said that cultural exchanges are universal and happen all the time.

Appropriation happens when that exchange is unequal, Roth said.

"When one culture, often the dominant one, takes something that does not belong to it from another culture and reuses it without consent and without benefitting the culture that it comes from, it becomes appropriation," Roth explained.

After visiting several souvenir shops with Corde Sensible host Marie-Éve Tremblay, Roth found many stores crammed with Indigenous-themed items such as chicken-feather headdresses, leather-costumed Native princess dolls and miniature carved, wooden totem poles. 

Some of the souvenirs were clearly labelled "Made in China" sticker. Others had no indication of their provenance at all.

Though some boutiques in the area do indeed sell handicrafts and artwork made by Indigenous people, Tremblay found that a majority of the products that were not came from the same company, called Koshuan.

In Old Montreal's souvenir shops, some of the Indigenous-themed souvenirs are clearly labelled 'Made in China,' while others have no indication of their provenance. (Radio-Canada)

Many of Koshuan's products are labelled "Made in Canada," as well as "genuine Native Indian craft."

While the products are made in Princeville, Que., Koshuan's owner, Daniel Rivard, confirmed they are not made by Indigenous people.

"I don't want to start a petty war," Rivard told Corde Sensible, refusing an on-camera interview. "We are in a free country, and people can manufacture whatever they want."

He said the souvenirs Koshuan makes are clearly labelled, and they are indeed genuine Indigenous handicrafts even if they're not made by Indigenous people.

'Next step to reconciliation' 

Koshuan souvenirs are made in Canada and labelled "Genuine Native Indian craft," but owner Daniel Rivard confirmed they are not made by Indigenous people. (Radio-Canada)

Nadine St-Louis is the owner of Ashukan Cultural Space on Place Jacques-Cartier, an art space and boutique sells 100 per cent Indigenous-made products.

She said exploiting an object without attaching oneself to its story, and only using it for commercial gain, is an insult.

"It continues oppression and perpetuates the culture's insignificance," she said.

"There's an emotional response when an Indigenous artist picks up an object that says 'made in China,' because it's a concrete example that the culture is still invisible, that they are still oppressed and in the margin of the margin," St-Louis said.

She thinks it's time for policies that protect Indigenous people from cultural appropriation.

"That's the next step to reconciliation."

With files from Radio-Canada