Time for celebration? Mohawks reflect on Montreal's 375th anniversary

Mohawks are wrestling with how to approach the city's 375th anniversary celebrations. Daybreak talked to scholar Gage Diabo and Chief Christine Zachary-Deom from Kahnawake and Kanesatake artist Ellen Gabriel.

Scholar Gage Diabo, Chief Christine Zachary-Deom, artist Ellen Gabriel share their perspectives

Chief Christine Zachary-Deom, right, and Gage Diabo of Kahnawake shared their perspectives on Montreal's 375th birthday celebrations on CBC Montreal's Daybreak. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

As Montreal turns 375 today, Mohawks are wrestling with how to approach a multimillion dollar celebration of the founding of a city on their unceded ancestral land. 

"There's still the part of me that's cynical, that looks at it and sees us celebrating a colonial institution with violent roots as if it was this unequivocally great thing that's worth celebrating with a giant summer long party," said Gage Diabo, an aspiring filmmaker, writer and graduate student in First Nations literature at Concordia University.

"On the other side of it, there's an opportunity here to achieve that great buzzword today of reconciliation — between not just the colonizers and the colonized, but all the different peoples that are currently residing in the Montreal area."

"That, I think, is definitely worth celebrating."

Diabo was part of a panel of Mohawks on CBC Montreal's Daybreak this morning to discuss the anniversary. 

On May 17, 1642, the city was founded by Jeanne Mance and Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve, who led French missionaries and settlers onto the island.

First Nations, of course, had settled the island long before that: when Jacques Cartier arrived on the island of Montreal in 1535, the St. Lawrence Iroquoians had a well-established community here called Hochelaga, with a population numbering in the thousands.

It's still a matter of anthropological and ethnohistorical debate as to how the Mohawks, part of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy, are related to the St. Lawrence Iroquoians, who had disappeared by the time Samuel de Champlain arrived on the scene in 1608.

However, it's well established that both Mohawks, as well as the Algonquins, had a presence on the island and throughout the St. Lawrence Valley that long predates any French settlement here.

Shifting 'the dominant narrative'

Diabo was a fitting choice for the panel: as a high school student, Diabo dreamed of directing a film that imagined the thoughts of his Mohawk ancestors during the key moments in Quebec's history like the French founding of Montreal 375 years ago today.

"I used to imagine their [indignation] at some of the things the colonists were putting forward," Diabo said.

Gage Diabo, a Kahnawake Mohawk now studying at Concordia University, says he has mixed feelings about Montreal's 375th anniversary celebrations. (CBC)

That sense of being on the outside looking in on the provincially sanctioned history curriculum sprang from a critical sensibility that Diabo learned from his father.

"My father was and is still a very cynical man when it comes to the colonial narrative -— 'Never trust the white man, never trust the politicians, never trust the historians: they're wrong,'" Diabo says.

"I couldn't put my finger on why they were wrong or where they were wrong, but just to be wary and always kind of cynical of that dominant narrative."

Today, First Nations are being recognized as playing a key role in that narrative, as dignitaries take part in a number of events, including a mass at Notre Dame Basilica in Old Montreal and a tribute to de Maisonneuve at Place d'Armes.

The ceremony includes a performance from Mohawk singers and drummers.

Living together is part of our DNA.- Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre

In his remarks this morning, Mayor Denis Coderre emphasized that Montreal was founded on Mohawk land. He has repeatedly said he hopes the 375th anniversary celebrations will help serve as a catalyst for reconciliation.

"I think it's a great moment that we are living today because we always put forward the living together," he said.

"We started with the French, with the Indigenous people. We have our flag that represents the English, the Irish and the Scottish. Then all that wonderful diversity that sends a strong message that the living together is part of our DNA."

'Land theft' continues, activist says

Mohawk artist, traditionalist and activist Ellen Gabriel told Daybreak that she also sees the potential for reconciliation in Montreal's 375th anniversary celebrations, but much more needs to be done before it's achieved and celebrations are truly in order.

"There's still land dispossession and land theft going on," said Gabriel, who is involved now in a movement to stop new development in the municipality of Oka on land that's part of the unresolved land claim of the Kanesatake Mohawks.

Ellen Gabriel says with so many issues such as land dispossession still unresolved from Montreal's colonial past, 'it's really difficult for many of us to think that this is a time for celebration.' (Laurene Jardin/CBC)

"What needs to happen is an acknowledgement of the past, of the negative impacts of colonial history — and how it still affects us today," said Gabriel.

"Until those things are addressed and dealt with in a respectful and honourable way, than it's really difficult for many of us to think that this is a time for celebration."

For her part, Christine Zachary-Deom, one of the chiefs of the elected council of Kahnawake, told Daybreak she's hopeful the celebrations will help.  

"I hope that we can make this city into something that we can look at with pride," she said, adding that she's been encouraged by Coderre's emphasis on inclusion during the events. 

Development is underway in the town of Oka on land which is part of the Kanesatake Mohawks' unresolved land claim. (submitted by Ellen Gabriel)

With files from Loreen Pindera and Cecilia MacArthur