Four Winds Brigade brings together history from First Nations and Voyageurs.


First Nations

The Omamiwinini

 By Paula Sherman, Excerpts from the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation website

Overview of Omàmìwininì History

Omàmìwininì history dates back for thousands of years. Many believe that after our creation as people we lived on the eastern seaboard in the Gaspe Peninsula & that over a long period of time we migrated west following the giant Megis shell that appeared along the way. This migration came as part of a prophesy called the Seven Fires. Elder William Commanda held the wampum belt which recounted this history & the seven stopping places where Anishinàbe people camped & rested & many stayed. Thus Anishinàbe homelands cover a vast amount of land in North America.

For Omàmìwininì this journey ended in the valley of the Kiji Sìbì (Ottawa River) & its tributaries. Over thousands of years, Omàmìwininì people established an intimate relationship with our homeland & developed particular knowledge about how to live & survive in an ecologically sustainable way. We came to know & understand the land, water, & other beings as relatives & through this process we developed a philosophical way of seeing the world which is called Pimàdiziwin. In the language this term refers to living a good life, in a good wayAs Omàmìwininì people continued to grow & develop over this period we created a system of organization that allowed our people to maintain our relationships & responsibilities.

Omàmìwininì communities in the past were largely organized around extended families who engaged with the natural world around them in annual cyclical patterns. In the winter, extended families lived together in close proximity on the tributaries off of the Kiji Sìbì where they trapped & hunted. During this long, cold period, many sacred narratives would be shared, including those of Creation & also of Wisakedjak. In the spring extended families would travel to the sugar bush to tap trees & process maple sugar, they would also travel to areas where pickerel come to spawn & would spear & dry fish as well. In the summer they would travel back down to the headwaters on the Kiji Sìbì where they would come together with other extended families. It is at this time that Grand Councils were held.

Beaver Trap

Before Europeans came to North America, trapping was an integral part of the Algonquin way of life, providing food, clothing, & shelter.

Image result for algonquin style beaver trap

Artwork by Gordon J. Miller. Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia © 2011, Historica-Dominion.

At the time of Champlain’s arrival in the Ottawa Valley, he noted several communities living along the river that he recorded in his journals. One issue (yes, there are many) with Champlain’s writings is his creation of the term “Algonquin”, as a marker of identity for us as people. Obviously it seems to have stuck since many of us refer to ourselves by this term today. At some point after Champlain’s arrival our ancestors ceased being Omàmìwininì in recorded history & became Algonquin. Every community today in Quebec & Ontario uses this as a maker of identity despite the fact that it isn’t an Omàmìwininì term. There are around 10,000 people who self-identify as Algonquin who make up many different communities. Some are status under the Indian Act, with Canada defining who is a member, & some are historic communities who continue to organize themselves around the extended family model wherein they determine their own membership. As a community, Ardoch Algonquin First Nation is in the second category. We are struggling to maintain our relationships & responsibilities in our homeland in a respectful way that promotes Pimàdiziwin (living a good life, in a good way.)

In many respects, we are only here today because of the determination of our ancestors who fought to maintain what they could of a distinct ontology that carries forward the history of our relationships with the Natural World & other peoples. Elder Harold Perry said at one time that in his youth, his parents were just struggling to survive they didn’t have the luxury of contemplating history or have the time to vision & dream a way forward. He said that they didn’t have any way of doing this but that we do & that it is our generations that have to make this happen & to create the future that we want. That generation of visioning & dreaming is now ours, just as it will be in the future for our children & grandchildren. It is now our responsibility to create the future that we want.


Traditional governance was achieved through consensus based decision-making among extended families.

Prior to French & English colonialism, Pimàdiziwin was achieved through an extended family system wherein one or two people held the responsibilities for protection of families & also the management of lands & resources. Extended families worked together on broad issues or decisions about the larger Omàmìwininì homeland. Many historians have asserted that only men held this role in Omàmìwininì communities but this isn’t true as there are several cases of women who served in this capacity.

This system developed over thousands of years as Omàmìwininì people developed relationships with the natural world around them. They observed natural democracy at work among animals & other beings & they adopted this system for themselves.

They also learned about traditional ways of relating as people form Wisakedjak narratives wherein he travelled the world & interacted with all of Creation. In these interactions he interacts with each & every being as a relative. Even the smallest creature is seen as a relative & thus decision-making must take into account how a small insect might be impacted or benefit from decisions.

After 1800, & particularly after the War of 1812, the continual migration of settlers from the south & from Europe, forced Omàmìwininì to the backlands of the territory as their lands were surveyed & carved off into townships. Lands & watersheds that had been held in common & managed collectively under a consensus system were sold off & occupied by settlers who began clearing away trees. This had the result of driving away animals & destroying sugar bushes. The development of navigation on the waterways caused huge flooding of more lands & Omàmìwininì people lost the ability to harvest many plants as well. Their ability to manage development & to maintain Pimàdiziwin was eliminated in many respects & people hung on to small scraps of land attached to marshes & other areas that were designated as unworthy of English settlement.

As a result of the process Omàmìwininì people lost the ability to relate to the land & water & spiritual beings in the same way our ancestors had done. After Confederation & the development of legislation & policy in the Indian Act, Omàmìwininì people were forced to organize themselves under the auspices of a chief & council who were often controlled by Indian agents & the government. Consensus based decision making was eliminated in most cases & more lands & resources were lost.

Over the 140 years since the Indian Act was implemented, Omàmìwininì people struggled to survive, banned from practicing traditional governance, ceremonies & social gatherings. Parents were forced to surrender their children to officials for residential schools, & many left the schools with unresolved grief & trauma as a result of the physical, mental & sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of priests & staff. This negative history & legacy continues to impact our abilities to come together to envision a sustainable future.

Strengthening Culture & Language Capacity

Omàmìwininì people are working throughout our homeland to restore culture & language competency as a mechanism to develop positive self-worth & self-esteem as human beings. For most Omàmìwininì people it has been a struggle to develop positive identity when most of our lives we have been socialized to think our culture & language is something we should let go of in order to better ourselves & our communities. In spite of those colonial efforts to strip away our intellectual traditions, we have not lost ourselves completely. The fact that we have continually challenged colonial policies over the past thirty-five years about resource extractions illustrates the fact that we have also maintained at least a semblance of our relationships with our homeland. It may not be the same level of participation as our ancestors, but we have done the best that we could do given the circumstances & that fact that until 1959, we couldn’t even hire a lawyer according to Canadian law. Under the Indian Act ceremonies & cultural practices & gatherings were also banned, so we are all playing catch up now, dreaming & visioning ways to restore culture, language, & our intellectual traditions as people.

Anishinaabemowin                          English

Kwey                                                                                      Hi!

Megwetch                                                                            thank you
Pijashig                                                                                Welcome
Madjashin                                                                            Goodbye
Sigwan                                                                                 spring
Nibin                                                                                     summer
Tagwagi                                                                              autumn
Pibon                                                                                    winter

Manadjitoda kina kego                                                  let us esteem all things

Pimàdiziwin                                                                      term meaning ‘living the good life’




Life of the Voyageurs 

*see also voyageurbrigade.org/resources/resource index/other files -note the files on music!

 Taken primarily from the Hudson Bay Company Heritage website

 The demand for furs in Europe stimulated the growth of trade & exploration in Canada. The French were the first to establish fur trade routes into & beyond the Great Lakes. In 1670 the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was formed & set up a series of fur trading posts along the shores of Hudson Bay, where the First Nations would bring furs to trade.

The North West Company, formed in 1779, took over the French routes & extended them. They took a proactive approach to the trade, sending out brigades of canoes, manned by voyageurs, from Montreal to an important inland base at Lake Superior. This group was called Montreal Men or pork-eaters (mangeurs de lard). They would pass the trade goods to a second group of voyageurs called the North Men (hivernants – literally, “winterers”) who departed from the northern meeting point to go further west of Lake Superior into the interior through a network of rivers & lakes. The Montreal Men would then load their canoes with bundles of beaver pelts & start the trip back to Montreal while the North Men would paddle further west & spend the winter there.

In 1821, the HBC & the North West Company merged under the name of the HBC.

Voyageur canoe.jpg

Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall, 1869, oil painting by Frances Anne Hopkins. The Wheel-star symbol favored by the Mohawks is on the bow. Hopkins’ paintings of voyageur canoes are both evocative & accurate. Hopkins often travelled to the interior with her husband Edward Hopkins, personal secretary to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Sir George Simpson. Note: Hopkins & her husband are in the middle of the canoe. Library & Archives Canada.

In the fur trade period, there were few roads in what is now Canada. The highways were the waterways & the vehicle was the canoe, designed & perfected by the First Nations. The voyageurs made these long & difficult journeys to deliver the cargoes to the posts & to return with vessels laden with furs.

Who were the Voyageurs? Most voyageurs were French Canadian, recruited from villages towns, like Sorel, Trois-Rivières, Quebec &   Montreal.


Voyageurs could be identified by their distinctive clothing. They often wore a red toque & a sash (woven belt) around their waist. The white cotton shirt was protection from the sun & mosquitoes. They also wore breeches with leggings & moccasins.  In colder weather, they kept warm with a capote (a long wool cloak or coat with a hood).

 Could You Be a Voyageur? Voyageurs had to be short, approximately 5’ 4” (1.63 m), as the space in the canoe was needed for cargo. They were strong & healthy men who could withstand harsh weather conditions & maintain a very fast paddling pace.

The route from Montreal to Lake Superior & back would take 12 to 16 weeks. The men paddled from sunrise to sunset, heaving back-breaking packs of trade goods & furs over grueling portages. There were many risks: many men drowned, suffered broken limbs, twisted spines, hernias, & rheumatism.

The Voyageur Diet The voyageurs needed food that was high in calories & would not spoil as they travelled. They ate two large meals a day – breakfast & dinner. The men began paddling before sunrise, stopping just before 8:00 a.m. after a 3-hour paddle for a meal of pork, beans, & biscuit that was pre-cooked the night before. Biscuits were made from water & flour.

The voyageurs ate a mid-day snack of pemmican & biscuit around 2:00 p.m., while paddling. At night, they settled by the firelight to enjoy a meal of pemmican, dried peas, or cornmeal. Cornmeal was made into hominy, a type of thick white porridge combined with bacon fat or bear grease for added taste. Sometimes they would have meat or fish that had either been caught or traded for during the day. Voyageurs became known as pork eaters because of the amount of pork fat added to their meals.

Pemmican This lightweight & nutritious food was the staple of the voyageur diet, providing some 5,000 calories a day if needed. The dried meat could be preserved almost indefinitely, which was a perfect meal for long trips into the wilderness. Reportedly tasting “like cold beef mixed with rancid fat & hair,” a voyageur typically consumed about one & half pounds of pemmican a day.

Pemmican comes from the Cree language – pemmi meaning meat & kon meaning fat. It was made from buffalo or caribou meat cut into thin slices & placed on a large wooden grate over a slow fire or exposed to the sun. Once dried, the meat was pounded between two stones & mixed with melted fat.

Pemmican was very versatile & could be eaten raw, fried, or cooked up into a rubbaboo, a kind of stew, consisting of flour, water, maple syrup, & chunks of pemmican.

Canoe Brigades The spring brigades of canoes left Montreal around May 1st arriving at the west end of Lake Superior by mid-June carrying trade goods, supplies, & passengers to the forts & posts. The large canoes called canots du maître, travelled in brigades of five canoes. Each canoe included a bowman or avant who guided the canoe, the middlemen or milieux who had the least experience & paddled in the middle of the boat, & a steersman or gouvernail who would stand or sit at the back & steer on instructions from the bowman.

The canots du nord that were used to go further west of Lake Superior were smaller canoes with five man teams.

Frances Anne Hopkins, Canoes in a Fog, Lake Superior, 1869, Glenbow Museum, Calgary

Canoe in a Fog, Lake Superior, 1869, Oil painting by Frances Ann Hopkins  Glenbow Musem

The Inland Meeting Point Grand Portage was the meeting point of the Montreal voyageurs & the wintering North Men. After the U.S./British North America border was determined in 1802, the meeting point was moved to Fort William because Grand Portage was now located in U.S. territory.

When the canoes from Montreal & the Interior met, there was a celebration with foods the voyageurs did not have on the trip. Their meeting every summer was known as the Great Rendezvous. Then, the North Men prepared for their trip back to the Interior with trade goods for the First Nations peoples, while the Montreal Men packed their canoes full of furs for the return journey to Montreal.

Each voyageur carried two or more packs & walked at least ½ mile (.8 km) over a trail. If the portage was longer, they would put the bundles down half way & go back for another load. Each man had to carry from six to eight bundles on each portage. Sometimes they would walk 3 miles a day (5 km) as well as paddling long distances.

Image result for Hudson Bay company's employee at the portage

The Portage A Portages were walking trails that connected bodies of water or bypassed a section of water that voyageurs could not paddle through because of obstacles. Voyageurs had to carry, on foot, all the cargo from the canoe as well as the canoe itself.


How Much Did the Voyageur Carry? The canoe carried 65 bundles of goods to trade as well as food for the trip, their personal belongings, an axe, a kettle, & material to repair the canoe. The canoe itself weighed 300 lbs (136 kg) adding to the weight the voyageurs carried over a portage.

Each bundle weighed 40 kg (90 lbs.). Voyageurs used a tumpline to carry the bundles. They wore this leather sling across their forehead & attached to the first bundle that hung low on their back. A second bundle was placed on top of this bundle. In order to carry the load, the voyageur walked half-bent over for at least a 1/2 mile (.8 km).

Image result for Shooting the rapids, oil painting by frances anne hopkins

Shooting the Rapids 1879. Oil painting by Frances Anne Hopkins, Library & Archives Canada. My opinion is that this is an express canoe en route to Montreal and the raids are the Deschenes Rapids on the Ottawa River. The ‘Avant’ is executing a cross-bow draw. Note the slim long-bladed paddles used.

A Killing Pace Voyageurs were renowned for their strength, endurance &, incredible speed in paddling a canoe. Setting out before sunrise, they maintained a rhythm of approximately 45 strokes a minute. That’s 6.5 miles/hr (11km/hr)! At that rate, a crew covered up to about 100 miles a day (160 km). To keep a rhythm for their paddling, voyageurs sang a variety of songs.

Every hour there was a scheduled rest stop when the men could smoke a pipe. These breaks were critical in order to maintain the pace. Distances came to be measured in terms of pipes. A three-pipe lake – 12-15 miles (19-25 Km) long – was equal to three hours’ travel, the distance usually covered before breakfast.

The Voyageur Camp At the end of the day, there was much for the voyageurs to do even though it was between 8:00 p.m. & 10:00 p.m. at night. After their meal, they would make repairs to their equipment or canoe & prepare the peas & pork strips for the next day’s breakfast when they added corn biscuits. When they were finished all of the work, the voyageurs told stories & sang songs until it was time to sleep.

The End of the Day Shelter for the night was an overturned canoe, a bed of moss, & a blanket or furs for warmth. If the weather was bad, they erected a tarp as cover. They got up at 3:00 a.m. to start their day all over again.

Songs of the Voyageurs Taken from www.rendezvousvoyageurs.ca

The voyageurs sang centuries-old songs for pleasure, to describe their world or to give rhythm to their work. Many were highly poetic & inspirational. Voyageur songs were not just about every-day routines. They also sang of their duties, leaving their loved ones, & even of food. Songs were repetitive & the rhythms followed the strokes of the canoe paddles. The songs fell into three categories:

  • Laments telling the story of tragic events tied to the fur trade
  • French ballads of New France adapted to the realities of the Voyageurs
  • Work songs of the French-Canadian labourers.

Each song tells a story; e.g.

  • En roulant ma boule describes the adventures of a prince going off to hunt
  • À la claire fontaine is about lost love between a young man & a young woman
  • C’est l’aviron tells the story of a man who meets three young ladies on his journey

*see also voyageurbrigade.org/resources/resource index/other files -note the files on music!


The Voyageur Sash

The ceinture fléchée or voyageur sash is a finger woven belt made of brightly coloured wool &/or plant fibres approximately three metres long. It is a traditional piece of French Canadian clothing dating back to the 1770s when it was used to tie winter coats &, thereby, maximize heat retention.  

 The finger-weaving technique was firmly established in eastern woodland Indigeneous traditions when the settlers arrived. They used the technique to create tumplines, garters & other useful household articles & items of clothing from plant fibres & natural dyes. According to Dorothy K. Burnham, the residents of New France learned this type of finger weaving from the Indigenous women.

Image result for ceinture flechee

Sashes seem to have been introduced to the fur trade around 1797. The voyageurs’ finger-woven wool sash was also called a ceinture, ceinture flechée, or a belt (usually a ‘worsted belt’ or ‘Canadian belt’).

The sash was worn by eastern woodland Indians as a sign of office in the 19th century, & French Canadians wore it during the Lower Canada Rebellion in 1837. It is still considered to be an important part of traditional dress for both these groups. For the Métis, the sash is a symbol of nationhood & cultural distinction.Sashes also prevented injuries & hernias for voyageurs as they acted as ergonomic back belts. They were also used as tumplines (a rope worn over the head to pull or carry heavy objects) & ropes. Though useful, there is no doubt that they were a valued status symbol – a badge of honour for voyageurs.


Indigenous women and the fur trade

Source: the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

Women played an integral part in the North American fur trade from its inception. Yet the role of women, especially indigenous women, has often been ignored in fur trade history. Contrary to the notion that the fur trade was a male-dominated activity, it actually depended upon the participation & labor of Indigenous women for its very survival & economic success. Indigenous women acted as essential producers in the fur trade of the Canadian & American Plains.

Indigenous women married employees of the fur companies. As wives & daughters, Indigenous & Métis women acted in such important fur trade roles as producers, translators, traders, & guides. Women were, in fact, the primary producers of the fur trade: they trapped the smaller marten for its fur, & they made the moccasins, snowshoes, canoes, & other equipment necessary for travel on winter hunts. For food they hunted small animals, fished, & made pemmican. Most importantly, Indigenous women prepared, or dressed, the bison robes & the beaver & otter pelts for their ultimate use as hats & clothing.

Marriage between white men & Indian women encouraged political, social, & economic alliances within the fur trade systems. Marriage à la façon du pays, or “according to the custom of the country,” served as a unifying bond between European Canadian fur traders & Indigenous tribes, In spite of cultural differences & the economic motivations, many mixed marriages were stable, loving, & long-lasting.