Jacques Cartier and the discovery of the St. Lawrence River

Great cities, and great landscapes, are often defined by mighty rivers. These rivers can serve as borders, linkages between people and cultures, and as a timeline of a nation’s history thereby marking its transition and development. Few rivers yield more of an influence to the story of Canada than the St. Lawrence River, and its official discovery by French explorer Jacques Cartier in July of 1534 (however it is now known that this river was part of local First Nations (Aboriginal) lands and history long before European colonization). Jacques Cartier would lead three voyages to Canada: the first of which departed on April 20, 1534 from Saint-Malo, France and took 20 days to cross the Atlantic and meet the easterly shores of Newfoundland and beyond. Cartier would declare the new lands as territory for King Francis I of France signalling France – and later other European powers – profound role in the Americas.

Jacque Cartier’s expedition was to primarily search for a passage to Asia in the area around modern-day Newfoundland. Cartier and his ships would enter the Gulf of St. Lawrence by the Strait of Belle Isle in June, hugging the coast of the Magdalen Islands and reaching what are now the provinces of Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, eventually laying anchor in Chaleur Bay. In Chaleur Bay, Cartier and his crew would encounter Aboriginal (on this occasion the Micmac) people for the first time. Trading in furs and other materials occurred and began what would be a long history of trading between the French and First Nations. Trading would become the linchpin of a  larger European trading empire that would play a significant role in the development of future North American colonies by French, British, Dutch and other European powers.

There is a particularly famous and well-known Canadian heritage commercial that many of us witnessed growing up in Canadian schools. The story goes that Cartier asked the Iroquoian chief, Donnacona, what the land was called when first contact was made along the St. Lawrence. The chief, who invited Cartier into their camp, replied “kanata,” their word for village, as well as the Iroquoian name for the area around Stadaconé. As a result the name “Canada” has remained the name of this part of the world ever since. By 1550 the name Canada began appearing on official maps. As a testament to the discovery of the St. Lawrence, Cartier erected a 10-metre high wooden cross with a fleur-de-lys shield and plaque which read: ‘Vive le Roi de France’ (‘Long live the King of France’). Chief Donnacona was naturally upset and approached Cartier’s ship in an attempt to indicate to the French that all the land around belonged to the Iroquoian people. Cartier went on to assure the chief that the cross was simply designed as a marker for their ships when they returned. Cartier and his crew would further aggravate relations with the First Nations when they decided to kidnap two of Donnacona’s three sons, and take them to France as evidence of the New World.

Not only has the St. Lawrence served as the meeting ground of first contact between European powers and native First Nations populations; but the river would feature in the founding of Canada itself. Cartier would return on two separate voyages, eventually travelling down the St. Lawrence to Hochelaga, in modern-day Montreal. As with any founding story of a nation and its people, Canada too has had to contend with growing evidence that early European settlers and explorers may have claimed the discovery of the New World but were certainly not the first people or civilizations to inhabit North America. We are coming to increasingly understand the magnitude and extent of First Nation settlements, cities and lands as the genuine first care takers of the area we know as North America. The arrival of European powers to the continent must not however be diminished in terms of our comprehension of the expansion of European power and the subsequent development of the Americas, but we must acknowledge that the version of history taught and accepted by many is indeed in need of revision. As with any story or founding myth, we must be willing to adjust and revise our collective history when evidence presents itself. This in no way is meant to diminish the story of Canada, but in fact strengthen it for future generations.

Image courtesy of edmaps.com






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