In the Saint-Laurent valley, the indigenous presence came from all four corners of Nouveau France. Starting in the 1660s, the annual Montreal Fair was a privileged opportunity for French, Canadians and their native allies from the Great Lakes region to meet and exchange.

Every summer, Montreal hosted between 500 and 1,000 First Nations representatives who would come to exchange their furs on better terms than they would get at home from Canadian lumberjacks. Official delegations from the Western nations were also received by the Governor-General as part of lavish ceremonies. Some stayed there for a few days while others extended their stay for weeks.

Canadian shops lined three small streets whose names evoked the importance of the “Pays d’en Haut” in Montreal life: Chagouamigon, Outaouaise and Michilimakinac. At the heart of the action, interpreters offered their services to vendors to help them connect with Native visitors. From all over the colony we would come to be part of the event or just to admire the show.

In the fair’s best years, it was a real American wind blowing over Montreal. Within a few weeks, the city became a cosmopolitan, gruesome arena where so many different cultures met and agreed. In his writings, the Baron of Lahontan testified to his appreciation of this appointment high in colors: “It’s a pleasure to see them running from shop to shop with the bow and arrow completely naked in hand.”

Amidst the brouhaha, as the appearance of the Governor General, everything became decorum. We listened to the long metaphorical speeches of the chiefs who declared their friendship with the French, complained of too high trade tariffs or asked for military assistance to repel their enemies. The governor then replied, covering them with his finest compliments and urging them, above all, to stay away from English rivals. Followed by a gift exchange session which ended in great feasts. Thus, these groups livened up the city with their colorful presence before going back into their boats to go home.

In the early 18th century, the fair’s popularity declined, as the Great Lakes tribes began to replenish more at the new French post in Detroit. Despite the annual event’s phasing out, members of Allied First Nations remained daily in Canada’s colonial centers, generating continuous comings and comings where Natives, French, and Canadians confirmed ties of alliance, business, and friendship.

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Illustration credit: “Montreal Fur Fair” George Agnew Reid

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