Colonial Canada: Canadian history in the early modern era

Module 1: Indigenous-Settler Relations and Early New France

Introduction: Indigenous People and Early French Canada

Introduction for the seminars in week September 20-24.

Much of the early history of relations between French colonizers and Indigenous peoples centred on the fur trade. It was a product and trade good within Indigenous societies before contact, and it was one that the French prized. Thus, there was a relationship.

As we saw in our introductory week, Indigenous history before European colonization was far more complex than we had once imagined. That importance would continue long into the settlement period, and typically we mark that significance by the roles Indigenous peoples played in war and diplomacy. But it was equally important in trade, and the fur trade is the best example of that.

Our first lecture picks up one of the themes raised by Salisbury's reading - of the complexity and on-going importance of Indigenous peoples to colonial history - and situates it in what becomes Canada. It's important for us to understand that for much of this early period - indeed, until the early 19th-century - most of what we now call Canada remained Indigenous. Moreover, not only did Indigenous people still control that territory, they still shaped the basic histories unfolding in Canada. Europeans altered that history, but did not fundamentally alter its course. This will change in the late 18th and early 19th centuries (and later still further west). But in the 17th century and much of the 18th, Europeans were walking into existing stories and existing relationships; they were intruders in an ongoing Indigenous history.  

Our readings then ask us to look at the fur trade and assess its place in Canadian history. In particular, our reading asks us to assess the role that Indigenous people played. Approached from that perspective, it's clear that the Fur Trade, though driven in many ways by European markets, was also driven by Indigenous interests.

Textbook reading Belshaw, sections 2.3, 2.4 and 2.5  

And in our second lecture, we look at just what that early French empire looked like. There's a lot we can say, but the short answer is that for the first fifty years or so it didn't look like much more than a trading post on the edge of Indigenous territory. As we'll see, the French treated its North American colonies more like commercial enterprises than settlement colonies. That means that the French presence on the land was much lighter, though through trade its reach was much greater. This also dramatically affected their relationship with Indigenous peoples, where compared with the English they had much more balanced, much more favourable relations. The fur trade is at the heart of that relationship.

Your textbook readings for this week is Belshaw, read sections 3.6, 4.3, 4.4, 5.4, and 8.6.

Seminar readings:

This week in our seminar we'll be discussing an excerpt from this essay:

Neal Salisbury, "The Indians' Old World: Native Americans and the Coming of Europeans", The William & Mary Quarterly Third Series, 53, no. 3 (July 1996), 435-58. [excerpt]

In this seminar, I want you to focus on the author's argument. He will present you with lots of evidence, lots of sources, lots of stuff. That stuff is important - it's his evidence. And we'll talk about that. But he's also making a point. He's trying to convince us of some general point. Read carefully, particularly his first few paragraphs, and his last few paragraphs. Early on in the essay he will announce his point; late in the essay he will elaborate on that point. In the middle, he's supplying evidence that should support that point.

In this seminar, and in most seminars to follow, we will try to identify that author's argument and examine the evidence to assess how well they support their argument.

This is a good exercise in reading carefully. It's applicable in most academic reading you'll do, be it  in science, humanities, or social sciences. Every author should be making a point; every author should evidence to support that point. And thus it's also a good model for writing!

Most often, we'll have more than one reading, but the following questions are good general questions to think about in most instances:

1st, how does the author approach their topic: What are the questions the historian asks? What is the answer (the argument) each posits? 

2nd, the evidence they use: While reading the text, be attentive to when and how each uses evidence. Do you see significant differences in the types of evidence each uses? Does that affect our reading? Is it more/less credible? Explain.

3rd, Agency is a major issue in history, especially histories of non-elite peoples. Agency refers to people abilities to affect their own history. Before the rise of social history, and a tremendous amount of research showing how ordinary people's live did affect history, most histories were about the "great men" (and it really was mostly men!) who "made history". Everybody else was just along for the ride. But social historians have demonstrated clearly - with evidence! - that ordinary people not only made their own history, but very often also affected the bigger story.  Who has agency in these stories of the fur trade?

4th, the significance of each viewpoint: This is the "so what?" issue. Why does this matter?  What are the implications of this argument? Try to step back a bit from the immediate points each author is making and discuss why, in the bigger picture, each author's perspective might affect our general understanding of colonial Canadian history. 

The following videos can be watched before or after you do the readings. The first is an on location shoot where I discuss an important Niagara dimension to the fur trade, and offer some sense of how this region fit into the larger fur-trade story. In the second video, I'm joined by Giulia Forsythe from Brock's Centre for Pedagogical Innovation. She's following along with us in our readings and has some interesting questions that can help you think about the readings. 


In his opening paragraph, Salisbury describes a new approach to studying the Indigenous peoples of North America. What does that mean about his perspective? How do you think his view might be different than other previous historians? What does this tell us about the writing of history?

Does Salisbury have a question? It needn't be direct; it can be an implied question: what do you think guides his thinking? His research?

What is Salisbury's main argument? His main point? What does he want to take away from this article? Is he simply telling us interesting stories about Indigenous peoples? If not, what else can we see?

Does the evidence support his argument? Comment on the type of evidence Salisbury relies on? What does that tell us?

How might Salisbury's new perspective change our understanding of colonial history?

In your discussion, try to discuss the issue. That is, if you think someone has, for example, identified the main argument, then don't just agree, build on that point - talk about evidence (how the evidence supports the argument), talk about other points they may also be making. If you disagree with one of your classmates, don't simply say so, show us why - show us evidence that makes you think the author means something different.

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