The Algonquin are Aboriginal peoples in Canada, whose home communities are located in western Québec and adjacent Ontario, centring on the Ottawa River and its tributaries. Algonquin people are closely related to Ojibwa and Odawa, with whom they form the larger cultural group known as the Anishinaabeg — also known as Anishinaabek, or Anishinaabe in the singular. Algonquin should not be confused with Algonquian, or Algonkian, which is used to describe a much larger group, which includes the Anishinaabeg, as well as the Innu and Cree.

Language

The Algonquin language, also known as Omàmiwininìmowin, has been classified as a dialect of Ojibwa, one of the languages of the Algonquian family. The Algonquian language group includes a number of languages, including Atikamekw, Blackfoot, Cree, Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Innu, Naskapi, Ojibwa and Oji-Cree. In 2011, Statistics Canada counted approximately 2,400 Algonquin speakers in Canada. The language is supported by numerous programs, from community-led education initiatives to university level courses.

The word Omàmiwininì, the root of Omàmiwininìmowin, is often used by the community at large to describe Algonquin people in particular.

The Algonquin language is intrinsically linked to place names in Canada, as many early French explorers mapped or named topographic features using Algonquin words. For example, Québec comes from the Algonquin word kébec, meaning “place where the river narrows.”

Traditional Culture

Algonquin traditional territory.
(courtesy Victor Temprano/Native-Land.ca)

Algonquin nations occupied a large territory in the Eastern Woodlands and Subarctic regions, and were largely independent of one another. For thousands of years, Algonquin people lived, hunted, traded and travelled throughout the Ottawa Valley. Like their Anishinaabeg relatives, they lived in easily disassembled birch bark dwellings known as wigwams, and shared knowledge of their culture through oral history. The underlying spirit or life force in these stories is the Manitou, which manifested itself in a number of different characters, including the Wendigo, Wisakedjak and Nanabozo.

Relations between an individual Algonquin band and other groups depended largely on local conditions. Marriages took place between Algonquin and other groups. Generally, relations between neighbouring communities were tempered by kinship ties regardless of language or other designations. The Algonquin were hunters who lived in communities comprised of related patrilineal clans, based on animal totems like the crane, wolf, bear, loon and many others. The communities were egalitarian, with leadership provided by respected elders and heads of clans. Intermarriage within a clan was forbidden, even if the parties were from separate communities.

Relations with the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) nations were turbulent, with hostilities most pronounced during the 17th and 18th centuries; however, some Algonquin lived peacefully alongside Catholic Iroquois at Oka, a mission reservation near Montréal. In the southern-most locations where both climate and soils permitted, some groups practiced agriculture.

Contact with Europeans

The Algonquin have been known to Europeans since 1603, when Samuel de Champlain encountered them with a number of allies at Tadoussac. They became allies of the French along with the Innu (Montagnais-Naskapi) and Huron-Wendat against the Haudenosaunee. In order to facilitate the fur trade, Algonquin groups made military and trade alliances with both Aboriginal and French allies. Throughout this period, war with the Haudenosaunee and disease brought by European traders and missionaries decimated Algonquin communities, weakening their political and territorial influence (see Epidemic).

After the Peace of Montréal in 1701, which ended hostilities with the Haudenosaunee, many Algonquin people frequently travelled to Montréal and participated actively in the fur trade. Once the British defeated the French in North America and issued the Royal Proclamation in 1763, Algonquin people had claim to large portions of the Ottawa River watershed, though increasingly European settlement threatened those rights.

During the 19th century, Algonquin communities began to petition the government for lands to be set aside for reserves. These communities were often established near former trading posts, where land outside the reserve was being sold or granted to European settlers. This continued into the 20th century, as further settlement and the establishment of residential schools threatened and undermined traditional Algonquin ways of life.

The Invisible Nation by Richard Desjardins& by Robert Monderie, National Film Board of Canada

Contemporary Life

There are 10 Algonquin First Nations with registered Indian populations; nine communities are located in Québec and one is in Ontario. Though the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan are the only recognized Algonquin community in Ontario, three other communities have partial, if not full, Algonquin heritage. The total population of registered Algonquin peoples is approximately 15,500, with about 11,000 from Québec and the remainder from Ontario. In Québec, about 6,500 Algonquin people live on reserves or on band-owned Crown land, while nearly 3,500 of the 4,300 Algonquin people of Ontario live off reserve.

The lingering effects of residential schools, cultural and generational dislocation, coupled with the seizure of traditional lands have left many Algonquin communities in poor condition (see Social Conditions of Aboriginal People). However, many communities, like the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan in Ontario, have taken action to address systemic social issues with the establishment of community health programs, daycare, supportive housing and other programs.

In addition, many communities remain active in fighting for Aboriginal rights with ongoing treaty negotiation between the Algonquins in Ontario and the governments of Ontario and Canada. The negotiations represent an acknowledgement that Algonquin people never signed a treaty with the Crown, and thus are entitled to lay claim to land never surrendered. However, some Algonquin leaders in Québec have criticized the process, saying that negotiations should be undertaken with all Algonquin communities, not just those in Ontario.

In October 2016, the Algonquins of Ontario signed a land claim agreement-in-principle (i.e., a step towards a final contract) with the Canadian and Ontario governments that covers 36,000 km2 of land in eastern Ontario. As part of the deal, 117,500 acres (475.505 km2) of Crown land will be transferred to the Algonquins of Ontario. In addition, the Algonquin will be awarded $300 million total from both levels of government, as well as rights to the land and natural resources. Algonquin peoples in Québec and other Indigenous nations, such as the Haudenosaunee, have criticized the agreement-in-principle, arguing that the land claim overlaps their territory. There is also a dispute over who qualifies as Algonquin under the agreement. While the final details of what will be Ontario’s first modern treaty may take years to ratify, it remains an historic agreement — one that has taken 24 years to negotiate.

See also Aboriginal Peoples: Eastern Woodlands and general articles under Aboriginal People.