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Our Way or the Highway Illustration by Meredith Sadler.

Our Way or the Highway

Did Quebec sacrifice its past to build the largest roadwork project in the province’s history? John Symon investigates.

EARLY ONE SATURDAY MORNING late last September, contractors from the Ministry of Transport of Quebec (MTQ) descended onto a worksite in southwestern Montreal, near the crumbling interchange where Highways 15, 20 and 720 meet, and demolished a centuries-old archaeological site known as the Tannery Village. The find, which dated back to 1685, was rich in artifacts and was one of the oldest such sites uncovered in Canada. Not long after, former Quebec Transport Minister Robert Poëti told Radio-Canada that he would preserve the archaeological heritage of the community. However, it was too late to save the Tannery Village foundations themselves—they had already been flattened to make way for the Turcot Interchange, the MTQ’s $3.7 billion highway reconstruction project.

While construction moved forward, archaeologist Christian Gates St-Pierre penned a letter of protest to Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre. “The history of a city is priceless,” he wrote. “There will be no second chance to save these archaeological remains.” But the plea fell on deaf ears. Archaeologists were shocked at the speed and surreptitiousness with which the MTQ cleared the area’s history. After the village ruins were flattened, fifty-three archaeologists signed a letter to Poëti and Quebec Culture Minister Hélène David condemning the action.

The Tannery Village was not saved—a tragedy in its own right—but some experts worry that an important piece of First Nations history may have been unwittingly destroyed along with it.

THE TURCOT RECONSTRUCTION is the largest roadwork project in the history of Quebec. The interchange, which has been deteriorating after forty-five years of service, sees 300,000 cars each day and is essential for moving people in and out of Montreal.

In some ways, it’s fitting that the transportation pressures of contemporary Montreal are putting the squeeze on the site’s past: the Turcot valley has always been an important transportation corridor and gateway to the interior of the continent. First Nations peoples canoed its lakes and rivers—particularly the four-kilometre-long Saint-Pierre Lake—to travel toward Ontario and the Great Lakes. Early settlers did the same with bateaux and barges.

This lake extended west to the edge of what is now the Montreal neighbourhood of Ville Saint-Pierre; unusually, it drained in two directions, which allowed canoeists to bypass the treacherous Lachine Rapids. To permit bigger boats to do the same, the Lachine Canal was dug through the Turcot valley in the 1820s, which ultimately contributed to the lake drying up. A railroad sorting yard later took its place. In 2003, preparing to rebuild the Turcot Interchange, the MTQ acquired the Turcot Yards from the Canadian National Railway.

It was here that, before construction even began, archival documents and archaeological assessments pointed to the existence of a significant historical site in the area. But it wasn’t until the MTQ broke ground that workers discovered, under the existing interchange, evidence of what Gates St-Pierre referred to as “archaeological remains of an exceptional value”: remarkably well-preserved foundations from Tannery Village dwellings, as well as scores of artifacts including work tools, dishes, children’s toys and clothing. While many of these items were saved, the authorities ultimately failed to preserve the ruins of the buildings. And it seems that they didn’t even want to explore the possibility that the Turcot construction site is also home to the lost village of Hochelaga, a large Iroquois settlement pre-dating the “discovery” of the island of Montreal itself.

IN 1642, Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, the founder of Montreal, sailed up the Saint Lawrence River as far as possible before the current proved too strong. Maisonneuve put ashore at what is now Pointe-à-Callière in Montreal’s Old Port. Jacques Cartier, the first European to map the Saint Lawrence, likely did the same a century earlier in 1535, when he landed on what’s now known as Montreal Island. Cartier arrived in early October; in the chronicles of his voyage, he describes walking less than a dozen kilometres from where he went ashore before reaching a bustling Iroquoian village—a distance that roughly matches the stretch from present-day Pointe-à-Callière to the Turcot construction at Ville Saint-Pierre.

Ethnocartographer Douglas Jack is tempted to place Hochelaga near current-day Ville Saint-Pierre. Jack has worked extensively with elders from the nearby Mohawk community of Kahnawake to reconstruct maps depicting Montreal Island before Europeans arrived. He superimposes contour lines onto old maps and plots village sites based on ecological and cultural criteria. “The Iroquois used canoes for transport,” he explains as an example. “Their villages necessarily had to be close to major watercourses.”

Jack says the Iroquois also sought south-facing hillsides—like the Saint-Jacques escarpment, adjacent to the Turcot—for their warmer microclimates. With its streams for drinking water, rich topsoil for crops, a defensible position and its location in a major transportation corridor, he says that the present-day location of Ville Saint-Pierre would have been an “ideal site” for the Iroquois.

In 2009, Jack spoke at the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE) hearings on the Turcot project, alerting the authorities to the possibility of the presence of a historical Iroquois village on the site. Independent of Jack’s submission, an environmental group trying to prevent development on Saint-Pierre’s Meadowbrook Golf Course noted the presence of rare plants (shagbark hickory, hawthorn, Canada elderberry, highbush cranberry and bur oak) which, they assert, “suggest the possibility of past Amerindian [Iroquois] settlements.”

The MTQ subsequently commissioned a study of archaeological potential in the Turcot Yards; it noted sixteen known Iroquois sites within five kilometres of the project, but mentioned no potential sites within the Turcot valley itself. Information from Jack’s 2009 presentation at the hearings didn’t make the cut for the BAPE’s final report. But there are questions about the study’s thoroughness and cultural bias: no First Nations groups were consulted.

MTQ spokesperson Cynthia Martin asserted in an email that current theories put the Iroquois village of Hochelaga near Mount Royal, not the Turcot site. “Its position is very difficult to establish,” she wrote, “since we don’t know where Jacques Cartier landed and all of the distances he recorded [in his logs] are calculated from his landing spot.”

But current theories are subject to interpretation; “Hochelaga” is sometimes translated as “by the beaver dam,” leaving some to believe that the village was close to water, not the mountain.

Jack says that while he didn’t necessarily want to halt construction on the Turcot project, he did want workers to receive an orientation from Mohawk experts in the event that they unearthed evidence of Hochelaga. “But the MTQ got their back up against the wall,” Jack says. Instead of pursuing a collaborative approach, the MTQ plowed ahead with construction.

MORE THAN 1,700 KILOMETRES SOUTHWEST OF Montreal, the remains of the Cahokia settlement in Illinois have been preserved as a state historic site. Housing an estimated twenty thousand by the thirteen century, the settlement was similar in size to London at the time. Coincidentally, Cahokia was only seriously researched when a highway project threatened the remains in the 1950s.

Many Canadians think of First Nations as occupying remote rural regions of Canada. But before Europeans arrived, they also occupied what are now this country’s urban centres. Pascal Perron, site director of reconstructed Iroquois village Droulers-Tsiionhiakwatha, says that this village near Montreal was home to about five hundred people circa 1450; by comparison, Hochelaga likely had three thousand inhabitants spread over fifty longhouses at the time of Cartier’s arrival.

As Montreal prepares to celebrate the 375th anniversary of Maisonneuve’s arrival next year, we continue to focus on post-contact history. The official website makes no mention of the First Nations presence predating Maisonneuve, and an uninformed person might be fooled into thinking that Montreal was uninhabited before he staked his flag. Far from being empty, Montreal Island was home to a large and thriving Iroquois community, of which Hochelaga formed a part. The MTQ had an opportunity to explore the unearthing of this history; instead, they chose to keep it buried.