January 10, 2017 2 min to read

Interesting tidbit: “Canada” is Iroquoian, “Québec” is Algonquin

Category : History

I personally find interesting that the French province of Canada, Québec, was named after an Algonquin word “Kébec” which means “Where the river narrows”, when the name for Canada itself comes from the word “Kanada” or Village in Iroquois.

What interesting about that?

When Samuel de Champlain founded la Nouvelle-France in general and the city of Québec in particular, he did something that no other colonial power in America had done: he forged a lasting alliance with the native population.

In particular, he made alliances with the Wendat (which we call Huron in French), the Algonquin, the Montagnais and the Etchemin, in exchange for help in their war with the Iroquois.

Many find it odd that the French decided to ally with what we now call the Algonquin family of natives who were nomads instead of with the Iroquois who were sedentary.

The first problem was that where the French initially settled, there were no Iroquois: the area was mainly occupied by the different Algonquin tribes who were already at war with the Iroquois we barely knew (Jacques-Cartier has met Iroquois in 1534, 1535 and 1539-1540, but none of these Iroquois villages survived the diseases the French brought with them).

The second problem was that France mainly wanted beaver pelts and they needed them in vast quantities. As a result, it was better to trade with nomad allies who could find beaver pelts from remote areas than with sedentary natives.

What’s even more interesting is that the Iroquois territory reached down to Virginia, where the British allied with them. Each colonising nation allied with the closest first people tribe, and since the two main families were already at war with each other, both great nations each allied with the two competing colonial powers.

Granted, historians seem to believe that the Iroquois mainly wanted firearms (which they got from the Dutch) to fight back against the Huron-French alliance.

Still, 1701, more than 20 nations were assembled in Montreal by the Nouvelle-France governor Callière and peace between the Huron and the Iroquois was made, 24 years before the British first made peace with the Algonquin.

Despite all of this, I almost see it as fitting that Québec is named after an Algonquin word, who are our long-standing allies ( since 1609!!), while Canada, a mainly English country, is named after the Iroquois, which were British allies for almost as long.

Granted, it was Jacques-Cartier who had coined the name Canada, and the part of Nouvelle-France on which modern Canada is installed was last called “The Province of Canada” , but still. It’s an interesting tidbit.


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