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Reevely: Jason Arbour’s long fight for the capital’s Mohawk history

David Reevely, Ottawa Citizen
December 26, 2017

When a politician begins a speech in Ottawa by acknowledging that we’re on unceded Algonquin territory, Jason Arbour winces. They never mention the Mohawk people of Hull, his ancestors, the subject of his life’s lonely research.

“I want to represent those who are not here and cannot speak no more, in a respectful way, and being culturally sensitive to those other nations that have a vested interest in our territory,” Arbour says. “My most important goal is to share our interest with the public without offending anybody, and to get the recognition we deserve as Indigenous people in the heart of Canada’s capital.”

Arbour lives in Renfrew now but Britannia was home when he was a kid. He spent years in foster care as a youth and never finished high school, he says. For a while, he lived with his grandfather, who’d once lived with his own grandfather and would tell stories about the Indian reserve the old man had grown up on in Hull, with other Mohawks. It was just north of the Chaudière Falls, a central site for ceremonies and gatherings long before recorded history.

“So you could see the word-of-mouth and how it was passed on. There was a great oral history and a lot of it cannot be romanticized, no matter how hard you try,” Arbour says. The community was small, enveloped by a growing population of Europeans, and eventually gone.

Ottawa is on traditional Algonquin territory but it’s close to a fuzzy edge: Montreal is traditional Mohawk territory, part of an expanse that runs west up the St. Lawrence valley and grazes the eastern edge of Ottawa. But there was never a well-surveyed border. Like French- and English-speaking settlers, Algonquins and Mohawks sometimes lived separately in peace, sometimes warred and sometimes lived together, especially for trade and when shared Christianity erased old cultural distinctions.

Arbour is Algonquin on his mother’s side, Mohawk on his father’s. He tries to live both traditions and pass them on to his five sons. That’s how he came to be charged in 2008 for hunting illegally in Quebec’s Papineau-Labelle wildlife reserve with a bow, on what he said was a coming-of-age ceremonial hunt with one of his sons.

Non-status Indians can claim Aboriginal hunting rights if they can show they’re carrying on an ancestral tradition, and Arbour believed he and his children were doing that. He set out to prove it. By himself — he couldn’t afford a lawyer. He had the stories but he needed much more.

The 1871 Canadian census template included a box for enumerators to mark down residents’ ethnic origins. Arbour perused the pages for Hull online.

“I’m seeing ‘English,’ ‘French,’ ‘Gaelic,’ ‘Gaelic,’ ‘French,’ ‘English,’ and all of a sudden — ‘Iroquois’! I was like, ‘Jackpot!’” he says.

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