This is the third post in a series of dispatches from my recent trip to Quebec City and surrounds. The first was my two day trip to Charlevoix, specifically Baie St Paul, the second Quebec Dispatches: Where to Eat & Drink in Quebec City, and today, I am focussing on my trip to First Nations reserve Wendake. Enjoy!
There are indigenous cultures the world over. People who have always been there through the generations, closely connected to the land and the seasons. As with most new world countries, Canada is home to a much older people, many nations, who still live there today. The First Nations are the descendants of the original Canadian people who lived there for thousands of years before European explorers arrived and settled.
The First Nations of Canada
Photo taken at the Tsawenhohi House in Wendake
The native people of Canada – First Nations – as with everywhere else, have been there a long time and have a deep and rich history of understanding, living on and working with the land. Their traditions of hunting and fishing continue today. It was the ancestors of the First Nations who developed canoes and maple syrup and in terms of hunting and fishing (the specifics change from region to region) in Quebec it is common to hunt animals like wild turkey when in season.
First Nations people identify themselves by the nation they belong to, like Mohawk, Cree and in this case Huron-Wendat. There are 617 First Nations communities in Canada and 3100 reserves. In Quebec alone there are 39 First Nations, I visited one right in Quebec City, just 15 minutes from downtown Quebec, Wendake.
Wendake – A First Nation in Quebec City
On the banks of Akiawenrahk (Saint-Charles River) is Wendake, home to the Huron-Wendat Nation, a reserve with a population of 2,134 on the 100 hectare site (according tothe 2016 census). Wendake is a living breathing town run by their Grand Chief Konrad Sioui aided by the tribal council, but it also offers opportunities to engage with and understand their culture and they welcome tourists.
Wendake means big island, and the Wendak are people from the big island, which is integral to their creation story. According to their creation story, in the beginning the Wendat lived in the sky. The daughter of the great chief A’taentsik fell ill and as they tried to cure her she fell from the sky landing on the back of a great turtle. A series of animals tried to help cure her, eventually an old toad dove beneath the water and put some soil on the turtle, thus starting the island. The Huron in the name comes from the French who when they arrived named them so because their mohawks reminded them of the hair of the female boar. In 1985 an amendment of the Indian Act dictated that all First Nations should be be called nation instead of tribe and that they could go back to their original name, and so the Wendat tribe are referred to as the Wendat or Huron-Wendat Nation.
My time at Wendake was filled with stories and understanding. On arrival we were greeted: Do you walk in peace? (as we would say How are you?). Our guide explained that if you walk in peace in your head and heart, I don’t even have to ask how are you. If you walk in peace, for sure you feel good and you are healthy. We heard the wonderful Huron-Wendat origin stories in the Huron-Wendat Museum and then had a tour through their history via their permanent exhibition.
Following this we went to the Ekiomkiestha’ longhouse, a recreation of a traditional longhouse which would have been crafted from available wood like birch and cedar, and would last on average 12 years. This worked well when they were nomadic, however as they progressed to horticulture they needed more permanent dwellings. Next, the Tsawenhohi House named for the first chief that lived there Nicolas Vincent Tsawenhohi, which is a museum today also. Finally, we visited the Notre-Dame-de-Lorette Church, built around 1730 and modelled after the Santa Casa di Loreto in Italy. What is of interest here is not this, but the many artefacts and First Nations artworks here.
Of interest to food lovers is one method of farming used by First Nations traditionally, the Three Sisters, which is to grow beans, squash and corn together. They protect each other and help each other grow, and this method of farming is integral to their creation story. You will see Three Sisters Soup on menus incorporating these three ingredients, they eat well together too. Our guide also shared a fascinating story about how she was gifted the seeds of a squash which hadn’t been grown for 800 years. An ancient squash which had 6 seeds was recovered and some grew, and now she has 7 seeds to pass on. Nature is fierce and it is beautiful.
Myths and Legends in the Ekionkiestha’ longhouse
Every day at 6pm guests can join in the storytelling in the longhouse. Samuel was the storyteller that day, telling captivating stories of Huron-Wendat culture by the fire in the longhouse whilst banging the drum, all in the flow of the fire. The fire is very important in the longhouse and it must never go out, there is always someone watching it. Afterwards we made their traditional bannock bread, which was wrapped around the end of a stick and cooked in the embers of the fire.
Exploring the Huron-Wendat Cuisine at Wendake
Restaurant Sagamité on the banks of the river is a terrific spot to start with traditional foods and meats served with a modern twist. Head to the house specials of the menu and order the potence which they are deservedly renowned for. Translating as gallows, the meat is hung on a frame and grilled at the table over a small open fire, reminiscent of traditional cooking methods.
La Traite in the Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations offers a fine dining view of the traditional Wendat cuisine. Cooking is excellent, and the ingredients will be new to many of you as they were to me. A 6 course tasting menu is offered for $82, a matched wine option is also available. The menu changes seasonally but expect to see traditionally smoked fish and options like seal and caribou.
Staying at the Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations
The hotel itself is a beautiful 4 star property with spacious comfortable rooms. The design is contemporary, and it houses La Traite restaurant and is the museum. I highly recommend it for at least a night. You will want time to experience as much as you can while there. You can also stay a night in the Longhouse and enjoy a rich cultural experience.
I travelled to Canada with Canadian Affair, Air Transat and Destination Canada as part of the Canada City Plus project. If you are inspired to visit, you can fly to Canada from London Gatwick with Canadian Affair for as little as £346 to Toronto and Montreal, £407 to Vancouver and £434 to Calgary, or book a Montreal and Quebec City city break with Canadian Affair – LINK. For more inspiration, check out Canada – Keep Exploring, and in particular, their Quebec City content which lists Quebec City’s festivals and events, Quebec City itineraries for you to use when you visit, and a very useful walking tour of Quebec’s Old City.