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Wonderful Wendake: First Nations Getaway Outside Quebec City
Boutique hotel complete with fluffy beaver pillows and wood burning fireplace, or chilly outdoor longhouse? Hummm. Well, I had to go out and have a look. In fact, while I was at the Hotel Musée Premieres Nations in Wendake I had a lovely tour of the village and saw the local church, river, chief’s house, museum and the longhouse.
The Huron-Wendat Nation, located on the territory known as Nionwentsio, is located a 20-minute drive outside Quebec City. My first stop was the museum, attached to the hotel. I learned that in 1534 Donnacona, Grand Chief of the Huron-Wendats welcomed Jacques Cartier, the French explorer and led him to the village of Stadacona (now where Quebec City stands). However, Huron-Wendats mostly occupied the territory south of Georgian Bay in what is now the province of Ontario. They became fur-trading partners with the French, had upwards of 30 villages and a population of 40,000. Unfortunately disease, famine and fighting wiped out more than 90 per cent of them. They left their native land in 1650 and neighbouring peoples adopted some and others went to Quebec. In 1697 about 150 Wendats settled on the banks of the Akiawenrahk River (the current site of Wendake) and the population has grown to 3,000.
Wars between the French and English also resulted in a decimation of the Native peoples. Treaties were signed in the 1700s, in particular the 1760 Huron-British Treaty that formed a permanent alliance between the First Nations of the St. Lawrence region and the British. Ever expanding colonization usurped much of the land and the Huron-Wendats found themselves excluded from community decision-making. It took more than 230 years, but in 1990 the Supreme Court of Canada recognized the Huron-British Treaty and the Huron-Wendats were finally given official status as a distinct and free Nation.
Go to Wendake and you’ll see the Huron-Wendats have made tourism into a primary focus. While I was there, the 55-room hotel was packed with a marketing company retreat and I had to squeeze into the bar area for lunch. Warm, woodsy yet distinctly modern, the hotel was filled with Native art, and animal trophies, reflecting their heritage as hunters. Big windows overlooked the river and a central lobby with a fireplace, comfy chairs and animal skins beckoned to guests who wanted to warm up after a winter outing.
Tsawenhohi House was in the heart of the village. The house’s name means “He who sees clearly, the hawk,” and it was completed in 1820 as a home for Nicolas Vincent Tsawenhohi, Grand Chief. Depending on the time of year, you can see crafts demonstrations, exhibits of cultural objects and a garden of healing plants. Our guide told us the house had been sold, along with all its furnishings, by a relative of the last owner. Villagers were able to buy it back but the furniture was gone.
Trudging through the snow, we crossed a bridge over Akiawenrahk River to look at Kabir Kouba Falls. The name means “river of a thousand meanders,” and it had a gently undulating, snake-like quality. Across the street was the church of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, built around 1730 and designated a National Architectural and Historic Site in 1981. A carving of Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be declared a saint in 2012, sat on one side of the alter. Tekakwitha, known as Lily of the Mohawks, was born in upstate New York in 1656 and is beloved by First Nations churchgoers throughout North America.
The traditional longhouse was our last stop. Completed last year, the longhouse is covered in bark (“It’s actually a simulated bark that withstands weather better,” noted the guide). Inside were bunk beds with sleeping bags, three fires and some benches. In the warmer weather, Wendat guides might bake bannock, traditional bread, brew Labrador herbal tea, relate myths and legends and guard the fire. Nobody was staying there when I peeked in, but it looked like a fun option for a summer adventure.
Although the history of the Huron-Wendat people was tough to hear, I was glad to learn about these resilient people and even happier to experience their culture in a first-class tourist destination.