Hochelaga Rock McGill Montreal Indigenous Iroquois village

McGill University and Hochelaga Rock, or how institutions erase history

“The idea that the Iroquoian village of Hochelaga fit neatly onto a small patch of bucolic, undeveloped land on the lower campus of an urban university is pervasive despite being incorrect.”

Hochelaga Rock is the informal name for a commemorative stone set on the lower field of McGill University’s downtown campus. Today it faces the driveway, just a little ways up past the Roddick Gates. The stone dates back to the 1920s, and has embedded into it a plaque that claims “near this site” was the Iroquoian village of Hochelaga, visited by Jacques Cartier in 1535.

The stone was moved to its current location along the driveway back in 2016, from where it had stood for nearly a century, left of the Roddick Gates facing Sherbrooke Street. 

McGill was encouraged to move the commemorative stone by Professor Michael Loft who had the idea that the stone should be in a more prominent location—it was admittedly difficult to see at its former site — not only because of the evident significance of what the stone commemorates, but further because McGill wanted to make good on its commitment to reconciliation, and providing a safe and nurturing space for Indigenous students. 

When the stone was unveiled in its new location in Sept. 2016, the university simultaneously launched its Taskforce on Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Education. The stone was located more or less directly across from the diminutive bronze statue of James McGill, the university’s namesake, until the latter was removed in 2021 due to repeated vandalism, itself a consequence of people discovering James McGill owned, trafficked and profited from enslaving people — including children.

This is all quite encouraging. There’s just one problem. It’s unlikely Hochelaga was located on McGill’s campus. In fact, it probably wasn’t even located nearby.

How we got here is an interesting journey in and of itself, as it demonstrates how conjecture and supposition can wind up becoming a historical ‘fact’ through a combination of uncritical acceptance of reputation and a generally innate inability on the part of the general public to critically analyze the past. We’re also predisposed to wanting to draw connections between historic institutions and historic events, and further have a predilection to believe things that are, in this case quite literally, carved (or embedded) in stone.

And let’s not kid ourselves: the past was just as political as it is today. 

“Jacques Cartier à Hochelaga” by Lawrence R. Batchelor, 1933

It is supremely ironic that a monument that’s supposed to indicate a 16th century Indigenous settlement was largely determined by the politics of commemoration between French and English Montreal in the early decades of the 20th century. 

Let that one sink in. 

Here’s how the stone came to be located on McGill’s lower field:

Back in 1859, land was being excavated close to the intersection of Metcalfe and de Maisonneuve and the workers there discovered human and animal remains, as well as other artifacts, such as pottery shards and tools. This caught the attention of John William Dawson, who at the time was McGill’s principle, as well as one of Canada’s leading geologists. 

He undertook an investigation of the site, which was probably the first ever organized archeological survey in Canadian history. Dawson found considerable evidence of human habitation on the site, which at its extent was about two acres in size. This included the aforementioned bone fragments, pottery shards, tools, middens, as well as evidence of where longhouse posts and fire pits would have been located. There’s no question it was an Indigenous site, but European tools were found there as well. Subsequent investigation later determined that the site could have been inhabited around the same time as Cartier’s first trip to what would become Montreal in 1535, but it could just as likely have been inhabited earlier or later. While the artifacts recovered from the site definitely pointed to the Saint Lawrence Iroquoian culture that lived in the area around the early period of contact with Europeans, Dawson never made any explicit claim that what he discovered was Hochelaga. It was presumed to be a strong indication of Indigenous habitation from the early period of contact… an indication of what Hochelaga may have been like, but not evidence of the community Cartier encountered. 

Subsequent research suggests quite strongly that, whatever the Dawson site was, it was too small to have been Hochelaga, which was recorded by Cartier as having as many as 50 longhouses, indicating a community of more than 1,500 people. The Dawson Site may have been a completely separate settlement from a period before or after Cartier’s visit, or a satellite village of Hochelaga from the same era, but it wasn’t Hochelaga.

Jacques Cartier Hochelaga
“La Visite de Jacques Cartier à Hochelaga” by Eugène Hamel, 1886

The site wasn’t commemorated in 1859, which is why there’s no plaque, monument, park or plaza in tribute to Hochelaga at the intersection of de Maisonneuve and Metcalfe. Why the space wasn’t recognized at the time is hard to say, but it’s likely a combination of the prevailing thought of the era, namely that historic artifacts were best interpreted by professionals in a museum, and that Dawson didn’t make any specific argument that the site was definitely the location of Hochelaga.

The very idea to erect a monument recognizing Hochelaga didn’t come about until some 60 years later, in 1919. In the wake of the First World War, which had a profound effect on Canadian society, the federal government decided to capitalize on the ‘commemorative mania’ then sweeping the country. As communities large and small sought the creation of war memorials in tribute to the over 60,000 Canadians killed in the war (and over 172,000 wounded), the federal government decided to create a ‘historic sites and monuments board’ to erect monuments recognizing sites of historic importance across Canada. It was a kind of propaganda effort, designed to ensure the public would draw connections between monuments to those recently killed in the war and monuments to the nation’s history, simultaneously reinforcing the idea that the soldiers had not died in vain on the one hand, and that the nation’s history was worthy of a commemoration equal to that of the war dead. The prototypical form of the new monuments was a plaque embedded in a stone or a cairn, with the plaque conceived of as the open page of a decentralized history book, cast in bronze to secure the permanence of Canada’s historical record, and facing the public to inform and entertain passersby. Hochelaga Rock was the very first historical marker to be commissioned, in 1920, though it wasn’t unveiled until 1925.

The delay was caused by a debate that erupted soon after it was announced that the stone would be placed on McGill’s lower field. A competing argument was made by a prominent Quebec historian that Cartier had likely arrived at Montreal by way of the Rivière des Prairies, not the Saint Lawrence, and therefore the location of Hochelaga was likely on the other side of Mount Royal. The monuments board took this into consideration when working out the exact wording of the text on the plaque, which wound up being deliberately vague. It reads:

“Near here was the site of the fortified town of Hochelaga listed by Jacques Cartier, in 1535, abandoned before 1600. It contained 50 large houses, each lodging several families, who subsisted by cultivation and fishing.”

‘Near’ is the operative word. Whether that was supposed to mean a few metres, a few city blocks or a few kilometres is open to interpretation.

Hochelaga Rock McGill University
Hochelaga Rock at McGill University, Montreal

But why was it put there, several blocks away from where Dawson had found Indigenous artifacts?

Assumedly, this was partly due to the importance of McGill as an institution, partly out of respect for John William Dawson, partly because there was room to erect a monument and partly because the monuments board insisted — without evidence — that McGill’s lower field was the exact location of the village.

There may have been other considerations, ironically not fundamentally dissimilar from those that motivated McGill to move the stone to its present location six years ago (i.e., that the commemorative stone should be in a prominent place). 

When it was unveiled in 1925, McGill was putting the finishing touches on a decades-long building program, one that had resulted in considerable new construction and the “filling out” of its downtown campus. The university celebrated its centennial in 1921 with the opening of what was then called the McCord National Museum, occupying the mansion formerly named Dilcoosha at the corner of Sherbrooke and MacTavish  (where the McLennan Library now stands). The Hochelaga monument was unveiled on May 23, 1925, and the Roddick Gates were officially opened five days later. Located as it was between the gates and what was, at the time, the only major museum in Canada dedicated to Canadian history, the stone was located in about as prominent a place on the university’s campus then imaginable. Given that there was no fence separating the campus from Sherbrooke Street at the time, it invited people to come take a look at what it had to say.

The decision to move the stone back in 2016 was driven primarily by the efforts of Professor Loft, but the decision — as one McGill official told me — was made ‘off the cuff,’ in discussions that occurred in the hallways rather than boardrooms. The McGill administration apparently agreed that the stone wasn’t easy to see or read where it was, and that moving it to the driveway seemed to be the right thing to do. Whether the decision to move it directly across from the old James McGill statue was deliberate or coincidental is hard to say, as McGill doesn’t have any records available or meeting notes to consider. The university apparently told the historic sites and monuments board of their intention to move the commemorative stone, but didn’t ask for permission from the agency per se.

What troubles me as a historian is that McGill did not undertake any kind of review of available scholarly material concerning the commemorative stone, not even the work of their own historians. The university’s history department was not asked to verify the information on the then nearly century-old historical marker, and this points out the big problem inherent to monuments and commemorative plaques: once it’s cast in bronze or carved in stone, everyone just assumes the information has already been vetted and is true.

Jacques Cartier Hochelaga
For centuries, this was what the world thought Hochelaga looked like. It was carved by a European who had never visited, based on a poor translation of Cartier’s voyage, and a lot of imagination.

One particularly prominent McGill professor — Bruce Trigger — made the argument back in the late-1960s that the Dawson site was almost assuredly not Hochelaga (though it may have been contemporaneous with the village visited by Cartier). Trigger had reviewed the artifacts collected at the Dawson site, and compared them with what had been learned about St. Lawrence Iroquoian societies (and from numerous other archeological sites) over more than a century of research and scholarship. His conclusion was that the Dawson site was Hochelagan, but not Hochelaga.

McGill University missed an opportunity to work with the monuments board and scholars Indigenous and otherwise to revise what is known about Hochelaga and the Dawson site, and to have come up with a more historically accurate inscription for the plaque.

While the institution should be encouraged for wanting to move forward on reconciliation, and further encouraged for wanting to make the campus inviting to Indigenous students, by not fact-checking the monument, they have doubled-down on their own settler-colonial interpretation of history, where the past is made to fit a contemporary mold rather than accepted for what it is. 

The idea that Hochelaga fit neatly onto a small patch of bucolic, undeveloped land on the lower campus of an urban university is pervasive despite being incorrect. It makes us think the past is preserved by an institution that guards solemn ground, when in truth all that’s preserved is the disused former farmland of James McGill. We unconsciously ignore the reality that there are dozens of sites revealing evidence of Indigenous habitation all over the island of Montreal, and on top of this, because we think the land Hochelaga stood on is already preserved, we don’t bother looking for it. 

History, in this case, hasn’t become illuminated, but rather has been further occluded, and an erroneous presumption based on incomplete information has become reinforced as fact. We should expect more from our institutions. ■

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes here.