Tobacco diplomacy

July 4, 2013

He has been called the Father of New France. He is credited with establishing the first permanent European settlement at the site of the City of Québec, with creating an extraordinarily accurate map of northeastern North America, with telling fascinating travel tales. But Samuel de Champlain also helped to achieve a significant diplomatic shift. His tobacco diplomacy forever changed the relations between the French settlers and First Peoples.

As part of the activities marking the 400th anniversary of Champlain’s journey up the Ottawa River, the Canadian Museum of Civilization is offering Champlain, the First Account, a display that features many artifacts telling us especially about the ties between Champlain and Aboriginal peoples.

Among the artifacts are many pipes. These bear witness not only to habits passed from America to Europe, but also to traditions and events that were to shape the course of history.

Champlain’s first visit to Tadoussac coincided with a large gathering at which the Algonquins, Montagnais and Etchemins celebrated a victory over their enemies. During the gathering was a tobacco ceremony, a kind of feast during which participants smoked the peace pipe. Champlain did not hesitate to take part in the ritual and smoked with his hosts, thus sealing what came to be known as the Alliance of 1603.

“For the Aboriginal people, smoking tobacco was a way of opening the heart and spirit. By sharing in this tradition, Champlain built a kind of alliance with them, undertaking to stand alongside them and defend them,” explains Jean-Luc Pilon, Curator of Ontario Archaeology.

Champlain thus took an action that shaped relations between the French settlers and First Peoples. He distanced himself from the power relationship preferred by some of his predecessors. Instead he chose a diplomatic approach based on respect between nations.

“Until Champlain, the two sides had distrusted each other,” notes Jean-Luc Pilon. “He did things differently. He set the tone for the relations that subsequently developed and that, in a way, are still the basis on which we live together.”

The small pipes that were found at many sites in the Ottawa Valley are not at all like the peace pipes used in the time of Champlain. But they are the symbol of the tobacco ritual that laid the foundations for relations with First Peoples.