Meet the Indigenous Peoples of the Métis-sur-Mer Area

The Metis area lies between the territory of the Mi’gmaq and Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet/Malécite) – at least one map has their areas overlapping and the mouth of the Mitis River falls within that intersecting area.

The Mi’gmaq Creation story speaks of the formation of Mi’gma’gi, with the largest of its seven districts being Gespe’gewa’gi (the Last Land) – traditional territory shown in yellow and including parts of Quebec, New Brunswick, and the northern U.S.  Mi’gmaq claim ancestry in Gespe’gewa’gi (Gaspésie) for over 10,000 years and were likely the first Indigenous people to establish contact with the European newcomers.  To the west, shown in orange, lies Wolastoqiyik territory.  The Mi’gmaq used the word Maliseet (Malécite), meaning, ‘people of the broken language’, to describe the Wolastoqiyik, more attractively meaning ‘people of the beautiful river’ (what we now know as the Saint John River).

The first settlers in the Gaspé peninsula would have come into early contact with – and some may only have survived because of – Mi’gmaq and Wolastoqiyik individuals.  While Europeans may have seen both groups as nomadic, because they went to different places in different seasons, they also were sedentary as they remained in the general area of New Brunswick and much of the Gaspé peninsula.

The source of the name Metis (or Mitis, like the nearby river) is believed to be indigenous.  

It may come from Mitoui, a native word for meeting place – and the mouth of the Mitis River is known to have been a place where Indigenous people traded with each other every year and, possibly later, with the French.  It also could be from the Mi’gmaq word Mitisk or little birch (little poplars in the Wolastoqiyik language), which are plentiful along the Mitis River and in the surrounding areas.  Mi’gmaq and Wolastoqiyik came to the mouth of the Mitis River in temperate summer to meet, fish, and trade, but wintered elsewhere, for example, some 170 km away by Baie-des-chaleurs (bay of warmth or of torrid weather). Mi’gmaq and Wolastoqiyik, with other tribes, were members of the Wabanaki confederation, formed by a mutual peace agreement following decades of war between Mi’gmaq and Wolastoqiyik.  

Fishing and hunting are important parts of Indigenous history, culture, sustenance, and way of life¹.

Also, Indigenous rights to fish and hunt in what is now the Lower Saint Lawrence area were protected constitutionally and by treaty,

In 1763, King George III issued a Proclamation that became the basis for, among other things, the relationship between the monarch and ‘Nations or Tribes of Indians’: 

“And whereas it is just and reasonable, and essential to our Interest, and the Security of our Colonies, that the several Nations or Tribes of Indians with whom We are connected, and who live under our Protection, should not be molested or disturbed in the Possession of such Parts of Our Dominions and Territories as, not having been ceded to or purchased by Us, are reserved to them, or any of them, as their Hunting Grounds … 

And whereas great Frauds and Abuses have been committed in purchasing Lands of the Indians, to the great Prejudice of our Interests, and to the great Dissatisfaction of the said Indians: In order, therefore, to prevent such Irregularities for the future, and to the end that the Indians may be convinced of our Justice and determined Resolution to remove all reasonable Cause of Discontent, We do, with the Advice of our Privy Council strictly enjoin and require, that no private Person do presume to make any purchase from the said Indians of any Lands reserved to the said Indians, within those parts of our Colonies where We have thought proper to allow Settlement.”

In the 1770s, what was at the time the Kingdom of Great Britain also signed, to avoid war and promote trade, a series of Peace and Friendship Treaties with some Mi’gmaq, Wolastoqiyik, and other Indigenous peoples living in what we now know as the Gaspé peninsula and Maritimes.

Unlike later agreements with Indigenous groups further west, these treaties made no provisions for transferring land or other forms of value, and they guaranteed ongoing hunting, fishing, and land-use rights to Indigenous treaty-signers and their descendants.  These rights have been challenged for a couple of hundred years.  The authors of Nta’tugwaqanminen (Our Story): Evolution of the Gespe’gewa’gi [Gaspé] Mi’gmaq, say that: 

“… the territories in question [Nova Scotia, Acadia, Gaspé] were ours [the Gaspé Mi’gmaq’s].  France had never acquired any property rights of the said territories by treaty with our ancestors or otherwise.  They were ours because we were here first, and we had neither sold them nor ceded them to the French Crown … [nor had we] lost our territories in

  • Fishing and food is integral in First Nations cultures. Fishing is an important part of trade, labour and the economy. It helps to shape identity, promote mental, physical and spiritual health, including suicide prevention and life promotion.
  • Sustainable, strong fishery economies and water and environmental protection fosters strong individuals and nations.

that way [in battle with] … France either.  Therefore, the sovereignty alleged by the French [in the Treaty of Paris, following the ceding by France of all colonies in New France and Acadia] was a false sovereignty.  Since then, we have neither sold nor ceded our territories… The only Europeans using our land at that time were French and Basque fishers, and they rarely spent the winter on this side of the Atlantic. … [And] there is much irrefutable evidence of our presence in the Gaspé since the receding of the ice sheet at the end of the last Ice Age.”  (pp. 2-3).

Some have argued that a wandering presence does not ensure title and rights to land.  Nta’tugwaqanminen’s authors counter that the Mi’gmaq way of life was seasonal, as in the life of medieval estates, and that seasonality didn’t remove ownership or rights.  The authors ask whether ‘Snowbirds’ living half the year in Canada and half in the sunny south would take kindly to being described as nomadic if this meant a loss of their title and rights to property in Canada.  In any event, evidence shows that Mi’gmaq did indeed winter (and not just summer) on the north side of the Gaspé peninsula.  For example, church records show that the majority of people who died in the Mitis River Basin in the 1794-95 winter had Mi’gmaq surnames and, from the word smallpox on a death certificate, likely fell prey to the European import of this dread epidemic disease (p. 41).

As time went on, European settlers, Loyalists fleeing the United States, and other non-natives ignored the Indigenous rights, as can be seen from this letter written by an ‘Indian’, Peter Mitchel, in Metis in 1861. We do not know what happened in this case, although sadly recourse seems unlikely.  

Did you know… ?  Cacouna is a Maliseet First Nations reserve – the smallest reserve in Canada at less than half an acre, 18,300 square feet – and not permanently inhabited.  In 1826, the Maliseet in the Saint John River valley asked authorities of Lower Canada for land to be reserved for their use. The government granted them 1,214 hectares (3,000 acres) in their traditional hunting grounds in Viger township, near Île-Verte – the first such grant in Lower Canada and now seen as a step towards the Indigenous settlement and assimilation policy.  In 1860, after being sporadically on the land, the Maliseet had cultivated 125 hectares (309 acres) in Viger township.  However, a bad fire and pressure to leave the concession from local settlers wanting land for farming led to the Maliseet relinquishing the territory to the Crown in 1869; the land was sold in 1870.   The Maliseets again were given land in Whitworth and then Cacouna, today the administrative centre of the Maliseet First Nation.  The most recent statistics estimate 1,200 in Viger Quebec².

Over time, successive lawsuits were launched and today there are efforts to address some of the longstanding complaints.  Regarding one such recent case (Government of Canada and the Maliseet of Viger First Nation reach agreement on fisheries, August 30, 2019), the signatories are quoted as saying:

“In addition to recognizing our rights in commercial fishing activities, this agreement establishes a new model for collaboration in the management of fisheries resources and marine environments. With this agreement, and our project to develop the Port de Gros-Cacouna, the Maliseet of Viger First Nation intends to play a dominant role as guardian of the St. Lawrence River.”  Jacques Tremblay, Grand Chief of the Maliseet of Viger First Nation

“The signing of this historic agreement demonstrates our government’s work to advance reconciliation with Aboriginal communities in Quebec and across Canada. The implementation of this new long-term agreement will help to support the livelihood of fish harvesters from the Maliseet of Viger First Nation. It will ensure a stable, predictable and sustainable industry for all fish harvesters in our coastal region.”  Rémi Massé, MP for Avignon-La Mitis-Matane-Matapédia

Did you know… ? The Assembly of First Nations National Fisheries Committee, by direction from Chiefs across the country, declared the date many know as Victoria Day as a National Day of First Nations Fishing Rights, saying: “This is a day to honour the inherent right to fish, to raise awareness of its interconnectedness to growing sustainable environments, conservation and water protection and fostering healthy individuals and nations. Victoria Day was chosen [in] an effort to decolonize a day named for the Queen who presided over many of the Treaties made with First Nations.”  



¹ From the Assembly of First Nations Fishing Rights Fact Sheet: Celebrating Fishing, Indigenous Cultures and Languages

  • Fishing promotes healthy family connections and activities. Fishing is more than the act of removing fish for food – it is teaching and talking about fish, the water sources and the many activities that impact First Nations rights and cultures.
  • Fishing in many First Nations is a key activity in transmitting cultures and languages. Use May 21 as an opportunity to learn, share and pass on those words and practices.
  • Fishing and food is integral in First Nations cultures. Fishing is an important part of trade, labour and the economy. It helps to shape identity, promote mental, physical and spiritual health, including suicide prevention and life promotion.
  • Sustainable, strong fishery economies and water and environmental protection fosters strong individuals and nations.

²   Maliseet, in Wikipedia, also refers to 7,700 status Maliseet in New Brunswick and 1,700 Maliseet in Maine.



At the gateway to Gaspésie you’ll encounter the Mitis area, from the Mi’gmaq words miti, meaning “poplar,” and sipo, meaning “river,”, so named because the banks of the Mitis River are very wooded. The Maliseet (Wolastoqiyik) fished for eels and salmon at the mouth of this river. A navigable route, it served as a link between Chaleur Bay and the St. Lawrence. It is presumed that the Maliseet and Mi’gmaq met along its banks.  First Nations People in Gaspésie: Meet the Mi’gmaq (, Marine Grimaud, October 3, 2018

Metis, Oct. 5, 1861


We the Indians, from here to above Montréal on both sides of the River St. Lawrence have made a petition to be presented before the House of Assembly at the next Siting (sic) Complaining of the hardships that we suffer owing to the [illegible] prohibiting the Indians from Fishing and Hunting, therefore we wants to get the Signature of all the Indians in and about Ristigoush, so that we can all be put into one petition, you will please write your petition in English, I have a letter now before me, from the Indian Governor Residing at Green Island, his name is (Louis Toma, Indian). Sir, you will please forward your letter as quick as possible and direct it to me Peter Mitchel, Indian Grand Métis, and then I can forward it to Green Island.

I have no more to say at present but remain your &,

Peter Mitchel,