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Quebec premier defends new museum on Québécois nation after Indigenous criticism

Quebec Premier François Legault is defending his comments about a new history museum after he was accused by a group representing First Nations of trying to erase their history.
Quebec Premier François Legault gestures at a news conference to announce the creation of the Musee National de l’histoire du Quebec at Le Seminaire de Quebec in Quebec City, Thursday, April 25, 2024. Legault is defending his comments over a new history museum after being accused by a prominent First Nations group of trying to erase their history. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Francis Vachon

Quebec Premier François Legault is defending his comments about a new history museum after he was accused by a group representing First Nations of trying to erase their history.

The Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador criticized Legault's April 25 comments that suggested the province's history began with the arrival of French explorers Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain in the 16th and 17th centuries.

During his announcement of a new Quebec national history museum, the premier paid tribute to Quebec's history, saying it "started with the explorers, Cartier then Champlain, who was the founder of our nation."

The Assembly of First Nations also criticized historian Éric Bédard who was present at the event and was quoted telling reporters that history begins with writing, and that therefore "the Indigenous people represent a bit the prehistory of Quebec."

In a news release on Tuesday, the assembly said, "By excluding the First Peoples from Quebec's history in the conception of the future national museum, the premier and the historian implicitly contribute to the systematic erasure of our common past."

Chief Ghislain Picard said the comments by Legault and Bédard were unacceptable. "We are inseparable from the history of this land, and the arrival of Champlain does not define Quebec," he said in the news release.

"The First Nations have been present here for millenniums and are deeply attached to the territory they occupy. To suggest that we are prehistory amounts to relegating us to a secondary role, while our contribution to the formation of modern Quebec is fundamental."

On Wednesday, Legault told reporters that the new Musée national de l'histoire du Québec will focus specifically on the history of the French-speaking Québécois nation. The 11 Indigenous nations in Quebec likely don't consider themselves part of the Québécois nation, he said, adding that their contributions will nonetheless be included in the museum.

"The idea is to show the history of the nation that was French-Canadian and now Québécois, that started with Champlain," he said in Quebec City. "But clearly we’ll talk about the Indigenous people who were there before we arrived."

He said his government is open to working with Indigenous nations to ensure their history is recognized.

Employment Minister Kateri Champagne Jourdain, who is Innu, told reporters Wednesday, "the history of the First Nations is intimately linked to the development of the Quebec nation."

And Culture Minister Mathieu Lacombe said the museum will not exclude Indigenous Peoples. He said the histories of Quebecers and Indigenous Peoples "are interconnected."

The national history museum is scheduled to open in 2026 and cost about $92 million. To be located inside the Séminaire de Québec, the museum will honour Québécois artists such as Céline Dion and Les Cowboys Fringants, as well as authors, sporting heroes and business successes.

In his speech in April, Legault said Quebec's more than 400-year-old history started with the French explorers, and he praised female "builders," such as Jeanne Mance, before adding, "It’s important to highlight the presence of Indigenous nations who were here before us and who helped us over the years."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 8, 2024.

— By Morgan Lowrie in Montreal with files from Thomas Laberge

The Canadian Press