A map from 1871 gives a snapshot of what Kahnawake once looked like before a massive waterway project sliced through the community. (Courtesy Winston Standup)
On June 26, 60 years ago, a ship traversed the St. Lawrence Seaway. The HMY Britannia carried two passengers no one on the globe would fail to recognize by name: US president Dwight D. Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth II.
Joe Delaronde, 61, was a baby when the Seaway opened. He heard many times about the royal visit.
“People from here lined the new Seaway to see the Queen and there’s the royal yacht Britannia going through the Seaway, they put on their Sunday best and waved, but she never came out,” said Delaronde. “After that, they were disappointed to say the least.”
Britannia passed through the community two months after the icebreaker D’Iberville floated past at the end of April, 1959 and became the first vessel traveling the 306-kilometre, $470 million project that displaced homeowners, flooded communities and changed the landscape between Montreal and Lake Ontario forever.
Winston Standup was born in 1943 and remembers seeing houses being picked up, put on flat beds and moved to another area before ships began cruising the lane.
“It was roughly where the Golden Age is,” he said of one moved residence. “It was picked up, and was brought up the hill… It changed the whole town altogether.”
Documentarian Courtney Montour co-directed Flat Rocks in 2017 with Roxann Whitebean, and learned of Louis Diabo’s fight to stop the seaway from destroying his farm.
“At 79 years old, Louis was one of the residents that held out until the very end, living on his farm as workers bulldozed and dynamited around him,” said Montour. “His unfaltering determination was the window into telling the incredibly complex story of how the seaway impacted Kahnawake as a whole.”
Standup remembers traveling with his father onto islands to fish before the seaway construction created the artificially formed Kateri Tekawitha Island (see map).
“I used to go on them,” said Standup, who would join his father and neighbour to chase minnows.
“We hit all the islands until we got to the end, then they would go out into the water, lineup with the church steeple and drop their anchor,” said Standup. “We’d stay there for the rest of the day bottom fishing.”
The 1871 map Standup dug up shows a lake on the middle of one island, which Standup remembers visiting with the older men. By his childhood, however, the lake was not the size it seems in the map.
“When I was a kid, it was small, I would say from erosion,” said Standup.
In his youth, Delaronde, like most in the community, would go to the Seaway’s shore often to swim near the Golden Age Club with his mother and grandmother. He distinctly remembers the elders’ disappointment with how the community had changed as a result of the construction.
“They used to talk about it, ‘It was so nice before.’ You always heard that: it was so nice before. It was universal among the older people,” said Delaronde. “The older generation lamented it, but they didn’t go on and on. Back then it was like, ‘oh well, that’s what they did and it’s disappointing.’”
The sense of being connected to the modern world the Seaway initially sparked soon changed to frustration over what had been lost, Delaronde said.
“As time went on, the novelty wore off very quickly and people kept lamenting more and more,” he said. “The older you were, if you actually lived there at the time, those are the people who were most effected.”
While researching the film, Montour found examples of seaway officials’ attitudes towards Kahnawake (Caughnawaga at the time).
“Seaway officials saw Kahnawake Mohawks as a nuisance to the construction of their modern marvel that was set to boost commerce for Canada,” she said. “Lionel Chevrier, president of the St. Lawrence Seaway Authority, thought Kahnawake was blowing their concerns about the seaway project out of proportion and using the media to their advantage.”
Montour found a quote in Chevrier’s memoire reading, “the Indians were just having a lot of fun at the expense of the seaway.”
“It’s a quote that sickens me because nothing could be further from our reality,” she said. “I’ve read numerous accounts of intimidation and threats from the St. Lawrence Seaway Authority including notices of six days to relocate or face a reduction in compensation.”
Andrew Delisle Sr. told The Eastern Door in 2015 (vol. 24 no. 24) that the council of the day opposed the Seaway’s construction, and did what it could to fight its construction, to no avail.
Delaronde said the culture was different at the time with lawyers, doctors and other professionals losing their status, and less people willing to sacrifice as much as today.
“We were in a different era where there was still a tiny bit of trust (in the government),” said Delaronde. “You have to take everything into context, and that’s what always gets forgotten.”
Once ships were running, Delaronde did what many in the community did to show their appreciation for the vessels traveling through the community: he threw rocks at the ships.
“Of course. We all did,” said Delaronde. “It was a great badge of honour if you could reach a ship on the second part of the seaway. If they’re in close it’s not a challenge… The other challenge is swimming in the channel, knocking on the ship and swimming back.”
The seaway sparked an interest in boats for a few enthusiasts in Kahnawake, of which Delaronde admits he is one.
“I was more intrigued about not having any information about any of it,” he said. “This is pre Internet. How old are these boats? Why are they named this? Whose name is on the bow? It was almost impossible to research. I was just intrigued.
“I did research as a young guy, and I just kept doing it. You can still impress people when one of them passes, and somebody says, ‘I wonder how big that is?’ And I’ll tell them, ’740 feet, 78 feet wide. It was built in 1982.’”
The seaway continues to resonate with Kahnawa’kehró:non whether they were there at the beginning or born many years later.
“The waterway and ships that pass through it are a daily reminder of what was taken by the Canadian government 60 years ago ‘in the name of progress,’” said Montour, who added her documentary sparks constant surprise across Canada and internationally about the negative actions that impacted the community.
Delaronde sees little chance the seaway will ever go away due to the relative inexpensive costs associated with shipping via the channel.
“There was talk a few years ago that they wouldn’t build ships this size anymore,” said Delaronde. “They’re building them as much as ever. Obviously, it’s maintained its relevance. It’s a lot safer than it was. They retired all the old tankers that used to be single hull.”
If the seaway seems unlikely to close in the foreseeable future, the question remains: can Kahnawake get a better deal?
“I think it’s something we should always look at,” said Delaronde. “We’ve been talking internally here for years as a community like, ‘what do we get out of this?’ We were promised a swimming pool, and it’s been closed now for 15 years. What’s happened since then?”