Treasures Revealed Episode 8 – Woman on Snowshoes

Greenish stylized treasure chest with Library and Archives Canada maple leaves at the bottom and rays rising from the chest at the top. Numbered 8. 

In this episode of Treasures Revealed, Indigenous Research Archivist Elizabeth Montour relies on knowledge and instinct to decipher the story of a Kanienhkenha:ka woman she observes in a 19th century watercolour. As Elizabeth examines the painting, she imagines what life might have been like for her ancestors living in her home of Kahnawake, in a time of great transition.

Duration: 12:42

File size: 17.6 MB Download MP3

Publish Date: December 01, 2022

  • Transcript of Treasures Revealed episode 8

    Théo Martin (TM): Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Théo Martin. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.

    Welcome to Treasures Revealed!

    In this podcast series, we’ll be showcasing certain items in the Library and Archives Canada collection. Each episode, we’ll speak to a LAC employee and highlight an item that they consider a real “treasure” in our collection.

    They may be rare items, perhaps unusual or valuable, or items with historical significance. Perhaps they will have a compelling or interesting story to go along with them. More importantly, all of them will show case our vast and rich collection that is the shared documentary heritage of all Canadians.

    Now, on to Episode 8, “Woman on Snowshoes.”

    Elizabeth Montour (EM): When I look at this image captured on a watercolour, I see the past, present and future of my people. She carries herself in dignity and with a purpose. Her village she walks toward is my home today. She carries with her, and in her, her purpose for survival and transition in a world that is changing.

    TM: That was our guest for this episode, Elizabeth Montour. We asked her to tell us about this treasure from LAC’s collection.

    EM: Well, when I was doing my research for the blogs and Flickr that I contribute to, I came across—in the Collection Search on the archival side—a piece of art. It’s a watercolour, and the picture I saw was just, it just stuck in my mind over, you know I’ve been here two years, so it’s something I, you know, I think of a lot. When this project came up for Treasures, it came to mind that I needed to talk about this.

    It’s a picture of a lone First Nations woman travelling on snowshoes, walking west away from Montréal on the south shore, La Prairie area across from Montréal, over the St. Lawrence River. She’s walking back to Kahnawake, I’m assuming she’s walking back to Kahnawake because it’s where she’s headed.

    She is in full winter gear with, or should I say dress, it looks like blue and red wool. Against the snow in the background, you could see the spires of a church in Montréal, and I’m assuming it may be the Notre-Dame Basilica in Old Montréal because it has two towers. It’s not really clear. And then you see to the right the Victoria Jubilee Bridge, they called it in those days, which was just recently completed too, around that time.

    TM: The artist who painted this watercolour in 1866 was Captain Francis George Coleridge. Born in 1838, Coleridge was a member of the 42nd Royal Highlands Regiment, also known as the Black Watch. The Black Watch was in Canada from 1864 until 1868 as part of the British force dispatched to deal with the Fenian raids that were taking place in North America. The Fenians were a group of Irish-Americans who banded together with the aim of freeing Ireland from British control. The Fenians’ plan was to attack colonies in North America, forcing Britain to send troops, thus weakening its defences in Ireland.

    Elizabeth tells us more about Francis George Coleridge.

    EM: He was considered an amateur, and he created pictures as part of his military work. And LAC has a very large collection of his material, 98 pieces, I found! I was looking at a lot of them yesterday, and they were interesting in that he wasn’t like technically, I guess, a brilliant painter or anything, but what he caught, you know, was, you had a moment in time, you know, in Montréal.

    When he first arrived, he must have moved around because he has good paintings of Montmorency Falls in the Québec (city) area, West Point on Hudson River. He has a painting of the water approaching Newfoundland when he arrived. He was at Niagara River on Lake Ontario, he was at the Thousand Islands of St. Lawrence River. But mainly he painted what was going on in Montréal, a lot of winter scenes, he liked to include winter scenes in his painting.

    TM: Of the almost 100 watercolours done by Coleridge in LAC’s collection, Woman on Snowshoes is the only one depicting Indigenous peoples. The majority of the images are from a sketchbook/album, acquired by LAC in 1983, that the artist kept when he was stationed in Canada.

    We asked Elizabeth why she considers this item a treasure.

    EM: Well, it represents the women from Kahnawake, you know, and maybe all First Nations women who have survived through the years from contact, you know, adapting, transitioning, doing what we need to survive, you know. The trip to Montréal for us, or wherever you need to go.

    I assume this woman, she was travelling back not carrying anything, so she might have brought, you know, her crafts or food or something to trade in the city. She probably went to that new bridge, Victoria, because that’s the only way to get across if you’re not going by boat. Maybe she was just carrying back her money.

    She was quite stylish, and her outfit was really well made. When we went to the city, it was always a big affair. You don’t go into the city in your, you know, your regular clothes. You put your best stuff on when you’re going down to the city. Things have changed more recently, but it was like that when I was growing up, you always had to put on your best.

    And that’s what she was! She was a magnificent lady walking in snowshoes in her finest. Usually when I see something I’ll print it out and I’ll post it on my wall near my desk and just admire it (laughing) and think about it. And I think of my family and my community and how we managed and we just keep going for the future generations, you know, making the best for our community. It just symbolizes everything that I’ve grown up with and known about my own community because she’s in the area of where our community is. It’s our connection to the island of Montréal, also known as Tio’tia:ke in our community, which means where the rapids or the currents meet, because for us to get to Tio’tia:ke, Montréal, we have to, you know, cross the river.

    In those days, 1866, there was no transportation of sort, so she’s walking alone in her First Nations dress.

    TM: We asked Elizabeth if there were any other thoughts that came to mind when viewing this treasure.

    EM: I wonder what is in her mind. Is she thinking of survival? Does she have her own ambitions? What past experience is she carrying with her? Does she make this trip often? Does she go there once a month? More or less often? Is she a religious person following the Christian faith and that’s why she’s in Kahnawake? Or is she following her traditional ways and beliefs and still living in a mission, because both were possible. To speak of my own parents, my father was a member of a mission, he was Catholic, and my mother followed traditional ways. That’s how Kahnawake is. This picture and ones like it make me think of some more recent transitions that my grandparents and parents dealt with in their time.

    TM: If you’re interested in viewing this watercolour, you can use LAC’s Collection Search and type in Francis George Coleridge, or you can go to LAC’s Flickr page. There, you will find an album of images called Treasures Revealed. We will update that album with each episode, giving you a chance to view the treasures that we will be highlighting. We will also add a link to the Flickr album in the Related links section of the episode page for this podcast.

    Thank you for being with us. I’m Théo Martin, your host. You’ve been listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you.” A special thank you to our guest today, Elizabeth Montour. Special thanks also to Isabel Larocque for her contributions to this episode.

    The music in this episode was provided by Blue Dot Sessions.

    This episode was produced, engineered and edited by David Knox, with additional editing and sound design by Tom Thompson.

    If you liked this episode, you’re invited to subscribe to the podcast. You can do it through the RSS feed located on our website, Apple Podcasts, or wherever else you get your podcasts.

    If you’re interested in listening to the French equivalent of our podcast, you can find French-language versions of all our episodes on our website, Apple podcasts and Spotify. Simply search for “Découvrez Bibliothèque et Archives Canada.”

    For more information on our podcasts, go to LAC’s homepage and type “podcast” in the search bar in the top right corner and click on the first link. If you have questions, comments or suggestions, you can find the email address for the podcast team located at the bottom of the episode page.

Host: Théo Martin, Archivist, Performing Arts Archives

Guest: Elizabeth Montour, Indigenous Research Archivist


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