The Glengarry Cairn National Historic Site and the Making of Canadian History After WWI

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Editor’s Note: This post by Katie Louise McCullough is the second installment in the Parks and Profit series, which explores the complex relationship between profit and parks historically and in present-day. Looking at the history of the Glengarry Cairn, McCullough highlights an example of how the Canadian government used the park-making process to profit off of Indigenous dispossession.

In 1922, the Department of the Interior expropriated an island in the upper St. Lawrence River from the Mohawks of Akwesasne to turn it into a Dominion Park.1 The island, known in Mohawk as Tsikatsinakwahere, sits at the mouth of the Raisin River near the village of South Lancaster in Glengarry County, eastern Ontario.2

  • Map of location of cairn in 1840s.

The tiny one acre island is dominated by a massive monumental cairn that was constructed in the early 1840s by the local Glengarry militia and their commanding officer to commemorate the role that the Glengarry Highlanders played in suppressing the Rebellions of 1837-8, and was dedicated to their commander-in-chief and governor general, Sir John Colborne.3 Though meaningful to the local settler community, and perhaps an oddity for the passing tourist, the cairn languished in obscurity until the early twentieth century when the newly-formed Historic Sites and Monuments Board (HSMBC) used it to articulate a version of Canada’s history that emphasised early nineteenth-century Scottish military heritage. The decision by various federal agencies to expropriate Tsikatsinakwahere to preserve the cairn tells us much about the hegemonic process of early twentieth-century public memory that both prioritised settler history and profited from Indigenous dispossession.

The decision by various federal agencies to expropriate Tsikatsinakwahere to preserve the cairn tells us much about the hegemonic process of early twentieth-century public memory that both prioritised settler history and profited from Indigenous dispossession.

Shortly after the establishment of the HSMBC in 1919, its board members set about looking for national historic sites that would fulfill their vision of Canada’s history. Formed under the Parks Branch of the Department of the Interior (DOI), the early HSMBC was composed of the era’s most notable historians. Their “British imperial mindset” played an important role in the advancement of a form of public memory in the interwar period that focused on Canada’s imperial origins, despite the public’s growing sense of nationalism as an independent nation following WWI.4

Brigadier General Ernest Alexander Cruikshank; an older white man with a mustache poses in full military regalia.
Brigadier General Ernest Alexander Cruikshank (1853-1939), military historian and chairman of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Niagara Falls Public Library, Record ID 92528 (Francis J. Petrie Collection).

One of the most influential of these historians was the representative for eastern Ontario, E. A. Cruikshank, who brought the Glengarry Cairn to the attention of J.B. Harkin, the Parks Commissioner. Widely known as an expert on Canada’s military heritage, Cruikshank had a particular interest in the Scottish military history of eastern Ontario. Under his influence, three of the seven historic sites and monuments chosen for Ontario in the early 1920s were connected to Glengarry County, a largely Scottish-Canadian community with strong military ties to both the War of 1812 and the Canadian Rebellions.5 The cairn was one. However, Cruikshank knew nothing of the cairn’s history beyond its military connection and dedication to Colborne.

Glengarry Cairn with plaque in foreground
The plaque reads: “This Cairn was erected under the supervision of Lieutenant Colonel Lewis Carmichael of the Imperial Army, then stationed in this District on Particular Service, by the Highland Militia of Glengarry which had aided in the suppression of the Canadian Rebellion of 1837-38, to commemorate the services of that distinguished soldier Sir John Colborne, who was declared by the historian Napier to have been ‘a man of singular talent for War’ and who commanded Her Majesty’s Forces in Canada at that critical period. He had previously served with conspicuous merit throughout the Peninsular War and elsewhere and had greatly distinguished himself at Waterloo when in command of the 52nd Regiment. He was Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada from November 1828 to January 1836, and Governor of Canada in 1839, and afterwards became Field Marshall Lord Seaton, G.C.B. This cairn was repaired and this tablet attached in 1905.”

In order to justify its inclusion as an historical monument, Harkin made a number of enquiries to the local community. In this search, he learned that locals had placed a plaque on the cairn in 1905 while they were repairing the neglected monument.6 Though the plaque [above] confirmed for the HSMBC the purpose of the cairn—giving them the justification to designate it a National Historic Site in 1921—what was not clear was how it had ended up being built on an Indian Reserve.

Known to the settlers of Glengarry County as Monument Island, and later Cairn Island, the locals seemed to only have a vague idea that the island was in fact part of the St. Regis Reserve, as Akwesasne was then known.7 Once the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) confirmed that the island was part of the reserve, the Board assumed that the cairn was “built with the permission of the Indians,” something neither the locals nor the DIA were able to confirm.8

Though there is no solid evidence that the settlers sought permission to build the cairn on Tsikatsinakwahere, there is evidence that there was some co-operation between Akwesasro:non and the Glengarry militia in the era of the Rebellions. Volunteers from St. Regis had fought with the Glengarry militia in Lower Canada in 1838.9 In addition, the Glengarry militia was stationed at St. Regis until May 1839 where apparently the Mohawks were “proud of their company, [and] never expressed or entertained a wish to have them removed.”10 Perhaps the most intriguing piece of evidence is the ca. 1843 engraving by Edward W. Battye [below], which appears to show a typical Victorian representation of an Indigenous man in the foreground in a canoe making his way towards the cairn with a number of soldiers in Highland Scottish military dress looking on.11

A art print that portrays Indigenous folks and settlers gathering at the Glengarry Cairn
Edward W. Battye Print, ca. 1843.

Yet, these connections did not endure into early twentieth-century public memory. The cairn, like other monuments, occupied a contested terrain where a discourse of power legitimized “a narrative about the past in support of the present.”12 The decision to turn the island into a Dominion Park, instead of simply preserving the monument, came at a time when federal policies of assimilation had become increasingly repressive and penetrated almost every aspect of Indigenous lives, including new laws designed to further remove traditional land bases.13

Newspaper article from June 2, 1905 pictures Glengarry Cairn and states: "The Glengarry Cairn, Lancaster, Ont. Now in course of repair."
June 2, 1905.

Concerns over erosion of the island, which threatened to destroy the cairn, extended the government’s attention beyond the monument to the island itself. After determining that no data could be found on the erection of the cairn, the DOI applied to the DIA to determine “on what terms the Indians would be willing to surrender this island.”14 The Indian Agent at St. Regis, F.E. Taillon, discussed the issue with the Mohawks and reported that they were not as amenable as the government had hoped. Mohawk efforts to benefit from their lands in Dundee, Québec, were bedevilled by unpaid rents, squatters, and shifting government policies.15

A postcard picturing the Glengarry Cairn.
Glengarry Cairn postcard.

The Mohawks appear to have used this particular situation to try and retain their land base. They refused to consider surrendering not only Tsikatsinakwahere, but also “any Band property until such time as a satisfactory settlement of the validity of certain leases held to have expired is disposed of.”16 The DOI therefore turned to legislative powers at their disposal and instead of designating the cairn as an historic site under the HSMBC, they sought to expropriate the island for a Dominion Park.17

An amendment to the Indian Act passed in 1911, known as the Expropriation Act, allowed the DOI to expropriate Band property without consent for a variety of reasons.18 In 1919, the federal government included the Expropriation Act in an amendment to the Dominion Forest Reserves and Parks Act, giving the DOI the power to expropriate reserve land without consent so long as it was for “the purpose of a Dominion Park.”19 In February 1922, the Governor General in Council gave consent to the Department of Indian Affairs to transfer Tsikatsinakwahere to the Department of the Interior for the price of $100.20 The park was designated the Glengarry Cairn National Historic Site.

The Glengarry Cairn
Glengarry Cairn. Source: Tom Moore @BeachKnot Twitter June 20, 2016.

More recently, Parks Canada has approached its relationship with the local Indigenous community differently. The discovery of an ancient burial ground in 1997 led Parks Canada to give stewardship of Tsikatsinakwahere to the Mohawks of Akwesasne, closing the site to the public in 2009 over safety concerns due to erosion. Since 2015, Parks Canada has worked with the Aboriginal Rights and Research Office of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne on the administrative return of the island to reserve status through the Additions to Reserve Program, initiated by the federal government in 2011, with the community of Akwesasne’s specific claim being initiated in 2012.21

In addition, both parties worked together to stabilize the cairn (the island had already had some work done to it to reverse erosion), with the federal government investing $693,000 in 2017 towards the project. There are currently no plans to allow visitors on the island. Instead, Parks Canada will continue to entrust the stewardship of both Tsikatsinakwahere and the cairn to the Mohawks of Akwesasne. Plans for a new, collaborative effort between the Mohawks of Akwesasne and Parks Canada will see local historical interpretation projects that will explore the history of Indigenous-settler relations in the upper St Lawrence, not just the history of the Scottish military heritage in Canada.22

Feature Image: View of Glengarry Cairn from water. Source: mirages #more-14203


  1. Most people in the community of Akwesasne self-identify as Kanien’kehá:ka, meaning “people of the place of flint.”
  2. Tsikatsinakwahere is in Lake St. Francis, a lake in the St. Lawrence River today flanked by Cornwall to the west, Salaberry-De-Valleyfield to the east, and New York State and the Mohawk community of Akwesasne to the south. The settler communities on the north side of the lake originate from the largely Highland Scottish loyalist settlements of the 1780s brought north from New York by Sir John Johnson. This process occurred only after Governor Haldimand settled land claims with a number of Indigenous groups in the area, including the Mohawks of Akwesasne to the south who were granted in writing their village on the south side of the river and a strip of land two and a half miles wide and 32 miles long on the north shore of Lake St Francis between the former townships of Charlottenburg and Kenyon (Glengarry Country) and Cornwall and Roxborough (Stormont County) known as the “Indian Lands,” as well as all of the islands in the river, including Tsikatsinakwahere. After many years of settler encroachment, the Indian Lands would be acquired through an indenture in 1847 (Treaty 57), but the islands remained as part of the reserve until the twentieth century. LAC, RG10, Indian Affairs, Vol. 99, C-11471, Secretary of Indian Affairs in Lower Canada, “Copy of Memorial Presented to His Excellency the Governor General by a Deputation of the Nipissings and Algonquin Tribes 9th March 1840,” p. 41098; R. Surtees, Indian Land Surrenders in Ontario, 1763–1867 (Ottawa: Indian Affairs and Northern Affairs Canada, 1983), 26–32. For an excellent overview of the establishment of the Highland Scottish settlements in what is now eastern Ontario see Marianne McLean, The People of Glengarry: Highlanders in Transition, 1745-1820 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 1991). For the intertwined histories of the Highland Scots of eastern Ontario and the Mohawks of Akwesasne see, forthcoming, Peter L. Cook and Katie L. McCullough, Mohawks and Highland Scots in Early Canada (Edinburgh University Press).
  3. The cairn’s construction was initiated and overseen by lieutenant colonel Lewis Carmichael (1792-1844) who was a veteran of the Napoleonic and the Third Anglo-Maratha wars with the 59th regiment of foot. The Glengarry Highlanders’ full name was the Glengarry Highlanders of Lancaster, Lochiel and Williamstown, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Glengarry Militia. The regiment was involved in the taking of the steamer “Henry Brougham,” the “Battle of Beauharnois,” Napierville, Châteauguay, and Windmill Point near Prescott. There is a certain amount of mystery surrounding the building of the cairn due to a lack of documentary evidence; however, its being built by the Glengarry militia and its use as a commemorative war memorial is confirmed in a copy of a minute from 1843 of the Highland Society of London that summarizes a letter Carmichael sent to the Society sometime prior which gave details on the cairn. Library and Archives Canada (LAC), McGillivray Papers, MG24 I 3, Highland Society of Canada Minutes and Proceedings 1842-1857, vol. 6, p. 142.
  4. Alan Gordon, “Marshalling Memory: A Historiographical Biography of Ernest Alexander Cruikshank,” Journal of Canadian Studies, 49: 3 (Fall 2015), 28; Ian Mckay and Jamie Swift, Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2012), chapter 3; Yves Yvon J. Pelletier, “The Politics of Selection: The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada and the Imperial Commemoration of Canadian History, 1919-1950,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, 17: 1 (2006), 126-7; Jonathan F. Vance, Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning and the First World War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997).
  5. Historic Sites and Monuments Board, Minutes, 28 October 1919. The other two sites were Windmill Point, which was the site of the “Battle of the Windmill,” near Prescott, in the final push of the Canadian Rebellions where the Glengarry Militias fought and Glengarry House, home of the Highland Scottish loyalist veteran of the American Revolution, John Macdonell of Aberchalder, first Adjutant-General of the militia in Upper Canada who commanded the newly formed Glengarry Militia Regiment from 1803 until his death in 1809. Glengarry County is perhaps most famous for the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles regiment raised by Colonel Brock on the eve of the War of 1812. The regiment played a crucial role in securing the St Lawrence through the capture of Ogdensburg and all companies were at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane. LAC, Parks Canada, RG84, a-2-a, Vol. 1309, Copy Memorandum from A.A. Pinard to W.W. Cory, Ottawa, 28 July 1922. Cruikshank wrote many works that either focused on or included regiments from eastern Ontario including: Record of the Services of Canadian Regiments in the War of 1812: the Militia of the Eastern District; the Counties of Glengarry, Stormont and Dundas (1919) and The Battle of Lundy’s Lane. 25th July, 1814. A Historical Study (Welland, Ont.: Lundy’s Lane Historical Society, 1893).
  6. The locals repaired the cairn and added a railing to the stairway that snakes round it. The plaque’s text was written by the Glengarry historian J.A. Macdonell of Greenfield and was kept by the HSMBC. LAC, Parks Canada, RG84, a-2-a, Vol. 1309, Harkin to J.A. Macdonell, Ottawa, 15 February 1921; LAC, Parks Canada, RG84, a-2-a, Vol. 1309, Mr Fraser, Department of Agriculture to Mr Lothian, Ottawa, 22 February 1921; LAC, Parks Canada, RG84, a-2-a, Volume 1309, Memorandum to Harkin from the HSMBC, Ottawa, 25 August 1921.
  7. LAC, Parks Canada, RG84, a-2-a, Vol. 1309, Memorandum to Harkin from the HSMBC, 25 August 1921. The locals who repaired the cairn and erected the plaque in 1905 appear to have had no idea that the island was part of the St Regis Reserve. LAC, RG10, Department of Indian Affairs, St Regis Agency, file 203030, John Chisholm to the Department of the Interior, 15 October 1898.
  8. LAC, Parks Canada, RG84, a-2-a, Vol. 1309, Harkin to Mr Scott, Deputy Superintendent General, Department of Indian Affairs, Ottawa, 30 June 1921; LAC, Parks Canada, RG84, a-2-a, Volume 1309, Harkin to F.E. Taillon, Indian Agent at St Regis, Ottawa, 30 June 1921. The Indian Agent, F.E. Taillon was the only bureaucrat to consult directly with the Mohawks and he claimed that “there does not seem to be any data on file in this office covering the subject [the Glengarry Cairn] in question.” LAC, RG10, Department of Indian Affairs, St Regis Agency, file 203030, copy letter F.E. Taillon to Dominion Parks Agency, St. Regis, 18 June 1921.
  9. The company of Mohawk volunteers served with the Glengarry militia at the Battles of Beauharnois, Napierville, and Châteauguay.
  10. LAC, RG10, Indian Affairs, Secretary of Indian Affairs in Lower Canada Correspondence, Vol. 97, July-Dec 1838, “Precis of the subjects discussed at the Council holden at St Regis on the 24th May 1839,” p. 40189; LAC, RG10, Indian Affairs, Secretary of Indian Affairs in Lower Canada Correspondence, Vol. 98, July-Dec. 1839, Napier to Colborne, 18 July 1839, p. 40366.
  11. There is no documentary evidence on this engraving. LAC, Edward W. Battye, The Cairn Raised by the Glengarry Highlanders in honor of Lord Seaton After His Departure from Canada. Erected During the Summers of 1840-41-42 (ca. 1843). Lithograph, item ID 2867548.
  12. Most work on historical monuments and public memory has covered urban Canada; however, the Glengarry Cairn bears some similarity in how the HSMBC used it to advance a national public memory. Victoria Freeman, “‘Toronto Has No History!’: Indigeneity, Settler Colonialism, and Historical Memory in Canada’s Largest City,” Urban History Review, 38: 2 (Spring 2010), 22; Alan R. Gordon, Making Public Pasts: The Contested Terrain of Montréal’s Public Memories, 1891-1930 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001).
  13. Hugh Shewell, “Dreaming in Liberal White: Canadian Indian Policy, 1913–83,” in Aboriginal History: A Reader, ed. Kristin Burnett and Geoff Read (Don Mills, Ont.: Oxford University Press, 2012), 170–179; Keith D. Smith, Liberalism, Surveillance, and Resistance: Indigenous Communities in Western Canada, 1877-1927 (Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2009).
  14. LAC, RG10, Department of Indian Affairs, St Regis Agency, file 203030, J.D. McLean to F.E. Taillon, Ottawa, 9 September 1921.
  15. See correspondence in: LAC, RG10, Department of Indian Affairs, St Regis Agency, Vol. 2153, file 30907-6, pt. 1.
  16. LAC, RG10, Department of Indian Affairs, St Regis Agency, file 203030, F.E. Taillon to J.D. McLean, St Regis, 5 October 1921.
  17. LAC, RG10, Department of Indian Affairs, St Regis Agency, file 203030, A. J. Mackenzie to Roy A. Gibson, Ottawa, Department of the Interior, 15 October 1921; LAC, RG10, Department of Indian Affairs, St Regis Agency, file 203030, memorandum Harkin to M. Caldwell, Land Branch, Dept. Indian Affairs, 25 January 1922.
  18.  1 – 2 George V. Chap. 14. An Act to Amend the Indian Act [Assented to 19th May 1911], chapter 14, 49A, 7. CP, Revised Statutes of Canada, 1906, Vol. 111, p. 2359-69: An Act respecting the Expropriation of Lands (52 Victoria, chapter 13, section 1: The Expropriation Act), section 1. These statutes were repealed in 1951.
  19. 9-10 George V. Chapter 17, 3 of The Dominion Forest Reserve and Parks Act [Assented to 6th of June, 1919], “Section eighteen of the said Act, as enacted by chapter eighteen of the statutes of 1913, is hereby amended by adding thereto the following subsection:­– ‘(4) When, in the judgement of the Minister, any lands or any interest therein, should be acquired for the purpose of a Dominion Park, such lands, or interest therein, including the lands of Indians, or of any other person, may be expropriated under the provisions of the Expropriation Act.’”
  20. LAC, RG10, Department of Indian Affairs, St Regis Agency, file 203030, “Clerk of the Privy Council to the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, 20 February 1922.” There is no clear evidence that the money went to the Mohawks of St Regis.
  21. The original “Cairn Island Claim” was submitted to the federal government in 1998, but “concluded without settlement” in 2011. Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, Annual Report 2010-2012; Canada, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada Report July 4, 2011. It is unclear how old the remains in the burial ground are, but they are strong proof of the continued occupation of the ancestors that came to form the community of Akwesasne in the upper St Lawrence for at least 8,000 years. Jennifer Birch, “Current Research on the Historical Development of Northern Iroquoian Societies,” Journal of Archaeological Research 23: 3 (September 1, 2015), 263-323; Bruce G. Trigger, The Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660, reprint ed. (Kingston & Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1987); Daniel K. Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2001).
  22. Hugh Ostrom of Parks Canada to Mayor Ian MacLeod of South Glengarry, 23 August 2017 in “Township of South Glengarry Minutes,” 5 September 2017; Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, Mohawk Council of Akwesasne Annual Report 2010-2012, 141; Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, Mohawk Council of Akwesasne Annual Report 2015-2016, 12.
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Katie McCullough

Historian of economic and social development in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and Scottish colonization of early Canada. Katie's forthcoming co-authored book Mohawks and Scots in Early Canada will be published with Edinburgh University Press.

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