Consultation with the Devil: Witchcraft and Stolen Land in the Quebecois Colonial Imaginary

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Editor’s Note: This is the second post in the Ghost Light II: Monstrosities series edited by Caroline Abbott. The 2023 theme of this series aims to problematise the notion of “monstrosity” in the environmental humanities in the interest of illuminating the relationships between non-human, or other-than-human beings, folklore, and environment.

The ships crashed against the narrow shores bringing songs of rapture. In 1720, French colonizer and historian Reverend Father Charlevoix laid anchor on Ile D’Orleans, the “garden” or “gemstone” of Quebec. Amongst the rolling hills blazoned with autumn foliage, Charlevoix encountered local folklore and wrote about the tales in his journals. Charlevoix states that the island’s inhabitants “dabbled in witchcraft and people […] find out the future or what is happening in distant places […] they hold consultation with the devil.”1 Once called L’Ile Sorciers, or the Witches’ Island by Quebecois locals, rumours of witchcraft, ghost lights, and satanic practice permeated across centuries. In my own travels around Quebec as a teenager, one such story reached me: the tale of a woman who was caged and hanged for witchcraft, only for her ghost to haunt the island every Samhain eve.

Fig. 1, left: François Dubé with “La Corriveau”, an illustration by Henri Julien (1852-1908), rendered for an edition of Les Anciens Canadiens by Philippe Aubert de Gaspé (1916, p. 171). François Dubé aux prises avec La Corriveau. Illustration d’Henri Julien (1852-1908) pour une édition de Les Anciens Canadiens de Philippe Aubert de Gaspé (1916). Public Domain. Via Wikicommons. Fig. 2, right: An illustration by Edmond-Joseph Massicotte in the short story “Une relique” by Louis Fréchette published in Almanach du peuple Beauchemin pour l’année 1913, Montréal, Beauchemin, 1912, p. 302-307. Public Domain. Via Wikicommons.

Folklore is embedded in the heart of Quebecois culture. Stories of the supernatural appear in texts including Les Anciens Canadiens by Phillipe Aubert de Gaspé and the children’s tales Les Sorciers de L’Ile D’Orleans. Gaspé’s novel describes “La Corriveau,” the ghost of a witch who reappears on Ile D’Orleans to haunt the story’s protagonists.2 The tale of La Corriveau, albeit a vengeful supernatural entity who preys on helpless travellers, was that of a real woman tried for murder and executed in Quebec City. Baptised in the neighbouring region of Saint-Vallier, Marie-Josephte Corriveau was the only surviving child of her rural settler family and in young adulthood, would be a victim of domestic violence at the hand of her second husband. Marie-Josephete killed her second husband to escape his abuse — only to be tried for the crime alongside her father, who recanted his initial confession to his son-in-law’s murder in the days leading to his own execution, so implicating his daughter. Marie-Josephte Corriveau confessed to the crime and was found guilty, and she was subsequently caged and hanged in 1763 at the age of 30 years old. Centuries of folkloric speculation on her motives would follow.3

War Office Judge Advocate General Dept. Courts Martial Proceedings (W.O. 71) Vol. 49, pp. 213-214 as cited in Le triple destin de Marie-Josephte Corriveau (1733-1763), Lacourcière, L. (1968), p.230-231.

The Ile D’Orleans witch-hunts mimic the sinister motives for land clearings across Europe and its colonies between the 16th and 20th Centuries. In Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, Silvia Federici argues that from 1532, the witch has been a symbolic enemy of liberal individuality.4 16th Century Europe witnessed the privatization of the commons under the newly reformed mercantile class. The peasantry class, now ostracized from the products of their labour with the closing of the commons, were forced to work under the private ownership of the bourgeoisie. With the control of labour as the catalyst for profit (or what Marx deemed “primitive accumulation”), the witch represented everything the European bourgeois were trying to destroy: a woman outside of the heteroreproductive role of the nation-state, an obstruction on the colonial path.

Fig. 3: The “gibet de Marie-Josephte Corriveau,” shown here on display at Chevalier House in Quebec in November of 2015. Image CC4.0 Public Domain via Wikicommons.

Folktales of witches and devils were (and remain) widespread under colonial regimes, from mass hysteria in Salem, Massachusetts to the more recent allegations of torture at the hands of witches in British Columbia throughout the 1940s.5 The witch of colonial communities has a consistent description: she is a murderous wife or unmarried, childless, and aging, and in all her forms defies Christian doctrine. The witch is so defined by her resistance to colonial order, often sexualized through characterizations of her appetite for attacking men and her refusal to assimilate into settler villages. Figures like La Corriveau exemplify the undisciplined body of the newly formed colony. Individuals accused of witchcraft refused to participate in domestic labour and compulsory heterosexual monogamy. Colonizers could only explain anti-patriarchal activism as devil worship and witchcraft, placing blame on the marginalized populations of the colony. However, La Corriveau was not the only scapegoat for colonial occupation.

Fig. 4. Personal photograph of Ile D’Orleans. Adrian Deveau, April 10, 2023.

Although rumours of the scorned witch vacillate between the tongues of visitors and inhabitants across generations, Indigenous oral stories echo deeper into the island’s soil. The pre-contact island was known as “Minigo,” meaning “the bewitched Island” by the Wendake-Nionwentsïo [Huron-Wendat] and “Windigo” by Omàmiwinini [Algonquin] communities.6 In 1650, 35,000 Wendake-Nionwentsïo people lived on the accompanying shores around Ile D’Orleans while Omàmiwinini communities organized international trade through beaver pelts out of so-called New France.7 For the proceeding decade, Wendake-Nionwentsïo communities permanently made Ile D’Orleans their home. By 1700, parishes had emerged across the shores like scattered, fallen leaves. The colonizers brought with them disease, and with it wrote the genocide of many Wendake-Nionwentsïo and Omàmiwinini communities.

Federici’s analysis is reflected in Ile D’Orleans’ history. Missionaries, including Charlevoix, could claim the land as haunted by devils and witches to justify their occupation for the growth of empire while availing themselves a convenient cause to cleanse the colony of demonic activity through the spread of Christianity. By tainting the land and its inhabitants with devilish allegiance, Christian colonizers could co-opt the guilt of sin for the profit of war and expansion while blaming devil-worship on the very same victims of their genocide, racism, and misogyny. In “The Wendigo: Here There Be Monsters,” Anishinaabe writer Patty Krawec traces the connection between the Wendigo and settler colonialism. Krawec argues that the Wendigo — “an Anishinaabe monster of voracious hunger who consumes people and would eat his own lips if there was nothing else to feed on” — could also consume communities and ecosystems, an Anishinaabe analogy for settler colonialism and capitalism.8 Indeed, exhibitions like the Dowse Art Museum’s Whetūrangitia/Made As Stars (2022) contribute to readings of the Wendigo as Anishinaabe ancestor, rather than monstrous entity.9 If Charlevoix’s goal was to document New France’s history only a decade after the spread of disease amongst Wendake-Nionwentsïo and Omàmiwinini communities, legends of witchcraft are inexorably tied to Indigenous ancestors in the figure of the Wendigo and in the Huron peoples’ belief in a “bewitched” island. 

Fig. 5: Gédéon de Catalogne, Louis Phélypeaux Pontchartrain, and Jean-Baptiste Decouagne, Carte du gouvernement de Québec levée en l’année 1709 – Ile D’Orleans. Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Creative Commons via Wikipedia Commons.

The environmental history of Ile D’Orleans further betrays the colonial illusion of an innate malevolence. Like the commons in Federici’s analysis, the waterways of Ile D’Orleans proved vital resources for New France’s primitive accumulation. In a map of Ile D’Orleans from 1720, a massive ship approaches the far eastern edge of the island.10 French missionaries invaded the island’s northern shore, establishing the first colonial settlement St-Pierre in 1679. Ile D’Orleans was occupied by British warships during the Seven Years’ War, securing a vantage point in trading routes for Britain and forcibly staking claim to the island already colonized by French settlers and made home by Wendake-Nionwentsïo families. Ile D’Orleans became the gem of Quebec not only for its aesthetic value as a natural landscape but in its environmental value as a land holding for France and Britain’s imperial war machine. The history of its place-names, too, refute its attempted vilification: in Pierre-Georges Roy and Horatio Walkers Ile D’Orleans, the origins of “Sorcerers Island” are said to stem from the term “source” due to the island’s vital location to these major waterways and trading routes. Fisherman on the island would have carried lamps to guide their way in the early morning. The dark shores, glittering with floating flames would frighten travellers, prompting rumours of witches and ghost lights.11 The witches here are scapegoats for non-normative individuals under oppressive, colonial rule.

Charlevoix’s claims of devil worship are made clear by history: the witch is proven proxy for the demonization of Indigenous ancestors. Made horrific through weaponised folklore; the witch of colonial history takes the form of a devil haunting the consciousness of settler women possessed to kill their white husbands; an abuse victim; a scapegoated, enslaved woman.12 The witches of Ile D’Orleans are the metric against which settler women were made invaluable to the colonial project; the polished gemstone Ile D’Orleans. The island is a blood diamond, crystal clear and glimmering; its value extracted from the murderous exploitation of settler women and Indigenous communities. To this day the jagged edge of the gem reflects a woman: dressed in a faded gown, reaching through the bars of her cage. She lingers behind you, just there, over your shoulder.

1  Pierre-Georges Roy and Horatio Walker, L’Ile D’Orleans (Quebec: L. A. Proulx, 1928), 475. 
2 Phillipe Aubert de Gaspé, Les Anciens Canadiens (Québec: Desbarats et Derbishire, 1863), 47. 
3 Le triple destin de Marie-Josephte Corriveau (1733-1763), Lacourcière, L. (1968), p.230-231.
4 Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (New York: Autonomedia, 2014), 166. 
5 Tristin Hooper, “When witch hunts stalked northern Canada in the not-too distant past,” National Post, July 9, 2023.
6 The terminology has recently verified in a letter by Nionwentsïo Bureau Director Louis Lesage. Open letter regarding the history of Huron-Wendat peoples and their connection to Ile D’Orleans by Louis Lesage. Counsil du Patrimione culturel du Quebec, February 11, 2015. 
7 L. P. Turcotte, L’Ile D’Orleans (Quebec: Atelier Typographique Du Canadien, 1867), 13.
8 Patty Krawec, “The Wendigo: Here There Be Monsters,” Substack, August 10, 2021.
9 Whetūrangitia/Made As Stars, an exhibition at the Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hult, New Zealand. September 3, 2022 – February 19, 2023.
10 Gédéon de Catalogne, Louis Phélypeaux Pontchartrain, and Jean-Baptiste Decouagne, Carte du gouvernement de Québec levée en l’année 1709 – Ile D’Orleans. Bibliothèque Nationale de France.ébec_levée_en_l%27année_1709_-_Isle_d_Orleans.jpg.
11 Judith Desmeules, “Les sorciers de Saint-Jean de l’Ile D’Orleans et leurs lanternes,” Le Soleil, December 21, 2019.
12 Recent scholarship has tied the hysteria of witchcraft to racist colonial beliefs through Tituba, an enslaved AfroIndigenous woman who was amongst the first to be accused of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts. Stacy Schiff, The Witches: Salem, 1692 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2015).

Feature Image: Cartoon of La Corriveau by Charles Walter Simpson for Légendes du Saint-Laurent, 1926. Licensed under Creative Commons via Wikipedia Commons. “Le squelette de “La Corriveau”, dans sa cage de fer, terrorisant un voyageur.” Via Wikicommons, Public Domain {{PD-US-expired}}.
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Adrian Deveau

Adrian Deveau is a writer, artist, and PhD student in Art History at Concordia University and holds an MA in Art History and Theory from the University of British Columbia. Their work has appeared in Ampersand: An American Studies Journal (Boston University), Asian Diasporic Cultures and the Americas (Brill), and in Les Lieux des Savoirs Photographique (Artexte). Adrian’s current dissertation project traces the formations of queer counter-cultural arts movements in artist-run centres across the land now-called Canada from 1993 to the present.

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