Wendake, a First Nations community near Quebec City, is the No. 1-ranked destination on the Vacay.ca 20 Best Places to Travel in Canada for 2022, a report by Indigenous and non-Indigenous travel journalists. Read the full report here.
Fire light danced off the walls of the Huron-Wendat longhouse as my husband and I joined a small group gathered for a storytelling experience. Legends of the Wendat people have been passed down through generations and were an important part of an ancient way of life. Long before the arrival of Jacques Cartier and the first Europeans in 1534, people congregated around fires and listened to legends that explained the creation of the world, the discovery of fire, and other gifts of the Great Spirit.
The national Ekionkiestha’ longhouse was a short walk from our comfortable hotel room at the Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations, the luxury boutique hotel owned and operated by the Huron-Wendat Nation in Wendake, just outside Québec City. Our guide met us in the lobby, and we walked through the parking lot to the longhouse, which was built to allow visitors the opportunity to experience the traditional lifestyle and culture of the Wendat People prior to European contact.
Unlike more nomadic Indigenous groups, the Wendat people lived in longhouses that served as places of residence, storage for food and goods for trade, and a place for interaction of members of family groups. They called themselves the Wendat, which means “Dwellers of the Peninsula” or “People of the Island,” because their massive traditional territory was bordered on all sides by water. French explorers called them the Huron, which may have been a reference to the bristly hairstyle of Wendat warriors.
Our guide, Dominic Ste-Marie, led us through the fenced fortress area and into the recreated longhouse. As he did, we were transported back in time. Like the longhouses of yesteryear, the national Ekionkiestha’ longhouse is made of bark and surrounded by a tall fence from which warriors guarded the village from attack. Inside, the longhouse was filled with furs on the second level where families slept. Food stores would have been kept on the third level where smoke from the fires assisted in preservation. The fires burned on the ground level where the activities of daily living took place.
Dressed in traditional attire with a red sash knotted at his side, Ste-Marie, whose Indigenous name is Hanariskwa, gathered us around a gas-powered fire on the ground in the centre of the longhouse. He began the evening with a history and cultural lesson. He spoke of a time around 1634 when the Wendat population was estimated to consist of about 30,000 people. By 1650, that population had dwindled to only a few hundred. Most of the Wendat people died from infectious diseases brought into what is now Canada by Europeans. With no natural immunity to these infections, Indigenous populations were decimated. The rest of the Wendat died in wars over hunting grounds and control of the fur trade.
When Wendake was established in 1697, there were only about 300 Wendat people living there. Yet it has endured. Wendake is one of the oldest continuously inhabited Indigenous settlements in North America. Today, just over 2,100 people reside in the community of the Huron-Wendat Nation. Ste-Marie talked about the clans of the Wendat people and the role and purpose each served.
“Being a Wendat is not only about blood, it’s about how we live,” he explained. Then he went on to describe a complex traditional society that flourished for thousands of years and included clans and leaders such as clan mothers, clan chiefs, and a grand chief — each with specific roles.
Even storytelling had a purpose. “Historically, we told stories around the fire and it’s still how we keep our culture alive,” Ste-Marie said. “First Nations have accurate oral history, because our stories have been told and shared many times through many generations. They are told in our language, in our way of speaking.”
Our boisterous little group turned silent as Ste-Marie mesmerized us with legends passed down from his forebears. We learned the legend of winter thunder and how rivers came to be. We heard a story of a braggart warrior who by dumb luck saved humanity from a race of menacing stone giants. We also heard a legend about a warrior who liked to stretch the truth and suffered the consequences — a crooked nose.
I could have stayed around the fire all night being amused and moved by ancient Wendat legends and, truth be told, we lingered longer than we should have. We were late for our dinner reservation at La Traite, the onsite Indigenous restaurant at Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations.
We scheduled three nights in Quebec City and only one night in nearby Wendake and too late we realized that wasn’t enough. We needed more time to see and experience the wonders of Wendake and Wendat culture. Our solution is a simple one — we’re going back later this year to explore more.
Top 5 Things to do in Wendake
Huron-Wendat Museum: Opened in 2008, the Huron-Wendat Museum promotes and protects the culture of the Wendat people. A guided tour explains the history and culture of the Wendat nation.
Ekionkiestha’ National Longhouse: This recreated longhouse allows you to see and experience the way Wendat people lived before European contact.
Huron Traditional Site Onhoüa Chetek8e: A guide in traditional clothing can lead you through this site to learn about the history, culture, and lifestyle of the Huron-Wendat. A giftshop and an Indigenous restaurant are onsite and canoeing, storytelling, dance performances, arts and crafts, archery, and other activities are also on offer.
Taste Indigenous Cuisine: Whether it’s Indigenous-inspired fine dining or a simple sandwich, there are several outstanding Indigenous restaurants in and around Wendake.
Paddle the Haute-Saint-Charles River: Rivers were Canada’s first highways and Legare Canoes can help you relive the time when Wendat people paddled hundreds of kilometres to trade goods with other Indigenous groups and with European fur traders.
Where to Stay: A stay at Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations is a must when you visit Wendake. Owned and operated by the Huron-Wendat Nation, the architecture of this boutique 55-room hotel was inspired by a traditional longhouse. The hotel is filled with beautiful, locally made artworks. La Traite is an excellent restaurant. Depending on the season, room rates are usually between $200-$300 per night. Check the property’s website for packages and prices for specific dates.
What’s Nearby: Québec City is part of what makes Wendake such a special destination. Old Québec, one of the oldest European settlements in North America and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is less than a 30-minute drive from Wendake. There are countless shops, restaurants, attractions, and historic sites to explore the provincial capital.