The Gleaner
Arts & LifeSharing Our Stories

Big John

Story told by: Só:se Raientonnis
Written by: Emma McLaughlin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Translated by: Katsenhaién:ton Lazare

My great grandfather was Big John Canadian. He was an enormous man for his time. He and another man, Big John Rice, were river pilots.

He used to navigate the Lachine rapids. He was one of the few, along with John Rice, who knew how to do that.


Big John Canadian PHOTO Courtesy of Kahsennakeniate Stacey


He would do it with those big voyageur canoes that they had. Oniarò:ta’ is what we call it in Mohawk, those kinds of boats. They were double ended and wide. They were quite long, about 36 feet. Fur trappers’ canoes.

They wouldn’t use wheels, they would use oars to steer those boats.


Painting inspired by a photo of Big John Canadian left navigating the Lachine Rapids done by Karoniaktajeh Louis Hall PHOTO Courtesy of Sóse Raientonnis


He knew how to steer that through those rocks. He learned where the dangerous rocks were. And to my knowledge, there was never an accident.

Most of his customers were all French so he picked up the French language. They’d pay him to take them on the river. He was like a boat captain.


Canadian five dollar bill features Big John Rice left from 1906 He was also featured on the two dollar bill in 1877 PHOTO Courtesy of Kanienkeháka Onkwawénna Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Centre


That was his main livelihood at that time, along with that other fella. One of them is on a five dollar bill. It’s on display in Ottawa at the Bank of Canada Museum.



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