I think it’s in our heritage to be ironworkers.
—Robyn Garlow, apprentice ironworker, Six Nations of the Grand River, ON
Ironworking has been part of Aboriginal tradition for over a hundred years. The craft has been passed down from one generation to the next and is a source of pride for many Aboriginal families in Canada.
Oral history tells that the first Aboriginal peoples to practise ironwork were the Mohawks of central and eastern Canada. In 1886, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) began construction on a bridge that would span the St. Lawrence River, connecting the Kahnawake Mohawk reserve to Montreal, Quebec.
CPR hired men from Kahnawake to work on the bridge as labourers. But from the beginning, it was clear that the people of Kahnawake were suited to ironwork. As soon as construction was finished for the day, the Kahnawake labourers climbed the skeleton of the bridge and walked bravely across the high girders.
Their grace, balance and agility did not go unnoticed. When management became aware of the labourers’ ability to walk the high beams, they hired and trained a dozen Kahnawake men as ironworkers. Co-workers were so impressed with the new tradespeople that they recognized them as natural ironworkers.
Over the years, many people from other First Nations communities followed in the footsteps of the Kahnawake Mohawks. Their bravery and natural balance became legendary across Canada and the United States.
In the early 1900s, when iron bridges and modern-day skyscrapers first made an appearance, ironworkers from Kahnawake, Six Nations of the Grand River and the nearby Mohawk community of Akwesasne took their craft to New York City. In keeping with the nomadic tradition of their ancestors, Aboriginal ironworkers from both communities travelled to Manhattan to work on the Empire State Building, the George Washington Bridge, the Chrysler Building, the United Nations Building and the World Trade Center.
And it didn’t stop there. Workers from Aboriginal communities in Quebec and Ontario travelled west to build the Sears Tower in Chicago, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and the Lions Gate Bridge in Vancouver.
Since they first started out in the craft, Aboriginal ironworkers have helped shape the world we live in.
Today, people from Aboriginal communities across Canada proudly earn a living as ironworkers. It’s become a family tradition for Aboriginal workers in eastern and western Canada alike. British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba all have a strong contingent of Aboriginal ironworkers in the reinforcing industry.
For three communities in particular, ironwork is more than just a career—it’s a way of life.
Akwesasne Mohawk Nation
The Akwesasne Mohawk Territory is composed of land on the St. Lawrence River and in the St. Lawrence River Valley. It spans the provinces of Quebec and Ontario, and extends to the northern tip of New York State.
Akwesasne Nation was established in the 1600s when Mohawk settlers discovered an abundance of fish and game. Since that time, Akwesasne Nation has evolved into a community known for its rich artistic heritage and fine craftsmanship. It has produced many contemporary artists, and is home to the Native North American Travelling College Art Gallery.
Ironwork is one of the community’s proudest traditions. Akwesasne Mohawks started out in the industry in the early 1900s when they travelled to New York City to help build the first skyscrapers and iron bridges.
Today, Akwesasne men and women commute to New York City, where they live together in ironworking communities during the work week. They have come to be respected as some of the best and most reliable ironworkers in the industry. Akwesasne Mohawks were among the first ironworkers on site to help rebuild the World Trade Center in 2001.
Akwesasne ironworkers are also helping to develop their own territory. In the past year they have built several new bridges and buildings on the reserve, including a new manufacturing plant, an IGA grocery store and an upgrade to the bridge over the Raquette River.
Meet Cynthia Cook, apprentice ironworker.
Kahnawake Mohawk Nation
The Kahnawake Reserve is located ten kilometres south of Montreal, on the Lachine rapids along the St. Lawrence River. The community was established in the 1600s when a group of Mohawks settled there and developed a successful fur trade with the Americans across the border.
To this day, trade is still a part of the Kahnawake economy. But the Mohawk workers are perhaps best known for their work in high steel. Famous for their strong sense of balance and incredible bravery at great heights, the Kahnawake ironworkers are often referred to as the Skywalkers.
In Kahnawake Mohawk Nation, ironwork is a family tradition. Since building began on the Victoria Bridge in the 1880s, nearly everyone in the Kahnawake community has been touched by ironwork. For almost 120 years, generations of Kahnawake Mohawk ironworkers travelled together across North America to earn a living.
Today, about one quarter of Kahnawake’s workforce is involved in the trade and the community has one of the highest per family annual incomes of any Native community in Canada.
Meet Joseph Norton, retired journeyperson ironworker.
Six Nations of the Grand River Territory
Six Nations of the Grand River Territory is located in southern Ontario, near Brantford. The community was established in the 1700s and is home to peoples belonging to six different nations: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora.
Workers from Six Nations entered the ironworking trade in the 1920s when Aboriginal ironworkers set up camp in Detroit and Buffalo. By the late 1940s, it was common practice for Six Nations ironworkers to travel across Canada and the United States to work on steel bridges and skyscrapers.
To this day, ironwork is one of the most popular occupations among Six Nations workers, with about 25% of the community earning a living in the trade.
Meet John Henhawk, journeyperson ironworker.