Exploring the history of the monument and its role in 21st century Canada
By: Gregory McGrath-Goudie
Anyone who has visited Couchiching Park this fall has likely noticed the absence of one of its key landmarks: the Samuel de Champlain monument. Erected in 1925 as a purported symbol of good will between French and English Canadians, the monument has been removed to allow for foundational repairs and to replace the outdated language used in its plaque. Undoubtedly a cultural landmark in Orillia, the monument’s temporary removal invites an examination of its history and its place in a 21st century Canada which increasingly looks toward reconciliation with its Indigenous population.
The statue consists of three bronze sculptures, which include a towering depiction of Samuel de Champlain, flanked by two subsidiary sculptures titled “Christianity” and “Commerce.” The two subsidiary sculptures readily call to mind Canada’s grating colonial past: “Christianity” depicts a priest wielding a crucifix over two crouching Huron natives, while “Commerce” features a robust explorer sharing his tools with two, yet again, crouching Huron natives. The plaque, which has long been due for replacement, read as follows:
“Erected to commemorate the advent into Ontario the advent of the white race, under the leadership of Samuel de Champlain, the intrepid French explorer and colonizer, who, with fifteen companions, arrived in these parts in the summer of 1615 and spent the following winter with the Indians, making his headquarters at Cahiague, the chief village of the Hurons, which was near this place. A symbol of goodwill between the French and English speaking people of Canada.”
The callous language used to commemorate Champlain’s arrival displays an attempt at fostering ethnic unity between the French and English-speaking people of Canada, as the relationship between Quebec and Ottawa grew tense through World War One, a war which Quebec never fully supported. Despite any positive impact the monument may have had in this regard, the misrepresentation of the Huron people confirms the political motivation explicitly stated in the plaque. In reality, Champlain’s interactions with the Huron people were less of that of an intrepid explorer and colonizer, instead their interactions were more similar to an alliance. Champlain made alliances with the Huron people and several other Indigenous peoples in an effort to ward off the Iroquois. Additionally, Champlain formed close trade relations with the Huron people, making them one of the most important suppliers of furs to the French by the 1630s. The Champlain monument, however, displays a much more lopsided relationship and suggests that the French were a so-called “civilizing” force upon the Huron people, who subserviently knee before their colonizers in the monument’s depiction of them.
The 21st century has seen more accurate depictions of Champlain’s relationship with the Hurons than the 20th century depiction in Couchiching Park. To mark the 400th anniversary of Champlain’s arrival, the town of Penetanguishene unveiled a new Champlain monument in August 2015. The monument depicts the Huron chief Aenon handing Champlain a wampum belt as a symbol of goodwill and it also contains cultural elements of the French and Huron people, reflecting the alliance they held together.
The misrepresentation of the Huron people inspires wonder as to what Orillia’s Champlain monument has to offer in the 21st century. In one sense, it’s a historically inaccurate, unflattering portrayal with heavy colonial overtones, but it also provides a glimpse into the public mind of the early 20th century. Christianity and civilization were prevalent themes in Canadian society, and their representation in the Champlain monument serves as a dark reminder of a past that Canadians are now trying to reconcile. In an increasingly multicultural Canada, a sense of our progress as a nation may be gleamed by gazing upon a monument so out-of-place with 21st century Canadian values. On the other hand, the monument depicts an outdated worldview that is best left behind—though it isn’t going to be left behind.
Although the plaque and its wording are undergoing change, the bronze statues themselves will remain unaltered. The monument is due to be re-erected in May of 2018. Orillia’s The Packet and Times reports that $25,000 dollars has been donated thus far in an effort to create additional artwork surrounding the statue, in order to display a more accurate portrayal of the historical events surrounding Champlain’s arrival and to explain the controversial elements of the monument itself. Although these elements will remain, a supplementary and educational explanation of the monument may prove valuable in both acknowledging our past and looking toward a positive future. Just as the 2015 monument in Penetanguishene represents a more accurate portrayal of history, the Orillia waterfront now dons a sculpture of a fishing weir, a trap that was used to capitalize on the shallow water of the Narrows, which connects Lake Simcoe and Lake Couchiching. Incorporating Indigenous art instalments on the Orillia waterfront is a definite step in the right direction, and perhaps the Champlain monument has its place there, too, as a reminder of Canada’s colonial past and as an inspiration to do better as we move forward.