In Orillia, there is a small town feeling of comfort that comes with knowing your neighbours, even if they live on the other side of town. It comes from a shared history, of raising kids on hockey, soccer, and swimming. It comes from attending Canada Day down by the lake, as well as our highland games, one of the longest Santa Claus parades around, and consuming oversized donuts down at Mariposa Market. Sure, there’s also the summer folk festival (also named Mariposa) and everything else related to Canada’s famous and prolific humourist, Steven Leacock, who seemingly died recently, but it was actually back in 1944.
Orillia comfort, it must be said, like a great many small towns in Ontario, also comes from a shared history of comfort and white priviledge.
Wow, did I really just say that?
Orillia comfort was in attendance on Wednesday, April 18th when Dr. Michael Stevenson was the guest speaker at the Orillia Museum of Art & History (OMAH). His talk, advertised as "Stories in Bronze: Orillia's Champlain Monument and Indigenous (Mis) Representations in Commemorative Sculpture" was upon presentation titled without the “(Mis) Representations”. It was well-illustrated with photos of Champlain Monuments from around North America, and specific research related to the one in Orillia. The talk ended nicely with about 15 minutes set aside for questions. (My first question, kept to myself obviously because asking it would just have been rude, was what happened to the land acknowledgement that usually --often?-- prefaces public events at OMAH; an unusual lapse as this talk was really dealing with a controversial art piece featuring “Indian” content. You know, something like; OMAH acknowledges that we are situated on the traditional land of the Anishnaabeg people. We acknowledge the enduring presence of First Nation, Metis and Inuit people on this land and are committed to moving forward in the spirit of reconciliation and respect).
Anyway, I don’t want to give a rundown on everything said before, during or even after the talk. Suffice it to say that it did not address priviledge, but it was an “historian’s” honest, interesting and balanced approach to the subject. And Dr. (Associate Professor, nothing wrong with that) Stevenson really did illuminate the artistic treatment of Samuel de Champlain through history; “Champlain mania” took route in the years surrounding the 300th Anniversaries of his exploits – accurately mapping much of the East Coast starting in 1604, founder of Quebec City in 1608, and more significantly to Orillia, his 1615 travels throughout “Huronia”, before heading down to help his ‘Indian allies’ attack –unsuccessfully- their Iroquois foes down into New York and Vermont). So, apart from really getting around, as subject for art Champlain also benefitted from a general trend of erecting monuments, statues, plaques, and markers from the late 1880’s onward.
However, because of Champlain’s alliances with “Algonquin speaking tribes”, he is often depicted in his awesomeness, lording over “Des Sauvages” (the title of his first published journal; by 1632, Champlain had published his four journals in a single volume). The interpretation of how to portray his alliances, and the early 20thC artistic depiction of them by our time in 2018, has come to represent palatable historic tension. For us in the audience, questions arise as to whether the many artists ‘got it right’, and if they didn’t, should we respect the attempt limited as it was by attitudes of ‘that time’.
The name "Sauavages" [sic] he gave to the natives is very different from the word "savage" used by [English-speaking] people today, where the French word actually means men of the wood, as opposed to a barbaric group of people. Unlike the British, Champlain actually was intrigued by and respected the native culture. The French and native tribes, such as the Algonquin, Montagnais, and Huron traded with the French for years. Over time, Champlain made this trade partnership into an unbreakable alliance with the Huron and Algonquin tribes. They became trade partners, allies and friends who shared their goods and culture over the years. Champlain and many of his men stayed among them as if they were their own. Many of these Frenchmen became part of native culture, and even began to dress like them, much to the dismay of France - http://champlainexhibit.weebly.com/-alliance-with-the-huron-and-algonquin.html
For me, this is the nut of the difficulty posed by Orillia’s Champlain Monument (created by sculptor Vernon March, between 1919-1925). While an examination of the portrayal of ‘red Indians’ in ‘white’ sculpture shows a steady progression from shallow-relief, decorative element to full-fledged muscular ‘noble savage’ figure, the figure is never given prominence OVER the white guest. The explorer, trader and priest are in queue ahead of the lowly resident whom at one point, was part of a population of over 30,000 strong Wendat-Huron. Artistically, by 2016 the furthest the Indigenous figure has gone in a “Wendat” monument is as an equal, in Tim Schmalz’s modernist “The Meeting” (and a Quebec-Winter-Carnival ice sculpture by Norm Copeland, does that count?) However, Joseph Brant is featured alone in an 1886 tribute to native contributions to the Loyalist cause down in Brantford Ontario; of interest, it was members of the Six Nations who first suggested the monument be erected in his memory back in 1874).
My conclusion from all this catching up on the history of Samuel de Champlain, and of monumental sculpture itself, has a few aspects to it.
- that Champlain is deserving of monument. Not for commemorating “the advent into Ontario of the white race”, or for going into an “empty” place so far from home, but for the way he dedicated his life to situating himself amongst First Nations allies. While he may be known for his early colonialist escapades (including going to war with the Algonquin and the Huron against the Iroquois) and thereby securing (some) French influence overseas, it was the way he did it that is meaningful to me; he explored, used diplomacy, lived among, studied and sought aid from Indigenous peoples. In other words, he co-existed, and the influence of much of that (diplomatic outlook and action) exists today;
- on the other hand, although I say Champlain is worthy of admiration for his basic bravaro, he was not overly successful in his colonizing, (barely 100 - 200 people called Quebec home in the decades following Champlain’s death, and he never did find a route to China which is what he had once set out for). He “…was trumped up by 19th-century mythmakers to bring a nation together and dignify us with a well-ordered pedigree. His elevated social status, his air of majestic calm, his single-minded devotion to his proto-Canadian colonists and even his familiar face are all romantic lies,” explains journalist John Allemang. Further, “Champlain, it turns out, was largely unheralded until the 19th century, when he was suddenly called upon to give some historical underpinning to the emerging pride of the Québécois…” says Prof. (emeritus) Conrad Heidenreich;
- the Huron/Wendat peoples are deserving of their own monument, in remembrance of the 30,000 population of First Nations people who once dominated this region (enveloped by Georgian Bay to the north and west and Lake Simcoe to the east) and that the Champlain Monument in Orillia does not serve this purpose - in fact it works against the memory of Huronia which had its own capital (Ossossané?), productive agriculture and vast economic reach;
- so, even if Champlain and “Indians” are depicted together, (I would argue that, in Orillia, they should be separated), then equality of stature is not enough. Indigenous peoples of 1615 should be depicted in art as being dominate, not just by number, but by ability to live in Canada: "[Champlain] realized how weak he was," says John Ralston Saul. "His instructions were to subjugate the native people, but he knew that in order to survive, he had to treat them not just as his equals, but as his superiors";
- in fact, there should be a separation of the figures in Orillia’s Champlain Monument, as well as a whole new monument. And an equally pricey one too. "Canada is in trouble because it has been untethered from its aboriginal moorings," says John Ralston Saul again. Shall we always focus on the single man of action, Champlain, who so wrote his own story, that ultimately entire Indigenous settlements and cultures have become subsumed, ignored and then held in demise over these past hundreds of years? Instead, I would propose that we do not set the “Indian” at the feet of an explorer, no matter how ‘noble’ and strong those many men, and women were. We should set those figures above and around Champlain.
“The key point is that for the first 250 of our 400‑year history, the reality was that aboriginal philosophy and approaches to social organization were for a great deal of the time dominant and at the very least equal to those brought from Europe,” Ralston Saul has said. “…We are unable to talk about ourselves as being an interesting and deeply-rooted mixture of aboriginal and European traditions…that we have been a non-monolithic, multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-myth civilization since the 17th century”;
- however, much of the credit for whatever makes the Orillia Champlain Monument interesting enough for Orillia and Dr. Stevenson today, is the artistry of its sculptor, Vernon March. And that, I will take up (apart?) in my next blog.