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Ontario Marks 400th Anniversary of Champlain's Dream All Across The Province This Summer

By Randall White 

Setting aside such torments as the remaining ice at Sauble Beach, a strong enough first long weekend has now inaugurated the 2015 cottage and resort season north of the Great Lakes. 

The thoughts of healthy young people everywhere between the Ottawa River and the Lake of the Woods may have nothing to do with Ontario history as they revel in cottage country's delights. 

Yet other Ontarians are nonetheless passionately involved in the deep historical anniversary that will haunt many provincial locales this summer.

For it was on August 1, 1615 — 400 years ago from this coming August 1 long weekend — Samuel de Champlain, from the then only seven-year-old French settlement now called Quebec city, arrived with a party of several canoes on the Georgian Bay shoreline of what is known today as northern Simcoe County, Ontario. 

This marked the start of Champlain’s extended sojourn in Wendake, the land of the sophisticated corn-growing Huron confederacy of the early 17th century. 

That stay turned out to be a key influence on Champlain's dream for Ontario and North America. He envisioned a land where many different cultures could live together in harmony - a precursor of the vision later provincial and Canadian governments have held fast to.

When Champlain arrived, Old Wendake was home to an estimated 30,000 people, living in probably fewer than two dozen villages. They were scattered between what we now call Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay. The six largest of these villages, with some 1500 to 2000 people each, were fortified with log palisades. 

The dark and gripping saga of Huron people, French fur traders, Jesuit missionaries and Iroquois invaders over the next three and a half decades constitutes the first major act in the modern written history of Ontario.

Jesuit and other French missionaries have provided much of the primary written record for this saga. Their work from the first half of the 17th century has been (often brilliantly) exploited by such later researchers as Bruce Trigger in his landmark study of 1976, The Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660

As part of his Wendake adventures, Champlain accompanied Huron and Algonkian warriors on a raid against their Iroquois enemies in present-day northern New York state. This trip followed an eastern canoe-and-portage route between Georgian Bay and Lake Ontario.

Along this route today, three retirees have been researching and writing on Champlain’s 1615 travels through the Peterborough area for a commemorative book to be published this summer.

This is just one of many events celebrating Champlain's arrival in Ontario.  

In Simcoe County, for instance, the 400th anniversary commemorations actually began in the middle of January, when author Douglas Hunter (God’s Mercies, 2007) gave a kick-off talk on Champlain and the fur trade to a heritage society in Creemore.

As well, in April the French-speaking community of Lafontaine in Tiny Township hosted “L’Écho de Champlain en Huronie.” Still ahead, “Le Festival du Loup en Nouvelle-France” will take place July 16 to 19.

There will be other celebrations of the Champlain anniversary this summer that Ontarians can take part in to get the flavour of his important explorations.

The Brookside Music Association, with funding from the Ontario Arts Council, has commissioned music from Toronto-based composer John Beckwith to commemorate Champlain’s 400th anniversary.

Beckwith’s “Wendake/Huronia" for alto solo, narrator, choir, instruments and drums will premiere on July 30 in Midland. There will be subsequent performances on July 31 in Parry Sound and Barrie, and on August 1 in Meaford.

But the signature event for all the 400th anniversary activity this summer is the Town of Penetanguishene’s “Rendez-Vous Champlain 2015,” from Friday, July 31 to Sunday, August 2 — spanning the actual August 1 anniversary itself.    

The Rendez-Vous will include (among many other things) displays of birch bark canoe building and pottery, along with fur trade demonstrations and works by Aboriginal artisans. 

Happily, the federal and provincial governments are spending $2.8 million to renovate Rotary Park in Penetanguishene in time for this summer’s Champlain Festival.

On Saturday, August 1 formal opening ceremonies will include a re-enactment of Champlain’s arrival with 20 birch bark canoes and over 150 actors in full-costume on the Penetang waterfront, as well as speeches from the province of Ontario and the province of Quebec.

Finally, as if to sum everything up, in Midland this fall the Ontario Archaeological Society will hold its 2015 Symposium on “Huronia — Before and After Champlain” from October 16 to 18.

What, if anything, does all this history mean for us today?

According to one recent press report, the senior governments are financially supporting municipal Champlain anniversary celebrations as “part of an effort to commemorate 400 years of French presence in Ontario.” 

If David Hackett Fischer’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning biography, Champlain’s Dream, is right, Samuel de Champlain himself might find this theme a little too narrow. 

As Fischer summarizes Champlain: “This war-weary soldier had a dream of humanity and peace in a world of cruelty and violence. He envisioned a new world as a place where people of different cultures could live together in amity and concord. This became his grand design for North America.”   

Without entirely wanting to, Champlain stayed 10 months in the land of the Huron confederacy, and the experience helped crystalize his dream. 

Many challenges to it of course remain. Yet, with many more additions and fresh diversities, that dream, which began 400 years ago this summer, is still alive in Ontario today.

About Randall White

Randall White is a former senior policy advisor with the Ontario Ministry of Finance, and a former economist with the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. He is the author of Ontario 1610-1985: A Political and Economic History and Ontario Since 1985. He writes frequently about Ontario politics.
Posted date : May 19, 2015

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