Champlain’s dream lives on in North America
Jeffrey Simpson : Globe and Mail / Published on Friday, Oct. 23, 2009
For historian David Hackett Fischer, the Frenchman was, above all, a ‘humanist’
A week from Monday, at McGill University in Montreal, the winner of the recently created, well-endowed ($75,000 U.S. to the winner) and exciting Cundill International Prize in History will be announced.
If this were Britain, bookies would have already laid down odds on the three short-listed candidates, culled from a long list of 10. As this is Canada, and as the prize is only in its second year, no odds are on offer, but here’s a guess from a source that has been often wrong in such matters : Put a nickel on U.S. historian David Hackett Fischer’s Champlain’s Dream.
Champlain’s Dreamis history in the grand style, a blend of the old-style narrative about great men and amazing deeds, and the newer contextual narratives of race, social currents, and localities – or what Prof. Fischer in conversation in Ottawa yesterday called the “third way” in history.
The book blew away reviewers when published in 2008 – the French version will be published by Boréal of Montreal next year – and it’s on the short list of this new prize created by investment manager (and McGill graduate) Peter Cundill. The prize, according to the terms of reference, must go to a work “with a profound literary, social and academic impact on the subject.”
Prof. Fischer’s book certainly meets those tests, and who, among the early shapers of Canada, was more influential, even determinant, than Samuel de Champlain ? True, the Frenchman explored the coasts of New England and fought down the valley named for him (Lake Champlain), but it was in New France, along the St. Lawrence and in Acadia, that he most left his legacy.
It seemed slightly ironic that Prof. Fischer (author of many superb books about U.S. history, including the Pulitzer-Prize winning, Washington’s Crossing ) should have been in Ottawa, lecturing at the invitation of the French embassy as part of a wonderful speakers series, because Champlain has often been neglected in France, witness to which perhaps is the fact that this acclaimed biography was written by an American.
French historians, Prof. Fischer explained, had lost interest for the most part in Champlain and, by extension, New France – just as France lost interest for centuries in its former colony after the British Conquest. For a long time, French historians were under the influence of the “Annales” historiographical school, in which the structure of society and the details of daily and communal life, rather than major events, were the important subjects for students of history.
The 400th anniversary of Champlain’s first explorations along what are now Canada’s Maritime provinces and Maine sparked an explosion of interest in the man and his extraordinary life. The 400th anniversary, in 2008, of his arrival in Quebec heightened further the interest in Champlain’s accomplishments and legacy.
For Prof. Fischer, Champlain was, above all, a “humanist” – not a view shared by some previous historians who had viewed him as just another mercenary looking for furs and willing to exploit Indians.
On the contrary, Champlain’s Dream convincingly portrays him as a man accepting of diversity, anxious to accommodate the French with the Indians. Indeed, for most of the next century and a half in North America, relations between the French and the Indians were considerably better than those between the British (and British Americans) and the Indians.
Prof. Fischer, who knows Canada extremely well, believes that the “humanist” values of Champlain, and the respect for the values and traditions of the “other” has marked Canada. “Something right has happened here,” he says of Canada.
Every attempt to colonize New France had failed before Champlain succeeded. Success, however, was a near thing, since it took about 30 years after settlement for the population to begin to grow. And France never accorded the importance to New France that the British Crown did to its American colonies. The French people were far less eager to leave their mother country than the British (often religious dissenters) were to depart theirs.
Champlain crossed the Atlantic 27 times in the early 17th century, and lost only one crew member, an astonishing record. His survey work and mapping were extraordinarily precise ; his willingness to work with Indians not just a matter of practicality, and even survival, but of genuine curiosity and respect. Those virtues came, Prof. Fischer believes, from having been raised in the port city of Brouage where people of different nationalities mingled, and from working for King Henry IV, who succeeded in extinguishing the civil wars, essentially over religion, that had devastated France. Accommodation rather than absolutism was the byword of these “humanists.”
No area of Canada can be proud of its treatment of and relations with Indians, but it could be argued that Quebec has managed these relations better than elsewhere. A legacy of Champlain’s dream, perhaps ?
Champlain, more than anyone else, started three French communities in North America : Quebec, Acadia and Métis. They are all extant today, four centuries later.
Keeping up with history
By Andrew Cohen, Ottawa Citizen Special - October 28, 2009
A funny thing about the past. Just when you think that something is past — safely past, long past, locked away in our closet of consciousness — you learn that it isn’t.
Someone unearths new evidence to challenge a cherished truth or debunk a soothing mythology. Suddenly, your longstanding edifice of illusion comes crashing down.
By and large, this is a good thing. Only a society comfortable with itself can revisit its past. This is a hard, healthy and necessary exercise.
But it is also painful. After all, who wants to hear that people aren’t those you studied ? Who wants to hear that events weren’t those you learned ? That the past may be unsettling is why the Japanese won’t recognize, in a meaningful way, what they did in the Second World War to the comfort women of Korea and to the Chinese of Nanking.
It is why it has taken us time to understand that while Vimy Ridge was a defining moment of our nationhood, we should ask what brought us to that lonely hill in France in 1917. That’s not easy to do.
It is hard to recognize that the Allied aerial bombing of Germany — however sublimely brave our airmen —wasn’t as effective as we thought. So Randall Hansen tells us persuasively in his fine book, Fire and Fury, a finalist for this year’s Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction.
Maybe David didn’t slay Goliath. Maybe George Washington didn’t chop down the cherry tree. In time, everything comes under the revisionist’s steady gaze. Consider, for example, the Battle of Agincourt, which took place on Oct. 25, 1415. The English defeated the French in a moment immortalized by William Shakespeare’s Henry V.
The hoary narrative of six centuries is that the army of King Henry V of England miraculously vanquished the army of Charles VI of France, which was five times its size. Now the New York Times reports that historians have examined contemporary military and tax records and found that the French forces were much, much smaller, casting doubt on England’s legendary victory.
Agincourt is still stirring and the Saint Crispin’s Day Speech ("we band of brothers") is still affecting. And nothing in this new re-interpretation will dislodge the battle from its pedestal in the national psyche. But if the historians are correct, this isn’t the greatest upset in the country’s military history.
Of course, sometimes historical reassessment matters and sometimes it doesn’t. There was news recently that the cause of Vladimir Lenin’s death in 1924 was syphilis, which he had contracted from a prostitute in Paris years earlier. It may have driven him insane.
This is unfortunate for Lenin, who was not one of the 20th century’s nicest guys. If we know he was infected by a prostitute, it is only another unflattering element in a life of treachery and murder. We are interested, but no longer appalled, and it isn’t likely to change our jaundiced view of him. Historians have argued that Winston Churchill lost the British Empire or that he could have sued for peace with Hitler and stayed out of the war. Almost 45 years after his death, though, history hasn’t laid a glove on him. He remains the figure of defiance who stood virtually alone in 1940 and saved the civilized world.
But then there are the historians who do change the way we see the people of our past, such as Samuel de Champlain, the explorer, soldier, mariner, cartographer and administrator who founded Quebec in 1608 and established France in North America.
In Quebec and Canada, school children have long known that Champlain was daring and shrewd. But he has also suffered, in some circles, from a historical verdict as another callous, ambitious dead white male.
Here comes David Hackett Fischer, an American historian who has won the Pulitzer Prize for a study of George Washington, arguing that Champlain was a humanist, perhaps the original multiculturalist, who envisioned a new world in which people of different cultures could live together. In Champlain’s Dream, Fischer’s dazzling biography, he argues that a conciliatory Champlain understood native people like no one else.
Champlain’s approach, and that of France, led to a successful and harmonious relationship. While European colonialists in America and elsewhere tried to kill, plunder and enslave, Champlain was different.
Fischer spoke about this Champlain the other day in the first of a speaker’s series at the Embassy of France — a salon, really — created by the imaginative Ambassador François Delattre and his spirited wife, Sophie L’Hélias. They recognize that history isn’t frozen. It is important, relevant and open to interpretation.
We must honour it and celebrate it, in public discussion as much as in books, museums and galleries, because history matters in democracy. It is the soul of our citizenship.
Andrew Cohen is president of The Historica-Dominion Institute and author of Extraordinary Canadians : Lester B. Pearson. These views are his own. Email : email@example.com