Le memory hole de Champlain - Macleans.ca
 

Le memory hole de Champlain

WELLS: Have we rewritten history or just not bothered to learn it?


 

This is damned strange.

Spurred on by Colleague Coyne’s recent column about David Johnston’s evocation of Samuel de Champlain as the predecessor of all Governors General, I’ve been doing some research. The moderately interesting stuff will follow below. The really interesting stuff is on the Heritage Canada website. Was on the Heritage Canada website. Is and was. Was and is no longer. Perhaps I should explain.

Here’s what the website looked like on Tuesday, July 12, on the page where the history of the Governor General’s office is (was) discussed (emphases added):

Canada is a parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy. The Queen is our head of state. The Queen in Canada is represented at the national level by the Governor General and at the provincial level by a Lieutenant Governor.

The office of the Governor General dates back nearly 400 years to 1608, when Samuel de Champlain acted as the Governor of New France. Until 1952, Governors General were British. The 1952 installation of Vincent Massey, the first Canadian to hold the office, reflected Canada’s new sense of autonomy and identity in the post-war era.

And here’s what it looked like last night, when I tried to call up the page as Google showed it.

Canada is a parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy. The Queen is our head of state. The Queen in Canada is represented at the national level by the Governor General and at the provincial level by a Lieutenant Governor.

‘A Governor in all but name, Samuel de Champlain fulfilled 400 years ago several duties and responsibilities that would later be carried out by the Governors of New France and after Confederation, by the Governors General of Canada.’

The office of the Governor General dates back to 1867. Until 1952, Governors General were British. The 1952 installation of Vincent Massey, the first Canadian to hold the office, reflected Canada’s new sense of autonomy and identity in the post-war era.

I know of no other explanation for this change than that somebody, somewhere in the department at Heritage, or at the minister’s office, or at Langevin, did not like the attention Johnston kicked up with his remarks (which Andrew discusses here.)

And yet this idea that Champlain stands as the functional predecessor of the Governors General, not merely as their nice symbolic inspiration, is not new. I wrote here that Champlain, in that role, figured in Adrienne Clarkson’s and Roméo LeBlanc’s installation speeches. Since then, the truly excellent people in the Rideau Hall press shop have done some digging on my behalf, and here’s what they’ve found so far.

Ray Hnatyshyn didn’t mention Champlain when he was installed on Jan. 29, 1990. Ed Schreyer didn’t mention Champlain on Jan. 23, 1979 during a long and gracious speech in which he spoke German, Ukrainian and Polish as well as French and English.

Jules Léger did speak about Champlain on Jan. 14, 1974 when he became Governor General. Here’s what he said.

In an unbroken line, Samuel de Champlain was in reality the first Governor of this land, and particularly of the valley of the Ottawa, through which he passed in 1613. He has been succeeded by 63 Governors and Governors General. The nature of their authority has varied, of course, as indeed has the geographical extent of their jurisdiction. Whether from France, from Great Britain, or more recently from Canada, they have all contributed in one way or another to the building of this country, each playing his own part though unable truly to realize the greatness of the whole.

Georges Vanier didn’t mention Champlain on Sept. 15, 1959 when he became Governor General, but he did say this:

Two hundred years ago, a certain country won a battle on the Plains of Abraham; another country lost a battle. In the annals of every nation, there is a record of victories and defeats. The present Sovereign of the victorious country, Sovereign also of Canada now, returns to the same battle-field, two centuries later, and presents colours to a French-speaking regiment, which mounts guard over the Citadel of Quebec, a regiment of which Her Majesty is colonel-in-chief.

And how is the battle of 1759 commemorated? By a monument, erected in 1828, to the memory of both commanding generals, who died in action. It bears the inscription in Latin: “Valour gave them a common death, history a common fame, prosperity a common monument.” Is there a better way to heal the wounds of war, to seal the bonds of peace?

The sixty thousand French Canadians of 1759 have become several millions. For two thousand years, more or less, the annals of history proclaim the glory of Great Britain and France. The future of Canada is linked with this double fabulous heritage. Canadians of Anglo-Saxon and French descent, whose two cultures will always be a source of mutual enrichment, are an inspiring example of coexistence. They go forward hand in hand to make Canada a great nation, hand in hand also with Canadians of every origin, with their heritages, irrespective of race or creed. We are all God’s children.

On Feb. 28, 1952, Vincent Massey became the first Canadian-born Governor General with remarks that appear to have been improvised and whose transcript takes up only four paragraphs of type. He didn’t mention Champlain, speaking only of “a long line of eminent and distinguished men” who came before him.

I don’t have Jeanne Sauvé’s installation speech, or Roland Michener’s, but if I see them I will come back here to update. The Michener Institute’s official biography of its namesake describes him as “twentieth Governor General since Confederation and fifty-eighth from Samuel de Champlain.”

So the specific notion that Champlain personally, and the French governors generally, are direct linear predecessors of today’s Governors General dates back at least to 1974 and probably before but has not been a constant in our ceremonial life. Why does this matter? It doesn’t, much, if you don’t want it too. But our latter-day disputes over the meaning of our life together on the northern half of North America are sometimes characterized by attempts to rewrite our history, or not to bother learning it. There was a lot of that in 2008, on the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec City; I wrote about that here and here.

UPDATE: I’ve received Jeanne Sauvé’s and Vincent Massey’s speeches. Both are interesting to read for other reasons, but neither mentions Champlain.


 

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