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A Very American Champlain

A U.S. historian provides quite a new take on Canada’s “founding father”

Ronald Rudin

Champlain’s Dream: T he Visionary Adventurer Who Made a New World in Canada

David Hackett Fischer

Knopf Canada

834 pages, hardcover

Having already taken on such larger-than-life figures as Paul Revere and George Washington, the American historian David Hackett Fischer decided—in a sense—to cross the border to look at a Canadian icon, Samuel de Champlain. There was, of course, no border in Champlain’s time, and in fact Champlain’s wide-ranging exploration of North America took him to both sides of the line that would subsequently be drawn. Indeed, the subtitle of the U.S. edition of the book reads “The European Founding of North America,” which is more accurate than the Canadian one. However, Fischer (or his publisher) was apparently self-conscious about appropriating a Canadian hero and made the adjustment for the Canadian edition, although the Americanization of Champlain in Fischer’s treatment is unmistakable. The French explorer is frequently compared to such American figures as the “founding fathers” or to such presidents as Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman. All of these American heroes, like Champlain, “combined realism and idealism in their vision of a better world.”

This idealism speaks to the dream in the title, as Fischer sets out to show how Champlain imagined making North America into a haven 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.” Starting from this premise, Fischer presents Champlain’s life largely on the basis of the explorer’s own substantial writing about his adventures, in the process depicting a man who was surrounded, from his youth, by people of different nationalities and religions. “Raised in the midst of cultural variety,” writes Fischer, “he became comfortable with diversity even within his own family. He was also tolerant of differences among people, deeply interested in the infinite varieties of the human condition, and enormously curious about the world. These attitudes would shape his career.”

When the opportunity arose for Champlain to travel to the new world, he immediately showed an interest in aboriginal people. As Fischer puts it, he “always regarded them as human beings like himself, and remarked on their intelligence.” In practice, however, Champlain viewed some aboriginal people as more “human” than others and, as he moved up the imperial ladder, made useful alliances with various tribes against the Iroquois, who constitute the evil empire in this story, and whose destruction was required in order to achieve “peace and universal justice.” When, in 1615, Champlain organized his aboriginal allies to attack the Iroquois, he “had in mind a punitive expedition, executed with great power and speed … This was not a war of conquest or extermination. Champlain’s purpose, whenever he took up arms, was never to make war on women, children and the elderly. He warred only against warriors. The object was to deter future attacks and to create a foundation from which peace could grow.”

The point has often been made, although not in quite the terms that Fischer makes it, that the French were more willing than other European powers to work with aboriginal people, instead of destroying them. This statement of French exceptionalism is often accompanied by a recognition that they had little choice given their difficulties in bringing out

European immigrants to the New World, and so required Native allies. However, Fischer generally refuses to see a pragmatic basis for Champlain’s actions. While others involved with French imperial policy may have been driven by self-interest, Champlain’s actions were shaped by his involvement with a “humanist circle” that stood apart from those with less noble designs. Ultimately, after Champlain’s death, the French resorted to policies toward aboriginal people that were less “adroit” than his had been.

Fischer had much material to work with in order to present Champlain as an exceptional character who made a difference. After all, how many people of his era crossed the Atlantic dozens of times, established numerous settlements, including one (Quebec City) that still exists four centuries later, and engaged—often successfully—in complicated cross-cultural negotiations? In addition, Fischer knows how to tell a good story, and so often can make the reader feel a part of Champlain’s world, particularly when the Frenchman is dealing with the aboriginal peoples. In this regard, Fischer begins the book with an evocative description of Champlain’s involvement in a battle between his allies and the Iroquois, telling the story from a careful reading of a sketch that Champlain himself drew.

In the end, however, the strengths of Fischer’s biography are also the basis for its weaknesses. While Fischer might have recognized that Champlain’s account of his own achievements was, at least to some degree, self-serving, the author refuses to give an inch, insisting that Champlain did everything “for his cause and not for himself.” In the self-portrait referred to above, where Champlain stands alone between two warring tribes, Fischer might have wondered how much was real and how much was constructed for effect, but he is not prepared to countenance the latter possibility because Champlain did not produce works (either drawings or texts) designed to promote “his own renommé.”

In fact, another work, also produced on the 400th anniversary of Champlain’s founding of Quebec, calls into question Fischer’s faith that his subject’s substantial writings can be taken at face value. Fischer asserts on various occasions that while “some modern critics have read [Champlain’s] book as a promotional tract, … it was more than that. However, Mathieu d’Avignon, in his Champlain et les fondateurs oubliés: Les figures du père et le mythe de la fondation, carries out a careful reading of how Champlain’s accounts of some of the major events of his career were recast in the various editions that appeared. Most notably, over time Champlain removed references to actions that had been achieved by a “nous,” attributing them instead to a “je.” D’Avignon asks, “Why did Champlain change his accounts? In order to put his own role front and centre. In order to improve how he would be seen by posterity. In order to show himself as the model of a French-Catholic agent of colonization between 1603 and 1632. In order to show himself as having been beyond reproach” [my translation].

It is interesting that d’Avignon’s was the only academic monograph produced on Champlain in Canada on the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec City (there were various collections of essays), and that he should have questioned the “purity” of his subject’s motives. In a similar fashion, the major television production for the quadricentenary, CBC/Radio-Canada’s The Mystery of Champlain /À la recherche de Champlain avoided any simple presentation of a hero, but rather showed the difficulties in coming to an understanding of the man, this in contrast with Fischer’s self-confident depiction. It is hard to avoid thinking that this was further evidence of the Canadian unwillingness to be too effusive in praise of heroes, a problem that does not encumber Fischer, whose emphasis on Champlain as an individual who succeeded against all odds is somehow quintessentially American.

In fact, in touting the power of the individual, Fischer is on a larger mission than simply giving Champlain a new treatment. He makes no secret at the start of the book that he is ready to do battle with those preoccupied with “political correctness, with its revulsion against great white men, especially empire-builders, colonial founders, and discoverers.” Fischer is pleased that Champlain can receive the positive biography that he so richly deserves on the 400th anniversary of his founding of Quebec, now that “ideological rage, multiculturalism, postmodernism, historical relativism, and the more extreme forms of academic cynicism” have had their day.

Fischer repeats this listing of the sins that have blinded historians (albeit in a slightly different order) in a postscript dealing with earlier constructions of Champlain in both historical literature and public memory. Of these sins, the one that particularly captured Fischer’s attention was rage, since he repeats it yet again in his reference to historians who could not accept Champlain’s selflessness, filled as they were “with bitterness and rage.” Setting himself apart from such writers, Fischer is calm where they were angry, and “empirical” where they were encumbered by ideology.

There is no reason to doubt that previous students of Champlain came to their subject with some ideological perspective, although it is not always easy to know who Fischer is criticizing since he dismisses these scholars, rarely identifying them by name, instead merely describing them with such terms as “modern critics,” “many historians” or “some ethnographers.” He is more explicit in his historiographical postscript (set aside from the main text in a much smaller font) where he pointedly criticizes the Canadian archaeologist and anthropologist Bruce Trigger. As Fischer puts it, “in North America, historians of the left became deeply alienated from their societies and institutions … The result was the growth of iconoclastic writing about American culture and American leaders. In scholarship on Champlain, the strongest iconoclastic voice was that of Bruce Trigger.”

Having virtually turned Trigger into an American, Fischer goes on to take him to task for an ideologically driven view of Champlain that prevented Trigger from appreciating the humanity of the Frenchman. Fischer dismisses Trigger’s views as “mistaken, about Champlain and other leaders,” but the reader would have to descend even deeper into the text to find proof for such an assertion. Ultimately, Fischer shows that both he and Trigger read the same passages from Champlain’s writings, but came to different conclusions. For instance, where Trigger saw ethnocentrism in Champlain’s view of aboriginal religions, Fischer saw that Champlain’s perspective “transcended its ethnocentrism in its aspiration to universal justice, faith, truth and law. In short, ethnocentric in some ways, yes, but … Trigger missed the heart of this man.”

Fischer needed to bring his own ideological baggage to his reading of Champlain, every bit as much as Trigger did, to come to his conclusions. Fischer assumes throughout Champlain’s Dream that there was nothing wrong with the French presuming that they had a right to aboriginal land, that they could decide which tribes were good and which were evil, and that their actions were justified in the name of universal notions of justice that were of their own making. Previous generations of scholars were reluctant to take such a perspective, not only because of the unhappy results of imperialism that they saw around them in the lives of North American aboriginals, but also because of their wholesale rejection of a triumphalist reading of European imperialism that had stretched back for centuries and that presumed that Europeans knew what was best for “inferior” people. Fischer dismisses such views as ideological, but he needs to look in the mirror to see that he possesses an ideology as well. If either Trigger or Fischer had come to their conclusions without evidence, there would be a problem, but even Fischer shows that what troubles him about Trigger’s views is his interpretation of the evidence, a criticism that could equally be aimed in Fischer’s direction.

In touting Champlain’s individualism, his drive to change the world in terms of universal values and his similarity to strong American leaders of the 20th century, Fischer has presented a character that Canadians might have trouble recognizing as one of their own. This is not the enigmatic character with whom we have become acquainted, whose indeterminate nature seems somehow to reflect the Canadian identity. Fischer seems to sense this disconnect, so he travels to Canada in order to show the lasting impact of Champlain and to report on some of the peoples with whom the Frenchman was connected. In regard to the status of aboriginal people in Canada today, Fischer cheerfully finds that something of Champlain’s “spirit has endured between Europeans and Indians even to our own time—an extraordinary achievement.” Fischer’s claim—which ignores such evidence as the extent of aboriginal poverty and the legacy of residential schools—is based, in part, upon a conversation that he had “with Jacques Martin in his home … on the Saguenay River.” Aside from the fact that Martin “lives the dream of Champlain and Anadabijou [with whom Champlain forged an alliance], as we do,” there is no reference to who he might be.

Fischer also highlights the survival of the Acadians, a people with whom Champlain was connected, having been involved with the first two efforts at permanent settlement in the region. Oddly, however, Fischer seems to find contemporary Acadie in Nova Scotia, where 3 percent of the population is French speaking, and not New Brunswick, Canada’s only officially bilingual province, where one third fill that bill. One of the leading rock bands that has emerged from Acadian Nova Scotia is called Grande Dérangement, the term that Acadians generally use to refer to their deportation. However, Fischer sees this name, not as ironic, but as “nostalgic.” He goes on to describe with amazement how “even to this day French continues to be spoken along the southwest coast of Nova Scotia.” In fact, these particular Acadians are experiencing considerable challenges in keeping their language alive, a situation that stands in contrast with that across the provincial border, in Moncton, which has emerged as a vital centre of Acadian culture.

Fischer comes across much like the Champlain he describes. The Frenchman was sure of himself and prepared to pass judgements upon people who were different from him. In a similar way, Fischer has managed to create a lively biography because of his own sense of certainty that allows him to elide borders and impose interpretations. Fischer did not really have to be so hostile toward those who preceded him and who had a different view of Champlain in order to make his case; nor for that matter, did he need to say anything about contemporary Canada. His own treatment of Champlain would have stood on its merits.

Ronald Rudin is a professor of history at Concordia University and author of two books touching on the memory of Champlain: Found Fathers: Champlain and Laval in the Streets of Quebec (University of Toronto Press, 2003) and Remembering and Forgetting in Acadie: A Historian’s Journey through Public Memory (University of Toronto Press, 2009).