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Known as the "Father of New France", Samuel de Champlain (baptised 13 August 1574 – 25 December 1635) was born in the French seaport town of Brouage. His skills as navigator, cartographer, soldier, explorer and administrator were highly useful when he first began exploring North America in 1603 and later when he founded New France and succeeded in establishing a new settlement at Quebec in 1608. He was the first European to explore and describe the Great Lakes and recorded his journeys and accounts of his friendly relations with Indigenous peoples including the Innu, the Montagnais, the Huron Wendat, and the Algonquin, and his support in their wars against the Iroquois. In 1632, he was re-appointed to govern the colonies of New France – a post which he held until his death on Christmas Day 1635.
While Champlain's grave has never been found, there are many memorials and sites that have been named in his honour. Shown in the photograph is the Champlain monument at Chouchiching Beach Park, Orillia, Ontario where 10,000 people gathered at its unveiling on 1 July 1925 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Champlain with fifteen companions who travelled through Huronia in the summer of 1615 and spent time with the Wendat people in the Orillia area. Considered one of the finest examples of bronze statuary in Canada, it was the winning design by English sculptor Vernon March (1 March 1891 – 11 June 1930) among twenty-two submissions made in a 1912 competition. While the initial target date for completion was August 1915, the project was delayed by a decade due to the Great War. It was this statue of Champlain that likely helped him win in January 1926 the international design competition for a National War Memorial to be built in Ottawa.
The monument's ownership and maintenance was transferred to the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources in 1955. After a condition assessment made by Parks Canada in 2015, it was decided that reparations were necessary for the staircase and plinth and conservation work was to be made on the statues. The foundation and staircase have been reconstructed on the original site however, in July 2018, Orillia’s City Council was advised that the reinstallation of the sculptures has been put on hold "after receiving concerns over the monument's representations of Indigenous peoples raised by member of the public and by Indigenous communities." At the request of the Federal government, the 'Samuel de Champlain Monument Working Group' was established with key partners and stakeholders to conduct consultations and develop a plan that presents a balanced and respectful representation that included both Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives. The working group met from October 2018 to June 2019 and submitted their report to Parks Canada which was endorsed in full. Among the key recommendations is that the Samuel de Champlain monument be re-installed with only the central figure of Samuel de Champlain atop the plinth. In July 2020, Parks Canada advised the city that reinstallation of the Samuel de Champlain statue as part of the monument would be deferred to allow further consultation and decision-making, "with the goal of honouring the past within the context of contemporary knowledge and wisdom."
"Since the initiation of the Samuel de Champlain Working Group discussions, circumstances have evolved, particularly with recent discoveries of the remains of children in unmarked graves at a number of former residential schools across Canada. In light of these circumstances, the Huron-Wendat Nation and the Chippewas of Rama First Nation have informed Parks Canada that they are no longer able continue to participate in the process.
Parks Canada has confirmed that the reinstallation of the Champlain Monument will be deferred. Out of respect for our First Nations partners, City representatives of the working group support Parks Canada's position to defer the reinstallation of the monument at this time. Steps are being taken by Parks Canada to restore the park so that it is safe and accessible to residents while they work on an appropriate path forward for the project."
On this day, 25 December 2021, we commemorate the 386th anniversary of the death of Samuel de Champlain – the "Father of New France" – and mark the 406th anniversary of his travels through Huronia.
André M. Levesque