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LETTER: Local politicians have not exercised their power in Champlain debate

The 1955 agreement of ‘maintenance’ can not be construed as a licence to irreparably alter the monument entrusted in good faith to the feds, says letter writer

OrilliaMatters welcomes letters to the editor. Please send letters to This is the second part of a two-part letter regarding the controversy over the Champlain Monument. To read Part 1, click here.

It would seem highly unlikely that a future claim of ‘ownership’ and ‘final say’ of the Champlain Monument by the federal government would have been the intent of Town Council in 1955.

Some councillors then were closely connected with responsibility for the Champlain Monument four decades earlier.

The same highly respected town councillor, Pete McGarvey (1927-2014), who is responsible for the preservation of the residence of Stephen Leacock, was the councillor who made the motion in 1955 of “custody and maintenance” of the Champlain Monument.

It would seem inconsistent for the same person who facilitated the protection of Leacock’s home in becoming a National Historic Site to also draft a motion of ‘custody and maintenance’ that could facilitate the dismembering of the Champlain Monument by the federal government.

Roughly a decade ago, I had the pleasure of meeting with Mr. McGarvey at his home with the primary purpose being a discussion of the life of Harold Hale (1871-1963). Hale was posthumously voted as Orillia’s Citizen of the 20th Century.

Among a list of accomplishment too lengthy to mention, a commemorative monument to Champlain was one of Mr. Hale’s initiatives in the year 1912. In Stephen Leacock’s comic portrayal of Orillia also published in that year, the brothers Harold Hale and Russell Hale, ‘appeared’ in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town combined as the single fictional character named “Hussell”.

Although there was an age difference of five decades, the Hales were friends, and seemingly mentors, to the rising radio journalist, Pete McGarvey.

On the historical timeline of Orillia, there are points at which clusters of outstanding civic leaders tend to arise. Although beyond the scope of this letter, those leaders on either Town Council of 1912, or the Champlain Monument Executive Committee, include many of the most innovative of Orillians.

Another cluster of accomplished citizens, to my mind, came roughly six decades ago. Along with Pete McGarvey, one other outstanding young Orillian was Sue Mulcahy. It has been my recent pleasure to speak to her regarding her insights into town council’s intentions in 1955 and to offer this letter for her review.

Sue’s father ‘Teefy’ Mulcahy was the last surviving member of the Champlain Executive Committee. She explained that her father and Harold Hale were “close friends” that met to chat “almost daily”. In 1925, she would have been very young when the Champlain Monument was unveiled. During that event the emcee, Roldolphe Lemieux, who then served as the Speaker of the House of Commons, was as a guest at the Mulcahy home.

In her first year on council in 1963, she undertook Orillia’s first effort to create a university. Through her active role in municipal politics during the time period, familiarity with the decision makers regarding the Champlain agreement, and life-long support of heritage initiatives including the founding of the Orillia Museum of Art and History, but of most relevance, it is reasonable to suggest her to be the most personally knowledgeable with the time period in question.

Regarding the Champlain Monument, she feels that mayor and council have “more rights” to decide its fate than they are exercising.

One other person that I spoke with regarding the Champlain Monument is a dear friend who is approaching her 102nd birthday. When born as Lois Ball, her father ran a men’s clothing store in what is now the large white painted building at the corner of Peter and Mississaga.

“I was there” is rare comment to hear in 2019 of personal memories of the 1925 unveiling. Her memories were not only of the grand festivities, but also earlier memories of the assembly of the monument.

As a seven-year-old, she recalled the bronze Champlain lying with a “long rod” extending from its base. It would have been that rod securely embedded deep into the plinth that posed the challenge to the crane operators removing Champlain in 2017. She also recalled the pageantry at the unveiling, along with pigs being “turned over coals” in preparation of a large celebratory meal.

From a vantage spot of living through two-thirds of all municipal councils since the date of Orillia first being incorporated as a village, this elder opined that for “many years” councils “have made bad decisions.” She feels that “council does not understand the monument."

Amid festering misunderstanding over a span of 80 years, the Anishinaabe canoeist was left kneeling at the base of Ottawa’s Champlain Monument without a canoe due to both a First World War-era funding shortfall, and a shortage of bronze during that war.

As a canoeist, of course he was kneeling! The cultural animus resulting from that figure’s appearance of deference, lies squarely upon decades of inaction by the curator’s failing to complete the contextualization of the canoeist by adding a canoe.

For 64 years, the federal government has had custody and maintenance of Orillia’s Champlain Monument. Again, before the reader board disappears, I would recommend that interested parties see it to assess Parks Canada’s effort in explaining the sculpture. As I will expand upon later, there is no mention of the small Ontario town that created the largest bronze Monument in Canada as tribute to the ‘Father of New France’.

Parks Canada offers curatorial services to heritage locations under their purview from coast to coast. Of more consequence, what has Parks Canada done regarding Orillia’s Champlain Monument to allay festering misunderstanding? As was my commentary in an earlier letter, the fault of misunderstanding of the monument lies more with the curator and narrators than with the sculptor.

Respectfully, (MP Bruce) Stanton and (Mayor Steve) Clarke, it was the intent of the parties to the agreement in 1955 between your respective levels of government that the Champlain Monument be “maintained.”

Whatever aberration of the bronze sculptures that may be decreed by Parks Canada, in using their own words, Couchiching Beach Park will cease to be home to “one of the finest examples of statuary in Canada.”

Mr. Stanton, a re-arrangement of the bronze statues will be a breach of that mandate of maintenance/preservation that originally existed in good faith between your level of government and Orillia. The monument would no longer be an expression of a sculptor - it would be that of a committee.

If returned intact, Vernon March’s complete early 20th Champlain Monument along with expanded interpretive pieces, would serve as a compliment to Timothy Schmalz’s tremendous 21st century expression of the Champlain experience that already exists in Penetanguishene.

Although only a few from today may be fortunate enough to see it, on Champlain’s 500th anniversary yet another monument will likely be erected in Simcoe North. Hopefully, it will more clearly express the rightfully superior stature of the Wendat circa 1615-16. Together those three, plus hopefully others, along with the multitude of other plaques and commemorations, could offer a more fulsome interpretation of history and authentic artist expression.

Mr. Stanton, inaction will prevent such authentic works of contrasting artist expression, representative of varying time periods, to be either available for studying, or to serve as evidence of the evolution of cultural understanding. A tragic legacy.

Mr. Clarke, as it is neither a ‘National Historic Site’, nor even on the ‘Canadian Register of Historic Places’, did the City of Orillia, under your watch, ever establish that the rights to ‘final say’ for the Champlain Monument were officially granted to the federal government?

Over a century ago, there were two American authors, L. Frank Baum and James Oliver Curwood, that may have independently drawn upon the name of one of Orillia’s most famous residents in creating fictional characters in their series of adventure novels.

Baum, for example, wrote Sam Steele’s Adventures on Land and Sea. Mr. Clarke, I liken the situation facing you and council to Dorothy and her ruby ‘slippers’ in Baum’s more famous novel that he entitled The Wizard of Oz. Like Dorothy, all along, Orillia has had more ‘say’ than it realizes.

Before Parks Canada delivers a plinth that will prevent their so-called ‘restoration’ of Orillia’s complete Champlain Monument, I request that Mayor and Council exercise their ‘say’ in crafting a reconciliation plan that is cognizant of the intent of those outstanding community leaders in Orillia’s past.

In conclusion, although there may be merit to debate whether ‘custody’ means ‘ownership’, the 1955 agreement of ‘maintenance’ can not rightly be construed as licence to irreparably alter a single item entrusted by a municipality in good faith to Canada’s federal government.

As an observer to this situation, I feel that any entity intending the long-term preservation of an artifact that is looking to enlist custody, seek maintenance, or transfer/bequest ownership to the federal government should absolutely look to the outcome of ‘Town of Orillia’s’ Champlain Monument as a warning.

Bruce McRae