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Champlain returning to a city divided over the decision

Decision does not reflect 'what we heard loudly and clearly from the community,' says Mayor; Parks Canada says 'reimagining' will 'provide much-needed context, detailing a richer story of Champlain ... and his interactions with First Nations'

The refurbished bronze statue of French explorer Samuel de Champlain will return to its familiar perch atop the rebuilt plinth in the centre of Couchiching Beach Park immediately.

However, the other central components of the statue erected in 1925 - the First Nations figures along with the figures of the fur trader and the missionary - will not return to their customary spots below Champlain.

Rather, the goal is to “re-imagine their presence in the immediate vicinity” of the monument.

On top of that, the text of the plaque on the monument will be updated to “honour the original intent with the context of contemporary knowledge and wisdom.”

And, additional interpretive signage/pieces will be “developed and created with the participation of First Nations representatives to tell a historically accurate story” of Champlain and his relation with First Nations.

Those were the central recommendations of the Samuel de Champlain Working Group unveiled earlier this week. 

Parks Canada, the owner of the monument and the land on which it sits, swiftly moved to say it will implement the recommendations “in full.”

It’s been a long journey to get to this point - and the process is not yet complete as further consultations will be required to determine the location of the other figures and the interpretive elements.

The community seems somewhat divided over the recommendations.

Some have applauded the outcome and feel it is in line with the spirit of reconciliation, while others believe the changes are akin to trying to rewrite history and feel an iconic piece of art is being marred by being broken up.

The two primary First Nations groups involved - the Huron Wendat of Quebec and the Chippewas of Rama - both advocated for the chosen approach.

Rama’s elders said that returning the monument and plaque in its original form would “further perpetuate racism against Indigenous Peoples”; they called for a reconfiguration.

Similarly, Huron Wendat Grand Chief Konrad Sioui said his community did not support the re-installment the “offensive and degrading monument in Orillia's Couchiching Beach Park.” He said that would “undermine and challenge reconciliation efforts with Indigenous Peoples” and “perpetuate a disgraceful perception of our Peoples as being submissive, subservient and obedient to the French Crown and considered an inferior class of citizens". 

But many in Orillia called for the return of the monument in its original form.

Orillia Mayor Steve Clarke chose his words carefully when asked if he was disappointed by the recommendations.

A month ago, he and Coun. Tim Lauer, the city’s representatives on the working group, delivered their report to council, noting the “overwhelming” majority of people in Orillia wanted the monument returned “as is” with additional interpretive elements. A majority of their colleagues agreed and voted to endorse the resolution.

Clarke said he was a bit surprised by the recommendations.

“It’s not what we heard loudly and clearly from the community,” said Clarke, noting all he and Lauer did was “bring what we heard from the people we represent to the table.”

However, he said he respects “the democratic process” and doesn’t “want to detract from that.”

While he hoped the statue would be returned in its original form, he is heartened the other elements will be situated near the statue.

“One thing I’m taking from this, and I hope the community can support, is that all the pieces are coming back,” said Clarke. “I hope the community can see merit in having Champlain back where he was and other pieces in the immediate vicinity. That’s still very meaningful.”

The mayor said it’s time to move on.

“It’s certainly been a divisive, contentious and emotional issue,” noted the mayor. “I’m hoping this decision that has been made … is something a lot of people can get behind and I do believe that will be the case.”

Jeff Monague, a well-respected First Nations educator and advocate who lent his voice and presence to a Canada Day protest of the city’s resolution, is glad Parks Canada did not endorse city council’s stance.

“On the surface, the decision seems a fair compromise,” Monague said. “I'm not surprised that the Colonial revisionist history would still be at the forefront of this depiction.”

He said the ‘reimagining’ needs to be thought out carefully.

“I just hope the depiction includes how Champlain would not have survived on this land without the help of our ancestors,” Monague told OrilliaMatters.

“We shared a history and, in a perfect world, we should be allowed to share a future,” said Monague.

Local historian Marcel Rousseau, who has extensively researched the origins of the statue - including the competition held to pick a sculptor, the ceremony itself and the historical context of that time - was not happy with the working group’s decision.

“I have many concerns about this decision,” said Rousseau. “Thousands of Orillians who are living here or have past connections wanted it back as it was.” 

He remains miffed that two members of the working group - the two Huron Wendat First Nations members from Lorette, Quebec - have never even seen the monument in person.

“As descendants of the original natives that lived here at that time, the two members from Quebec had a genuine reason to be on the committee, but they have never visited the site at Couchiching Park and never felt how majestic and powerful its presence was in our wonderful waterfront,” said Rousseau.

The avid historian also believes many are forgetting important elements of the monument's evolution.

“Not many know that for several years leading up to the opening ceremonies in 1925, many of our community leaders struggled to make sure the image of the First Nations men was accurate and strong,” said Rousseau.

He also noted several First Nations chiefs were invited to the opening ceremony in 1925, which garnered headlines all over the world.

“From Rama was Chief John Bigwin and Chief Big Canoe and their councillors,” said Rousseau. Also attending was Chief Ovide Sioui, a relative of the current chief who came with others from L'Ancienne-Lorette, Quebec. 

Articles from that time stated that Chief Ovide Sioui shook the hand of sculptor Vernon March.

Karen Feeley, of Parks Canada, stands behind the decision to implement the working group's recommendations.

“Parks Canada is committed to sharing Canada’s history through wide-ranging and sometimes complex perspectives, and ensuring that the history and voices of Indigenous peoples are incorporated at Parks Canada’s heritage places,” Feeley told OrilliaMatters.

“The decision to return the Samuel de Champlain statue atop the plinth recognizes the contribution of Samuel de Champlain and the importance of the monument to the citizens of Orillia,” she said.

“The commitment to consult with the Chippewas of Rama First Nation and the Huron-Wendat Nation on the future of the First Nations figures is an example of the Government of Canada’s commitment to working collaboratively with Indigenous peoples and honouring their contributions to our shared heritage and history.”

She said “the re-imagining of the monument and its associated figures will provide much-needed context, detailing a richer story of Champlain’s arrival in the area and his interactions with First Nations.”

She said consultation “will take place later this year with the goal of honouring the past within the context of contemporary knowledge and wisdom.” Included in the consultation will be the wording of the plaque.

“There is currently no set timeline for the re-installation of the figures, based on a new vision for their presentation,” Feeley noted.

“In its role as a national storyteller, Parks Canada has an obligation to provide a balanced, inclusive and comprehensive overview of Canada’s history,” said Feeley. “But for too long, too much of the country’s history has been told from a single static perspective, which does not reflect the full breadth and diversity of Canada's history.”

Coun. Jay Fallis made an impassioned plea to his council colleagues the night they endorsed the monument’s return. He tried unsuccessfully to garner support to not return the Indigenous figures to their original position at the feet of Champlain.

So, Parks Canada’s decision is music to his ears.

"I think this decision represents a strong move towards reconciliation and allows us to move forward as a community in a positive way,” said Fallis.

“I hope it will be seen as another small step along the path toward rectifying the past wrongs that Indigenous people have faced throughout Canada."