Say what you will about the Champlain monument that once stood at Couchiching Beach Park in Orillia. To me, it’s just another ghost from the past that I, and many other First Nations people don’t want to have to look at. It is a Jiiby (Jee-bye), a ghost. A scary ghost.
The monument was to honour a man — an early visitor to this territory. But the short visit of this man is etched into the psyche of a people. His excursion into the lives of our ancestors eventually led to an erasure of the first peoples on this land
The story of my First Nations ancestors who had been on this land for thousands of years before his arrival became secondary as a new narrative was inserted into the historical record of the land that made them who they were and still are today.
This story is deeper than the dark waters of Lake Couchiching; who, if you care to listen, still cries out the Anishinaabe place names that dot her shoreline. They are almost forgotten, but through time, the lake itself begs us to hear and speak those names once more.
The story of Champlain, although important, is not the only story. But it is the one we are forced to hear. To me, it is a reminder of those Jiiby that were purposefully manifested to haunt us for generations.
These ghosts were conjured into manifesting real-time trauma such as the inter-generational effects of residential schools. The psychological hurt upon my people is still felt today and can be tied directly to the conversion of First Nations peoples by Champlain and the Jesuits. It is tortuous and hurtful to have a constant reminder of these dark places in the history of our people. Most especially during a week in which we heard news of a child’s jawbone and other anomalies found on the grounds of a former residential school in Canada.
The reality of that coupled with our having to read that someone decided to rehash the monument debate. We ask, “Why??”
It is mystifying, and as great an imbalance as Champlain’s legacy. Samuel de Champlain by all accounts, tried to be a man of peace, and the Anishnaabeg traded with him. Through his Wendaat interpreters he learned of our protocols. He acknowledged our land and asked for permission to pass through it.
That agreement would have been recorded in a wampum, as all agreements were. He was granted that special permission at that time, and he was willing to treat us as equals. He was willing to respect our territory.
Somehow that interpretation was lost when many years later, a monument was created for his memory. But the monument depicted First Nations people in a subservient role to the glory of the supremacist explorer. It was wrong. Even Champlain would disagree with that depiction!
The lasting effects of that Jiiby are that generations of people grew up with this narrative ingrained into their psyche. They began to live it. They disrespected the people who once befriended the statue's namesake. Soon, they were erased from the modern record, except for that depiction.
As a result, First Nations people have had to face new Jiiby, such as the issues of ongoing encroachment regarding the Bradford Bypass, the Greenbelt, and locally, as the Ramara MZO. These are all historical manifestations of that perceived relationship.
They are made more hurtful to us as again and again, the larger society disregards their own written agreements to mirror the supremacist scene that was once
given a lofty, prominent place in Simcoe County.
All these issues are connected to the story of Champlain and subsequently the monument as revisional history. If you cared to find out the full story, you could help to remove some of those ghosts and keep them at bay. The Jiiby were gone when the monument was removed. A First Nations person could walk through Couchiching Beach Park without feeling disparaged and traumatized.
In an era where everyone reaches for the reconciliation button to try to save themselves from costly missteps, it would be better to return to the original place of our ancestors. Back to a time when they agreed to accommodate one another and share the territory in friendship. You don’t even need a monument to help you remember that kind of friendship. That kind of alliance.
The real stories of the land and Gojijing (Goh-jih-jing), Couchiching are waiting to be told.
Jeff Monague is a former Chief of the Beausoleil First Nation on Christian Island, former Treaty Research Director with the Anishnabek (Union of Ontario Indians), and veteran of the Canadian Forces. Monague, who taught the Ojibwe language with the Simcoe County District School Board and Georgian College, is currently the manager of Springwater Provincial Park. His column appears every other Monday.