It wasn’t quite unanimous, but city council voted overwhelmingly in favour Monday night of returning the controversial Champlain Monument, in its original form, to Couchiching Beach Park.
In addition, they threw their support behind allowing elected officials to work with First Nations groups to “create an accompanying narrative that would more accurately reflect the complete history and context of the Champlain Monument.”
Those same players were also given permission to “explore additional strategies that would assist the community in helping move the national issue of reconciliation forward in a meaningful way.”
The decision came after an emotional 45-minute debate that resulted from a report from Mayor Steve Clarke and Coun. Tim Lauer, who made the recommendations following several months of work as part of the Samuel de Champlain Working Group. That group was tasked to find “an appropriate path forward” for the monument.
Only Coun. Jay Fallis voted against the plan.
In an impassioned plea to his council colleagues, the self-proclaimed “lover of history” said through research, he has felt “the hurt” experienced by First Nations people. It’s why he finds this proposal “tough to accept.”
He pointed to a similar occurrence in Ottawa where an Anishnabe scout, at the base of a Champlain statue at Nepean Point, was moved from below the explorer to an adjacent area.
He said he was in favour of something similar for Orillia’s monument, in which the placement of the natives appears to make them subservient to Champlain.
“I believe that creating an accompanying narrative that would more accurately reflect the complete history and context of the Champlain monument is a wonderful idea and an essential idea,” said Fallis.
“I even believe that reestablishing the monument with some changes could bring about an image worth projecting - an image that many more in our town could be proud of,” Fallis noted.
But returning the monument as is “unnecessarily puts pressure on Parks Canada to conform with our ask.”
He said “the unfortunate reality is … this monument’s imagery hurts and causes pain for many indigenous Canadians.”
While conceding it’s a part of the city’s history and is an “incredible piece of art,” he stressed he is “painfully aware of the other side of the story - one that tells of a population that’s been mistreated and ignored, a population that our society brutally tried to forget about it.”
He said he understands that many want to “hold on to something so dear to them.”
However, he is disappointed that “we had a chance to make a prominent Orillia landmark much more fitting of our Sunshine quality rather than an image that some perceive to be hateful, derogatory and disrespectful.”
After being appointed to join Lauer and Clarke to work with Indigenous groups on the alternate installation and education component, Fallis said he would advocate for doing something similar to what was done in Ottawa.
“I think if we do this a little differently, we will have a chance to make an inclusive history for ourselves,” said Fallis.
Coun. Ted Emond likened that idea to desecrating art.
“My view, very simply, is this is a piece of artwork that was the result of a global contest to create a piece of art,” said Emond. “If the art today is offensive, let’s remove the art. Let’s not desecrate something that is of that great renown - let’s take it away.”
He said those railing against statues of John A. Macdonald have not resorted to “cutting the heads off” the monuments.
Emond also suggested maybe this controversy should serve as an impetus for another global contest.
Coun. Mason Ainsworth said council’s decision reflects the majority opinion of the community.
“I do have personal views … but I think those are irrelevant when it comes to this table,” said Ainsworth. “It’s about what the constituents want.”
He said he has heard “very loud and clear” that people want the monument back in the park.
That sentiment was echoed by Coun. Pat Hehn. She said she consulted with two elders in Rama whose opinion she valued; both, she said, were in favour of this approach.
Coun. Tim Lauer called the whole process a “great learning experience.”
“I want to make it absolutely clear, Mayor Clarke and I are not bringing forward the consensus opinion of the committee,” stressed Lauer.
“We are bringing forward our interpretation of the consultation period and this motion is meant to represent what we believe is the majority sentiment in the community and how they would like to see this proceed.”
Clarke said there is much work to be done through the “accompanying narrative” and education process also enshrined in council’s decision.
“I do agree the monument is a misrepresentation of that period in history,” said the mayor, noting the statue was erected as a “conciliatory effort between the French and English after the conscription issue of World War 1.”
He said while the Indigenous people portrayed are “rugged and beautiful”, due to their placement at the bottom of the monument, they appear to be “a distant third consideration.”
That “inequity of power” is counter to the “mutual respect” Champlain shared with the Huron Wendat, said Clarke.
“I do believe there needs to be a better interpretation of our Indigenous past that goes back some 5,000 years,” he noted.
“I do believe the whole history needs to be told,” Clarke said, referencing residential schools, the 60s Scoop and other dark moments in history.
“I do believe that education can take place with very meaningful, thoughtful, significant additional interpretive piece or pieces adjacent to the monument” or on a trail to The Narrows.
While city council has endorsed this approach, the final decision is not theirs to make.
Parks Canada owns the monument and the tract of land on which it resides. It was Parks Canada that removed the statue in 2017 to be refurbished.
It was Parks Canada that halted its return due to controversy that erupted over its future.
However, Parks Canada has been a key player in the working group and has been involved in the process and resulting consultation from Day 1.
Once the working group wraps up its work, it will make a recommendation to Parks Canada who will then make a final determination about the statue’s future.
The collection of input
The working group used various methods to garner input.
An online questionnaire elicited 1,080 unique responses, 685 of which were from Orillia and bordering townships.
The workshop series in Orillia involved 100 citizens whose thoughts and ideas were captured using a variety of tools including post-it notes and flipchart paper.
Similarly, members captured the thoughts and feelings of the 85 people who participated in the meetings held in Rama.
A petition, dated November 28, 2018, was signed by 59 residents in support of returning the monument as is.
Unsolicited correspondence was received via the website, workshops, the Mayor’s office and office of the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, and Parks Canada Agency.
In total, 70 per cent of the respondents were in favour of returning the monument to the park as is, but with an expanded interpretation.
Of respondents, 11 per cent supported bringing the monument back but in a different configuration, while 7 per cent supported not reinstalling the monument in Orillia. In addition, 6 per cent supported some combination of the above.