Friday, July 23, 2010

Champlain: one of "us," or maybe "them"

Now this is weird. Andrew Coyne has a piece in Maclean's explaining how the governor general to be, David Johnston, spoke of Samuel de Champlain as Canada's first governor, the start of an unbroken line from Champlain to well, him. Coyne sees this imagery as part of a clever plot by Stephen Harper to subvert or to appropriate Quebec nationalist imagery by cleverly treating Canada as a French country as well as an British one and generally by emphasizing the continuities rather than the ruptures (particularly that bloody one on the Plains of Abraham).

Coyne's idea of some cunning political calculation underlying this meme of Champlain as first of the governors general struck me as silly. The concept of an unbroken line of governors general from Champlain to the present is a familiar enough standard of Canadian historiography, or at least of a federalist/monarchist/francophile strand of it. I'm sure I imbibed the notion in Marcel Trudel's graduate seminar. I have not located words of le maitre to that effect, but looking in my own contribution to The Illustrated History of Canada, I find myself noting the title of Governor General "borne by all his [Champlain's] successors down to the present," and I did not think I was claiming anything controversial. Johnston, it seemed to me, had merely soaked up some Canadian history in Quebec.

But then Paul Wells notes that whereas ten days ago the Department of Canadian Heritage page on the governor general said,
The office of the Governor General dates back nearly 400 years to 1608, when Samuel de Champlain acted as the Governor of New France.
it now says:
The office of the Governor General dates back to 1867.
This second statement would surely surprise all the British-appointed Governors General from 1763 to 1867, let alone the French ones back to Champlain, but Wells's puzzlement concerns why the change was made. He writes,
I know of no other explanation for this change than that somebody, somewhere in the department at Heritage, or at the minister’s office, or at Langevin, did not like the attention Johnston kicked up with his remarks.
Maybe they really do care about controlling history down to this level.

In which case they are seriously batshit crazy. But maybe you had vorked that out for yourselves.

Update, April 11: Teacher and artist John Grubber notes:
Sam in fact never was awarded any honours or title, from what I've read. That's the slap in the face that he got from the powers that be repeatedly.
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