This story is part of The Globe’s coverage of Canada’s sesquicentennial
A country is not just its people and places, but its stories. On the occasion of Canada’s sesquicentennial, The Globe and Mail has invited a group of writers – from home and abroad – to celebrate the country’s history in fiction. The results will be published throughout the course of 2017. In this introduction, Rivka Galchen travels back to the early 16th century.
Travelling to a new land and meeting new people can be unsettling! What kind of gifts should you bring? What kind of hospitality can you expect? How do you explain that being fully armed is the custom of your country? My captain used to say: Experience is the master of all things. In that spirit, I offer this worksheet, drawn from our own experiences, in the hope that it may prove of some use to future travellers.
1) It is a fine day in May, 1535, when, after twenty days at sea, you arrive at an island where marvelously fat birds are as thick on the ground as blades of grass; where beneath the wings of these birds you find smaller birds. This being your first encounter with the New Land, you:
a) gather more than a thousand birds within a half hour
b) catch a bear the next day
c) treat this generosity of the landscape as a ruse
Answer: A and B, because God is on your side.
2) In search of a harbour along a dangerous shoal, you catch sight of a Canadian man making signs that your boats should turn; you approach the man; the man flees. You:
a) leave as gifts for him a knife and a woolen girdle
b) fire rifles to impress him
Answer: God is on your side, so A suffices.
3) A few days later, you catch sight of forty or fifty canoes filled with Canadians. These Canadians row to shore. Wow, there are so many of them, way more than of you; they dance; they display what appear to be expressions of joy; they shout, Napou Tou Daman Asurtat!, which you don’t understand, but which sounds friendly enough. In response, you set off two small cannons. Then, you shoot off fire-lances. They disperse!
Discussion: What would Jesus have done?
4) You get to really know some Canadians. You know what they eat and how they dress and the name of their god. After a time, in their presence, you set up a large wooden cross. You kneel down before it, indicating that your god is here and in heaven; you seem to get a good response (though, of course, language barrier!). But then the local leader arrives, wearing a bear’s skin and looking angry. Pointing at the cross, he goes on and on and on; your captain holds up an axe to him, pretending to make an offer of it as a gift (the “trinket solution”). When the leader in the bear’s skin – Donnaconna is his name – approaches the axe, you have several men from your group seize both him and his two sons.
Result: You have introduced your religion!
Discussion: Now that you are the host, how can you make your new guests feel at ease?
5) After you dress up Donnaconna’s two sons – they are named Dom Agaya and Taignoagny – in shirts and ribbons and red caps and brass necklaces, you release Donnaconna. After Mass, you set sail back toward Brittany, with your guests/captives/future-translators and you encounter a heavy storm for three days. Is this because:
a) God is expressing his wrath toward you with the storm
b) God is expressing his wrath toward the Canadians with the storm
c) God is expressing his grace by bringing you safely through the storm
d) Faith and meteorology are not as intertwined as you think?
Answer: God knows.
6) On your second voyage to the Country of Canadas, the day you arrive, you see more whales than you have seen in all your life. Another day, you see a tree, tall enough for the mast of a great ship, that is miraculously growing out of rock with no earth visible. In a river, you discover small white whales. And the hazelnuts here are so, so delicious.
Moral: Sometimes you should have no questions. Only a sense of gratitude and wonder, for the world that is your host.
7) You reunite Taignoagny and Dom Agaya with their fellow Canadians. Everyone is so happy! And friendly! This must be because you treated them so well while they were in France with you and now they are explaining to their fellows how good it all was. And yet, a few days later, when you expect Taignoagny to join you again as a navigator in your journey to Hochelaga, he mysteriously refuses to come on board your boat. You promise him lots of presents and a quick return from Hochelaga. Still no dice.
Discussion: Have you been too nice of a host? Canadians may take advantage of this.
8) Donnaconna brings you lots and lots of fish. Also a girl who looks to be ten or maybe twelve years old. (You don’t have any children, or women, to reciprocate with.) Donnaconna brings you two young boys as well. Very generous gifts, you think at first. But then you realize that these gifts are really demands: gifts demanding that you not go to Hochelaga.
Discussion: How do you explain to your hosts that they are stepping over the line?
9) When Donnaconna basically begs you to shoot off artillery, of which he says he has heard so much, you finally oblige. And then his people run around and shriek as if hell itself had emptied there.
Discussion: What are Donnaconna’s motives? Are you being used? If so, to what end? What is happening here?
Moral: Being obscurely toyed with feels so bad.
10) A fraction of your group, with no help from the locals, heads toward Hochelaga. There you meet another Canadian people who bring their babies to be touched by you, who burn fires all night while you are there. Later, they show you the stretched scalps of people you are given to understand are their enemies. They also show you how to smoke (it feels peppery.)
Discussion: Hostility or hospitality?
11) Travelling with just your smallest ship, you head along the river toward what you are sure will be China. You are nearly there, really, but then you are stalled by a series of unnavigable rapids. Returning to your original Canadian friends, you discover a chill has settled on relations. And that girl they gave you as a present has run away. Donnaconna and Dom Agaya, instead of coming directly to speak to you, shout out to you from the distant riverbank. They want to know if you are angry with them. You shout back, “Jesus is angry with you for betraying us!”
Moral: Never forget that you are dealing with godless scoundrels.
12) Donnaconna and Dom Agaya explain that Taignoagny is absent, because he is ill, not because he is plotting against you. You answer, he is ill because Jesus is angry with him for betraying us!
Moral: You are still dealing with godless scoundrels.
13) After a few days, Dom Agaya and Donnaconna return with – and return – the girl who ran away. She claims she only ran away because she was beaten by the cabin boys.
Discussion: Do Dom Agaya and Donnaconna love the girl? Do we?
14) Soon near to 100 of the 110 members of your group become so sick that they can barely walk. You make a great show to the Canadians of pretending this is not the case, banging bars and making sounds as if working and working. Eight of you die. Fifty more appear hopeless. The Captain orders all to pray and make orisons and he also orders an image and figure of the Virgin Mary to be carried across the ice and snow and placed against a tree, a bow’s shot from the fort. And issues a further order that the following Sunday, Mass should be said at that spot and that all who can walk, whether sick or well, should make their way in a procession singing the seven Psalms of David, and praying to the Virgin Mary to be good enough to ask her dear Son to have pity upon us. Soon after, you see Dom Agaya, who you had seen ill before and who now appears well. He shows you a magnificent tree, named Anedda, saying its bark will cure the sickness. In less than eight days, a tree as large and as tall as any you have ever seen is all used up by your men, who are cured more miraculously than you could ever have imagined and indeed are healthier than if they had been attended to by all the doctors of Louvain and Montpellier and had consumed all the drugs of Alexandria.To whom are due your thanks?
Answer: To God and only to God.
15) Donnaconna tells you he is going away for two weeks to hunt deer; he’s gone nearly two months. When you ask Dom Agaya (by shouting across a river), Where is Donnaconna?, he tells you that Donnaconna is too ill to visit. You’ve had enough of the not-feeling-well excuse. On another day, Taignoagny states that he would be forever in your debt if you would be willing to bring over to France the leader of another group they consider their enemies. You answer: No, no, you don’t do that sort of thing.
Discussion: Is this a mistake?
16) You build another cross, writing on it: LONG LIVE FRANCIS I, BY GOD’S GRACE KING OF FRANCE. You invite Donnaconna, Dom Agaya, and Taignoagny for wine and food. It’s not easy to entice them over, but you manage. When they do come, you seize them and seven others. You do this politely. You need them to explain to your King that it’s worth financing a third voyage to Canada, because there’s an as yet unreached Kingdom of Saugenay full of gems and gold. Afterward, Canadians you have not seized approach your ship and howl and cry all night like wolves. The next morning they offer you many gifts.
Essay: What is the meaning of a gift?
17) You promise to bring Donnaconna et al back to Canada within twelve months, but there is a war with Spain, etc., and so it is with some sense of awkwardness that you return to the shores of Canada five years later, with nine out the ten Canadians you had brought to France now dead. (One nine-year-old girl survived but remained in France.) Upon arrival, you are given some bracelets by the interim leader. When part of your group sets off in longboats in search of Saugenay, you finally discover stones like diamonds, with sparkles of fire. You also discover stone with gold streaks as thick as a man’s nail. Are you near the Saguenay of which you have heard so much?
Answer: Frozen rapids prevent you from investigating further. When you return to your base camp, you hear the Canadians are no longer coming to trade. They are no longer bringing gifts of fish. Still, it is somewhat surprising to learn that in a subsequent absence they slaughter 35 of your number in the fort. You load up several barrels with Canadian diamonds and gold and you set off back to France earlier than planned.
18) When you come across another French ship mid-return, and that superior ship orders you return to Canada, you sneak away under cover of night and continue on back to France. The stones you took from Canada turn out not to be diamonds, not to be gold. You come to call them, perhaps impolitely, Canadian diamonds, Canadian gold. Canada, you find out, just means, basically, village. Back in France now, you recall something that the Canadians had told you: That the people of Saguenay, the land of riches that you never reached, looked and dressed like you.
Discussion: What did they mean?
Rivka Galchen is the author of the novel Atmospheric Disturbances, which was a finalist for the Governor-General’s Literary Award and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, as well as the short-story collection American Innovations. In 2010, she was selected as one of the best 20 writers under 40 by The New Yorker, where she contributes regularly. Her essay collection Little Labors was published in 2016.
Author’s Note: I was reading the (probably authentic, probably by him) accounts of Jacques Cartier’s voyages, and I decided to cross the maddening and wondrous tone of those accounts with something like the voice of a contemporary “cottage etiquette” guide. I was just curious to see what would come of that, to think in a playful but also earnest way about that strange hybrid of courage and paranoia that results from being far from home.