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Jeffrey Simpson

Champlain's dream lives on in North America Add to ...

A week from Monday, at McGill University in Montreal, the winner of the recently created, well-endowed ($75,000 U.S. to the winner) and exciting Cundill International Prize in History will be announced.

If this were Britain, bookies would have already laid down odds on the three short-listed candidates, culled from a long list of 10. As this is Canada, and as the prize is only in its second year, no odds are on offer, but here's a guess from a source that has been often wrong in such matters: Put a nickel on U.S. historian David Hackett Fischer's Champlain's Dream .

Champlain's Dream is history in the grand style, a blend of the old-style narrative about great men and amazing deeds, and the newer contextual narratives of race, social currents, and localities - or what Prof. Fischer in conversation in Ottawa yesterday called the "third way" in history.

The book blew away reviewers when published in 2008 - the French version will be published by Boréal of Montreal next year - and it's on the short list of this new prize created by investment manager (and McGill graduate) Peter Cundill. The prize, according to the terms of reference, must go to a work "with a profound literary, social and academic impact on the subject."

Prof. Fischer's book certainly meets those tests, and who, among the early shapers of Canada, was more influential, even determinant, than Samuel de Champlain? True, the Frenchman explored the coasts of New England and fought down the valley named for him (Lake Champlain), but it was in New France, along the St. Lawrence and in Acadia, that he most left his legacy.

It seemed slightly ironic that Prof. Fischer (author of many superb books about U.S. history, including the Pulitzer-Prize winning, Washington's Crossing ) should have been in Ottawa, lecturing at the invitation of the French embassy as part of a wonderful speakers series, because Champlain has often been neglected in France, witness to which perhaps is the fact that this acclaimed biography was written by an American.

French historians, Prof. Fischer explained, had lost interest for the most part in Champlain and, by extension, New France - just as France lost interest for centuries in its former colony after the British Conquest. For a long time, French historians were under the influence of the "Annales" historiographical school, in which the structure of society and the details of daily and communal life, rather than major events, were the important subjects for students of history.

The 400th anniversary of Champlain's first explorations along what are now Canada's Maritime provinces and Maine sparked an explosion of interest in the man and his extraordinary life. The 400th anniversary, in 2008, of his arrival in Quebec heightened further the interest in Champlain's accomplishments and legacy.

For Prof. Fischer, Champlain was, above all, a "humanist" - not a view shared by some previous historians who had viewed him as just another mercenary looking for furs and willing to exploit Indians.

On the contrary, Champlain's Dream convincingly portrays him as a man accepting of diversity, anxious to accommodate the French with the Indians. Indeed, for most of the next century and a half in North America, relations between the French and the Indians were considerably better than those between the British (and British Americans) and the Indians.

Prof. Fischer, who knows Canada extremely well, believes that the "humanist" values of Champlain, and the respect for the values and traditions of the "other" has marked Canada. "Something right has happened here," he says of Canada.

Every attempt to colonize New France had failed before Champlain succeeded. Success, however, was a near thing, since it took about 30 years after settlement for the population to begin to grow. And France never accorded the importance to New France that the British Crown did to its American colonies. The French people were far less eager to leave their mother country than the British (often religious dissenters) were to depart theirs.

Champlain crossed the Atlantic 27 times in the early 17th century, and lost only one crew member, an astonishing record. His survey work and mapping were extraordinarily precise; his willingness to work with Indians not just a matter of practicality, and even survival, but of genuine curiosity and respect.

Those virtues came, Prof. Fischer believes, from having been raised in the port city of Brouage where people of different nationalities mingled, and from working for King Henry IV, who succeeded in extinguishing the civil wars, essentially over religion, that had devastated France. Accommodation rather than absolutism was the byword of these "humanists."

No area of Canada can be proud of its treatment of and relations with Indians, but it could be argued that Quebec has managed these relations better than elsewhere. A legacy of Champlain's dream, perhaps?

Champlain, more than anyone else, started three French communities in North America: Quebec, Acadia and Métis. They are all extant today, four centuries later.

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