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Historian Charlotte Gray: I’d raise a glass to Champlain (ValbergImaging)

Historian Charlotte Gray: I’d raise a glass to Champlain


To celebrate the August holiday, historian Charlotte Gray would raise a glass to Champlain Add to ...

You may know it as Heritage Day, Natal Day, Simcoe Day, Civic Holiday or something else, depending where you live. This week, The Globe and Mail invites readers and writers to consider a truly national name for the August holiday Monday.

You can share your own ideas for X Day. On the long weekend, we’ll have a look at some of the ones you’ve chosen, plus an essay by Warren Clements on what’s in a holiday name – the people, the controversies and what really resonates.

Let’s be bold. Let’s ignore the fact that there is no master narrative in Canadian history, no accepted set of national symbols, no coast-to-coast surge of patriotism when O Canada is played. Let’s move beyond the few commonly agreed-upon Canadian icons (hockey sticks, Tim Hortons, inukshuks) and overcome our collective diffidence that verges on indifference. Let’s call our August holiday Champlain Day.

I can hear the objections already. Why should we celebrate Samuel de Champlain, the French navigator and explorer who, in 1605, founded the first permanent settlement in what would become Canada? (This was in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Royal; three years later, he founded Quebec City.)

I think Champlain would make an excellent choice as a national hero. He saw the possibilities of this vast and wonderful land, he established excellent relations with the Wyandot, Algonquin and Montagnais peoples he encountered and, unlike many subsequent explorers, he did not spend his time here whining about winter. He adopted three young Montagnais girls, whom he named Faith, Hope and Charity – c’mon now, you mentally “Aaahed” when you read that. Those three words do a better job of capturing our national aspirations than “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” summarizes the American self-image.

Although no definitive birth date is known, Champlain was almost certainly born in early August, which is a happy coincidence if we are going to give him a holiday. And he died in 1635, which is sufficiently long ago for most of his dirty little secrets to have been revealed by now.

Best of all, “Champlain Day” has a nice ring to it. For Canadians who know nothing about Canadian history (and there are many of them, I’m afraid), this is a great chance for them to up their Trivial Pursuit game. And if they think it is actually called “Champagne Day,” that’s fine too – a great excuse to celebrate.

But perhaps I’m being too optimistic. Critics, quick to fire off regional biases, may object that Champlain has nothing to do with them. And since Quebeckers don’t enjoy an August long weekend because they celebrate St. Jean Baptiste Day on June 24, they wouldn’t get the chance to drink to the busy sailor who is sometimes called the “Founder of New France.” Plus I might be accused of that all-time Canadian sin of elitism when I suggest that we might be drinking bubbly white wine instead of suds.

Champlain remains my first choice: I want to see a real name, with a real story, attached to the August holiday, rather than one of those bland but inoffensive words like “civic,” “family” or “heritage.” I want to acknowledge that Champlain’s gritty determination to found a settlement on the St. Lawrence River, and his travels in regions now known as Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario, give him a claim on the title “Founder of Modern Canada.”

However, maybe the idea of “Champlain Day” is just too bold for a vanilla nation. So perhaps we should resort to the self-deprecating irony that has carried so many Canadian actors to comedic success. Let’s just call it, “That holiday.”

Charlotte Gray is an award-winning writer and historian whose ninth book, The Massey Murder, will be published in September.

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