Until Samuel de Champlain over 400 years ago, explorers like Jacques Cartier all had failed to leave any permanent mark. Champlain & Sieur de Monts were persevering people of vision and faith who made enormous sacrifices to pioneer this great land of Canada. God, through the La Danse tour of reconciliation, has given me a deep love for the francophone people who pioneered our nation for 150 years before we Anglais turned up.
Samuel de Champlain & Sieur de Monts gave to all of us the wonderful gift of French language and culture in Canada. In very real terms, Champlain especially helped define who we are as Canadians. How much poorer we would be in Canada without our francophone brothers and sisters, without their joie de vivre, their music, their dance, and their artistic flair. As an American poet once put it, Canada is a country almost invented out of Champlain’s single brain. A while back, there was a Federal Private Member’s Bill C-428 which unsuccessfully attempted to name June 26th ‘Samuel de Champlain Day’. The sponsoring New Brunswick MP Greg Thompson put it this way: “Most of us know who Davy Crockett was but a lot of us never paid attention to Champlain.”
While many Canadians vaguely remember Champlain, few today have any awareness of the man behind Champlain, Sieur de Monts. Born in Saintonge, France in 1558, Sieur de Monts was a French Huguenot businessman who was given an exclusive charter by King Henry IV for fur trading in the New World. King Henry IV directed Sieur de Monts “to establish the name, power, and authority of the King of France; to summon the natives to a knowledge of the Christian religion; to people, cultivate, and settle the said lands; to make explorations and especially to seek out mines of precious metals.” The 1603 charter made Sieur de Monts the Lieutenant Governor of New France, giving him authority over all of North America between the 40th and 46th parallels (from Montreal to present day Philadelphia).
One of the conditions of the charter required the settlement of sixty new colonists each year. In 1604, Champlain and de Monts, as Fathers of Canada, established their first settlement at St. Croix Island, on the border between New Brunswick and Maine, USA. Predating both Jamestown, Virginia (1607) and Plymouth, Massachusetts (1620), St. Croix was the first European settlement on the north Atlantic coast. Both Huguenot (French Protestant) and Roman Catholics were included among the original 79 settlers, along with a Huguenot pastor and a Roman Catholic priest. Thanks to the Edict of Nantes, the Huguenot were granted free exercise of their faith, a freedom that lasted until 1625.
As my wife and children have Huguenot roots, I have been fascinated to learn that the persecuted Huguenot were at the forefront of the emerging French middle class.
It is believed that Champlain chose St. Croix because it shared the same latitude as temperate France, assuming that the climate would be similar. Instead the churning ice floes separated the colonists from the fresh food and water of the mainland. That first & only winter on St. Croix was brutally cold, resulting in 35 scurvy-related deaths. Ironically the bones of the original French settlers have recently been reinterred at St. Croix, after spending half a century in Philadelphia’s Temple University.
The Huguenot/Acadian colony was moved in 1605 to Port-Royal (the modern Annapolis Royal in Nova Scotia). While at Port-Royal, Champlain founded North America’s first social club the ‘Ordre de Bon temps/The Order of the Good Time’ in an effort to break the monotony of the long North American winters. Each gentleman in turn prepared dinner and attempted to outdo the others in the meat, wine and song offered. For their entertainment, Marc Lescarbot, a young Parisian lawyer, wrote and produced the first drama in North America, “The Theatre of Neptune”.
Sieur de Monts suffered many setbacks including the revoking of his fur trade monopoly in 1608 and the assassination of his close friend King Henry IV in 1610. In 1608, Sieur de Monts sent Champlain to Quebec, thus founding at Quebec City the first permanent colony in Canada. “I arrived there on the 3rd of July,” wrote Samuel de Champlain in 1608, “when I searched for a place suitable for our settlement, but I could find none more convenient or better situated than the point of Quebec.” Champlain stepped ashore and unfurled the fleur-de-lys, marking the beginning of that city and indeed of Canada.
My prayer is that those reading this article may show that same pioneering spirit expressed by Champlain & Sieur de Monts.
The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, Rector, BSW, MDiv, DMin
-previously published in the North Shore News
-award-winning author of the book Battle for the Soul of Canada
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