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Contesting Champlain

Written by Zoë Maggio (B.A., Carleton University).
Nominated by Professor M. Hogue.

This year, the Ottawa-Gatineau region is at the center of “Champlain 1613-2013,” a series of commemorative events that seek to mark 400 years since Samuel de Champlain’s voyage through the Ottawa Valley, traveling along the Kiji Sibi, as it is known in Anishnaabemowin, or the Ottawa River. The commemoration will feature various exhibitions, conferences, reenactments and other activities that will unfold over the course of the year. These events are sponsored by the municipalities of Gatineau and Ottawa, the National Capital Commission, the French Embassy, the Algonquin First Nations of Kitigàn-zìbì and Pikwàkagàn, along with many other artistic, cultural and heritage organizations. Carleton’s History Department, in collaboration with the French Embassy, will host a colloquium in September as part of “Champlain 1613-2013.”

How will these varied commemorative events address the contested memory of Champlain’s voyage and the difficult relationship between settlers and indigenous peoples in the centuries thereafter? While such commemoration may incorporate space for indigenous peoples’ roles and perspectives, it risks reproducing colonial power dynamics, and ultimately serving as a nation-building project, as Darryl Leroux’s incisive analysis of “Quebec 400” (the 2008 commemoration of the founding of Quebec City) and its interpretation of Champlain’s memory, has shown. Leroux suggests that, in the events at Quebec City, participants deployed notions of cultural pluralism—and a particular construction of Quebec nationalism—through narratives of ‘encounter’ and ‘cultural exchange’ that did not acknowledge colonial violence and power relations, or indigenous peoples’ agency and resistance at contact, or the legacies of those colonial encounters. Such is the risk. By prioritizing Euro-settler narratives and perspectives in relation to those of the Algonquin peoples of the Ottawa Valley, with Champlain positioned squarely as the central figure of importance in the story, this year’s events risk replicating the situation at Quebec—in this case tied to a Canadian nationalist agenda. Furthermore, so long as the articulation of an Algonquin perspective on Champlain’s voyage is situated within this larger narrative, it will not fundamentally disrupt colonial power dynamics. Only by engaging in a critical understanding of ongoing colonial oppression, and centering Algonquin stories and lived realities in all of their diversity and complexity, can the commemoration offer something other than another exercise in nation-building.

Then again, is it possible for official commemorative events, including Carleton’s colloquium, to meaningfully engage in critical enquiry? How are universities implicated in producing official collective memory? Academic institutions have a long history of being directly implicated in colonial projects and in producing colonial forms of knowledge. Carleton University itself is built on unceded Algonquin territory, a place where campus buildings still honour figures such as former Carleton Chancellor Gordon Robertson (Robertson Hall), who, during his time as Commissioner of the North West Territories in the 1950’s, was involved in the forced relocation of Inuit families from Inukjuak in Northern Quebec to the High Arctic. Universities, like memory, are also sites of contestation and resistance. In this sense, “Champlain 1613-2013” should prompt students and faculty at Carleton University to consider their place in the histories of ‘encounter,’ ‘exchange,’ and colonization.


Lawrence, Bonita. (2012) Fractured Homeland: Federal Recognition and Algonquin Identity in Ontario. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Leroux, Darryl. (2010) “The Spectacle of Champlain: Commemorating Québec.” Borderlands, 9, no. 1.

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