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  • Founding Fathers: The Celebration of Champlain and Laval in the Streets of Quebec, 1878-1908
  • A.I. Silver (bio)
Ronald Rudin . Founding Fathers: The Celebration of Champlain and Laval in the Streets of Quebec, 1878-1908University of Toronto Press 2003. xii, 290. $60.00, $27.95

Every year or so the media publish poll results showing that Canadians are ignorant of their country's history, and I always wonder why the pollsters consider that the name of the winning goal scorer in a Canada-ussr hockey tournament is essential historical knowledge. Ronald Rudin's latest book points towards an explanation. What's important for citizens to know about history is determined by prominent social, cultural, or political groups whose purposes are served by the celebration of particular elements from the past.

Rudin describes the planning and execution of public events honouring two historical figures: Samuel de Champlain, founder of Quebec and first governor of Canada; and François de Laval, the first Bishop of Quebec. Neither had attracted much public interest before the 1870s. But then, between 1878 and 1908, four great celebrations were organized in their honour: a lavish funeral for the bones of Laval, whose recently discovered coffin had been lost and forgotten since its 'temporary' burial in 1708; the dedication of monuments to both men; and the tercentenary of Quebec's founding.

Various groups struggled for control of those events: the form of celebration as well as the choice of historical figure to honour conveyed important messages to the citizens of Quebec as well as to tourists, invited dignitaries, and others who attended. Laval, a strictly Catholic hero, who had played a role in New France's civil as well as ecclesiastical government, could be used to remind French Canadians of the importance of religion in their national traditions and identity, and to bolster the claims of the ultramontane clergy to prominence in the social, cultural, and even political life of Quebec. The church that Laval had founded, proclaimed a prominent cleric at the Laval monument unveiling, 'ought to be involved today ... in public affairs.' [End Page 341]

Champlain was a more ambivalent figure. As first governor of New France, he could be seen either as the father of the French-Canadian nation or as the first in a line of governors of all Canada, whose successors were the governors-general of modern times. Decisions about the Champlain monument or the tercentennial festivities were thus disputed among French-Canadian nationalists, federal politicians, and imperial officials, as well as clerics wanting to associate Champlain with the founding of a Catholic enterprise, and local businessmen wanting simply to promote tourism.

In the end, it was the people who could raise the money who got to shape the commemorative projects. The Champlain celebrations couldn't be carried off without donations from English-Canadian, federal, and imperialist sources. The tercentennial in particular was influenced by people like Governor-General Lord Grey, who saw the commemoration of Quebec's founding as a way 'to honour the ground where the foundation of Greater Britain was laid' (though Henri Bourassa thought that it rubbed French Canadians' noses in the conquest and the grandeur of British imperialism).

No wonder Rudin finds that French Canadians showed little enthusiasm for the tercentennial. They turned out instead for that summer's three-day festivities associated with the Laval monument unveiling. That monument, funded largely by donations from Catholic institutions, could be given a form and meaning more congenial to ultramontane clerics and French Canadian nationalists.

Drawing on an abundant recent literature concerning parades, public celebrations, monuments, and historical pageants, Rudin attempts to understand the messages that organizers conveyed by the ordering and routes of processions, the designs and inscriptions of monuments, the decorations of parade floats, and so on. This is certainly an important and interesting part of his demonstration - though reading such visual elements is necessarily a speculative and risky enterprise, and Rudin hasn't always managed to avoid mistaken or doubtful interpretations.

This book is eminently readable and easily accessible to a broad readership as well as to specialists. It offers an often fascinating view of a form of historical and civic consciousness...


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pp. 341-342
Launched on MUSE
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