Opinion Editorial

Cooler heads prevail in monument discussion

The Packet & Times

There is a massive breach in the landscape of Couchiching Beach Park these days -- a strange, empty spot of disturbed earth where the prodigious monument honouring Samuel de Champlain had stood since it was unveiled to the delight of thousands of rapt citizens in 1925.

It was somewhat disquieting to see the massive bronze figures become untethered from their long-time cement home in recent weeks as they were transported away for restoration, and even more unnerving last week when the huge foundation was destroyed and the rubble was carted away as part of a $1.14-million Parks Canada project.

The Champlain Monument has become a touchstone of controversy in recent years, just as Confederate statues became a flashpoint of race wars south of the border. In the United States, the boiling point was reached a few months ago in Charlottesville, Va., where white nationalists marched to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. A "counter-protester" was killed amid violent clashes.

In Orillia, thankfully, the debate has been just that -- a lively but respectful discussion of the pros and cons of a statue that fetes Champlain as "the intrepid French explorer" who is credited with heralding "the advent into Ontario of the white race." He is, in the interpretation by Vernon March, who created the sculpture, larger than life high above the subservient Natives below.

Many would be happy if the monument never returned; they might argue it is a misrepresentation of history that is skewed and not representative of today's thinking. But many would argue you can't whitewash history or change the narrative; it may be uncomfortable today, but it happened.

It's important to understand local Indigenous communities have never requested the monument be removed, and it will return in the spring. A new foundation will be carefully constructed and Champlain will be back, ruling over the park just as he has since 1925. That's good news.

The better news is local politicians and community groups are working together to create an alternative installation near the monument -- something that balances a painful chapter of our history with an interpretation that better reflects contemporary sensitivities to the relationship between European settlers and the Indigenous population and their collective descendants. "That monument was erected at a time when there was an effort to solidify English and French relations," said Mayor Steve Clarke. "The Indigenous consideration was a distant third."

The important restoration of what can only be described as an epic work of art is the perfect opportunity to return the statue to its original glory and to also balance the scales a bit. People of all creeds and colours should be thankful that rather than trying to erase the past, efforts are being made to ensure we learn valuable lessons from our history that will, hopefully, help ensure a better future.

-- The Packet & Times

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