CHAMPLAIN SERIES: Charlie Hill
A monument to Samuel de Champlain crowns the cliff overlooking the Kitchi-sippi or Ottawa River and Chaudière Falls. Facing west he holds aloft, though upside down, a replica of an astrolabe originally thought to have belonged to Champlain. Erected to celebrate the tercentenary of Champlain’s first voyage up the river, a bronze pine bough and a fleur de lis carved in stone frame the inscription Champlain 1613 1913. Below this inscription is an empty platform stained by corroded bronze.
Napoleon Belcourt, spokesperson for francophone rights in Ontario, had initiated the campaign for this monument in 1902. By1910 a committee headed by the historian Benjamin Sulte and the engineer Sir Sandford Fleming had commissioned a design from the anglophile, Ottawa sculptor Hamilton Plantagenet MacCarthy, author of the Champlain monument unveiled in Saint John, New Brunswick that same year. The bronze figure, modeled after the likeness of Sulte, was modified from that in Saint John and was to stand on a pedestal composed of a plinth with a canoe and branches of laurel all carved in stone. The monument to the French explorer was only unveiled five years later in a ceremony twinned with the unveiling of a plaque in Major’s Hill Park to the English Colonel By, chief engineer for the construction of the Rideau Canal. The stone canoe had been replaced by a bronze figure of an Aboriginal guide that was only cast and unveiled after the First World War.
Champlain was celebrated in 1915 as “a truly noble and great son of France, who first dared to open up and discover this, and other western parts of Canada,” the bearer of “the torch of civilization and the flambeau of Christianity,” the founder of Ottawa and ancestor of the capital’s francophone population. The symbolism survived and the monument was vandalized in 1963 in reprisal for the bombing of the Wolfe monument in Quebec City. Ironically the more accessible lower Aboriginal figure was the victim of the attack and four years later the same figure was stolen and quickly returned when the monument was resituated to accommodate the newly constructed amphitheatre. In 1996 protests initiated by Ovide Mercredi, grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations over the subordinate position of the Aboriginal resulted in its removal to Major’s Hill Park overlooking the river.
Curator of Canadian Art
National Gallery of Canada