BASIC BLACK: The Canada that almost was

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Arthur Black

I don't know what they teach high school kids about Canadian history these days.  I can only hope it's better than what I learned.  Or rather – didn't learn.

My teachers glossed over the first few thousand years, for starters.  First Nations people had been here since the retreat of the glaciers but I was taught that history began with the arrival of the   Europeans.  'Indians' appeared in the pages of my history texts as faithful companions, handy guides and trading partner patsies, eager to exchange valuable furs for trinkets and baubles.

There were some gaps and omissions in the White Man side of the ledger too.  Cabot and Champlain got plenty of ink, as did Alexander Mackenzie and Simon Fraser.

But how did my teachers miss the story of La Galissoniere?  Roland-Michel Barrin de La Galissoniere, to give him his full and magnificent moniker.  A handle like that alone should get you a place in the history books, but I never heard of the man until last month.

Monsieur La G. and North America didn't intersect until 1747 when he was appointed governor of New France.  He was a Commander in the French navy at the time and can't have been delighted to be sent to the snow-swept shores of the St. Lawrence.

Or perhaps he was.  La Galissoniere appears to have been the kind of man who, if handed a lemon, made lemon daiquiris.   Despite limited resources (the French really didn't give much a damn about their 'few acres of snow' in the far-off colony); La Galissoniere dispatched teams to chart the coasts of Newfoundland, Acadia and Ile Royale.  He also sent officers into the interior with instructions to 'observe, collect, chart, record and otherwise thoroughly document' the natural history of the interior.  They were specifically enjoined to peacefully engage with the natives in order to woo them to the French side of the Anglo-Franco seesaw.

La Galissoniere was, of all governmental rarities, a bureaucrat with an insatiable scientific curiosity.  He sought to learn and document everything he could about this new, largely unknown land.

So naturally, his superiors fired him.

'Recalled' him, actually.  La Galissoniere spent only two short years – 1747 to 1749 – in New France.  He would go on to other postings where he would exercise his itch for knowledge – he appointed missions to chart the coasts of Spain, Portugal and Madeira, even to catalogue the stars in the southern hemisphere – but the fledgling colony that would eventually become the nucleus of Canada was returned to the care of number-crunchers and political time-servers more interested in furthering their careers than nurturing a nation.

Two and a half centuries later we live with a 'governor' Harper, who purges scientific libraries and gags government scientists, preventing them from speaking publicly about what our taxes pay for them to do.

I don't know how the history books will portray our times, but I'm reasonably certain that Roland-Michel Barrin de La Galissoniere is spinning in his grave.

Organizations: First Nations

Geographic location: New France, North America, Newfoundland Acadia Spain Portugal Madeira Canada

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