As a town of many statues and monuments, Penetanguishene, should take a bow! The world could learn from us. We got it right.
Watching the debate raging in the US about the dismantling of old confederate statues and monuments, and even in nearby Orillia, debate over the century-old Champlain monument, I'm left awestruck at just how 'right' we got the recent planning and construction of various statues here in Penetanguishene and in our waterfront park. While it didn't turn out perfect, I'm proud to have been part of getting it right.
I was co-chair of the Rendezvous Champlain Committee back in 2000s as we planned to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Champlain and the missionaries landing in Penetanguishene and Huronia in August of 1615. As we commenced our planning, we were always mindful of three things.
One, Champlain, the missionaries and scouts like Etienne Brule, would never have made it here to begin with without the consent, aid and transportation assistance of the Huron-Wendat with whom they traded in Montreal. The foreigners were totally dependant on them.
Two, the arrival of the Europeans with their diseases, would wipe out a great number of the Huron population. The arrival of the white man would spell the beginning of the end of the Huron Nation in this region.
And Three, any commemoration (not celebration!) had to recognize and do justice to the Huron-Wendat nation and involve them.
From the outset, our committee reached out and involved the Huron-Wendat nation from Wendake, Quebec and forged a great working relationship of mutual trust and respect. (Unfortunately, we didn't have the same luck with the Beausoleil First Nation on Christian Island, but that's another story for another day!) The Huron-Wendat knew we wanted to honour the coming of Champlain to this area but to also honour their ancestors, here in their ancestral homeland. We hosted a delegation of them, and involved them in our plans every step of the way, always getting their approval. They knew we were the real deal and wouldn't betray them. They in turn gave us their complete trust and approval. That means everything.
With the help and support of our Huron-Wendat friends, our committee was able to secure major multi-million dollar funding from the province and the feds and the end result is today's Rotary-Champlain-Huron-Wendat Park at the Penetanguishene waterfront. Though we were not involved in the parks final planning and development (another story for another day!) and while only two of the six great phases came to fruition, the park is still something to be proud of today.
While there are nine Champlain monuments strewn throughout North America, our Champlain Monument is the first to have Huron Bear Chief Aenon, in full garb, standing with him as equals, of equal height and prominence. It didn't turn out exactly like we envisioned but it does justice to the Huron chief. There is also a statue of another Wendat and a four-statue circular monument recognizing the four tribes or clans of the Huron-Wendat nation: Bear, Deer, Cord and Rock. A large steel 20'canoe sits at the water's edge. Much signage tells the Huron-Wendat story. Construction of a large rock turtle in the reservoir pond, a large Huron longhouse and a large Huron-Wendat arboretum of native plants had to be deferred. I would love to see them built one day!
I did a presentation to the Orillia Champlain monument committee a few years ago about how to go about things, planning, how we got it right here in Penetanguishene. I also met my Huron friends there. It was great to see them and the mutual trust and friendship was still there. They are my brothers and sisters. Orillia is in the midst of a great and controversial conundrum with the fate of their monument in the balance. And they have a lot of hands in the pot which we didn't have here. We had a clear vision. The Orillia monument does have its issues, put up in a time when colonialism was still recognized as the way. I invited the committee to come and see our park.
So while monument debates rage all around us, here in Penetanguishene, we can be proud of the fact we were . . .
"The town that got it right!"