Trent University was the first Canadian school to devote an entire department to Indigenous Studies. It is one of the only places in Canada where you can earn a PhD in Indigenous Studies. It boasts a comprehensive program that incorporates “politics, women and gender, history, culture, languages, law and governance, social and economic conditions and development, Indigenous theory and practice and infusing all of this with a foundation of Indigenous Traditional Knowledge and Practices based on thousands of years of oral and written histories.” Part of what makes this program at Trent so significant is that it is run predominantly by Indigenous people who have first-hand experience and a wealth of knowledge and wisdom to be passed on to future generations.
Evidence of Trent’s prominence in this field and its connection to the land and the Indigenous community simply cannot be ignored: land acknowledgements, tipis and sweat lodges on campus, places with names like Otonabee and Nozhem and walls lined with Indigenous art pieces. One might think that decolonization and reconciliation are alive and well at Trent University… until they walk past Champlain College.
One of the first buildings you see as you walk up the steps at Bata podium or across the Faryon Bridge from East Bank, Champlain College’s unique design and brutalist architecture make it hard to miss. And to the well-trained eye, so is its perpetuation of colonialism and racism.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m a die-hard Champlainer. I was an O-Week leader this past year and the people I met and the role I played fostered immense pride in my college. But I have difficulty screaming “Champlain til’ I die” when I know who Champlain was and what he did. I think the majority of Champlain students would share my hesitance if they knew the true history behind Samuel de Champlain. But that’s the problem. I can’t help but notice that the only noise being created surrounding this issue is deafening silence. It seems as though the notion of perpetuating colonialism through the Champlain name makes people uncomfortable, and it ought to.
It’s extremely plausible that the lack of discourse surrounding the Champlain name comes out of a lack of understanding of the history behind Samuel de Champlain, one of Canada’s most illustrious colonizers. It doesn’t take an Indigenous Studies student to tell you that there is a tragic tendency to veneer authentic Canadian history when it comes to Indigenous-European relations. The history most Canadian students learn throughout elementary and secondary school is surely the white man’s account of what took place. Let’s attempt to correct this primary injustice.
Samuel de Champlain got his first taste of “exploration” when he travelled with the Spaniards to the West Indies in 1601 where he witnessed the brutal genocide and exploitation of the Indigenous peoples of the region — strategies of colonization that he would later employ during his colonization of what is now Canada. In 1603, Champlain made landfall on Canadian soil for the first time. He arrived in Tadoussac, Quebec where he first encountered the Indigenous people he would play a pivotal role in colonizing. Like most Europeans during this time, he looked upon our First Nations people with great disdain, viewing their culture and beliefs as barbaric and primitive. He then returned to France with his preliminary maps of what is now the St. Lawrence and surrounding area and a detailed account of what he had observed of Indigenous cultures — no doubt an orientalist perspective. Champlain would return in 1608 to establish the foundations of modern day Quebec and explore the region to a greater extent. A region where he would go on to wage war against the Iroquois, killing not one, but two of their chiefs—a crime that broke traditional protocol, a crime that some say still affects the descendants of this Iroquois generation hundreds of years later. This conflict would go on for years as the French exploited the Huron’s contempt for the Iroquois to fuel their war.
Champlain spent the following years travelling back and forth between France, where he would report to the king about the newly established fur trade, and the settlement in New France and the surrounding area, where he would wage war against the Iroquois as part of his pursuit to retain the stolen land and the resources that fueled the fur trade, an industry that undoubtedly exploited Indigenous peoples.
In 1610, approximately 40-year-old Samuel de Champlain married a 12-year-old girl. Yes, a 12-year-old. In 1615, Champlain “discovered” the region we now call home —Peterborough and the Kawarthas — while en route to murder more Indigenous people in the name of expanding European territory.
I could go on to elaborate on the ways in which Champlain played a pivotal role in economically exploiting Indigenous peoples, eradicating their traditional beliefs through supporting the violent Catholic conversion of Indigenous peoples by the Jesuits, or stripping them of their culture in the name of civilization during this process of colonization, but I think you get the point. Champlain was not the adventurous hero that we glorify him to be.
So why did Trent University celebrate the 400th anniversary of his “discovery” of a region that had already been inhabited by Indigenous peoples for centuries, just two years ago? Why does Champlain College still celebrate Bon Temps each winter, an event modelled after the festival of the same name that Champlain implemented as a morale booster for his men in the 17th Century? Why is Champlain College still called Champlain College when the process of colonization that he was instrumental in, still plagues our Indigenous communities to this day?
Some would argue that it’s because Champlain College has a wealth of rich traditions that are threatened by the name change. Many of the cheers that we scream at the top of our lungs every O-Week would have to be modified. Bon Temps would likely have to change its name.
The bronze bust of Champlain would probably have to be relocated along with his portrait. Other unforeseen logistical issues would probably ensue. These issues may sound minuscule to some, but it is important to consider that there are many stakeholders in a decision with the gravity that changing the Champlain name holds. Melanie Sedge, Champlain’s College Head, reminded me of this when I reached out to her for a statement: “such decisions need to be informed by scholarly research; by input from faculty in History, Indigenous Studies, and other relevant disciplines; needs to ensure that renaming does not become an act of changing history; and needs to be informed by a broad discussion which gives students, faculty, alumni, the Board, and other key stakeholders in our community (not all of them share the view of Champlain) an opportunity to participate. At Champlain College, we have already begun discussing these and related issues. We look forward to participating in the ongoing dialogue.”
Sedge raises several compelling points that are often overlooked. Some might say that changing the Champlain name would be a means of covering up our colonial history, having an effect that is not conducive to decolonization. Others would probably argue that changing the name wouldn’t actually do anything productive in terms of ameliorating the treatment of the Indigenous communities of the area. This would lead to the idea that maybe Champlain College ought to do more in terms of advocating for Indigenous rights or putting the issues that affect Indigenous communities in the spotlight of public discourse.
So, I reached out to various Indigenous organizations at Trent such as First Peoples House of Learning and the Trent University Native Association to see what their opinion would be on the matter, considering that they represent a major stakeholder in this decision — the Indigenous community. Unfortunately, I was met with a lack of response. I heard nothing from FPHL and its director Dawn Lavell Harvard. TUNA responded after I tried contacting them twice, telling me they would consider the issue at their next executive meeting which would take place too late for a statement to be included in this article. I still encourage TUNA and any other Indigenous people or organizations in the area to contact Arthur and let your voices be heard.
Because Melanie Sedge was unequivocally correct when she mentioned the need for dialogue surrounding this issue, a dialogue that I don’t hear on campus. Wherever you stand on this issue, speak out. This conversation is one that needs to be had by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike, by Trent University students, alumni and faculty, and by people educated in the complex social systems that are encompassed in disciplines like History and Indigenous Studies.
I’d like to close with a statement from possibly the loudest and proudest Champlainer I’ve ever met (that’s saying something). Adam Theriault is a student who has devoted countless hours to this college and also happens to be Indigenous and studying Indigenous Studies. On this issue, he writes:
“I’m a proud Champlainer, and I’ve dared over the years to welcome people into the college as a 3 time O-Week volunteer. I have a college cheer tattooed on my ass.
“I have always hated the name. I am an Indigenous student, taking Indigenous Studies at Trent. I’ve learned that the history that has been taught to Canadians for generations blatantly covers up the cultural genocide that happened and is still happening today. Naming the college after a colonizer from France is wrong, especially when we know the true history of Canada as a genocidal state. Yes, Champlain was one of the founding fathers of a nation rooted in atrocities against Indigenous nations. It’s 2017, talk to the Mississauga people whose land Champlain college is on. Let’s DARE to rename the college. Don’t just ignore what is right in front of us; cognitive dissonance does no good for any of us.”
Correction (November 4 2017): Thank you to Kayt Anne for reaching out on Facebook to ensure the capitalization of “Indigenous” when referring to Indigenous Peoples. It is important to us to be consistent in the efforts towards reconciliation that this piece suggests, and that includes proper naming practices to represent Indigenous Peoples.