Sunday 18 May 2014

Victoria Day and La Journée Nationale des Patriotes: One Holiday, Two Sides of History

May Long Weekend, May Run, May Two-Four...whatever you decide to call it, Monday, May 19, 2014, is Victoria Day in Canada. For many, it's simply a time for general spring-related festivities: going up to the cottage for the first time in the season, gardening, barbeques, and fireworks.

But there's far more to the holiday than that if we were to look into its history. Victoria Day was first declared as a holiday in 1845, and was celebrated on Queen Victoria's actual birthday - May 24.

Statue of Queen Victoria outside the British Columbia Parliament Buildings in Victoria, B.C.
Changed to the first Monday prior to May 25 in any given year in 1953, it now also serves as the day on which the ruling British monarch's birthday is celebrated, regardless of whether he or she was actually born then. Queen Elizabeth II, for example, was actually born on April 21, but her "official" birthday is still marked on Victoria Day in Canada. Because of this, where there are at least two flagpoles, federal buildings, airports, and military bases will fly both the Canadian flag and the Union Jack on that day.

(Note: I actually have yet to see this arrangement in person; if anyone has, and has photos, please let me know in a comment - thanks!)

Therefore, it is fitting - and likely no coincidence - that this year's Victoria Day will coincide with a royal visit as the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall take part in a tour of the Maritimes and Manitoba from May 18 through to May 21, 2014. For those in Canada who like to uphold its British heritage and the historical ties with the British monarchy, there is no better way of celebrating Victoria Day.

However, there is, at least, one part of Canada where the story is significantly different: the Province of Quebec. There, Victoria Day (which translates to "Fête de la Reine" - "the Queen's birthday" - in French), has a very different name: La Journée Nationale des Patriotes (National Patriots' Day).

A poster produced for La Journée Nationale des Patriotes in Quebec. You can see here the tricolour flag of the Patriotes, as well as the slogan of one particular branch, called the Fils de la Liberté (Sons of Liberty): "En Avant!"
La Journée Nationale des Patriotes commemorates the Patriotes: French-Canadians who participated in the ultimately unsuccessful Lower Canada Rebellion against the British colonial administration in 1837-1838. The outcome of this rebellion was the merging of Upper Canada (English-speaking) and Lower Canada (French-speaking), and many French-Canadians feared that this would ultimately lead to their assimilation into English-Canadian culture. Because of this, the Patriotes represent the need for Quebec to uphold its own distinctive culture and identity. When the holiday was instated in 2003 by the Premier of Quebec, Bernard Landry, he proclaimed that this would allow Quebecers "to underline the importance of the struggle of the patriots of 1837–1838 for the national recognition of our people, for its political liberty and to obtain a democratic system of government."

How does any of this mesh with a holiday that, for many, seems to be a celebration of Canada's British heritage, and Canada's position as a constitutional monarchy and a member of the British Commonwealth? Well, while Queen Victoria is remembered as Canada's "Mother of Confederation", since the nation was first granted its independence in 1867 during her reign, there is no doubt that, in popular consciousness, she is still the figurehead of the British Empire during the 19th century. A representative, if you will, of the British and Anglophone hegemony in Canada that arguably still persists today. Yet Canada is not just English; it is French, First Nations, and many other cultures besides.

Given this, La Journée Nationale des Patriotes is Quebec's message to the rest of Canada, and one that could be echoed by many others here who have been relegated to the sidelines over the years: we still exist, and our history is just as important as yours.

So no matter what you decide to call the holiday that is marked across Canada on Monday, May 19, 2014, know that its very existence is a testament to our nation's diversity in culture, and in history.

Note: I would like to thank a friend I had a few years ago, Jean-Philippe Bonneville from the Montreal area, for first introducing me to La Journée Nationale des Patriotes. I hadn't heard about it at all until he mentioned it to me back in 2011, and that's become the core inspiration for this post.


Department of Canadian Heritage. "Victoria Day".  Government of Canada, 1 May 2013. Web. 17 May 2014.

Office of the Premier of Quebec. "Congé férié à l’occasion de la Journée nationale des Patriotes". Gouvernement de Québec, 24 Nov. 2002. Web. 17 May 2014.

The Canadian Press. "Prince Charles, Camilla set to arrive in Halifax for whirlwind tour." CBC News. 18 May 2014. Web. May 18 2014.

Image Credits

Photograph of British Columbia Parliament Buildings (c) Kita Inoru (taken 25 May 2011)

Poster for La Journée des Patriotes (c) (retrieved 17 May 2014)

Wednesday 14 May 2014

When the Telling is Tough: The Case of Passage #5

Note: This is an edited version of a piece I wrote in the summer of 2013, under a different name, as a submission for a newsletter by and for volunteers in the Hands-On departments of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. I have since switched to another department, but the arguments within this article are still pertinent today.

Many of the visitors, volunteers, and staff at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada, have had the opportunity to view the BIG exhibit in the Costumes and Textiles Gallery that ran from November 2012 to January 2014 – especially its main showcase item. The elegant red and black coat-dress from the House of Dior, Passage #5, was commissioned by the ROM in 2011 for the purpose of this temporary exhibit. It is “big” in many different ways: requiring a vast amount of fabric to create, not to mention a good deal of time and effort 

However, what is notable about Passage #5 is that it was also “big” in an originally unanticipated sense: a controversy. The dress’s designer, John Galliano, was fired from the House of Dior soon after its completion following his arrest for anti-Semitic comments he had made.

When it comes to discriminatory behaviour, anti-Semitism is one of the most offensive forms in the post-Holocaust world that we live in. Therefore, it is unsurprising that Passion No. 5 drew some negative attention due to this incident. On October 23, 2012, the online version of Toronto’s Jewish Tribune published an exchange of letters between the ROM and one of its patrons. The patron, who had received a VIP invitation to BIG’s opening, expressed concerns about the Dior dress: 

“I find extreme difficulty in understanding the rationale of an otherwise worthwhile organization disregarding the conviction on Sept. 8, 2011, of the creator of this very piece, on criminal charges relating to Galliano having uttered in public on multiple occasions antisemitic [sic] statements. With that background I would have expected ROM to sever its connection to the Galliano-produced piece.”
How did the ROM respond to this message? It is, after all, a legitimate concern given the nature of the scandal surrounding Galliano which has, by extension, placed a stigma on Passage #5 itself. Could someone not perceive the ROM’s exhibiting this piece as the curators’ support of the artist who created it and his inappropriate sentiments and behaviour?

However, that was not the ROM’s intention at all. In response to the question raised, ROM Head of Communications Shelagh O’Donnell replied:

“The ROM did not disregard the fact of John Galliano’s antisemitic[sic] statements when it decided to purchase the dress.... The Dior history, and this dress, is now connected to Galliano and his antisemitic[sic] remarks. The ROM will be explicit about this when the dress is exhibited in BIG, and whenever it is displayed. It is by being explicit about the history and associations of the dress that the ROM acts as a responsible museum.”
As it turned out, the ROM did indeed include a summary of the events surrounding Galliano’s dismissal, openly visible on the placard next to the dress, and one of the first things visitors would see upon entering the exhibit.   

What this suggests, in my opinion, is that the ROM’s policy towards this event has been to make it public and, therefore, incite discussion and raise awareness concerning the very real consequences of discriminatory behaviour on one’s livelihood and reputation.

To what extent, though, should museums tell the unpleasant truth about its artefacts? Human nature being what it is, it is impossible for curators not to come across some skeletons in the closet in the process of studying and conserving the items in their collections. The ROM member who had written to express his concerns to the museum had a valid argument. As an institution open to the public, the ROM is indeed responsible for the message it conveys to visitors, and using a dress associated with anti-Semitism as the showpiece for an upcoming exhibit could inadvertently send the wrong message.

However, in my opinion at least, the ROM and its curators did make the right decision in how they chose to address the scandal surrounding Passage #5. Since the ROM is a popular tourist attraction and cultural institution here in Toronto, it is responsible for raising awareness about the darker side of human nature and human history in hopes that visitors and future generations could learn to do better. As the adage goes: “Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.” And in making public the scandal surrounding Passage #5, the ROM has allowed those who, like myself, had previously been ignorant of what had happened to know the nature of Galliano’s crime and thus understand the museum’s commitment to telling the truth about history.


Jewish Tribune. "We'll let you decide disagreement over dress in ROM's BIG event." Jewish Tribune, 23 Oct. 2012. Web. 11 June 2013.

Image Credits

Photographs from the Royal Ontario Museum's "BIG" exhibit (c) Kita Inoru (taken 6 June 2013)

Tuesday 13 May 2014

Book Review: The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

I've been thinking what I should do for my first proper post here. I want it to be something that is relevant to both my interest in Canadiana and in history: something that could really show what this blog is going to be about.

Given that, I start with a Canadian historical fiction novel that was recently recommended to me by friends and colleagues: The Orenda by Joseph Boyden.

Dubbed the winner of Canada Reads 2014, The Orenda is one of those texts that has suddenly taken off as a piece of modern Canadian literature after it was published in 2013 by Joseph Boyden, an author of mixed First Nations, Irish, and Scottish descent. Perhaps, then, that it is fitting that he had chosen to write about a time of interaction and engagement between First Nations and European groups in Canada's early history.

As a whole, The Orenda is set within the area near Georgian Bay in Ontario - called Huronia by historians - during the 17th century. The focus is on three distinctive characters and their stories: Bird, a Wendat (i.e. Huron) elder and warrior; Snow Falls, a Haudenosaunee (i.e. Iroquois) girl whom Bird abducts and then raises as his own daughter; and Christophe, a French Jesuit missionary sent to convert the Huron to Christianity.

By examining the events from three different angles, Boyden is able to touch upon the complex issues surrounding French and First Nations relationships in the mid-17th century. Perhaps the narrative that would be the most immediately familiar to the audience would be Christophe's. Sounding like something straight out of the Jesuit Relations, we see in him both an aversion to the Wendat's customs and beliefs, and a growing sense of pity that further drives him towards fulfilling his vocation however possible. In contrast, Bird represents the existent Wendat system of beliefs: much of his narrative focuses on his meditations to his wife, deceased before the book's beginning, as he seeks to come to terms with the hardships faced by his village after the arrival of the Jesuits. Finally, Snow Falls lies somewhere in the middle. From her, we see something of a third party's perspective at first, when she still regards Bird as an enemy; yet, as the novel progresses, she comes more and more to integrate with the Wendat and consider herself one of their number. Against all this is the shadow that is cast by the Haudenosaunee throughout the text. Enemies of both the Wendat and their French "allies", there is a constant threat of violence that finally boils over in the book's concluding chapters.

Boyden has been criticized for his portrayal of the Haudenosaunee as brutally violent: torturing their war captives in increasingly sadistic ways. However, I do not consider that to be his fault alone. Much of the documented evidence we have from this time period comes from the Jesuit Relations: letters sent from missionaries back to France that are known to have grossly exaggerated their portrayals of Haudenosaunee atrocities in order to both prompt public support for Christianizing the Wendat and to give the Jesuits a sense of valorization in their martyrdom. Yes, the accounts were biased and painted the Haudenosaunee in an incredibly negative light; there is no denying that. Yet, because Boyden chose to tell the story from Wendat and French perspectives, how else would their enemies have been described in their own words? The only real remedy for that I could foresee would be if Boyden had also included a fourth voice: an individual from a Haudenosaunee community that stays Haudenosaunee throughout.

Boyden gives us many rich descriptions of Wendat customs: their feasts, their attitudes towards the dead, their agricultural cycle, their religious beliefs, etc. It is, for me, approaching a depth that I have rarely found in other novels I have read. In addition, the broader cast of characters allows for multiple perspectives to be given within any one group. Christophe's two colleagues, Gabriel and Isaac, for example, have very different approaches and attitude from him towards their mission - and for Isaac in particular, this ultimately leads to tragedy. For the First Nations, we also are granted a strongly traditionalist point of view in Gosling, an Anishnaabe who had become accepted by the Wendat as a medicine woman, and who serves as the primary voice of opposition to the Jesuits. In her, we see a strong voice that counters any preconceived notion that the First Nations were simplistic or primitive in their beliefs: Gosling holds her own against even Christophe, and often bests him in debate.

However, as someone who went into The Orenda with a curiosity as to how Canada's early history would be depicted, I found myself both satiated, yet wanting more. My greatest complaint here is in the scope of the novel. Ostensibly, The Orenda takes place between 1640 and 1650, during the height and the collapse of the Jesuit mission to the Huron. Yet outside of this vague description, the narrative feels strangely compressed. The story is described as taking place over a period of several years, but the historical events described, in fact, span from 1635 to 1649. In the beginning of the novel, there is a depiction of Samuel de Champlain at the end of his life (he died in 1635), and the conclusion reads like the final spike in violence from the Haudenosaunee against the Wendat and French described in 1648-1649. Hardly several years, that - and for someone with some knowledge of the historical background, the seeming compression of the story was quite frustrating to read.

Finally, though, what can be said about criticisms of The Orenda as a colonialist narrative? I do not know if that was Boyden's intention; his tripartite narration does suggest that he was aiming for a greater degree of complexity than if he had predominantly offered the French or Jesuit perspective as some of his predecessors (like Brian Moore in the 1985 novel Black Robe). Yet it is still the Wendat and the French that we, as the audience, are meant to sympathize with: the tragedy of the Wendat who were inadvertently decimated by European diseases (smallpox and influenza are specifically mentioned here) and then crushed by a Haudenosaunee fight against the French; and the Jesuit martyrs that formed the basis for the Catholic Church in French Canadian history for centuries to come and who could arguably be a precursor for the clergymen who ran the Indian residential school centuries later.

The Orenda is a broadening of the official narrative that Canadian schoolchildren grow up with, but it does not challenge it, nor go so far as to offer an alternative perspective. Perhaps, someday, a new novel could come along and allow the voice of the Haudenosaunee to be heard as well.


Boyden, Joseph. The Orenda. Toronto: Penguin, 2013. Print.

King, Hayden. "The Orenda faces tough criticism from First Nations scholar". CBC News., 7 Mar. 2014. Web. 13 May 2014.

Image Credits

Cover image for The Orenda (c) Penguin Canada Books Inc.