Claiming Historical Figures for the Nationalist Agenda: the case of Jacques Cartier

It is a typicality of the present day that historical figures are taken as symbols, or representatives, of particular cultures and communities. These “great” individuals supposedly embody all the characteristics that are dear to the people that revere them. Indeed, this phenomenon is not consigned to the contemporary world but has always existed. People naturally look to the past and imbue individuals of great renown, more often than not men, with idealistic attributes. The idolisation of such men is often a part of forging a national or communal identity, and helps give a stable foundation to large groups of people.

Countless examples of these historical representatives could be selected. One need only think of Simon Bolivar, the great nineteenth-century liberator of South America, whose memory is still trumpeted in the guise of Bolivarianism by nationalist groups in Venezuela and Ecuador, looking to stave off American interference in their countries. There is Nelson Mandela, a living historical figure, who is almost universally-worshipped as a unifying force amongst disparate black South Africans; George Washington, the “founder” of a nation, who is widely regarded as a moral standard-bearer for white, protestant Americans; even Mao Tse-Tung, a slaughterer of millions, yet a person whose overpowering legacy of liberation unites a hugely unequal Han Chinese populace. The list could run for pages. Yet, what all these individuals have in common is that they are claimed by distinct groups of people, ranging considerably in size and make-up, to popularise and legitimise their cause.

Is this strange contemporary fascination with “great” individuals a positive influence on the study of history? Is it acceptable for one person’s memory to define a group of people? To examine these questions, this article will take the example of Jacques Cartier, the sixteenth-century French explorer who “discovered” Canada. For centuries, French-Canadian nationalists have invoked Cartier’s name as a symbol of a pride, and used his historical legacy as a counter to English encroachment on their lives. By studying the history of Cartier and Canada, we can see the troubling aspect of using historical figures for nationalist purposes, and the ambiguity it has for the historical profession.

Cartier in Canada

Jacques Cartier sailed from the French port of St. Malo in April 1534, accompanied by 61 men, to explore the lands beyond Newfoundland, where his fellow countrymen had plied their trade as fishermen for the previous two decades. Restricting his first voyage to the navigation and mapping of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Cartier had nevertheless staked his claim as the discoverer of Canada.

Returning to this “new” territory in May 1535, this time with a fleet of 110 men, Cartier pressed on beyond the Gulf to the St. Lawrence River itself, a monumental step in the history of exploration. His guides down this majestic waterway were two Iroquoian Indians, who Cartier had seized on his first voyage the year before. Taignoagny and Dom Agaya, so they were named, steered the French to their home settlement of Stadacona by September. This location is better known today as Quebec City. In October, lured on by the mythical Kingdom of Saguenay, Cartier and a group of men traversed further down the St. Lawrence to another native settlement, named Hochelaga. Seeking a way past the rapids that obstruct the river’s natural flow at this point, Cartier climbed a nearby mountain to espy the view; he named it Mount Royal. The settlement standing there today retains the Francophone name of Montreal. Therefore, despite failing to find the riches of Saguenay, Cartier had inadvertently sealed his place as the original French-Canadian pioneer, having been the first man to visit the location of French Canada’s two greatest bastions.

It is consequently ironic that, on his third and final voyage in May 1541, Cartier’s attempt to establish the first permanent French settlement in Canada failed miserably. Under the command of the Sieur de Roberval, who remained in France to finish his preparations, Cartier led the first contingent of colonists to Cap-Rouge, a promontory overlooking the St. Lawrence, just a few miles upstream from Stadacona. Nevertheless, a combination of poor planning, indiscipline and brutally cold winter weather led Cartier to abandon his colony by June 1542, preferring to head back to France. On his return journey he encountered the outward-bound Roberval at Newfoundland, whom Cartier refused to accompany back to Canada. Roberval’s colonial attempt would fair just as badly, with the deteriorating relations with the natives Iroquoians, exacerbated by years of mistreatment by Cartier, not helping his cause.

Although he may have been the first Frenchman to navigate the St. Lawrence and discover the locations of present-day Quebec and Montreal, Jacques Cartier left no material legacy in Canada. Yet, this has not stopped French-Canadian nationalists ever since from invoking his name as the founder of their people, despite the more considerable accomplishments of his successors. Why has Cartier become such a key part of the nationalist agenda in Canada?

French-Canadian Nationalism and Cartier

In the past few decades in particular, English has become the dominant language of Canada, with 60% of the population choosing it as their first language, compared with 23% who nominate French as their mother tongue. The encroachment of English linguistics on Canadian national life, accompanied as it is by a more globalised and cosmopolitan culture, due to English’s status as the world’s preeminent language, has been seen as threat to French-Canadian culture and homogeneity. For people who see their ancestors as the original founders of white Canada, this apparent subordination of their language and lifestyle is understandably tough to take. It is therefore unsurprising that the so-called French “founders” of Canada are revered as symbols of French-Canadian unity, with Jacques Cartier being the oldest amongst them.

The reason that Cartier has seemingly assumed a status greater than the likes of Samuel de Champlain, the Sieur de Mons, Charles de Montmagny and other pioneers of “New France”, who actually helped to install a permanent French presence in Canada during the seventeenth century, has a lot to do with the way history has been used for the nationalist cause.

From the late eighteenth century, French-Canadian historians attempted to undermine the “English” direction of the country that had continued apace since their annexation of much of French Canada during the Seven Years War (1756-63).  These academics invoked the spirit of Jacques Cartier as the original French pioneer, a man who had claimed the territory of Canada for his country long before the English showed any interest in the region. The teaching of his voyaging accomplishments became commonplace in French-speaking schools, and grand re-enactments of Cartier’s first visits to Canada were organised at great cost to the public, inspiring pride amongst French-speakers in the process. One particular historian, Lionel Groulx, was a dogged champion of Cartier’s cause. Despite no supporting evidence, Groulx suggested Cartier was the first to bring Christianity to the country, claiming he was accompanied by Catholic priests on his second voyage.  The fact that no sources even document Cartier attempting to convert the natives to Christianity, let alone mention anything about Catholic priests, undermines such a claim, yet it was used to support a particular strain of French-Canadian nationalism, whose roots were religious as well as cultural. This particular strain of nationalistic thought was closely linked to Ultramontanism.

Subsequent French-language historians continued this distortion of myth and reality, whilst competing with the early Anglophone scholars of the country, such as Francis Parkman, who were quick to emphasise Cartier’s failure to establish a permanent settlement in Canada. The reality seems to suggest that Cartier was an expert explorer who had little desire in becoming a colonial leader, preferring instead to search for legendary lands of riches than preserve a stable settlement. He retreated to France at the first signs of trouble and never endeavoured to return after 1542.

Therefore, to suggest he was the first French-Canadian pioneer would seem foolhardy. Indeed, Cartier appeared to have little attachment to the country and places he gave names to. Yet, it is in these names, and the fact that Cartier visited them first, that he has retained his importance as a cultural bastion. As with any nationalist cause, people are selective about their use of history and invoke it as a means of retaining their cultural integrity and unity in times of change and threat. French-Canadians have used Cartier as a claim to their country, as a means of delineating themselves as the “true” Canadians. Whilst “impartial” historians may see the “mariner of St. Malo” in a more cynical light, the optimism Cartier has inspired amongst generations of French-Canadians is hard to argue with. It subsequently seems that the claiming of historical figures for the nationalist agenda has a more ambiguous role than one might naturally conclude.

Double-Edged Sword

The reverence paid by nationalist groups to historical figures can influence historiography in both a positive and negative fashion. For instance, the mass appeal of an individual amongst a group of people can inspire extensive historical study of the person in question and the period in which they lived. French-language scholarly works on Jacques Cartier are fairly numerous considering little primary evidence exists of his life and voyages. Such works would perhaps not have been commissioned had it not been for Cartier’s status amongst French-Canadian nationalists.

On the other hand, nationalist history always engenders the possibility for bias and false “truths”. Because the historical profession has a generally sound reputation for integrity and accuracy, most historical works are accepted as correct by non-academic readers in particular. This is problematic when one considers the varying motives for writing history. In Cartier’s case, as well as attributing a false religiosity to the navigator’s voyages to Canada, French-language histories have often silenced the voice of the native Iroquoians in the Cartier story. For example, there is no suggestion in these works that Cartier’s men may have caused physical harm to the natives, yet by his colonisation voyage of 1541 the Stadaconans were openly hostile towards the French; something must explain their change from originally pliant hosts. Furthermore, the very use of Cartier by French-Canadian nationalists as the original founder of Canada overlooks the fact that the Iroquoians, and various other indigenous groups were there first. Indeed, Canada is still home to over a million people who classify themselves as having Indian ethnicity. It is unlikely they take too kindly to the Franco-English dominance of their country’s history-writing.

Jacques Cartier offers an example of a significant historical individual who has been used to further the nationalist agenda and to help create a united French-Canadian history. This phenomenon has proved both a boon and a detriment to the historical profession in Canada. Whilst far more severe misuses of history exist – one need only look at the re-writing of history in Nazi Germany or the persisting textbook controversies over war guilt in Japan – Cartier is an example of how cultural rhetoric and doctrine can imbue individuals with mythological qualities, which their lives rarely stand up well to when opened to rigorous historical investigation. It is a warning to take note of who writes history, as much as what is written.

Select Bibliography

Bideaux, M. Jacques Cartier/Relations; édition critique par Michel Bideaux (Montreal, 1986)

Cartier, J., Biggar, H.P. & Cook, R. The Voyages of Jacques Cartier (Toronto; Buffalo; London, 1993)

Gordon, A. The Hero and the Historians: historiography and the uses of Jacques Cartier (Vancouver, 2010)  (A particularly good study of Cartier’s use for the nationalist cause)

Groulx, L. La découverte du Canada: Jacques Cartier (Montreal, 1934)

Parkman, F. Pioneers of France in the New World (Boston, 1865)

Trudel, M. Histoire de la Nouvelle-France (Montreal, 1963)

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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