Peace Making with Victoria & the Lion Part 5: The Order of Good Cheer
Original Kitchener, January 11 2023
Making Peace With Victoria Part 4 ended on a hopeful note: I started imagining statue-friendly “Loyal She Remains” holdouts (like me) joining forces with good-hearted republicans who lean more towards the Virginia way* of doing things, and went on to propose that we all follow the O:se Kenhionhata:tie Land Back Camp lead and start looking for ways the old Charles Street bus terminal can be put to good use, now, as is, to save lives, promote harmony and understanding, and perhaps share a few moments of good cheer as we endure the hardships of winter.
From The Holidays to the Janus Interlude
The high holiday season has drawn to a close for another year, and winter is now well underway. They’re called the holidays because we take so much store by the string of celebrations that happen during what are the dark days of the year here in the Northern Hemisphere, from Canadian Thanksgiving, through Hallowe’en, Remembrance Day and the Winter Solstice, to New Year’s (solar), through Epiphany up to Lunar New Year and Groundhog Day.
When we reach Candlemas / Imbolc / Groundhog Day, the end of winter is in sight. That’s when the annual growing season begins to unfold, day by day, marked, in our corner of the world, by the return of snowdrops and crocuses. Soon we’ll reach the vernal equinox, which is New Year — Nowruz — in places along the Silk Road, including Afghanistan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. March was also the beginning of the Roman year, and therefore the original Western way of counting the passage of time: December is still named month ten, following month seven (sept), eight (octo) and nine (novem).
Beginning the year when the sap starts to run in March makes sense. In classical times January and February were a period of transition: a prologue to the first month, and epilogue to the tenth and last. January is the time of Janus, the god of “beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages, frames, and endings.” Janus has two faces: one that looks to where we’re going, the other back to where we’ve been.
Winter at St Croix and Port Royal
My interest in joy, merriment and good cheer began when, thanks to the algorithms, a social media post came my way that retells the story of “the first ever Christmas in North America” (or at least French and English America; Latin America had been doing Christmas for more than 100 years).
The post was from Andrew MacLean, in Fredericton, New Brunswick, author of “Backyard History,” a popular newspaper column that “unearths the often hilarious, mostly mysterious, always surprising untold tales of Canada’s East Coast, as only a Maritimer can spin them.”
The first Christmas in North America happened on St Croix island, which is now on the boundary between Maine and New Brunswick. The year is 1604, and the celebrants are a group of French settlers, including the cartographer, Samuel de Champlain. The Canadian winter came early and hit hard, killing off their crops and leaving them at risk of starving. Half of the 70 colonists died of scurvy that year. Their saving grace was friendly relations with the Mi’kmaq , who, “under their great leader Membertou, began trading food with the desperate French so that they would not starve.”
In the spring the colonists abandoned St Croix, which has remained uninhabited ever since, and relocated to Port Royal, on the other side of what is now the Bay of Fundy. When Christmas came around again in 1606,
Marc Lescarbot took charge of the preparations, single handedly decorating the little colony with wreaths and laurel. Christmas Day was mild, and together the Mi’kmaq and French, including Membertou and Champlain, walked two leagues to where the cornfields were, now under a layer of snow. There they had a picnic with musical accompaniment.
Mi’kmaq helped the French prepare a Christmas feast, joined in plays and shows, put on performances, sang, drummed, smudged the French, and were knighted to become part of what was called the Order of Good Cheer, as equals in every way. Lescarbot wrote of that Christmas: “We lived as luxuriously as we could have in Paris and at much less cost.”
Those feasts continued throughout the winter. You can read the whole story here, or listen to it as a Backyard History podcast on Spotify.
Pilgrims & Habitants
It is possible to draw some parallels between these early settlements and the “tent city” encampments discussed in my last post. The numbers are comparable: in both St Croix and later, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the story involves 60-120 people rendered homeless, in this case by choice, not circumstance, coming together to form a habitation. Permission from their respective monarchs made it legal, but with regard to the people already living there, they were squatters on something like public land (there was no such thing as property as yet).
Even though the adventure on St Croix and in Port Royal was a false start, it can be seen as the point of origin of Acadia, Québec, Atlantic Canada, and even Upper Canada. So the Order of Good Cheer / l’Ordre du Bon-Temps story can be taken as the Canadian equivalent to the U.S. American Thanksgiving story of how the Pilgrims gave thanks after their first harvest in their new home in Plymouth, Massachusetts some 15 years later.
The migrants came with almost nothing, just some basic skills and tools. Money was largely irrelevant. In Plymouth the settlers came to stay while on St Croix the purpose was trade. To that end, the French settlers promptly built a settlement, complete with “a fort, wooden walls, one large building called the gallery, a warehouse, a big brick oven, a church, and a mill for grinding corn.”
Although the French arrivants appear to have been more adept at building a settlement than their New England counterparts, the St Croix and Port Royal endeavours both failed. It was not until 1608 that the first continuous settlement in New France was established, on the St Lawrence River.
A striking difference is how diverse the Canadian settlement was compared to the New Englanders. The French settlers were varied in purpose (mainly trade, exploration and adventure in general), as well as in skills, talents and occupations. St Croix and Port Royal included nobles and commoners; Catholics and Protestants; soldiers and civilians. The linguist Mathieu da Costa, “the first recorded person of African heritage to live in or even visit Canada,” was part of the settlement. The colony received royal permissions, but was backed by investors from port cities like Saint-Malo and La Rochelle.
The Pilgrims also had permission from their king, but they were only marginally loyal. These settlers were separatists -- an ultra-Protestant minority “coming out” of a political and ecclesiastical order they believed was corrupt, beyond all hope of reform or redemption. They came to stay, build and prosper on their own terms, not to trade, to learn or to explore. Consequently, the role of the 90 guests from the Wampanoag nation who joined the 53 survivors of the Mayflower voyage to celebrate and give thanks in 1621 was peripheral to the purposes of the settlement, whereas in Port Royal, Grand Chief Membertou and his people were the primary reason these Europeans crossed the ocean.
Another distinction is that the Order of Good Cheer story was documented in detail by an articulate first-hand witness, while the story of the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth is mostly myth. The details were added later, primarily to help the Bostonnais imagine who they were in relation to the world at large. It was part of the process of becoming a nation that was later subsumed under a general U.S. American consciousness.
Differentiating the Canadas
If Canadians chose to make something of the Port Royal story, it could help us imagine who we are in relation to the world at large, especially in comparison to Yankee New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and from the rest of what later became Dixieland.
For instance, the United States have always been plural, but they are also a single entity, bound together by a common origin in the crucible of war, separation and reconfiguration as a revolutionary republic: e pluribus unum. Canada is usually portrayed as a single entity, symbolized as one maple leaf, in contrast to 50 stars and 13 stripes. Because we don’t share a revolutionary past, a decisive moment of self-determination and definition, or anything comparable to the triumph of the Union in the Civil War, we’re allowed a much wider leeway for difference, for continuity from multiple points of origin, as well as for adaptation and innovation. Our arrangements have always been provisional.
That’s why I like to say “the Canadas:” We are, and always have been, plural. The Indigenous peoples and nations with a connection to Canada as a modern nation state are many, and the habitations and cultures of settler Canada have multiple points of origin, and divergent story lines. The connecting element here, for better and for worse, is the British Empire, which, at its apogee, was embodied in the person of Victoria. Up to the time people, including the Empress, started talking about Canada peacefully transitioning to an independent entity, the story of the Empire was also e pluribus unum: one from many. Since then, with Canada leading the way, the pattern has been ex uno plures: out of one, many.
Here in this particular Canada I like to call the Ontario nation, stories like what happened in Port Royal in the winter of 1606-07 can help us imagine who we are in relation to other Canadas: Québec, Acadie, Newfoundland, Pacific Canada, Atlantic Canada, Arctic Canada, the Canadas of the Bay … .
The story can also help determine whether First Nations, Métis and Innuit are Canadas, or something else — something that is an integral part of Canada as a modern nation state but also transcends it, both in terms of time and geographic space: They’ve always been here, so the red letter dates of achieving and organizing settler home rule -- 1776, 1783, 1787, 1815, 1837, 1867, 1931, 1982 -- carry different meanings, and the border that defines Canada’s very existence has always been an impediment to Indigenous ways and means.
This kind of differentiation, I suggested at the beginning of this train of thought, is critical for reconciliation as true peace, not only as the cessation of conflict, but also the elimination of the grounds for conflict. Land acknowledgements vary by geographic location. Reconciliation can only happen between at least two entities, ideally connected to a specific place.
So what can we make of those proto-Canadian settlers in Port Royal partying for the entire winter, living as “luxuriously” as they would have back in Paris?
It could mean balancing a longstanding puritanical strain in North American life with ways, means and reasons to be cheerful. The original New Englanders did a lot more fasting than feasting. Their Thanksgiving was a solemn occasion, in marked contrast to the traditions of Christmas, which, tainted with pagan and popish elements, were rejected by the Bostonnais until well into the 19th century. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are sometimes credited for setting a trend towards the adoption of more cheerful German Christmas customs, like a tree trimmed with lights, throughout the anglophone world.
In the here and now, in relation to current developments like the encampment on Roos Island, the controversy over the statue of Queen Victoria and escalating “culture war” tensions, including ugly outbreaks of vandalism and expressions of hate, the merriment aspect of the Port Royal in winter story seems frivolous. These aren’t laughing matters. Surely there’s no mirth to be found here.
But why wouldn’t there be? Those glimpses of life at Better Tent City we get through occasional social media posts from Nadine Green reveal plenty of Good Cheer, often related to food being prepared in a well-appointed kitchen by all kinds of people, including dignitaries, volunteers and tent city residents. Everyone deserves a merriment during the holidays, and happiness all year round. The announcement of the angel chorus – peace on earth and good will to humankind –promised joy to the whole wide world.
The history and meaning of the name of the original Kitchener housing co-op I live in –Bread and Roses – is related to the role of good cheer in the civic and social sphere. It is a phrase that became a political slogan after it was applied in a speech given by the U.S. women's suffrage activist Helen Todd: "bread for all, and roses too," she said
Todd predicted a better world would be ushered in when women were allowed to participate fully in the democratic order: “Not at once; but woman is the mothering element in the world and her vote will go toward helping forward the time when life's Bread, which is home, shelter and security, and the Roses of life, music, education, nature and books, shall be the heritage of every child that is born in the country, in the government of which she has a voice.”
It is worth noting that the year is 1910, which happens to be about the same time our controversial monument was erected (it was dedicated in 1911 but installed earlier), also by women participating in public affairs in unprecedented ways, but through an expression of loyalty rather than protest. They made sure, though, that the plaque on the memorial included a specific reference to the fact that the Empress had been a woman and a mother.
For Helen Todd, music, literature, visual art and crafts, horticulture and an appreciation of nature could grace an entire country in the same way a flower in a vase can cheer up a humble home.
Trying to create a place, a situation or an occasion where and when people of all ages and backgrounds can meet one another, talk and do things, including making merry and spreading good cheer is always worth the effort, especially if the result is open to anyone ready partake, as well as to anyone who can help make it happen.
What I’m proposing is that we include merriment and good cheer among the objectives for imagining how that old Grand River Transit bus terminal now standing there so empty and forlorn could be put to good use, starting immediately.
I’m not talking about the permanent future use of the site, just making use of the building and the land as they are, for the time being: day in, day out, for the rest of the winter, and if it works out, carry on into the spring, the summer, the fall, possibly until the building’s permanent future has been decided.
No promises. No commitment to anything that can’t be reversed or undone. Just conversation, deliberation and some experimentation, with the broadest possible participation, and a respectful consideration for the feelings, interests and concerns of anyone and everyone who might be affected by what happens at the decommissioned GRT Terminal, the Clock Tower Commons and Roos Island, in a broader context that includes the Gaukel Street walkway and other streets nearby, along King Street East to West and throughout the city’s historic civic, business and cultural centre, that wonderful constellation of heritage neighbourhoods that surround it, the City, the Region, the rest of the Haldimand Tract and Grand River Country as a whole.
* the “Virginia way” is the stance depicted on the seal and flag of the Commonwealth of Virginia, which is all about knocking down crowned symbols of oppression ﹘ the antithesis of the Ontario motto "Loyal she began, loyal she remains". The way of Virginia has long been dominant; the drive to remove the statue of Victoria in the park that bears here name can be seen as a current local manifestation of this spirit. The purpose here, however, is not to return to those old battles and start fighting back, but to reconcile these apparent opposites.