Where the Historiography Falls Short: La Verendrye through the Lens of Gender, Race and Slavery in Early French Canada, 1731-1749

Article excerpt

Modern historians commonly depict Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, et de La Verendrye as a noteworthy eighteenth-century explorer who figured prominently in the French penetration and "discovery" of a large part of what is now western Canada. (1) Today, La Verendrye's name marks Canadian and American monuments, memorials, streets, parks, schools, and decorates prestigious scholarships. (2) He is especially well known and commemorated in Manitoba for arriving at the confluence of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers on 24 September 1738. In 1938, the cities of Winnipeg and St. Boniface organized a bi-centennial celebration, including a pageant, a parade and the unveiling of a monument in La Verendrye's honour. The nine-day long event sought to, as stated in the souvenir programme, "pay tribute to the achievements of one of the world's great men--The Pathfinder of the West," who "discovered and opened to civilization" the western half of the North American continent "not by force of arms but by force of character, by fair dealing, by genius in leading men and in making and retaining friendships, by unusual tenacity of purpose and by unrivalled patience, forbearance and fortitude." (3) In many ways, La Verendrye's accomplishments, especially his courage and determination to make the 2575 kilometre trip by canoe from Montreal to Lake Winnipeg, are remarkable.

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However, the historiographical literature which focuses on his travels and turbulent interactions with Aboriginal peoples is incomplete, for it is marked by a lack of analysis on gender as it intersects with race, and by a tradition of denial and mythology surrounding the French-Canadian slave trade. Unpacking La Verendrye's involvement in the slave trade, and the ways in which gender and Aboriginal relations characterized his life in the period from 1731 to 1749, the temporal focus of the present study, sheds light on the functioning of early to mid-eighteenth-century French colonial society in Canada. Traditionally, the history of French-regime Canada has been a story about white men, with women, Aboriginal peoples, and blacks cast in a secondary role. (4) In a similar vein to recently published studies, this article will attempt to include more of the peoples of New France within its purview. (5) That being said, it will not delve into larger considerations of religion, nor will it focus on sexuality, violence or the homosocial world of the fur trade in New France. Whereas these subjects have already been explored in some depth, less scholarly attention has been directed to slavery, race and gender as they relate to La Verendrye, a native of Trois-Rivieres, who served in the French army before becoming a fur trader and explorer, had an Anishinaabe wife according to oral tradition, and came to own at least three slaves.

Canadian slavery has long been a neglected area of historical study. In his Histoire du Canada (1846), Francois Garneau promulgated the myth that slavery never existed in New France. He congratulated King Louis XIV and the French colonial clergy for having saved French Canada from this "grand and terrible plague." (6) Following suit, others maintained that there had been no slavery in New France, despite the historical evidence of at least 4,000 slaves, two-thirds of whom were Aboriginal. The misconception that Africans first came to the colony as refugees from southern slavery persists in the minds of many Canadians and foreigners alike. (7) While inroads have been made, many still labour under the false assumption that French Canada, because of some combination of climate, limited population and/or Christian morality, opted not to engage in the slave trade. Other works have focused on New France political elites, depicting black slavery as a subsidiary issue within white Canadian life and largely taking Aboriginal slavery for granted as an inevitable consequence of colonization and Aboriginal warfare. This article attempts to illustrate that the idea of slavery has been repressed, couched, and subsumed under the labels of "discovery," "exploration," and "colonization. …