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Margin Notes

Champlain’s Dream tops presidents’ book list

Biography of Samuel de Champlain by David Hackett Fischer a favourite among university leaders.


A historical book on the life and times of French explorer and father of New France, Samuel de Champlain, has been a favourite of some of the presidents of Canada’s universities and has been making the rounds at our offices at the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

The book, Champlain’s Dream, by Pulitzer-Prize winning author and Brandeis University history professor David Hackett Fischer, is not particularly recent – it was published in 2008. Nevertheless, I managed to borrow a copy from a colleague before the holidays and was mesmerized, reading it through in just a matter of days. As a person of French-Canadian heritage dating back nearly to the time of Champlain (my ancestors arrived in Quebec in 1640, five years after his death), I was reading a book about my ancestors in this place we’ve called home for almost four centuries.

But, I think this book will resonate with most Canadians who have an interest in the history of Canada and the early colonization of North America. I agree with the National Post reviewer, quoted on the cover of the Canadian edition, that this is “a book that every Canadian should own.” Other reviewers have called it a “masterpiece,” “absorbing” and “the definitive biography” of Champlain.

The book, which was a runner-up for the 2009 Cundill Prize, first came to my attention by AUCC president Paul Davidson, who was told about it by University of Saskatchewan President Peter MacKinnon, a former chair of the board of AUCC. Mr. Davidson loved the book and in turn gave a copy to Michel Belley, rector of Université du Québec à Chicoutimi, when the latter took over as board chair. Mr. Davidson also sent a note to then University of Waterloo President David Johnston recommending he read it. Mr. Johnston evidently found the book inspiring, as he carried a copy of Champlain’s Dream to the podium the day he was named Canada’s 28th Governor General and referenced it in his remarks. He also made reference to it during his official investiture and at numerous other occasions since.

Mr. Davidson later gave a copy of the French translation of the book, Le rêve de Champlain, to Dr. Belley when his term as AUCC chair ended this past fall. The book was signed by the author himself, whom Mr. Davidson had met at the 2011 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences held in Fredericton.

Champlain, born circa 1570, died in Quebec City on Christmas Day, Dec. 25, 1635. He was a prolific writer, a pioneer ethnographer, a famed explorer and expert mariner. Without him, it can be argued that there would be no French Canada. But, as the author makes clear, Champlain was also a dreamer, a man of vision and a humanist:

“If nothing else, his life was a record of stamina with few equals. But always it was more than that. Champlain … dreamed of many things. Several scholars have written about his dream of finding a passage to China. Others have written of his dream for the colonization of New France. But all these visions were part of a larger dream that has not been studied. This war-weary soldier had a dream of humanity and peace in a world of cruelty and violence. He envisioned a new world as a place where people of different cultures could live together in amity and concord. This became his grand design for North America.”

The New York Times Sunday Book Review had this to say about the book:

“His thesis in Champlain’s Dream, which these days might be considered daring, is that Champlain was an admirable, heroic figure — a stance that runs counter to the recent trend in historiography to debunk and demean most ‘dead white males,’ especially those who were explorers and settlers. Many of them richly deserve this opprobrium for slaughtering and otherwise mistreating the indigenous peoples they encountered. But Champlain was different. He was more interested in learning from and cooperating with Indians than in exploiting them. He treated most of those he met with ‘dignity, forbearance and respect,’ and, Fischer writes, they largely reciprocated: ‘He had a straight-up soldier’s manner, and Indian warriors genuinely liked and respected him.’ ”

This is far different than the relations that most colonizers had with Native Americans. At the same time, Champlain managed to establish three francophone populations and cultures – Québécois, Acadien and Métis –and explored much of North America through what are now six Canadian provinces and five American states. Moreover, he made at least 27 Atlantic crossings and hundreds of other voyages, and never lost a ship under his command. Writes the author: “The most important fact about Champlain is not that he did any one of these things, but that he did all of them together. And it was done through the span of three decades, in the face of many failures and defeats.”

Intrigued? I urge you to read the book.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Dr. Cheryl S. McWatters / January 4, 2012 at 16:59

    How timely! My husband purchased me copy of this book at the National Art Gallery book shop on New Year’s Eve as a Xmas present. I am looking forward to delving into it given its parallels with my own research interests and the ‘buzz’ that it has received. Thank you for bringing it to the attention of readers as every effort to make us aware of our shared history is so important.

  2. Dr. Dieter K. Buse / January 10, 2012 at 11:19

    This is indeed a “dream” book. But, so little of Canada’s history is “shared” in the sense that the National Historic Site interpretive centres run by Parks Canada are so ill distributed in terms of historically important regions. Champlain was among the multitude of voyageurs, explorers, discoverers, lumbermen, even militia that crossed the La Vase portage east of North Bay. Yes, a plaque acknowledges the place’s importance, semi-hidden near the Trans-Canada highway, but there is no interpretive centre documenting and explaining this important passage. Indeed, all of Northeastern Ontario has only 2 of those 167 centres compared to the 6 in Newfoundland, 6 in the Yukon and 42 in southeastern Ontario. To illustrate the problem: the Klondike produced 12 million ounces of gold, while Timmins-Porcupine produced 70 million and is still going strong; the latter does have a plaque but no centre. The same comparative case could be made for Kirkland Lake with its crucial 1941 strike and its characters (Roza Brown, Charlie Chow, Sir Harry Oakes) who were as interesting as any Pierre Berton highlighted for the Klondike.
    More regarding this argument can be found in my co-authored book: Come on Over: Northeastern Ontario, A-Z

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