The Orenda appropriate ‘Canada Read’ and ‘Island Read’ too

It’s no surprise that the Joseph Boyden novel The Orenda was the winner of last week’s annual CBC ‘Battle of the Books’ event, Canada Reads.

It’s unsurprising because, in spite of the merits of each the final five contenders in the event where a winner is determined through a five-hour broadcast debate (over as many days) among panelists (each of whom champions one of the novels in play), The Orenda was determined to be the book that best informs Canadians about a topic of national importance.

Although The Orenda is set in the mid-seventeenth century, it is also set close to Manitoulin, along Georgian Bay’s southern shores, and its three main-protagonists represent the players in Canada’s early history: a member of the Huron people, a member of the Iroquois people and a French Jesuit missionary whose character is deemed to be inspired by the historic character Jean de Brebeuf, (one of the two martyrs to whom Midland’s Martyr’s Shrine is dedicated; the other Jesuit martyr, Gabriel Lalemont, is memorialized on Manitoulin through the church at Birch Island that bears his name).

Brebeuf and Lalemont were missionaries in the Midland area and, from that same mission, a cadre of Jesuits came to Manitoulin Island as the region’s first European residents, remaining at Wikwemikong for about two years (1648 to 1650).

So The Orenda’s story is in many ways Manitoulin’s story, once removed.

In the period in which The Orenda is set, the Odawa nation (which would have hosted the Jesuit missionaries at Wikwemikong over three and a half centuries ago) were firmly established on Manitoulin Island, along the present-day Bruce Peninsula and along eastern Georgian Bay. Hunters and gatherers, research shows that many Odawa groups traditionally over-wintered in the more agriculture-based and permanent Wendat communities, part of the large Huron nation of the day that is the focus of The Orenda.

The Odawas and the Hurons/Wendats was clearly allies and, for each, the Iroquois were the traditional enemy as this large nation had its own “manifest destiny” whereby it was continually expanding its territory (whether by warfare or alliance) beyond its traditional base along the north and south shores of Lake Ontario.

As a result of continuous Iroquois incursions together with a tremendous toll taken on its population by European diseases such as smallpox and measles, the Huron people were reduced to only a few scattered and small settlements dispersed through present day Canada and the United States and the Huron language is sadly among those First Nations languages that have been declared to be extinct.

The Huron people’s traditional adversaries, the Iroquois, are still largely settled along Lake Ontario, east to Montreal along the St. Lawrence and west to the large Six Nations community near Hamilton.

The Hurons’/Wendats’ allies the Odawa (and now the rest of the three Fires Confederacy, the Ojibwe and Potawatami whose languages all stem from common Algonquin roots) are the successors to their Lake Simcoe-Georgian Bay territories in modern-day terms so it’s certain that many of the children enjoying the annual Little NHL tournament this March Break week in Mississauga have Huron ancestry and, ironically, will be competing in friendly play with Iroquois players descended from the Six Nations community as well as from other Iroquois and Allied Indians communities in Ontario.

The Orenda is an especially good choice for the 2014 CBC Canada Reads book-of-the-year for Manitoulin people (of First Nation and European descent alike) simply because this early story of First Nations nationhood leads directly, (via alliances at various times with colonizing French and English interests) to the nineteenth century treaties (1836, 1852, 1862) with which we’re familiar and which shaped Manitoulin Island into the series of communities we know today.

The Orenda sets the scene for modern times, introducing the European influence through the Jesuit priest.

As a slice in time very relevant to the history of our own Island, it is an important book indeed and, hopefully, is available in all of our public libraries and school libraries and also as a reference text when local history is taught in our schools.

Congratulations Joseph Boyden and congratulations as well to the CBC for giving national and international prominence to a book that successfully takes a moment in our history and develops it in a way such that it is now much easier to look backwards and see a little more clearly how we’ve become the unique community we are today on Manitoulin Island, complete with members of the Jesuit order still carrying out their priestly duties in virtually all of our Roman Catholic parishes here, a nod to the first priests/first Europeans to settle on Manitoulin and on this fact we can further look both forwards and backwards into history for Fr. Poncet, SJ, the priest who led the mission to Manitoulin in 1648 was called away less than two years later following an Iroquois incursion on his home base near present day Midland that not only destroyed the mission and saw his contemporaries Fathers Brebeuf and Lalemont tortured and killed by the invading force, but also foresaw the end of the Huron/Wendat people as a nation.