Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de La Vérendrye has been fondly remembered in Canadian memory as the “Pathfinder of the West,” who learned and respected “the customs of the Aboriginals… [and] entertained good relations with the First Nations by respecting their way of life.” La Vérendrye’s life has been celebrated as that of the archetypal voyageur. Denis Combet’s recent popular history book In Search of the Western Sea asserts that La Vérendrye’s explorations spawned an “encounter between the two worlds [that] seems to be a positive one.” Most of the biographies of La Vérendrye written in the early to mid-twentieth century focused on his travel narrative, his ‘heroic’ character, and the bringing of civilization and Christianity to the “ignorant half-naked savages” or “redskins.” In the early twentieth century, La Vérendrye’s reputation was secured as a founding figure in the history of Manitoba.
On Sunday September 11, 1938, a giant canoe procession of 700 participants disembarked on the east bank of the Red River in the city of St. Boniface, Manitoba. The participants were mostly members of the Winnipeg Canoe Club, and some were even dressed in eighteenth century period costumes, which were provided courtesy of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The costumed procession arrived amongst the many dignitaries and guests of honour who had gathered in St. Boniface to unveil a monument and to dedicate a park to the French fur trader and explorer, Pierre Gaultier de La Vérendrye. The unveiling of the monument was the apex of a nine-day bi-centennial celebration commemorating the arrival of La Vérendrye and his voyageurs at the confluence of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers in 1738. According to the Souvenir Programme of the La Vérendrye Bi-Centennial Celebration, the La Vérendrye monument and nine-day celebration sought to “pay tribute to the achievements of one of the world’s great men – The Pathfinder of the West.”
The monument that was unveiled depicted three figures. The largest figure is a virile and robust man, La Vérendrye himself, who surveys the northern horizon. Next to La Vérendrye stands a Jesuit missionary priest, Father Jean-Pierre Aulneau, who holds his left arm outstretched grasping a crucifix. Finally, in the lowest position of the monument is an unnamed Aboriginal guide. The inscription at the bottom of the monument reads: “LA VÉRENDRYE ISTAS INVENIT TERRAS EASQUE HUMANITATI ET FIDEI APERUIT.” La Vérendrye discovered these lands and opened them to humanity and the faith.
In1920, following the First World War, a La Vérendrye statue was erected upon the completion of the Manitoba Legislative Building. The statue was much smaller than the intended monument that would be established during the bicentennial celebration. The Winnipeg Tribune wrote that “the great Anglo Saxon heroes” should serve as suitable commemorations for the building and grounds. Despite the suggestion of exclusively “Anglo Saxon heroes,” local groups and interests pressed for commemorative monuments to honour both Lord Selkirk and La Vérendrye. In the spirit of cooperation, both La Vérendrye and the Earl of Selkirk stood as companion pieces on the East portico of the Manitoba Legislative Building. One historian has suggested that La Vérendrye also was chosen to be honoured as a historic hero, because he “was thought to be a good model for young people to emulate.” The duo were honoured together and commemorated simultaneously at the Manitoba Legislative Building because “De la Vérendrye was one of the first to explore the area which was to become the province of Manitoba, Selkirk had believed in the future of the region and had led settlers there.”
The Jesuit missionary priest, Father Jean-Pierre Aulneau also emerged as an important figure in the commemoration of La Vérendrye in the Franco-Manitoban community of St. Boniface. The commemorative theme of religiosity and Catholicism became an important facet in the commemoration of La Vérendrye in Manitoba. The St. Boniface College and the St. Boniface Historical Society used a discourse of Catholicism and religiosity in their commemoration of La Vérendrye to assert their own independent identity and uniqueness compared to their Anglo-protestant neighbours on the other side of the Red River in Winnipeg. This was of course at a time when St. Boniface was still a separate city from Winnipeg. In 1971, St. Boniface was amalgamated, along with several neighbouring communities, into the City of Winnipeg.
Father Aulneau and Jean-Baptiste de la Vérendrye (the explorer’s eldest son) were massacred in 1736 on the Lake of the Woods by a group of Dakota Sioux warriors. An expedition from St. Boniface College recovered their bodies and repatriated them to St. Boniface in 1908. In the 1970s a commemorative statue and cairn was erected in the cemetery of the Saint Boniface Cathedral. The text on the cairn reads:
IN MEMORIAM JEAN-BAPTISTE LA VÉRENDRYE AND HIS COMPANIONS…On June 6th Father J-P. Aulneau S.J., 31, J.B. La Verendrye, 22, and their 19 companions were killed on an island in the Lake of the Woods. They were the forerunners of the missionaries and voyageurs who established French civilization west of the Great Lakes… GESTA DEI PER FRANCOS.