Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Bridge Too Far

A digital rendering of the as-of-yet-non-existant "Maurice
Richard" or "Champlain" bridge.  Image: Infrastructure Canada.

On November 1st, it was announced that the federal government would likely name the new bridge which will be built across the St. Lawrence River, linking the Island of Montreal to the south shore, in honour of hockey legend Maurice "Rocket" Richard. Fine.  Trouble is, though, that this bridge is set to replace another one which has borne the name of Samuel de Champlain since 1962. 

Let's be clear: federal spokespeople insist that the name has not been finalized yet.  Still...  The rumour that the new bridge might be given a name other than Champlain's had been circulating for the last two years or so.  Because this is a federal bridge, the choice of its name rests with the federal -- i.e. Harper Conservative -- government.  You would think that they might have thought long and hard about the thorny politics of naming, and taken good care to consult widely, but no.  That is not the governing party's style.  Neither historians, nor experts in toponymy, nor provicincial nor local politicians, nor the people were consulted.  The announcement earlier this week that the federal Minister of Transport, Denis Lebel, prefers the name "Maurice Richard" was accordingly met with generalized outrage.

Henri Dorion, who has long presided over the Commission de toponymie du Québec, put it well: "Donner le nom d'un ouvrage d'une telle importance à un joueur de hockey, je n'en reviens pas. C'est comme dire que Maurice Richard est aussi important que Champlain."  Political scientist Alain-G. Gagnon also summed it up neatly, saying that « le ministre Lebel opte pour le spectacle plutôt que la longue histoire ».  Historian Denis Vaugeois too offered a thoughtful analysis of the situation, noting that a lot of important place names have been lost and gained over the years, and that if a new name was truly necessary, "Maurice Richard reste le moins pire des choix".  But it's rather strange, he points out, that the federal government seems to remember the Rocket's abundant goals, and not so much the massive rioting that was provoked by the intersection of his fame with tensions across the linguistic divide in 1950s Montreal. 

The governing Parti libéral du Québec tried to wash its hands of the whole affair at first, saying that the choice of name was up to the federal government, but now seems to have come around to condemning the imprudence of the likely choice.  Philippe Couillard, the provincial premier, deplored quite rightly that "Ce qui est regrettable dans cette polémique, c’est qu’on met en opposition un peu artificielle deux personnages importants pour des raisons différentes".

François Hollande, the president of France, who happens to be touring Canada this week, has meanwhile been alluding to Champlain in his speeches, but has not dared to enter the fray. 

My favourite comment though was by a commenter who wrote in to La Presse, joking that Americans have not yet thought it wise to rename Lake Champlain "Babe Ruth Lake".  Indeed. 

For a taste of the media storm, just type "Pont Champlain" or "Champlain Bridge" in GoogleNews and hang on tight.

Given the strength of the opposition and the federal's insistence that no official decision has been made yet, I expect that the old name will be retained for the new project.  Soon all of this will be... water under the Champlain bridge.  Groan.



  1. Correction, Hollande apparently entered the fray today, gently, declaring: “We are witnessing a strong manifestation of respect for the memory of Samuel de Champlain" “Perhaps a way can be found to equally honour the memory of Maurice Richard.”

  2. Qui est Samuel de Champlain?


    Soldat Sanspareil
    Chevalier de St-Véran
    2ème bataillon du régiment de la Sarre
    Vive le Roy!
    François Mitterrand
    Un peuple qui n’enseigne pas son histoire est un peuple qui perd son identité