December 16, 2011

Henri's dream and the freeway

PETER BLACK, Canadian Dispatch

---- — Every day, tens of thousands of motorists in Quebec City take the "Henri IV."

That's the major autoroute (freeway) that starts from the bridges spanning the St. Lawrence River then cuts northward across the city some 10 miles and ends at the gates to the sprawling Canadian Forces Garrison Valcartier.

Quebecers perhaps being more up on their history than other North Americans, many of those motorists might know a bit about this Henri IV. The basics are that Henri was the king of France who made it possible for Samuel de Champlain to establish la nouvelle France and open up North America to European exploration and settlement.

Chances are people would have continued to give Henri IV scant notice were it not for the recent controversy over a proposal to rename Autoroute Henri IV.

Suddenly, 401 years after he died — assassinated by a religious fanatic, as was the fashion back then — this remarkable king, the last Henri and the first Bourbon, is back in the spotlight.

A member of Quebec's National Assembly, Gerard Deltell, has been lobbying since 2009 for the Henri IV to be changed to the Autoroute de la Bravoure (Freeway of Bravery) as a tribute to the soldiers from the Valcartier garrison who risked or sacrificed their lives in Afghanistan. The garrison happens to be in Deltell's constituency.

The renamed highway would be the Quebec equivalent of a stretch of the largest freeway in Ontario, which leads to a major army base. Crowds would gather on overpasses when a convoy passed transporting the patriated bodies of soldiers who died back in Afghanistan.

In 2007, the Ontario government designated the section of the freeway the Highway of Heroes, although the artery in its entirety is still called the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway.

Deltell says the Autoroute de la Bravoure would be a constant and perpetual reminder to motorists of the price paid by Canada's military in the cause of freedom.

The proposal got the support of three of the parties in the National Assembly, the mayor of Quebec City and the chief of the Huron community through which the highway passes.

Regardless, few places in Quebec get named or renamed without the say-so of the provincial toponymy commission. In 2008, the commission rejected the application to erase Henri IV from the highway, but at the beginning of 2011 a new chairperson took over the panel, and she subsequently promised to review the request.

Alarmed by this, Henri IV's supporters, academics, historical societies and letter-writers among them, rushed to the barricades, claiming a figure so critical to the creation of Quebec would be condemned to total obscurity should his name be removed from the road.

The hubbub over Henri comes in the wake of a recent surge in interest in the role the king played in making Champlain's exploits possible. This stems from Quebec City's extensive 400th-anniversary celebrations in 2008, and, in particular, the phenomenal research contained in David Hackett Fischer's "Champlain's Dream," released the same year.

It is Fischer's convincingly argued assertion that Champlain was quite possibly the illegitimate son of the lusty Henri (indeed one of many children he fathered with at least 56 mistresses). This likelihood could bolster the case to retain his name on the freeway.

Henri, Fischer concludes, would have had plenty of opportunity to impregnate Samuel's mother, having "scattered his seed widely through his kingdom."

Henri, being known as a generous and kind king — the presumed source of Herbert Hoover's vow of a "chicken in every pot" — took a shine to his supposed offspring, this keen young Champlain of Brouage, and helped his career along on many occasions and provided him a lifelong pension.

He and Champlain shared the dream of transplanting French civilization in the new world.

You might call Henri the father of the father of New France, and, in the view of many, worthy at the very least of an autoroute named in his honour.

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at