CANADA’S PILGRIM MOTHERS © David Watts 29/02/2004

On Saturday, May 17, 1642 forty people—men, women and children—celebrated the beginning of a new type of settlement on an island in the St. Lawrence River.

Earlier European outposts had been established for trade. Other forts had been built for defence. Missions had been created to convert aboriginals, and refugees had fled Europe for North America to worship and practise religion in their own way.

This settlement was different. Although its inhabitants bartered with the first peoples, it was not built primarily for trade.

Although walls went up to defend it from attack, it was not built primarily for defence.

And although a sense of mission motivated its founders, their primary focus was not to preach to the unconverted. The new settlement would engage in all of these activities at some time. However, its main purpose was not to do but to be a new type of community.

Its raison d’être was to serve anyone in need: aboriginals, passing traders and soldiers, and its own members. Once the outer stockade had gone up, the first building was not a trading post, guardhouse or mansion but a hospital, hostel and hospice: “Hotel Dieu.”

The members called their community “Marytown” (Ville Marie). It became Montreal. Its official leader is usually listed as Paul Chomeday, Sieur de Maisonneuve.

Its real founder was Jeanne Mance, a 35 year old woman who was “a nurse by calling, a businesswoman by nature, an adventurer by temperament and an angel by reputation.”

It was Mance who conceived the plan for a wilderness hospital and raised funds for it. It was she who managed and made it the centrepiece of the community.

Like the earlier French Jeanne who cradled dying soldiers, friend and foe, and heard their confessions, Mance rescued and nursed an Iroquois chief who had been wounded in an attack on the settlement and left outside the walls.

Believing their chief had been murdered, the Iroquois returned in a few days to renew the attack. On the fourth assault the wounded chief asked to be carried to the scene and cried:

Look—I am your brother, and you would kill my best friends!” The fighting stopped.

Mance was one of a remarkable group of women who shaped our national spirit before there was a Canada. Four others—two Maries and two Marguerites—also stand out:

Marie-Madeleine de la Peltrie and Marie de l’Incarnation were founders of the Québec Ursuline community in the same year that Maisonneuve and Mance founded Montreal.

Marguerite d’Youville founded the Quebec Sisters of Charity (Grey Nuns) five years before. She was head of the Montreal General Hospital when she died in 1771.

Marguerite Bourgeoys was an educator who came to Montreal 20 years after Mance to open schools—beginning in a stable—and integrate les filles du roi into the new society.

Explorers, traders and priests had come with their own agendas. These Pilgrim Mothers were the first Europeans to bring qualities of life that made this a home for newcomers.

Unlike the English speaking pilgrims who founded a colony 220 miles southeast and 22 years earlier, these were not fleeing religious persecution nor did they persecute others.

They came with a vision of a place they had never seen: the meeting of two great rivers in the New World, and a vision of what they could build there.

While many of them set up religious communities, most were not religious professionals before they came. The Church of their time provided the support structure for their work.

Nor were they confirmed spinsters. The Maries had been married, Madame de la Peltrie twice. Mance saw herself married to her new homeland and its children as her own.

These women gave the European colony a feminine, human and humane face. Hôtel Dieu was the first hospital in the new world.

Canada was only an emerging concept—its name an aboriginal word for a group of huts, village or meeting place. But the meeting place these women envisaged became a model for the country that would grow from it.

A safe haven, a healing place, the good medicine of a multiethnic community on a waterway leading to the heart of a continent.

Fathers of Confederation, railway builders and future developers would build on that foundation: an idea so simple and so subtle that we often overlook it.

For years we pondered our national identity, wondered why we were here. Some, who see a country only in terms of language, culture and economy, still ask that.

If we put that question to Mance or either of the two Maries or Marguerites, their answer would be immediate and to the point: “We’re here to serve anyone who needs us.”

This is a credo for Kanata: the global village in a world learning to live without boundaries. When we’re doing this, we’re being what we’re meant to be.

When we get caught up in flag-waving, defining ourselves and describing what makes us unique, we’re missing it—like the lawyer who asked a rabbi “Who is my neighbour?”

The rabbi didn’t answer the question. He didn’t try to define neighbour as a concept. Instead he told a story, of a man who fell into difficult circumstances. Then he asked his questioner: Who acted as a neighbour to the one in the story?

When the lawyer replied “the one who showed mercy,” the teacher replied “Well said—now you go and walk the walk!”

That injunction—the example of Canada’s Pilgrim Mothers almost 400 years ago—is what it means to be Canadian, to be human, to be a citizen of the world.

In 1929 a British High Court upheld an appeal from five women in Canada, that “women are persons” in law. 300 years earlier five women of French descent showed it in fact.