Let’s put David Thompson and wife on 25-year-old loonie .. to celebrate the real history of Canada

Jul 6th, 2012 | By | Category: Heritage Now

This past Saturday, June 30, 2012, marked “25 years since Canada ditched its one-dollar bill in favour of a gold-coloured coin.”

Every time I go to the United States, I still remember the alternative convenience of having several lightweight $1 bills in your pocket. I nonetheless agree that “while the move was somewhat controversial at the time … Canadians took quickly to the coin that was soon dubbed the ‘loonie,’ for the image of a common loon found on its tail.”

To celebrate the 25th anniversary, the Canadian Mint has cast a silver plated commemorative edition of the coin. And : “Starting on July 16, loonie fans can scoop up the new 25th anniversary commemorative edition … at Canada Post outlets or on the Mint’s website.” The “new design recalls Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and transitions. Two loons pass each other on the lake – one looking squarely into the past, while the other heads toward the future.”

(I do realize btw that, officially, it is still known as the “Royal Canadian Mint.” But this is Canada, where we have a long history of ignoring such obscure oligarchical nomenclature. As far as I’m concerned, the Mint belongs to we the Canadian people who pay the taxes to support it – not to the offshore British monarch, as admirable as the current occupant of that office may be. I might also mention that, as best I can make out, all Canadian taxpayers who do want to scoop up a commemorative silver loonie on or after July 16 will have to give the Mint “$24.95 CAD.”)

What I would really like to see at some point later this year myself is some fresh design on the other “head” side of the coin – the one that doesn’t have “the image of a common loon … on its tail.” And I have finally decided on what certainly strikes me as an excellent option. (Not just because I think I have thought of it myself, I hasten to add. Others, I am sure, have thought the same thing before me – as does seem to happen with almost everything else I seem to think.)

What I would endorse (or second or whatever the proper term is) as a new head for a new post 25th anniversary loonie is an image of the great Canadian explorer, fur trader, and map maker, David Thompson (1770—1857) and his wife Charlotte Small. And in case you are wondering just what this image might look like, there is already an evocative statue of the pair in Invermere, BC.

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Postage stamp commemorating David Thompson (1770-1857), issued 5 June 1957 by Canada Post, five days before the 1957 Canadian federal election that first brought the Progressive Conservatives led by John Diefenbaker from Saskatchewan to power in Ottawa.

In fact (and despite what some will tell you), David Thompson and his wife Charlotte have played a more important role in Canadian history than any British monarch, from Henry VII at the time of John Cabot in 1497, all the way to the present. The story was sketched at some length on this website about four and a half years ago now by the estimable C.M.W. Marcel, in “David Thompson’s Canadian West .. and east .. and the Métis middle ground today.”

Just to summarize, as quickly as I can, there are two strands in the essential argument. To quote from M. Marcel’s opus on the day before Christmas 2007, “David Thompson was born in England (of Welsh parents), and then recruited from the Grey Coat School in London – a charitable institution for poor boys –  for service with the fur-trading Hudson’s Bay Company in northern North America. He arrived at the bleak outpost of Churchill Factory on the forbidding shores of Hudson Bay in September 1784, a year after the end of the American War of Independence, when he was just 14 years old.”

Wedding of David Thompson and Charlotte Small, at Isle a la Crosse in present-day Saskatchewan, June 10, 1799.

Thompson remained in what is now Canada for the rest of his long life. Especially after he moved from the Hudson’s Bay Company to the rival North West Company, headquartered in Montreal, he played a major role in the discovery, opening, and mapping of what is now the Canadian West – or even, if you like, the region west of the Ottawa River that includes present-day Ontario, as well as Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and BC. And in the process of all this “David Thompson ‘became fluent in French, Cree and likely Blackfoot and acquired a working knowledge of several other native languages.’”

Thompson’s second great act of modern Canadianism, as it were (and quoting the estimable M. Marcel once again), was that, early on in his explorations, “he ‘took a country wife of aboriginal descent, a common practice among fur traders, but defied convention and settled with her and their children in a pioneer society where bigotry and prejudice were prevalent’ … As the film maker Tom Radford has somewhat more exotically put the matter: ‘In the course of his journeys, Thompson married a Métis woman, Charlotte Small, The Woman of the Paddle Song. Travelling by birch bark canoe, teaching each other the peculiarities of a different culture, they were among the first explorers of what it means to be Canadian’” in the 21st century.

David & Charlotte Thompson's gravesite at Mount Royal Cemetery Montreal, Quebec, © Parks Canada.

The marriage of David Thompson and Charlotte Small endured for 58 years – and was only broken up by Thompson’s death in what is now Longueuil, Quebec on February 10, 1857, at the ripe old age of 87. And, in the words of C.M.W. Marcel one last time, “one thing we do know quite exactly about David Thompson in his oldest age is that, according to his grandson, William David Scott, the old man ‘cared nothing for society and showed a preference for the companionship of his wife rather than anybody else.’ Charlotte would seem to have returned the favour. She died at the age of 71 on May 4, 1857, only three months after her husband’s death.”

A Canada which especially sides with the one of the two northern North American birds on the 2012 commemorative silver loonie that “heads toward the future” could do itself a world of good by putting David and Charlotte Thompson on the head of a new loonie $1 coin for the 21st century! No doubt it will not actually happen in 2012, but … there are still many other years of the 21st century that lie ahead.

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  1. I will be visiting Montreal on Feb. 25—28th. Is it possible to visit David Thompson and Charlotte Small’s gravesight?

    Pat Collins
    St. Albert, AB

  2. Hello Patrick Collins : David Thompson and Charlotte Small are buried in Mount Royal Cemetery, 1297, chemin de la Foret, in the Outremont neighbourhood of Montreal, in Section C5, Grave 507. The postal code of the Cemetery is H2V 2P9, and the Phone: 514-279-7358.
    The Cemetery website notes that “a printed guide is available for a self guided walking tour of the historic persons buried in Mount Royal Cemetery.” Presumably the guide can be obtained at the Main Gates. During the winter the Main Gates are open Monday – Friday 8:00 am – 5:00 pm, and Saturday – Sunday 9:00 am – 5:00 pm. Prospective visitors would probably be well advised to contact Mount Royal Cemetery directly for any further information. They can also check out the cemetery website at http://mountroyalcem.com/. Good luck and best wishes.

  3. I just found out that I am a descendant of David Thompson. I did not know that this man was such a figure for Canada. I am even more proud to be Canadian.

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