June 26 is the anniversary of a momentous, yet little-known event in Canadian history. On this day in 1604, about 100 men sailed five French ships into Passamaquoddy Bay — at the mouth of the St. Croix River that divides what is now New Brunswick and Maine — and established, on a small island which they named Île Ste.-Croix, the beginnings of permanent French settlement in North America.
In the previous century Jacques Cartier and other explorers had attempted to create colonies — on Sable Island; along the St. Lawrence River; and in Florida — but all were eventually destroyed, and the surviving colonists returned to France. From Île Ste.-Croix, however, the colonists would go on to found settlements in Nova Scotia and Québec, building a lasting French presence on the continent.
Among those to arrive in 1604 was cartographer Samuel de Champlain. But the leader of the fledgling colony was Pierre Du Gua de Monts, who had been granted royal patents to exploit the fur trade in North America and establish the colony of Acadia.
While Champlain explored the Bay of Fundy and the coastline south to Maine, de Monts and his men cleared land and built dwellings on Île Ste.-Croix, amid the summer heat, the stinging blackflies, and the watchful eyes of the Etechemin people — ancestors of those who today call themselves Passamaquoddy.
Passamaquoddy Bay was a rich, saltwater resource for Aboriginal people, who harvested clams and cod, and hunted seal and porpoise from skin boats that plied the coastline.
A small group of friendly Etechemin guided the French newcomers on their voyage into the bay. Champlain's journals say their Aboriginal guides camped that summer on the southern end of Île Ste.-Croix and also worked in the settlement's kitchens. It's a mystery, then, why the French didn't learn from the Etechemin not to isolate themselves on the island during the coming winter, which nearly destroyed them.
As the river filled with ice floes, the French were cut off from the mainland. They ran out of food and firewood, and almost half the men died. The survivors were rescued the following March by Aboriginal people returning to the island bringing fresh game, water and other goods.
In the summer of 1605, de Monts and Champlain dismantled the St. Croix settlement and moved the colony across the Bay of Fundy to Port-Royal, Nova Scotia.
In June 2004, hundreds gathered in a field in New Brunswick, overlooking the small island (now a US-administered historic park) in the middle of the St. Croix River, to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the French in the New World. A parade of boats moved slowly up the river, flying huge ghostly-white sheets meant to look like the sails of the original ships. Then there were speeches by US Ambassador to Canada, the late Paul Cellucci, and Prime Minister Paul Martin, who had stopped at the ceremony in the midst of a federal election campaign.
“A small group of soldiers, settlers and craftsmen landed on this spot,” said Martin. “Confronted with a rugged environment, but filled with dreams of adventure, riches of a better life, they wrote an illustrious chapter in the history of our continent.”
Perhaps the most poignant words spoken that day were from New Brunswick Passamaquoddy Chief Hugh Akagi:
“My people acted nobly in accepting other cultures into their territory. This deserves respect,” he said. “If you have need to celebrate the survival of one winter in our territory, then we have great need to celebrate our existence here for the past thousands of years.”