Chrestien Le Clercq
Fr. Chrestien Le Clercq (priest, Recollet missionary, author) was born in 1641 at Bapaume commune in Pas-de-Calais, France (Le Clercq et al. 3). In 1668, he joined the Recollets of Saint-Antoine-de-Padoue in Artois. On 15 March 1675, he was appointed to the missions in Canada (Dumas). Later that year, he left for the missions in Gaspé. He reached Percé, which served as a shelter for French fishermen, on 27 October of the same year (Le Clercq et al. 5). Le Clercq seems to have been the first missionary of his order to be assigned specifically to the Micmacs, whom he called Gaspésiens. He quickly learned their language, at least in his telling, and taught them religion through a system of figurative letters that he invented (“Chrestien Leclercq”). This hieroglyphic writing remained in use and served as the basis for present-day translations from oral forms. Le Clercq also composed a dictionary for future apostles to these Indigenous peoples.
Father Le Clercq is mostly remembered for the two volumes he published recounting his times among this Indigenous population in eastern Canada. The first is Nouvelle relation de la Gaspésie, published in Paris in 1691 and Lyon in 1692. This 600-page book provides numerous spatial descriptions of the Gaspé and provides a map drawn by his friend Father Emmanuel Jumeau. Its descriptions concentrate especially on the life, culture, politics, traditions, and origins of Indigenous inhabitants. He starts the book by describing the area, clearly aware of his larger European readership:
The Gulf of Saint Lawrence lies right across the ancient way to Canada, and all that part of its coast which is south of the track of the ships forms a remarkable semicircle, sweeping grandly round from Gaspé on the north to the Isle of Cape Breton on the east. This region exhibits physical features so different, and has had a history and development so largely distinct, from Canada on the west and Acadia on the south, as to make it well-nigh, even though not quite, an independent geographical and historical province. (Le Clercq et al.)
The writing often appears uneven because he used previously written personal letters to compose the book. As the book goes on, however, the descriptions become clearer and more fluid. While some of Le Clercq’s opinions of the people of Gaspé are positive, such as his description of the quiet beauty of the women, others are negative and unfounded, such as his mention of occasional cannibalism or his comments about ignorance. Later critics have questioned Nouvelle relation de la Gaspésie’s value or usefulness because of this. Father Charlevoix, a rival Jesuit, declared that “there is not enough of interest in it to fill a volume of 600 pages” (qtd. in Dumas). Most historians now agree that Le Clercq’s book is valuable because of its early examination, however biased, of the lives of Indigenous populations living in Gaspé during the 17th-century.
Father Le Clercq’s other important work, entitled Premier établissement de la foy dans la Nouvelle-France, also published in 1691, was reprinted the same year under the title Établissement de la foy. In 1692, a second edition, entitled Histoire des colonies françaises, was published in Lyon (Dumas). Établissement de la foy differs from Nouvelle relation in how the work is conceived. Le Clercq writes the latter as a historian instead of a witness. Although at times inaccurate, the second book is another valuable source of information about the early history of Canada, particularly New France. Father Le Clercq’s work thus is valuable from social, religious, and historical points of view. That work continues to be a valuable primary source of information about colonial Canada and its Indigenous peoples.
Katherine Sorrell Kirkpatrick, Spring 2019
St. Thomas University
Bibliography of Primary Sources
Le Clercq, Chrestien, et al. New Relation of Gaspesia: With the Customs and Religion of the Gaspesian Indians. Toronto: Champlain Society, 1910.
Le Clercq, Chrestien, and John Gilmary Shea. First Establishment of the Faith in New France. New York: J.G. Shea, 1881.
Bibliography of Secondary Sources
“Chrestien Leclercq.” Catholic Online. Your Catholic Voice Foundation. 15 Feb. 2019
Dumas, G.M. “LeClercq, Chrestien.” Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. 1. Toronto, ON: U of Toronto P, 1966. Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. 2003. U of Toronto/U Laval. 26 Feb. 2019