Does the Jake Gaudaur bridge really exist?

Submitted by: Micheline Marchand, MNO citizen

Jake Gaudaur
Jacob Gaudaur in 1898. (Picture source: J Gaudaur
Oarsman (HS85-10-10053), 1898, photo: Edwards
Brothers, Canada. Patent and Copyright Office, Library and
Archives Canada, British Library). Click here to view a
larger version of the picture.

This article is part of a series of texts entitled, Thirty and a half useful facts worth knowing about the Great Lakes Métis. The author and Métis Nation of Ontario citizen Micheline Marchand, would like to thank the Ontario Arts Council—an Ontario government agency, for its support.

Every day, thousands of motorists drive over Métis Jake Gaudaur’s back. He has a solid build, made of steel and concrete. When I cross the provincial government bridge on Highway 12 that spans the straights separating Lakes Couchiching and Simcoe, I am proud to be on the Jake Gaudaur Bridge. At least that’s what I thought up until the fall of 2015.

Why does the Métis Jacob Gill “Jake” Gaudaur Senior deserve to have a bridge named in his honour? Gaudaur was born on April 3rd, 1858, very close to this bridge. He is the descendant of a few of the major founding families of the City of Orillia: the Gills, on his mother’s side, and, on his father’s side, his grandparents are the fur traders, Antoine Godard and Mary Shilling, the daughter of the Chippewa chief Big Shilling. At the beginning of the 19th century when the latter couple settled in Orillia to raise a family, they were among the community’s first inhabitants.

But Jake Gaudaur is known mainly for his sporting feats. The list of Métis coureurs des bois, Métis voyageurs, Métis soldiers, Métis traders, is long.  But it’s not the case when it comes to Métis that have become professional athletes.

Gaudaur quickly made his mark in the sports’ world by becoming a rowing champion. He would train by rowing between 11 to 32 kilometers twice a day on Lakes Couchiching and Simcoe. In 1887, he beat Ned Hanlan, rowing champion of the world at that time. In 1892, he and his American teammate, George Hosmer, won the double sculls title during the World rowing championships held on Lake Couchiching. A year later, in a race held in Austin, Texas, Gaudaur set a world record in the single scull competitions covering a distance of 4.8 km with a turn. The following year he smashed his own record. In 1896, he won the world single scull competition that took place on the Thames River in England, a title he will successfully defend for five years.

But even after leaving the world of competitive rowing, Gaudaur continued to work out on the water of his home town, but in another more typically Métis sport. According to the writer Stephen Leacock, this man he rubbed shoulders with for nearly a quarter century was both an exceptional fishing guide and a good companion. Leacock was inspired to write the story Bass fishing on Lake Simcoe with Jake Gaudaur, published in 1939, in which he reminisces about Gaudaur and the good times they shared. Leacock describes Gaudaur in the following manner:

Jake was of mixed French and Indian descent but belonged in the Lake Simcoe country (…) Jake was a magnificent figure of a man; he stood nicely over six feet in his stocking feet —the only way we ever measure people up there.  He was broad in the shoulders, straight as a lath, and till the time when he died, just short of eighty, he could pick up the twenty-pound anchor of his motor boat and throw it round like a tack-hammer.  Jake—standing erect in the bow of his motor boat and looking out to the horizon, his eyes shaded with his hand—might have stood for the figure of Oshkosh, war chief of the Wisconsin Indians. 

For Leacock, this Métis seems to be the incarnation of the noble savage myth.

Jake Gaudaur, who spent his whole life plying the waters that make Orillia a charming place, acquired an intimate knowledge of them. Right up until two months before his death, he continued to run his boat livery and fishing expedition business. He was 79 years-old when he died on October 11th, 1937, in the family home located on the Atherley straights.

And that is why Jake Gaudaur is remembered. However, the particular way his lifetime achievements have been commemorated have a, well… Métis character. In 1960, the City of Orillia erected a plaque in his honour. In 2004, it was stolen. Ten years later, on May 31st, 2014, the Ontario Heritage Fund put up a new one, unveiled in Centennial Park at the Port of Orillia. My initial research about Gaudaur indicated that the bridge spanning the Atherley straights was named after him. A plaque and a provincial bridge to honour him. Not bad for a Métis man!

But hold on. Let’s not get carried away in heaping praise on this illustrious man.  Imagine how stunned I was when I learned that, officially, the bridge is not named after Gaudaur as I thought. In fact, nothing indicates what the bridge is called.  No sign.  I checked.  The regional office of the Provincial highways management division confirmed in a series of emails I exchanged with them that, according to their maps and files, the bridge is called the Atherley Narrows bridge, and nothing would indicate that it has ever been called the Jake Gaudaur bridge as well, or that it has ever been dedicated to the memory of our Métis athlete.

Nevertheless, in the Orillia area itself, the municipality and others often refer to this bridge as the Gaudaur bridge, a fact that municipal clerical staff confirmed when I phoned them. I have also seen the name appear in various publications. In The Orillia Spirit: An Illustrated History of Orillia, published in 1996, on page 82, Randy Richmond states: “The bridge over The Narrows is named after him (Gaudaur).”  In Atherley Narrows fishing weirs, part 2, Local science and nature series, The Packet & Times, December 14th, 2012 www.orilliapacket.com/2012/12/14/local-science-and-nature), Bob Bowles writes: “The seventh traffic bridge and the first that did not swing was built and named the Jake Gaudaur Bridge in 1964.” The Orillia Hall of Fame committee: “The Bridge at the Narrows is now called ‘Jake Gaudaur Bridge’ ” (Orillia Hall of Fame, 2008, p. 4). The web site cruising.ca: “The bridge commonly known as the Atherley Narrows bridge but is officially the Jake Gaudaur Bridge…” (www.cruising.ca/trent/docs/L-simc_6.html).

In an article by Sara Carson summarizing an Orillia municipal council meeting, the journalist, referring to the discussion around renaming the Highway 12 bypass, writes: “The bypass runs from the Atherley Narrows bridge, legally named the Jake Gaudaur Bridge, to Old Barrie Road.”  She goes on to quote councilor Pete Bowen: “Because Gaudaur has already been honoured with the naming of the Jake Gaudaur Bridge, council should look at honouring other Orillians” (Orillia Packet, July 4th, 2011).

I still don’t understand how it is that many Orillians believed, and still believe, that the bridge is officially named after Gaudaur when the Province of Ontario categorically says that it’s not the case.

It would be appropriate to honour Jake Gaudaur, a descendant of the City of Orillia’s first pioneers, by acknowledging him and having the bridge officially bear his name. There should be a plaque on the bridge to clearly, proudly and categorically show the bridge’s true name.  Maybe then the thousands of cars that cross his back every day wouldn’t malign the memory of Jake Gaudaur and the invisible history of the Métis as much.

Published on: September 21, 2016                                                              

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