In Search of Big Joe Mufferaw

Big Joe Mufferaw paddled into Mattawa
All the way from Ottawa, in just one day.
On the River Ottawa, the best man we ever saw
Was Big Joe Mufferaw, the old folks say….
Come and listen while I tell you what the old folks say.

So goes the song by Stompin’ Tom Connors. When I first heard it, Stompin’ Tom was talking to Peter Gzowski on Morningside about his new album, describing Big Joe as “kind of a Canadian Paul Bunyan,” the hero of innumerable tall tales. It’s still one of my favourites among Stompin’ Tom’s 300 songs, the lovely legacy of a plain-spoken, plain-singing man from Skinner’s Pond, PEI, who loved nothing better than to sing the stories of ordinary Canadians – tobacco harvesters, smelter workers, hockey players, truck drivers, and loggers like Joseph Montferrand, the 19th-century strongman whose name was ultimately mispronounced as “Joe Mufferaw.”

Somewhere along the line I heard that a statue of Big Joe had been erected in Mattawa. So when I realized in early May that our motor home Merlin would be rolling through Mattawa on our way home to the Maritimes from BC, I insisted on stopping to find the statue and have my picture taken with Big Joe.

And that’s how we discovered Mattawa, pop. 2000, a charming little brick-built Ontario town, reminiscent of Stephen Leacock’s Mariposa, with a well-preserved Main Street – also named “Monestime Street” in honour of Dr. Firmin Monestine, Canada’s first black mayor. And, as we rolled onto Monestime Street, there it was – a large, varnished wooden statue of a man in pioneer garb. Big Joe Mufferaw, right?

Wrong. The street was punctuated with big wooden statues – a priest, an indigenous man with a feather in his headband, noble-looking fellows in fringed jackets and boots. At the end of the street, walking our two Shelties in a little park by the broad, fast-flowing river, I found the explanation on a plaque. Mattawa stands at the junction of the Ottawa and Mattawa Rivers, a key spot on the canoe route westward for explorers, traders, missionaries and others. The Mattawa joins the Ottawa with Lake Nipissing and the French River — which we had just passed — leading onward to the upper Great Lakes, the Prairies, and ultimately the Pacific Coast.

Broadly speaking, Merlin had just retraced the old canoe route in reverse. Here in Mattawa, we were crossing paths with the great French figures of western exploration, the people we learned about in school – Samuel de Champlain, Radisson and Groseilliers, La Verendrye, Fathers Brebeuf and Lalemant – not to mention Alexander Mackenzie, who made the first coast-to-coast crossing of Canada in 1793, and Grey Owl, whose wife was from Mattawa.

Those are the people whose imposing wooden statues stand all along Monestime Street – which, along with the authentic streetscape itself, tells me that Mattawa understands the importance of its history, and is proud to assert its pivotal role in the story of Canada. Maritime municipalities, please take note. Stop putting the wrecking ball through the buildings that embody your own unique stories. Preserve some streetscapes. Commission some statues.

But the statue that is not on Monestime Street is the statue of Big Joe Mufferaw. So where was that? I asked a school crossing guard. Oh, he said, Big Joe is across the bridge, in front of the museum.

With the dogs, we crossed the Mattawa River on the elegant steel bridge and stopped in front of the log-built replica of old Fort Mattawa, which stands in a rolling green riverside park. No statue. No statue at the back, no statue anywhere.

I walked across the street to a second-hand store. Pardon me, but isn’t the Big Joe Mufferaw statue somewhere around here?

Oh, dat, he said, in a strong French accent, dey took it down. It was all rotten. One of de arms fell off, nearly hurt someone. I hear dey’re making a new one, maybe for dis summer.

Ah. Well, damn.

We re-crossed the bridge, and Marjorie took photos of me and the dogs with the statues of Mackenzie and Groseilliers instead. Here I am with Médard Chouart des Groseilliers. We bought excellent poutine from a street vendor, ate it, and steered Merlin east towards Ottawa and home.

Big Joe Mufferaw paddled into Mattawa,  all the way from Ottawa in just one day.

So how far is that, anyway? I can tell you now: three hundred kilometers, and the man who could paddle that distance, upstream, in a single day, surely was “the best man we ever saw.” He deserves the place in our story that Stompin’ Tom secured for him. And I’m very glad that he led us to Mattawa. I’m just sorry to have missed him.

In other news, we did get back to Nova Scotia early last week, after 6400 kilometers and nearly three weeks on the road. Before we’ve really unpacked, however, Merlin is on the road again for a few days in and around Halifax. Next Friday, May 19, at 1:15, I’ll be making a presentation at the annual conference of EECOM, The Canadian Network for Environmental Education and Communication, on the campus of Acadia University in Wolfville, NS followed by a screening of the film . The presentation takes place from 1:15 to 2:30, and the screening from 3:00 to 4:00, with an open discussion afterward.

Then I hop in the car and whisk off to Mahone Bay for a screening at 7:00 sponsored by the South Shore Chapter of the Council of Canadians and the Friends of Nature.

Next, on June 2-3, Marjorie and I are featured — along with our friend Lorrie Neilsen Glenn — at the Hubbards Writers Festival, also on the South Shore in the lovely village of Hubbards. But that event doesn’t involve the film, though the DVD and the book Warrior Lawyers will be available there.

The next actual screenings of the film are on June 10 in Tatamagouche, NS, details TBA, and July 1 at the public library in Margaree Forks, Cape Breton. And at that point we’re going to take Merlin, park him on the beach at MacLeod’s Campsite in Dunvegan, and enjoy the sun and the sand for a couple of days. Summer, at last — or so we hope!