Sun, May 27, 2007 - Page 18 News List

Paul Chiasson: Charlatan or discoverer of extraordinary history?

`The Island of Seven Cities,' written by the Toronto architect, has sparked a heated debate on whether the Chinese were the first foreigners to settle in Canada

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

More evidence is presented in this book than it's possible to detail here. Prominent are arguments about the conceivable influence of Chinese on the Native American Mi'kmaq language, and about characteristic Chinese building techniques and habits that make, in the author's eyes, the remains at Cape Dauphin unlike anything that might have been constructed by Vikings, Portuguese, and so on.

What is hard to understand is why, if there are what look like grave mounds on Cape Dauphin, they haven't been excavated, and any human remains subjected to mitochondrial DNA analysis. Results of this kind of scientific investigation would then take over from mud-slinging on the Internet, such as the accusation that Library and Archives Canada, in cataloguing this book as history rather than fiction, is merely advancing "a publisher's plans to deceive the public" (maritimeasia.ws/topic/1421bunkum.html).

Even so, the more you look at the widespread rejection of Menzies' thesis by professional historians, the more you come to wonder about the general approach of Chiasson's contribution to the phenomenon. It it's not only his inclusion of the HIV material — it's also his frequent citing of his Acadian (French American) ancestry. Of course, this may just be local color, something intended to give added vibrancy to a chatty yarn aimed at the general reader. But it could also be perceived as a kind of special pleading. Surely such an authentic Cape Breton resident, and someone whose life is at risk into the bargain, couldn't be guilty of simply adding fuel to the flames of what may in essence be simply a piece of under-researched populist myth-making?

In the final analysis you can't be sure. The Internet abounds with people with axes to grind, and this book itself describes activists at the Washington symposium who were out to discredit the entire Chinese-in-America hypothesis. All in all, though, the general state of research, and the limited scope of this new contribution to it, make it best to conclude that the arrival of Chinese mariners on the North American coast before that of the Europeans remains a conceivable, though so far decidedly unproven, scenario.

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