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The French Connection: The kings of France who shaped Canada

In February 2019, the Senate moved to the Senate of Canada Building, a former train station built in 1912. The Senate is expected to occupy its temporary location for at least 10 years while Parliament’s Centre Block — the Senate’s permanent home — is rehabilitated.

Although Centre Block is shuttered for rehabilitation work, Canadians can still experience its art and architecture through the Senate’s immersive virtual tour.

With a single command in 1534, François I, King of France, laid the foundation for the vibrant francophone presence of modern-day Canada.

The aging monarch had survived war and prison, and watched the plague take his mother.

And then, as he turned 40, he sent Jacques Cartier to North America, where the famous explorer established a French presence on the continent that still thrives today.

Nearly 500 years later, the king’s likeness stares out at senators and visitors to the new Senate of Canada Building from a heavy gilt frame, as if to supervise the country he helped to create.

The portrait of François I is part of a collection that used to hang in the Salon de la Francophonie in Centre Block and is on loan to the Senate from the National Capital Commission.

But with renovations forcing Centre Block to close, the portraits were given a new home and a place of prominence in the Senate’s expansive foyer, which was once the ticketing block of Ottawa’s grandest train station.

The Salon de la Francophonie paid homage to one of the founding peoples of Canada; the nine French kings on its walls reigned as New France was settled.

For Senator Serge Joyal, P.C. — who donated the art to the National Capital Commission’s Crown Collection of the Official Residences through the Canadiana Fund — it was important to keep these paintings accessible to the public to recognize the prominent role that French language and culture played in Canadian history.

“These French kings shaped Canada into the country that it is today,” Senator Joyal said.

“Modern Canada remains a proud part of the French-speaking world and we can trace that back to François I and to Jacques Cartier.”

Exhibition preparators from Bouwdesign carefully unwrap a portrait of King Henri III, who encouraged further exploration and the development of France’s New World colonies after ascending the throne in 1574. All nine portraits were mounted, then sealed up in a protective case of clear acrylic.

Freshly uncrated, Henri III appears to watch with trepidation as exhibition preparators settle his portrait onto a custom-built mounting in the foyer of the Senate of Canada Building in October 2019.

A bronze relief portrait of King Henri IV receives minute adjustments as his son, King Louis XIII looks on. Henri IV had brought peace to France and bolstered the development of his New World colonies before his death in 1610. Louis XIII was less fortunate. During his reign, settlement of the colonies fell, the fur trade suffered and, in 1629, Quebec surrendered to the English. Though it was returned to France three years later, business never fully recovered.

Exhibition preparators make adjustments to the mounting for the portrait of the Sun King, Louis XIV. During his 72-year-long reign, France became Europe’s leading power and France’s colonies prospered after he signed a peace accord with the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy in 1701. To his right is a portrait of his great-grandson and heir, King Louis XV, who couldn’t live up to his famous great-grandfather. Louis XV’s forces were driven out of New France during the Seven Years War and the power of the French monarchy began its decline.

Portraits of French kings that used to hang in the Salon de la Francophonie in Centre Block are illuminated in their new home in the Senate of Canada Building. The painting of King François I, who sent explorer Jacques Cartier to the New World in 1534 and who ushered in the French Renaissance, hangs at the far left.


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