L’affaire du Québec (parlez-nous)

A review of contemporary arts in la belle province

Where do the Bonhommes go?

Prepared 6 April 2009 for Prof. Caroline Prud’Homme (UNI202H1S, University of Toronto).

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A casual examination of Québec’s francophone history during the twentieth century reveals a rich body of cultural artefacts. They shaped the province and reflected how those changes were manifest. It is through the agency of these expressions in direction, resolution, and myth-making that a Québécois narrative emerged with a diversified, yet recognizable voice. Further, it is through these deliberate acts of creative production which Québec’s novel placement within North America begins to assume a unique form. A strained, yet inevitably symbiotic relationship with a largely English-speaking Canada to its west; the Maritimes to the east; the U.S. to the south; displaced Cree and Inuit nations to its north, and the Haudenosaunee within its most populated corridors, frame not only its linguistic bounds, but also the challenges it faced with expressing world views which distinguished it from its neighbours. Five cultural lenses — a Roman Catholic provenance; a colonial French foundation; an uneasy pan-Canadian alliance; a determination for self-definition; and the ways these shaped social intersections of gender, ethnicity, and class — help to review historic challenges Québec experienced. What resonates is how these core elements of identity and culture ring familiar to not only Canadians, but also to the human condition more broadly. Self-definition, autonomy, and resistance to globalized homogeneity are anchors around which Québec’s literary, theatric, and performative principals have challenged its complicated history and proposed possible destinies.

Jean Lesage’s election to premiership in 1960 signified a watershed moment which set the Quiet Revolution, or La Révolution tranquille, into motion. Not since Confederation or the Treaty of Paris (La Conquête) in 1763 did any one event so substantively reshape Québec’s narrative by facilitating a redefinition of shared values, ideas, and perceptions of national self. A generation aiming for political independence (bookended by the FLQ’s abductions and the second referendum on sovereignty, respectively) perpetuated Québec’s unique path. By October 1995, the referendum movement had coalesced following significant disruptions in economic globalization. Neoliberal free trade agreements like the CUFTA and NAFTA shifted means of production and exchange from an intra-national to a transnational scope.

André Fortin’s “La rue principale”, as recorded by Les Colocs (1993), reflects sardonically on this disruption. As multinational chain retailers and fast food joints replaced family-run businesses, the bucolic myth of main street life and tight-knit communities were seemingly lost to this new economic paradigm. The situation is hardly unique to small-town Québec: economic globalism at the local level had interrupted local livelihoods elsewhere around North America. “La rue principale” vows comeuppance to the chain store: “Une bonne journée j’vas y retourner / Avec mon bulldozer / Pis l’centre d’achat y va passer / Un mauvais quart d’heure.

Globalism also triggered a revanchism to defend the familiar, but this came with a cost of social intolerance, vis-à-vis social persecution and ethnic segregation, toward nouveau-Québécois. Herouxville’s condemnation of Muslim values is an infamous example. But for the nouveau-Québécois, Québec’s own foreignness is challenged through works of migrant and diasporic literature. A nouveau-Québécoise herself, Régine Robin (1993) tries deciphering the cultural signifiers experienced in Montréal’s urban landscape:

Ce désir d’écriture. C’était pourtant si simple de commencer par le commencement, de suivre une intrigue, de la dénouer, de parler d’un hors-lieu, d’un non-lieu, d’une absence de lieu. Essayer de fixer, de retenir, d’arracher quelques signes au vide. Rien qu’une marque, une toute petite marque. Il fallait fixer tous les signes de la différence; la différence des odeurs, de la couleur du ciel, la différence de paysage. Il fallait faire un inventaire, un catalogue, une nomenclature. Tout consigner pour donner plus de corps à cette existence. Tes menus faits et gestes, tes rencontres, tes rendez-vous – tes itinéraires – les consonances bizarres des grands magasins . . .

Even as Robin mulls the names of major retailers she sees around the city, she also searches for and finds familiar Jewish culture in kosher butcher shops, shuls, and grocers selling products from a Diasporic homeland far removed from Québec. It is interesting to note how even as local shops within small towns had disappeared to transnational might, the creation and preservation of local shops in major cities helped to anchor familiarity for its new residents. But whereas Robin observed the ghettoizing of different immigrant communities from one another within a dominantly French-English context, Naïm Kattan attests in L’écrivain migrant (2001) that new minority communities can and do co-exist without necessarily threatening the traditional values mythologized by “La rue principale”:

Le Québec accueille maintenant une pléiade d’écrivains venus de Chine et du Brésil, d’Irak, du Liban et d’Égypte, sans parler des Haïtiens, Montréal étant désormais un foyer essentiel de la littérature haïtienne. Sans menacer la majorité dans sa volonté de contrôler son destin, ils peuvent, par leur intégration au mouvement, en infléchir l’orientation. Le Québécois accepte cette littérature de migration non en tant que marginalité exotique, mais comme un élément d’une démarche qui est désormais la sienne.

This “tradition” is traceable to the emergence of cultural pride for Québec’s placement in North America. This was embodied not only by calls for sovereignty, but also by its Roman Catholic history and past power relationships shaped by its Church which, for centuries, enjoined Catholic Québécois from asserting secular, autonomous livelihoods. These restrictive mores, including censorship, are explored in Gérard Bessette’s Le libraire (1960), as the protagonist, a young bookseller, surreptitiously denies from the local curé any knowledge of selling book titles banned by the Church. This story of wilful subversion — of swapping book jackets to make a banned book salable to a careful buyer who knows what to request — embodied the vernacular resentment toward the Church for controlling every aspect of social life. This resentment was coolly expressed by the bookseller to provoke an opening “shot” for a new generation: “J’avais en somme remporté une petite victoire, et cela, comme je l’ai indiqué, sans violence aucune, sans le moindre signe de ressentiment.

A sense of how substantial the Church’s control was over mass media is apparent in the omnipresence of radio shows created not by entertainment producers, but by priests in serials like “Un homme et son péché” (1949), or “A Man and His Vice”, based on a 1933 book by Claude-Henri Grignon. In cinema, Claude Jutra’s “Mon oncle Antoine” (1971) portrayed daily life in a small Québec town during the 1940s. One scene particularly dramatizes the Church’s omnipresence, as a steeple appears prominently through a pane window inside the local tavern. The film is a coming of age story for Benoit, a teenage boy growing up in an asbestos mining town whose acquiescence to the Church is evident in nearly every aspect of town life.

Mon oncle Antoine” also draws attention to a dialectic of class — namely between francophone working class men and anglophone factory and mining bosses. Linguistic segregation agitated a disparity of power and a social apartheid which favoured minority Anglo-Québécois business owners. This resonated into civic politics, as the Union Nationale provincial government led by Maurice Duplessis pushed an agenda to perpetuate the myth that French-speaking residents were overwhelmingly rural and dependent on agrarian economies. This ignored how far more Québécois lived and worked in the manufacturing centres of Montréal and Québec where factories dominated.

This critical mass of this urban reality is perhaps most notable in the pidgin dialect of French, joual. Joual emerged in Montréal as a byproduct of Québecois working class men who had to communicate with their bosses in English. Joual was reviled by francophone Jean-Paul Desbiens (1959) — writing as Frère Untel, or “Brother Anonymous” — who considered it a “boneless language,” adding how “the consonants are all slurred . . . For animals, a primitive language is good enough; animals get along with a few grunts.” Joual’s roots as a working class dialect highlighted the meagre educational opportunities for francophone Québécois to move past secondary school, as most post-secondary institutions were anglophone.

Joual also exacerbated domestic divisions of gender. Francophone women frowned on men who spoke joual. Still, this was less verboten than speaking English. Michel Tremblay’s play, Les Bells-sœurs (1968), was the first stage performance to deliberately use joual dialogue as a point of discourse around the role that women who, prior to La Révolution tranquille, were still relegated to domesticity. As caretakers of the home, women tried to keep husbands from speaking the English they used with their bosses. Marc Favreau satirized these class and linguistic disparities in his monologues as Sol the vagrant. Sol used wordplay to not only draw notice to his intellectual prowess (constrained only by poor access to higher education), but also to mock the systemic barriers which francophone Québécois endured under a regime which favoured anglophone Quebecers. This is something Lesage would soon address, calling on reforms for higher education.

Unsurprisingly, this systemic divisiveness was favoured by anglophone industrialists and reviled by francophone labourers, who referred to this as La grande noirceur, or the Great Darkness. By 1948, contempt toward this orthodoxy provoked political activist Paul-Émile Borduas to draft a manifesto, Le Refus global, calling for the end of Church control in Québec civic affairs. Québec secularism was given a name. Le Refus global was in many ways a kind of American-inspired call for separation of church and state. The manifesto also called for an end to social barriers besetting francophones in education, employment, and politics. Borduas’s manifesto presaged three pivotal events which nudged the province toward a secular state: the Grève d’Asbestos de 1949, or the Asbestos Strike; the Radio-Canada strike in 1958 (where TV reporter and future premier, René Lévesque, was arrested); and the unexpected death of Premier Duplessis’ in 1959. Gaston Miron also voiced his contempt for anglophone slurs in “Notes sur le non-poème et le poème” (1970):

Longtemps, je n’ai su mon nom, et qui j’étais, que de l’extérieur. Mon nom est «Pea Soup». mon nom est «Pepsi». Mon nom est «Marmelade». Mon nom est «Frog». Mon nom est «Damned Canuck». Mon nom est «speak white». Mon nom est «dishwasher». Mon nom est «floor sweeper». Mon nom est «Bastard». Mon nom est «cheap». Mon nom est «sheep».

When Lesage’s Liberal Party was elected in 1960, he announced an ère de rattrapage, the secularization of provincial government. Part of this included taking control over private hydro generation companies to form the Hydro-Québec crown corporation and removing the Roman Catholic Church from the province’s education system — a constitutional holdover from the 1763 Treaty of Paris. Lesage’s party created the CÉGEP post-secondary college system to prepare high school graduates for higher education and to boost literacy for francophones.

This was la Révolution tranquille. It opened the floodgate for intellectual discourse, francophone civic proprietorship, and a provincial renaissance for the arts. Artistic works during this period explored, lambasted, and mocked the Church’s impact on Québec society, just as they noted a relationship between colonization and the institutional treatment of francophones in Québec. These discourses marked an emerging push for sovereignty from Canada’s other provinces. Jean Bouthillette expressed this sentiment particularly well in “Le Canadien français et son double” (1970):

A l’heure de la décolonisation du monde, cet instinct nous rend universels d’emblée. C’est lui qui, depuis 1960, nous fait lentement renaître à nous-mêmes; c’est lui qui, dans l’intuition d’un nom — tout a commencé dans un nom — retrouve dans toute sa réalité notre véritable identité, un nom qui lève toute ambiguïté, un nom clair et transparent, précis et dur, un nom qui nous reconstitue concrètement dans notre souveraineté et nous réconcilie avec nous-mêmes: Québécois.

In the time between the 1970 la crise d’Octobre and the 1980 referendum, a collective melancholy set in: La Révolution tranquille had brought francophones forward in such a short few years, and now the pace of massive capital investment, of hosting Expo 67, and on winning the bid for the 1976 Summer Olympics, was ebbing. Despondency in Beau Dommage’s “Le blues d’la métropole” (1975), expresses the disappointment of a post-Révolution tranquille generation whose aspirations had failed to materialize as quickly as hoped. Not only does the song wax on recent events of the FLQ, Expo 67, and hippie communes, but it also offers a reflection between the knowable past and where the unknown future. Was this a mid-life crisis for La Révolution tranquille? The referenda for sovereignty would eventually confront this. After the 1970s, emphasis on sovereignty figured less prominently in artistic endeavours, as francophone autonomy within Québec — the embodiment of Lesage’s “maîtres chez nous” — became reality. In 1977, Bill 101, still controversial today, assured la survivance of French within the province as its official language for most public and private affairs.

As North America’s locus of francophone society and culture — seconded by New Brunswick, Louisiana, and Manitoba — Québec may be best understood as a cyclical phenomenon: today’s challenges re-visit past themes, even as history reveals how challenges to new modes of production and globalism are constantly reshaping the meaning of society and its core values. A rich body of literary and artistic works produced in Québec, particularly since World War II, offer several starting points to make sense of the complex relationships shaping Québec’s condition today. Irrespective of where the future may be headed, a committed support for Québec’s humanities assures that a critical institution for politics, art, and francophone culture shall endure.