Mythologizing a Conflict of Solitudes and the Erasure of the Left
May 26, 2001
Competing Dramatic narratives
The objective of this presentation is a discussion of competing dramatic narratives, in fact, melodramas, of Canadian history: a conflict between English and French solitudes on one hand, and a political struggle opposing the proletariat and a capitalist hegemony on the other. Although neither of these binaries is an adequate structure for the re-telling of Canadian history, 19th century melodrama has proven to be the dominant narrative structure within which the popular media typically constructs contemporary news stories. This attempt to construct the news and history as a display of strict moral justice, in which a good and innocent protagonist is seen to be oppressed by a stereotypically evil antagonist, has the effect that stories become “news,” are brought to public awareness and general consciousness, because they can be presented in this form. Narratives are further sustained and gain longevity because they can be presented in terms of the stock features of melodrama: mounting suspense, hidden documents revealed, unexpected reversals, the need for last minute rescues, and even occasional comic relief. Over time these melodramas become the dominant myths and, as a result, all attempts to tell the story of Canadian historical events are forced to locate themselves in relation to these established binaries in order to have an audience.
Summit of the Americas, April 2001
My original intention for this presentation was to tease out this competition of narratives from a number of Canadian plays and films, including evidence which has emerged from their productions and receptions. However, since I first proposed this topic last November, two very obvious examples of what I had intended to “reveal” have been widely and extensively exposed. The first was the premiere of Pierre Falardeau’s film, entitled Le 15 fevrier, 1839, in which he tells the story of the rebellion of 1837 in Lower Canada. The second was the Summit of the Americas held here in Quebec City in April.
I must confess that as the Summit approached I became convinced that my argument that the Left existed in a state of erasure in Canada would lose all credibility as the growing attention to the protest and the protesters against the summit (a loosely leftist coalition of socialists, feminists, ecologists, nationalists, anarchists, human rights advocates and so on) seemed guaranteed to garner a high profile and visibility. However, as the television editorialist for the news-magazine show, 60 Minutes II, commented: “For a week we were shown images of protesters in Quebec, but no-one ever bother to tell us what they were protesting about.”
Free Trade and the People's Summit
More striking still was to see Premiere Bernard Landry, whom I have always taken to be a strong advocate of free trade, addressing the People’s Summit and describing free trade as a threat to democracy, human rights, the environment and national sovereignty. In Quebec, the context of his remarks was weeks of media coverage of the debate over Landry’s not having been invited to address the Summit of the Americas, a battle of signs in which signs put up by Quebec officials were taken down and replaced by those of the summit organizers and vice versa, and a controversy over the fact that Landry had addressed a group of delegates to the summit in French when they were English, Spanish and Portuguese speaking. In short even this ostentatious conflict of proletarian and corporate agendas could, in Quebec, be overwritten as a language debate.
The Prevailing Myth of "Two Solitudes"
My point in these comments is not to claim that language, culture and politics are mutually exclusive or even separable issues. In fact, the genesis of my interest in this topic was an interview I did, in 1997, with Marianne Ackerman, founder and Artistic Director of Theatre 1774, a company set up to do cross-over, bilingual and bi- and multi-cultural productions in Montreal. When I asked Ackerman if the imminent demise of her company was proof that the myth of two solitudes was still intact, she responded,
“Absolutely. There is huge resistance to the truth of how Quebecers live, English and French, which is rather well. On any planetary or historical scale, people here get along well and work together–that’s a fact. That fact cannot be reflected on stage because it flies in the face of two deeply entrenched visions.”
The issue I have found myself considering since this interview is not if a conflict of linguistic cultures is allowed to frequently occupy centre stage in the dramas of Canadian and Quebec history and politics--I take this as given--but how and why the dominance of a narrative of conflicting solitudes is maintained. Seemingly the most obvious response is that this narrative serves the interests of nationalist politicians and the sovereignty movement in Quebec, but even this answer is becoming less and less true.
Policing the Myth
In fact, when Ackerman spoke of resistance to her company’s mandate, the institutions she cited were the Centaur Theatre, English Quebec’s main stage, and the Montreal Gazette, the English-language daily. In an NFB film entitled, Breaking a Leg, Theatre 1774's founding and first production, Echo, directed by Robert Lepage, are documented. At the company’s first press conference it was Gazette theatre critic Pat Donnelly who asked the question, in French, “What will the language of the production be?” As the narrator of the documentary film ominously noted, language would return to haunt the production. Robert Lévesque, theatre critic for Le Devoir accused the company of false publicity in using a Francophone director and actors for what turned out to be an English-language production. Pat Donnelly commented that: “If this is what happens when a great French talent crosses over, then maybe separation isn’t such a bad idea.” And in his own defence, Lepage noted that it was not the production, but the absence of French in the production which had been the basis of criticism of the play. In other words, no matter what else might have been said about or learned from the production, all discourses were marginalized, displaced, erased or analogized to the dichotomy of languages, and both English and French critics and the director were drawn into the process.
Why Mythology works
These first examples demonstrate that the reason this mythology is invoked is simply that it is easy. It is an easy means of framing and inflating criticism and offers an equally easy means of deflecting it. Why this should be so is answered in the fact it is a mythology, a pattern of beliefs that is almost automatically accepted, with little inquiry into its truth value. That, of course, is how myth operates. The reception of Pierre Falardeau’s film, Le 15 février, 1839 offers a clear example of the further advantages of appealing to this mythology.
For Love Quebec and Octobre
To put my reading, and more to the point, my reaction to the film in full context: in the late 70's The Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa, produced a play called For Love, Quebec by Robin Mathews, in which Mathews portrayed the FLQ Crisis of October, 1970, as a working-class rebellion. The criticism of Mathews' play, at the time, was that in portraying the October crisis as a socialist insurrection he had failed to accurately represent the Quebec situation. Against this background, in 1977, seeing Pierre Falardeau’s film Octobre, which recounts in detail the kidnapping and murder of Pierre Laporte, I was struck by the similarity between Falardeau’s purportedly highly accurate account of the events and the tenor of the Mathews play. In both cases a Marxist-socialist discourse dominated the dialogue and, in particular, the characters expression of their intentions. Although the existence of an oppressive English hierarchy is noted in the film, within the enclosed environment of the film the political struggle is expressed in a conflict between Pierre Laporte, a well-to-do Francophone Québécois and his captures, a group of working-class men who are also Francophone Québécois. In this instance Falardeau showed a willingness to sublimate the specificities of the Quebec situation and the image of conflicting solitudes to the broader political discourse.
Falardeau's Le 15 février, 1839
However, in his most recent film, Le 15 février, 1839, Falardeau conspicuously reverses this tendency. Although the film recounts a number of the events of the Papineau rebellions, it focuses on the imprisonment and executions of a number of les Patriots in 1839. As such it becomes an intense psychological drama. In embracing a melodramatic structure Falardeau overtly constructs les anglais as the personification of evil. The portrayal of the English as villains is hardly new in Quebec narratives, as William Johnson’s book, Anglophobie: Made in Quebec, extensively documents. Nonetheless, it is surprising that Falardeau would revert to this caricature at this point in time.
Brault's Quand je serai parti, vous vivrez encore
In 1999, Michel Brault, a renowned cinematographer and director released a film entitled Quand je serai parti, vous vivrez encore which presented the same historical events (the rebellion and executions) and characters (les Patriots, including the young François-Marie-Thomas Chevalier de Lorimier). Brault, like Falardeau, is a recognized sovereigntist and his 1974 film, Les Ordres, also on the October Crisis and its aftermath has been described as a chef d’oeuvre. In relation to the dominant mythology and to the Falardeau film, Brault’s treatment of 1837 was a breakthrough. The salient elements of this breakthrough were, for example, that Brault afforded a special, sympathetic status the English-speaking Irish, that the Patriots' lawyer, Drummond, is portrayed as a passionate, bilingual advocate of his clients, and Brault’s film included passing acknowledgment that a sister rebellion was taking place in Toronto.
The CBC's A People’s History: Rebellion and Reform (1815 - 1850)
The same week that Falardeau’s film was released, the CBC was broadcasting A People’s History: Rebellion and Reform (1815 - 1850). Interviewed on the television show Maisonneuve à l'écoute, Falardeau was categorical that the image presented by CBC that “nous étions tous ensemble était faux” [that is, that the image of the rebellion crossing linguistic and cultural lines was simply false]. Falardeau’s claim was not questioned; he was simply repeating the commonly accepted truths about the rebellions in Lower Canada.
The Patriot's Rebellion in fact and fiction
As a parenthesis, I should highlight that in Quebec the Patriots rebellion of 1837 is typically taken as the genesis of the Québécois nationalist movement. For example, in his introduction to Surrealism and Quebec Literature: History of a Cultural Revolution, André G. Bourassa claims: “The voice of our people was first heard in 1837, and this book begins with writings from that year” (xii). Every year, I lead a graduate seminar, which includes a comparison of Rick Salutin and Theatre Passe Muraille’s 1837: The Farmers Revolt and Jacques Ferron’s Les Grandes Soleils, which treats the 1837 rebellion in Quebec. English Canadian students are frequently unaware of the 1837 uprisings in Toronto, but for Franco-Québécois the existence of this historical event seems to come as a shock, because, I have surmised, it problematizes the received knowledge of the Quebec rebellions as a conflict in which, to quote at least one of my students, “our ancestors died to protect the French language.”
In an MA thesis prepared at the Université de Sherbrooke analyzing seven disparate dramatic treatments of the rebellions–Papineau by Louis-Honoré Fréchette (1880), Cérémonial funèbre sur le corps de Jean-Olivier Chénier by Jean-Robert Rémillard (1974), Les Grandes Soleils by Jacques Ferron (1969), 1837: The Farmers Revolt, by Rick Salutin and theatre Passe Muraille (1975), “Hero at Hatch’s Mill” by George Salverson (1967), The Patriots by Eric Cross (1955), and At My Heart’s Core by Robertson Davies (1950)–the author, Rod Wilmot, contends that
In Upper and Lower Canada the sources of trouble were essentially the same: the absence of responsible government and the opportunity this gave a select few to abuse their power. . . .
All the important differences between the two Rebellions stem from the fact that in Lower Canada the struggle for reform had inescapable racial overtones. (8)
Wilmot goes on to point out these “racial overtones” would almost immediately come to dominate accounts of the rebellions in Lower Canada.
The Making of Melodrama
Returning to Falardeau’s most recent film then, Le 15 février, 1939 could only maintain its melodramatic structure at the expense of an atavistic interpretation of the historical events and a corresponding vision of les anglais as stock villains. For example, in Falardeau’s portrayal anyone who is identified as English is unable to speak or understand a word of French. This vision of the English garrison certainly contradicts much of the available historical information. In fact, in her play L’Affaire Tartuff, or the Garrison Rehearses Molière, which became the signature piece of Theatre 1774, Marianne Ackerman dramatizes the common practice of the English Garrison in Lower Canada of presenting plays in French. As Jean Béraud observes in 350 ans de Théatre au Canada français “si le goût de théâtre s’implanta rapidement et fermement à Montréal, c’est aux soldats de garnison et aux artistes de langue anglaize que nous le devons” (qt in Théâtre Québécois I 31) A number of other historical facts would problematize Falardeau’s interpretation of events including the revolt in Toronto, the Chouayens who were the French-speaking antagonists of les Patriots, and the presence in Lower Canada of a number of English-speaking supporters, including the John Neilson of the Quebec Gazette, and Doctors Wolfred and Robert Nelson who were leaders of the Rebellion. Robert Nelson is the subject of Mary Soderstrom’s book, The Words on the Wall: Lower Canada’s Forgotten Hero of the 1837 Rebellion.
Melodrama Trumps politics
In a television documentary about the promotion of Le 15 février, Falardeau complained about being described by the press as wearing “son costume de revolutionnaire.” Falardeau’s appearance is always stereotypically lefty, unshaven, cigarette butt between his fingers, leather or denim and workman’s plaid. Certainly Falardeau decorates this film with leftist rhetoric. However, when Falardeau introduces a moment into the film in which the melodrama of a French-English conflict might be abandoned in a gesture of working-class solidarity, he uses that moment to reinforce the linguistic and cultural divide. A young English private on guard duty approaches Chevalier de Lorimier to express his sympathy and solidarity. The young Englishman explains that he was in the street and forced to go into service to save his family from starvation, but in Falardeau’s film de Lorimier refuses to acknowledge him. On the scaffold, as the young Englishman is placing the noose around his neck, he pleads with de Lorimier to say something to him. Finally de Lorimier tells him “I’m not afraid anymore. Now it’s your turn to be afraid.” To reinforce the melodramatic structure we subsequently see an English soldier rifle butting one of the condemned men swinging from the gallows in front of the innocent gaze of a little girl who has accompanied her father to the executions to deliver a load of coffins.
When de Maisonneuve, the television interviewer, asked about the English private, Falardeau allowed Luc Picard, the actor who play de Lorimier, to respond. Picard, who was obviously concerned in his response, claimed that as an actor he saw de Lorimier’s silence as a way of claiming, of insisting upon, the dignity of his own execution. When de Maisonneuve then asked if this was a correct interpretation, Falardeau grunt, shrugged and finally said “Oui.” Nonetheless, this interaction between the working-class Englishman and the upper-class Frenchman flies in the face of a number of attempts to underline the necessity of solidarity for a left-wing revolution and, for that matter, for the independence of Quebec. Although, as Ric Knowles points out, the reception of David Fennario’s Balconville depended on its “naturalistic, well-made-play structure . . . together with its political softness . . .” and the play is often publicized as a dramatization of the conflict between French and English, the clear intent of the drama is to argue for the necessity of working-class solidarity across linguistic lines. In Ferron’s Les Grandes Soleils, which uses the events of 1837 in the presentation of a magical fertility ritual, the future of Quebec is seen to depend on the fecundity of Elizabeth Smith who is from England and the only woman in the play. She is described as “une petite anglaise qu’on a enquébecquoisée” and is portrayed as an ardent Quebec nationalist. In Ferron’s vision the future of Quebec depends on the creation of a community out of all the elements of its diversity.
Embracing the Myth in English Canada
When Falardeau arranged a press conference in Ottawa in anticipation of the premiere of Le 15 février, a television camera crew accompanied him to document the fact that no-one from the English press showed up. If we can claim that a melodrama of English-French conflict will overshadow other forms of political and historical dramatization in Quebec, the other side of the coin is that any attempt to present Quebec history as a left-wing struggle is equally resisted in English Canada. My conjecture at this point, an intuitive conclusion if you will, is that left-wing theses have been resisted in Quebec because they put into question the myth of conflicting solitudes, and they are rejected in English Canada because they give credibility to the image of the Québécois struggling against the oppression of the English.
Reception and Rejection
I take the reception of Robin Mathews’ For Love, Quebec as one example of the latter. And the protracted story of the Vancouver Playhouse’s refusal to present George Ryga’s Captives of the Faceless Drummer in 1970 and the consequent departure of David Gardner as artistic director as another. Within Quebec, when David Fennario presented his play The Death of René Lévesque at Centaur in 1990, it was booed on opening night. The play presents a cogent argument that René Lévesque and the Parti Québécois came to power with a left-wing agenda but swung to the right once in power. Robert Lévesque’s vitriolic panning of the play was published on the front page of the Montreal daily Le Devoir.
Resistance to History: Paul Almond's For the Record
The resistance to understanding or abstracting the history of Canada in relation to Quebec as anything other than the already taken for granted conflict of solitudes puts at risk our ability to read the past and to fathom the future. In 1979, director Paul Almond produced a television film for the CBC’s For the Record series in which an Ontario engineer accidentally discovers a Canadian military plan to invade Quebec. In order to protect national security the engineer is tried in camera, convicted and sentenced to prison. What is remarkable about this little CBC film is that it could well have been a true story and there was, as far as I know and I had occasion to meet the director at the time, virtually no public reaction when it was broadcast. The salient details of the film’s narrative can be found in a Maclean’s magazine cover story, November 1978, entitled “The Armed Forces: In from the Cold” prepared by Roy MacGregor in which he describes how a 3,500-member Canadian Special Services Forces was
Formed last year by combining a number of crack Petawawa units with the elite Canadian Airborne Regiment, which was transferred under much controversy from Edmonton, the SSF’s lack of any specific task has led to continuing rumours concerning the military and the possible separation of Quebec. Though the force was planned for more than a decade, its inopportune announcement–just two weeks after the 1976 Parti Québécois victory–and opportune location directly across the river from Quebec have given rise to questions that are also without answers. (20, 21)
Based on what we now know about how the Airborne Regiment performed in Somalia, we might well have had something to fear in 1978. And many of you will no doubt remember that in the early 70's a Canadian engineer was in fact arrested, tried and convicted on charges related to National Security. The public was never allowed to know the reason for his conviction or any information about his crime or the process of his trial.
October Crisis, Keable Inquiry and “Monsieur X”
I offer these provocative details as my own attempt to provide a competing melodrama of suspense and mystery and, in so doing, to underline that one of the effects of a prevailing mythology is that it prevents us from asking questions. Histories which partake of the mythologies of a particular audience will be heralded as revelatory, realistic and true. These same mythologies can also be used as a way to dismiss, or ignore, or claim as an already worn-out story of passed history any number of legitimate and pressing aspirations. The state of affairs I am describing is one in which a mythology, which can serve as a conduit to communication, becomes a barrier. Within this state what I continue to find most fascinating is what happens when new information is brought forward which might problematize a mythology. I will leave you with one more example. Since at least 1978 there were widely published descriptions of “Monsieur X” who was the sixth member of the Liberation cell responsible for the kidnapping of James Cross. Testimony in the Keable Inquiry into the October Crisis revealed that police had been aware of his identity since 1970. It was only in 1980, after the Keable Inquiry, that Nigel Barry Hamer an English Quebecer, who taught electrical engineering at McGill, was arrested as an FLQ terrorist. In 1981 Hamer was convicted and sentenced to 12 months imprisonment for his part in the kidnapping of James Cross. But who noticed? What I find myself wondering is this: Is it possible that Nigel Hamer cannot be seen as a significant figure within the Canadian or Québécois collective imaginations because he cannot be rectified with the prevailing mythologies of the historical event of which he was a part? That is a question, which to my mind, warrants further investigation.