Showing posts sorted by date for query critical thinking. Sort by relevance Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by date for query critical thinking. Sort by relevance Show all posts

Monday 13 February 2023

On "Putin's American Cheerleaders"

Critical Thinking skills

I have to preface this post by revisiting "critical thinking skills"--that phrase used by university programs in the humanities and social sciences as a core justification for their existence.  The vast majority of university students graduate from these programs.  In theory,  millions upon millions of university-educated Americans and Canadians can claim an expertise in identifying arguments based on logic and evidence and, conversely, immediately spot logical fallacies:  the ad hominem, the straw man, guilt by association, and rhetorical obfuscation.  

"Putin's American Cheerleaders"

I read Adrian Karatnycky's Wall Street Journal article, "Putin’s American Cheerleaders: How Jeffrey Sachs, Mark Episkopos and Dimitri Simes contribute to the Russian propaganda effort" against the grain, as a string of logical fallacies light on rebuttal evidence.  The headline makes obvious the ad hominem intent to attack the authors rather than their arguments.  

We Are at war

But let's be clear:  we are at war.  The war is being fought by Ukrainians, but it is a war between Russia and the collective West, led by the USA.  The war has caused global precarity, massive destruction and the deaths of thousands.  Beyond the concrete devastation, the war in Ukraine is, above all, a propaganda war.  Arguably, propaganda will determine the outcome of this war.  In this context, we shouldn't be surprised that we are all likened to soldiers on the battlefield, and any deviation from the Western narrative is collaborating with the enemy, if not betrayal and treason. 

And yet . . .

Even if we are all conscripts in the propaganda war should we accept "to do and die" in a nuclear Crimean War without stopping "to reason why"? Is it unreasonable to invoke "thinking skills" in the midst of this war?  No-one knows the whole story of this war.  Even in Kyiv or Moscow or Washington or Berlin or London or Ottawa, even on the battlefield, even with drones and satellites, people know as much and as little as they can see and hear and read.  In a war, especially in a propaganda war like this one, enormous effort is put into controlling what is seen and heard and read. 

The Dominant Western narrative

The dominant Western narrative, primarily in the legacy media, is that escalation is the only acceptable solution to the conflict in Ukraine.  The argument is presented that Russia must be defeated because failure to defeat Russia now will lead to Russian expansionism and greater escalation somewhere down the road.  Overlaying this argument is an appeal to morality.  Russia must be defeated because the invasion and the conduct of the war are immoral, criminal and evil.  Anything less than total Russian defeat would be a victory for evil.    

Does the Western narrative hold up under scrutiny?

Under the microscope of critical reasoning skills,  the arguments for escalation do not hold up well.  Let me quickly insert that this does not mean that they are wrong or untrue.  They are simply unproven, counterfactual, hypothetical, and speculative.  We will inevitably try to imagine what Russia might do after the war, but there is a weakness in trying to be too specific and too certain about what might happen in the distant future.  We can say with fair certainty that a negotiated peace--what the Western narrative qualifies as a Russian victory--would include some sort of autonomy if not outright Russian control of Crimea and the eastern regions of Ukraine; that is, those regions with significant populations of ethnic Russians where President Viktor Yanucovitch, who was overthrown in a bloody coup in 2014, had his strongest democratic support.

The Moral argument

The moral argument for escalating the war is equally weak.  The argument depends on our accepting as axiomatic that the war is between absolute evil and pure goodness.  The goal of propaganda is to promote this vision, but even cursory scrutiny of the context of the war makes this absolutist vision impossible to maintain.  Some 13,000 people were killed in the Donbas region in the aftermath of the bloody coup overthrowing President Yanocovitch in 2014 and before Russia's full-scale invasion in 2022.  Even the US Congress has banned the sale of weapons to Ukraine's Azimov Battalion on the grounds that the battalion openly includes neo-Nazis in its ranks.

Naming and Shaming

I first read "Putin's American Cheerleaders" because it provides a list of a half dozen Americans who question the proxy war between Russia and the West going on in Ukraine--which isn't generally easy to come by.  The article is a telling example of widespread, ham-fisted attempts to discredit, shame and silence anyone who dares to question the war. Articles of this ilk are emotionally evocative and are based on an underlying presumption of moral superiority shared by writer and reader.  The vocabulary is emotionally charged but logical consideration of risks and outcomes is avoided.  For potential outcomes, the war in Ukraine should be compared to other recent wars spearheaded by the USA--Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Vietnam and Korea--but these are comparisons which the dominant narrative tends to avoid.

Guilt by Association

While Mr. Karatnycky concedes that "experts are free to challenge the pro-Ukraine views held by the vast majority of Americans," he decries the fact that these American experts have appeared on a Russian program hosted by Vladimir Solovyov, whom he describes as a Russian propagandist. Karatnycky has more to say about Solovyov than about the "American cheerleaders."  The Americans' failure is guilt by association with Solovyov.  According to Karatnycky, what Jeffrey Sachs said on Russian media was

that a “massive number” of Americans “wish to exit the conflict in Ukraine,” condemned the U.S. administration for “disinformation,” and called President Volodymyr Zelensky’s conditions for peace “absolute nonsense.”

None of these claims about American attitudes are obvious errors of fact.  Zelensky's conditions for peace go beyond total Russian defeat and surrender.  They sound a lot like the "conditions" imposed upon Germany after the First World War. The Washington Post has reported that the Biden administration has been asking Zelensky to dial down his "conditions for peace." 

Framing the War as exclusively between Russia and Ukraine

Karatnycky's awkward--and therefore revealing--attempts to frame the war as between Ukraine and Russia leaving the USA and even NATO out of the equation is typical of the dominant narrative.  People who dare to suggest a negotiated peace are not identified as critics of the war but "Ukraine critics." Americans who endorse escalation of the war are identified as "pro-Ukrainian."

NATO Expansion isn't a threat!  Really!?

Jeffrey Sachs is characterized as a "Putin cheerleader" because, as with a number of other "foreign policy realists," he "has long argued that the West provoked Russia into invading Ukraine in 2014 by virtue of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 'threatening' expansion toward Russia."  Karatnycky's quotation marks around the word "threatening" are intended to display a tone of sarcasm.  Still, no matter what your politics, how can anyone look at the ongoing expansion of NATO to Russia's borders and logically conclude that the expansion of an inimical military alliance to a nation's very borders is not "threatening"?

What Jeffrey Sachs said . . .

Furthermore, beyond the threatening posture of NATO, as Sachs points out in an interview on Democracy Now, [ . . .] the United States, very unwisely and very provocatively, contributed to the overthrow of Mr. Yanukovych in early 2014, setting in motion the tragedy before our eyes."  

What Cannot be said:  Ukraine is ethnically divided between east and west

One argument which shaming the authors is designed to preclude is that Ukraine is ethnically divided.  As Sacks elaborates:

The "Minsk Accords" must also be denied

The resulting Minsk Accords, as we have seen, are quashed and denied in pro-war editorials, even when the narrative requires contradicting its own sources.  Sachs argues:

What happened — and this is crucial to understand — is that, in 2015, there were agreements to solve this problem by giving autonomy to these eastern regions that were predominantly ethnic Russian. And these are called the Minsk agreements, Minsk I and Minsk II.

John Bolton was in Ukraine in 2019 and reports that Volodymyr Zelensky, who was elected promising to end Ukrainian corruption and make peace with the eastern regions,  "was determined to get the Donbas back as soon as possible and end the war within the Minsk agreements" (457 The Room Where It Happened).  However in the intervening years there has been consistent repudiation and denial of the Minsk Accords in Western and Ukrainian media.  It is as if they never existed.

The Zeitgeist:  Preparing for the historical dialectic

Karatnycky claims that "Most U.S. guests on Russian media come from the fringe."  He names Virginia State Sen. Richard Black and former United States Marine Corps intelligence officer, former United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) weapons inspector Scott Ritter.  However, the first name on his list of "Putin's American Cheerleaders" is Tulsi Gabbard, a former American Congresswoman and candidate in the 2016 Democratic Presidential Primaries.  In her interviews, she has a very simple and clear message:  "The world has never been closer to a nuclear war."

The rule of the historical dialectic is that the Zeitgeist will change over time and the dominant thesis of the age will give way to its antithesis.  If the rule of the dialectic holds in this case, those "fringe" arguments against escalation, which are everywhere on social media in blogs and vlogs and interviews but nowhere in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, or Globe and Mail, may soon become the dominant Western narrative.

Tuesday 17 May 2022

Constructing English Quebec Ethnicity

Constructing English Quebec Ethnicity: Colleen Curran's Something Drastic and Josée Legault's L'invention d'une minorité : Les Anglo-Québécois

                                                                                    (first published in 1998)

In a 1997 La Presse [1] editorial on the much discussed situation of the "les Anglais" in Quebec, [2] Agnés Gruda describes Josée Legault's title for her1991 study of the dominant discourse of the English Quebec community, L'invention d'une minorité : Les Anglos-Québécois, as "un nom évocateur"(B2). [3] Gruda summarizes Legault's thesis as follows: "Selon l'auteure, il n'existe pas vraiment au Québec de communauté anglo-québécois fondée sur une identité propre et différente du reste du Canada. Cette 'minorité' a été inventéede toutes pièces à des fins stratégiques" (B2). [4] Certainly, the connotative baggage of skepticism and suspicion of the French word "invention" seems intended, since Legault's central theme is that the dominant Anglo-Québécois liberal humanist discourse of individual rights is a mask intended to cover collective interests, reactionary, irresponsible, wait-and-see attitudes of superiority and nostalgic, elitist desires for domination. [5] However, Werner Sollors's reflections on the popularity of the word "invention" in his introduction to The Invention of Ethnicity seem to undercut Legault's rhetorical outrage at the rift between the "true" nature and objectives of the English-speaking communities of Quebec and the"false" discourse emanating from the leaders, politicians, journalists, and writers of those communities:

... that "invention" has become a rather popular category in intellectual discourse seems, if anything, an understatement. The term "invention" is, however, not just part of a fad; and we would not be better off without this buzzword, which, after all, offers an adequate description of a profound change in modes of perception. The interpretation of previously "essentialist" categories (childhood, generations, romantic love, mental health, gender, region, history, biography and so on) as "inventions" has resulted in the recognition of the general cultural constructedness of the modern world. (x)

Sollors's thesis that ethnicity "is not a thing but a process" and that it "is not so much an ancient and deep-seated force surviving from the historical past, but rather the modern and modernizing feature of a contrastive strategy..." (xiv) not only puts into question but seemingly erases essentialist distinctions between a real or "vrai" community and the communality constructed or "inventée...à des fins stratégiques."

Throughout the body of L'invention d'une minorité, Legault juggles constructionist and essentialist visions of English Quebec pointing to the constructed, invented, created nature of the community in opposition to its essential, historic, "true" character and roots in order to display the apparent disingenuousness and hypocrisy of the public discourse of Quebec Anglophones and to explain what she sees as English intransigence. Legault argues clearly and in extensive detail that the newfound solidarity and cohesion of the English communities of Quebec came about largely in reaction to twenty years of government legislation designed to limit the use of English in Quebec [6]: "Une nouvelle identité collective a commencé à se construire, beaucoup en réaction et en opposition certes à l'affirmation nationale des francophones et aux gestes faits en son nomme pars le gouvernement québécois"(57). [7]

The shrinking of the English population in the face of growing Québécois nationalism brought to the fore a number of organizations and prominent individuals as spokespersons for the dwindling English minority. These organizations and individuals, the subjects of Legault's study, themselves confirm that the English-speaking communities of Quebec have coalesced and, in many cases, drawn themselves into a defensive posture explicitly in reaction to the political, cultural and economic realities of post-1976 Quebec. [8] For example, Alliance Quebec, an English-rights lobby group, was formed in 1982, shortly after the first referendum. [9] The English of Quebec may have traditionally thought of themselves as simply English Canadians who happen to live in Quebec, or even more firmly as members of a particular region or municipality of Quebec, or as constituents of other ethnic communities where English has become the lingua franca. Whatever the feelings of the moment of individual English-speaking Quebecers, they are and have for many years now been going through a process, both internal and external, of being labeled and defined as a community. Legault's thesis that "les Anglo-Québécois" have and are undergoing the process of constructing and being constructed as a community is corroborated by masses of daily and documentary evidence. [10]

However, Legault also adopts a traditional, essentialist line of argument identifying the Anglo-Québécois as "descendants de Britanniques" (descendants of the British) and therefore ethnically connected with "les conquérants" (the conquerors): "Pourquoi remonter au passé de 'conquérants' des Britanniques du Québec dans le cadre d'un ouvrage portant sur les années 1974 à 1991? Parce que ce retour en arrière est essentiel à l'analyse et à la compréhension du discours "dominant" anglo-québécois des vingt dernières années" (18). [11] Legault completes her description of the Anglo-Québécois community with this encyclopedia of features: "La langue anglaise, la domination économique des anglophones, de même que leur culture politique propre, qu'ils considéraient supérieure à celle des francophone, étaient au coeur même de leur identité collective" (58). [12]

Against this kind of closure, Sollors's notion of"invention," once again, offers a means of re-opening and reconnecting a dialogue. He argues: 

The forces of modern life embodied by such terms as "ethnicity,""nationalism," or "race" can indeed by [sic] meaningfully discussed as "inventions." Of course, this usage is meant not to evoke a conspiratorial interpretation of a manipulative inventor who single-handedly makes ethnics out of unsuspecting subjects, but to suggest widely shared, though intensely debated, collective fictions that are continually reinvented. (xi) 

From this perspective Legault's L'invention d'une minorité is itself an attempt to invent (or perhaps reinvent) Anglo-Québécois ethnicity and as such joins a number of such publications including Sheila McLeod Arnoploulos and Dominique Clift's The English Fact in Quebec (1980), Gary Caldwell and Eric Waddell's The English of Quebec: From Majority to Minority Status (1982), Ronald Rudin's The Forgotten Quebecers: A History of English Speaking Quebec, 1759-1980 (1985), Reed Scowen's A Different Vision: The English in Quebec in the 1990's (1991), William Johnson's Anglophobia: Made in Québec (1991), Mordecai Richler's O Canada/O Quebec (1990) and so on. To this list of "inventions" we might add those fictions which are explicit fictions by and about English Quebecers, including such Canadian classics as Hugh McLennan's Two Solitudes, Mordecai Richler's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers (to name but a few). [13]

Something Drastic (1995), a first novel by playwright Colleen Curran, offers a timely contribution to the discourse, and the discourse about the discourse, of the English Quebec community. Curran is part of a new generation of English Quebec writers—which would include novelists such as Linda Leith, Gail Scott, Robert Majzels and Kenneth Radu, as well as playwrights David Fennario, Vittorio Rossi, and Marianne Ackerman—who have responded with equanimity to the growth of Québécois nationalism and the minoritization of English in Quebec. For example, in her introduction to the anthology of short stories, Telling Differences: New Fiction in English from Quebec, Linda Leith comments:

The writers who stayed and who live here now have chosen to be here and they accept, with varying degrees of alacrity, the predominantly French face of Quebec. Some of the older writers may still be shaking their heads at what they see as decline, but those who have been emerging more recently are circumspect. Anxious as some anglos were on the night of November 15, 1976 when the Parti Québécois won the provincial election (but has enough been said about how pleased others were?), and displeased as some of them remain with aspects of the French language law, the new writers view this as a society that has by and large been changing for the better. (4)

Leith's allusion to a generational split was reaffirmed in a more recent feature article in the Montreal Gazette by Joel Yanofsky entitled "The Silence of the Lamb Lobby." [14] The article was provoked by "veteran Montreal writer William Weintraub" [15] who "...wondered aloud in The Gazette last month why young anglo writers here—and by young the 71-year-old Weintraub later told me he meant anyone under 60—aren't writing about 'the social and political upheaval...the cataclysm' affecting their own community" (i4). In the article, Curran was identified, in fact featured, as one of these "young" (Curran is 43) writers. However, it was in a 1993 interview with The Gazette that Curran most clearly displayed her "degree of alacrity." The interview, which bore the title "Successful Montreal Playwright Colleen Curran Finds Home Town Tough Nut to Crack," focused on the relative lack of production that her plays had received in Montreal, and in particular the fact that Centaur Theatre, Quebec's main English-language theater, had never produced one of her plays, though she had been the theater's playwright in residence for a year. Curran's response was that "It could be that as an English Quebecer, as a minority, I'm expected to write something political or angry." But as Curran explained, "that's not my outlook. When I write really seriously, the plays are so turgid and they're so depressing. I just can't stand it. I just want to have a good time and tell a good story" (B4). 

Curran's novel is written in the same tone and with the same acceptance of the minority status of Quebec English that she expressed in the interview.  Something Drastic is a series of letters written by the heroine/narrator, Lenore, to her estranged boyfriend, in which she tries to account for his sudden, unannounced departure for Florida, tries, unrequited, to woo him home, and in the process tells him the story of her daily life in Montreal from January 6 (presumably 1990), the day he left, to December 30 of the same year, the day she is able to say "you're out of my life, I'm over you" (210). Through the process of a year's experiences as a woman alone, which included making a best friend of her tenant, Concordia University professor of Canadian and women's literature, Heidi Mavourneen (Irish for darling) Flynne; being drawn into a militant feminist group under police investigation for terrorist activities; attending a therapy session for "Women Who Love too Much," and winning a role in a musical at Centaur Theatre, Lenore comes to realize what a low-life, reprehensible cad her boyfriend is and to discover herself. 

In her letters, Lenore makes several references to Alice Walker's novel, The Color Purple, and to Steven Spielberg's adaptation and film. In fact, Something Drastic offers a pastiche of the form and structure of Walker's novel. Just as Walker's Color Purple is an epistolary diary/novel of a woman's growth and individuation through adversity told in what becomes a bible of Afro-American culture written largely in ebonics, Curran gives us, in a similar form though a minor key, the testament of one year in the life of an Anglo-Québécoise as she rises from the bottom of one of life's barrels into a blossoming awareness of herself and her environment, written largely in Quebec English. [16]

The theme of abandonment seems distinctly Québécois in Something Drastic since the villain of the plot is an Anglo version of a "vendu" [17]: the term frequently used to refer to Québécois who sold their property and left the province prior to the first referendum. Moreover, the average Anglo-Québécois is very likely to have experienced the departure of friends and loved ones in recent decades. In her first letter, Lenore compiles a list of possible reasons her boyfriend, John Ferguson, (like the former "number 22 of les Canadiens") (30) has suddenly left Montreal for Florida. Possible reason number two was "You won't speak French." 

But you will not be able to escape Possible Reason 2: Speaking French, because where do you think everybody from Quebec goes in the winter? There will be people speaking French all over the place and if you're in the Tourist Industry you will have to be nice to them, which you never were here. I hope you wind up working in Miami or Hollywood Beach after what you did to me. I hope you have to work in a store with customers who'll only speak French. And I hope they all find out you're nothing but a big Anglo separatist from Quebec. (13)

In contrast to Legault's image of the megalomaniac Anglo, Lenore is in a distinctly subaltern position in relation to Franco-Québécois culture and society. She tries to date Francophone police constable Benoit Archambault, makes friends with "separatist" neighbour, Reine Ducharme, by babysitting her dogs (Brioche [18] and Montcalm [19]), and works at a cabaret-style restaurant called Festin du Bois, [20]which features meat service by les coureurs du bois [21] and entertainment by les filles du roi. [22] Her big break comes when one of the singing waitresses defects to the Maison Hauntée [23] and she is invited to audition to become one of les filles du roi. When she auditions, Gaetan the restaurant manager tells her her voice is good but "my song was trop donner les bleus." [24] She prepares a bilingual version of her girl-guide songs in order to be more Festin-ish which "meant something that celebrates nature or how much fun it is to be French Canadian"—and she gets the job (51).

The style of the novel is unabashedly kitsch. Lenore is a ceaseless collector of the tawdry and arcane,which of course overtakes the structure of the novel as she sends her boyfriend macabre headlines clipped from the Montreal Gazette with each letter, describes the tacky Christmas napkins and cards she has purchased, and reveals her love for Doris Day movies, souvenir plates, and Expo 67 memorabilia. While Heidi tries to educate Lenore to a taste for Canadian and Feminist Literature, their friendship causes more of an educational exchange. Heidi eventually hires Lenore to give a lecture on Doris Day at Concordia and arranges for Lenore's home to be declared a museum. As one Tour Book describes it:

Museé d'art foklorique à Lenore/Lenore's Folk Art World: ...A kitschy , cluttered collection of taxi-dermied animals...gnomes and assorted creations à la lawn ornaments,...what may be the most extensive private collection of Expo 67 memorabilia in the world; Grottoes of the Stars;... Not what you'd expect in this English bastion in the midst of New France. It's what the Québécois would deem "trés kétaine," [25] you'll deem it trés fun. (134)

Lenore's museum serves as a mise-en-abyme for the novel as a whole. In fact, its "thrown together" style, with its lists, and headlines, asyndetic references to fragments and details of news and folk/popular culture, notes, agendas and schedules, together with Lenore's open, magpie innocence make the novel an effective vehicle for documenting the multitude of influences which form this Anglo-Québécois world. The novel creates a veritable vortex gathering in Steven King, the Oprah Winfrey Show, soap operas and sitcoms, country and western music, can lit classics, fads and fashions, People magazine and Macleans, the McGarrigle Sisters, the Gulf War, Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, Brian Mulroney, Gille Vigneault and Robert Charlebois, and the fictional trial (echoing the O.J. Simpson case) of mass murderer Jean-Luc Clossé in which, to the incredulity and outrage of the public, he is acquitted by a jury which includes Lenore's neighbour, Reine Ducharme. In this process, the novel demonstrates how Anglo-Québécois culture is formed, not through isolation and insulation but by being the site where a multitude of cultures—pop, American, Canadian, Québécois, feminist, academic and Irish—overlap. 

Literary discourse in general and the form and style of Something Drastic in particular have important roles to play in the display of ethnic culture as the site of metissage and boundary crossings. Though Legault's analysis in L'invention d'une minorité is largely of political discourse, in a 1995 commentary in Le Devoir [26] Legault acknowledges the possibility for what she qualifies as an "anglo-montréalaise" culture: nombreux anglophones demeurent prisonniers de leur refus d'une recherche imaginative et créatrice de leur identité et de leur appartenance à cette terre québécoise. Ils se replient sur leur solitude et leur crainte face a "l'autre" francophone. D'autant plus lorsque cet "autre" est nationaliste or souverainiste... Heureusement, il existe à Montréal un nombre croissant d'anglophones qui ne craignent pas l'aventure que représente cette recherche. Que l'on songe aux companies de théâtre—Centaur, Bulldog Productions, Black Theatre Workshop et Theatre 1774—ou aux nombreux auteurs, poètes et compositeurs, la volonté de communiquer et de créer une culture anglomontréalaise distincte est indéniable. (A6) [27]

Legault's choice of the regionalizing expression "anglo-montréalaise" over the broader notion of "anglo-québécoise" signals the grudging quality of her ostensibly generous vision. The expression Anglo-Québécois would doubtlessly be repudiated by many English-speaking Quebecers (not to mention Canadians) on the grounds that it inscribes acquiescence to Québécois nationalism. Québécois attachments to notions of cultural purity, signalled by such common expressions as Québécois de souche and Québécois pure laine [28] are also obstructions to an Anglo culture being recognized as Québécois. However, in his book Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada, Neil Bissoondath who lives in Quebec and writes in English and who is described by Linda Hutcheon as "a self-proclaimed assimilated Canadian" (29), suggests a clear preference for Québécois "centeredness." Bissoondath describes "English Canada..." as "adrift with no sense of its centre" whereas "Quebec [has] redefined its own centre, strengthened it, sought to make it unassailable" (196). 

The downside of an "unassailable centre" became apparent on the night of the 1995 referendum when then Premier Jacques Parizeau blamed the failure of the independence resolution on "l'argent et des votes ethniques." [29] And Bissoondath's attempts to attach himself to that center have proven problematic. In June of 1996, some eight months after the referendum, the theme of Bouillon de culture, the French television programme which presents round-table discussions of books and culture, was Quebec. When, near the end of the broadcast, host Bernard Pivot asked the panel, "Mais enfin, pouvez-vous me dire ce qu'est un Québécois?" Bissoondath took the initiative of responding: "Un Québécois, c'est quelqu'un comme moi." [30]  At a conference, in the spring of 97, on English literature and culture in Quebec, distinguished Québécois literary scholar Gillles Marcotte delivered a paper entitled "Neil Bissoondath disait..." (alluding to this segment of Bouillon de culture). In his presentation, Professor Marcotte was categorical that "Citoyen québécois, Neil Bissoondath n'est pas un écrivain québécois" on the basis that "Il n'existe évidemment pas telle chose qu'une littérature anglo-québécois..." (2). [31] 

In L'invention d'une minorité, Legault clearly attaches her argument to these categorical sentiments when, for example, she argues that "s'il est indéniable qu'un certain nombre d'anglophones résidaient bel et bien au Québec, on ne pouvait toutefois parler de l'existence d'une 'communité' anglo québécois"( 58) [32] laying emphasis (through her italics) on the word "québécois." As Legault makes plain, the collective identity that les anglais are beginning to construct is, in her understanding, "'québécois,' dans le sens territorial et non cultural du terme" (58). [33] Ironically, Legault's claims sound like an apologia for the largely Anglo, Quebec "partitionist" movement. [34] They also require that we overlook what Eric Waddell describes as the significant contribution of the Irish, Scottish and Anglo-Saxon traditions "to defining the personality of the province" (167).

The impasse which these binary oppositions set up seems all the more insoluble in the face of the recent tendency to identify a "true Québécois" as a nationalist and sovereigntist, and an Anglo-Québécois as, almost by definition, an opponent of independence. Certainly, Curran's naive heroine in Something Drastic unquestioningly buys into this new version of the two-solitudes myth, as she presumes separation to be anathema. However, when she  meets her neighbour Reine Ducharme, Lenore observes:

Madame Ducharme likes me because I'm bilingual and we always speak French....She's really one for justice. And for Separation! (But we always knew that.) Luckily the subject of Quebec never came up. Still, I had such a nice time with her it didn't matter she was a Separatist. (107, 108)

Something Drastic signals the writer discovering or attempting to discover herself as an Anglo-Québécoise for the first time. In fact, nothing in Curran's twelve published plays between 1981 and 1995 gives any suggestion that she is and has all her life been an English Quebecer. The typical setting of a Curran play is small-town Ontario, though she has set one-act plays in Acapulco and cottage country in New England. Curran has been described as a "tradition" at the Blyth Festival in Blyth, Ontario, where most of her plays have been produced. 

Lenore's self-proclaimed orphan-hood (she is a fully independent adult but her parents have died before the novel opens), together with her recent abandonment, make her a distinctly disconnected, tabula-rasa character, and therefore all the more prepared as an empty vessel to be filled with the distinctly Anglo-Québécois mix of cultures she experiences. Lenore's friend, Heidi Mavornneen Flynn, for example, is passionate about her Irish ethnic roots. Heidi practices Ceili dancing, listens to Chieftain's music, talks of her fighting Irish father and brothers, and celebrates St. Patrick's Day with devotion. Lenore absorbs this Irish essence like an Anglo-Québécois cultural sponge. Curran's upholding of Irish ethnicity, which has also been undertaken by playwrights David Fennario and Marianne Ackerman, becomes all the more striking when juxtaposed to Legault's attempt to reinforce the ethnic line from the conquerors to the modern-day English population of Quebec. 

Using a 1976 survey carried out by the now-defunct Montreal Star, Legault persists in attempting to carry forward a mythical connection between "les conquérants," "les britannique de souche," the modern Anglo-Québécois minority and resistance to the French language:

Selon un sondage effectué par le Montreal Star en 1976, seulement 20% des Québécois anglophones travaillait uniquement en français, et la majorité de ces 20% était d'ailleurs d'origines autres que britannique. En fait, la quasi-totalité des travailleurs de souche britannique travaillait encore dans leur langue. (45) [35]

Although one may detect incredulity in Legault's discourse here, a brief perusal of the relevant statistics will confirm that her tone is, at best, feigned. In the first place, it is universally acknowledged that bilingualism among Anglophones has increased dramatically since 1976 and has outstripped bilingualism among Francophones. There are generally considered to be 800 or 900 thousand Anglophones in Quebec. The numbers are "soft" because they are made up of native speakers of English and native speakers of other languages who live and work in English. According to the 1991 census 599,145 residents of Quebec identified themselves as native speakers of English. However, in the same census year, only 159,260 Quebecers identified themselves as English in terms of ethnic origin. Welsh is not given its own category as a language or an ethnic origin in the Canadian census statistics for Quebec. Including the Scottish (a questionable move according to my Scottish friends) in Legault's category of "britannique de souche" we arrive with a population figure of just over 200,000. In other words Legault's "britannique de souche" make up, at most, about a quarter of the Anglo-Québécois community. Are we to be amazed that in 1976 the majority of Anglophones in Quebec used some English in their work? Our incredulity (and hers) should be erased when we take into account Legault's own statistic that 75% of Quebec Anglos are in the Montreal region together with her claim that "Il faut vivre sur une autre planète pour croire que Montréal, par exemple, sera un jour unilingue française" [36] (48).

Statistically, Quebecers who claim English as an ethnic origin are significantly outnumbered by Italians (by almost 10%). 82,790 Quebecers identified themselves as being of Irish origin in the 91 census. It is these Irish cultural roots which Curran's novel tends to emphasize. To underline the point, Lenore's arch-enemy in the novel is her Anglo neighbor Jemima Farnham whom she describes as "formerly of England, a Monarchist and an Anglo Supremacist" (157).

What the novel outlines to us is that being an Anglo-Québécoise means, for example, the polyphonous experience of travelling by "Métro" (subway) going to the "Complex Sportif" (sports centre) at the Université de Montréal with a celtophile, Anglo professor of Canadian literature to attend a Bonnie Raitt concert and stopping to leave flowers at the memorial for the Polytechnique massacre. [37] It means arranging a date with a Francophone police officer to see either Les Expos or Les Canadiens and thinking "He'll probably take me to Ben's for Smoked Meat. (That's probably what he thinks all the Anglos go for)" (141). Although bilingualism may not have much purchase in French Quebec these days, in the novel it remains the center of an Anglo utopic ideal. Lenore waxes sentimentally:

The other day that musical, Les Misérables, opened here in French and in English. The same cast is doing the show, one time it's all in French, another time it's in English. That is so amazing,it's so bilingual and so hopeful or something. For our city. It's the first time its been done like that, it's all Montreal people in it. And it's professional like the ones in Toronto and New York.
And as if to confirm that her bilingualism, whose icon is a French classic, Anglosized, Americanized and presented in Quebec in French and English, is not an anglocentric strategy, Lenore continues:
That makes me think of the Gulf Desert Storm War, because the bad guys speak English. I've seen them on the news. In the other wars, it was always people who didn't speak our language, but this time they do (32).
Being Anglo-Québécois means celebrating St. Patrick's Day at a restaurant called Festin du Bois where you, the Anglo, have introduced the clientele to a new house wine from a Quebec vineyard, and being able to observe that "the fact that it's Québécois has the pure-laines pretty heureux" (69). Being Anglo-Québécois means observing on New Year's Eve that "if we were politically correct anglophone Quebec Canadians we'd watch ByeBye, that French comedy show looking back at the year, and we'd pretend we understood all the in-jokes" (25). As the novel so copiously displays, being Anglo-Québécois also means speaking a version of English which accommodates such signifiers as "joual," [38] "dépanneur," [39] réveillon," [40] "pure laine," "kétaine," flyé" [41] and "boite a chanson" [42] as well as a host of standard French expressions and institutional and commercial names.

Is there a political allegory to detect in the conclusion of the novel? Perhaps even asking the question is heavy-handed given the author's claims to being apolitical. But Reine Ducharme was captured trying to poison the other jurors with whom she had hastily acquitted Jean-Luc Clossé. There seems to be something here about the Franco-Québécois making rash and hasty decisions which they later regret. Heidi resists marrying into an American family. There seems to be some subtext here, despite Lenore's appetite for American pop culture, about resisting American domination. These are, after all, also English Canadian narratives. Feeble political correctness, tokenism and speaking franglais will not move the political agenda in Quebec. But, through the process of the novel, Lenore has become ever more clearly and fully what she was in the beginning: an Anglo-Québécoise. Her case invites us to begin seeing the hyphen between anglo and québécois, and all such hyphens, not as separations but as possibilities, as "trait d'union," a pulling together. It is a sentimental notion, not a solution, but Legault also concludes her study by giving stern counsel on the need for compromise. Perhaps what the Anglo-Québécois case best demonstrates is what philosopher Charles Taylor, himself an English Quebecer who has upheld Quebec's right to defend its collective cultural interests, [43] calls the need for "'deep diversity,' in which a plurality of ways of belonging would also be acknowledged and accepted" (183). In fact, there are no immediate, viable options other than the ongoing need for invention.

Works Cited

Bauch, Hubert. "Alliance Meeting Turns into Love In." The Gazette [Montreal] 26 May 1995: A4.

Bissoondath, Neil. Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada. Toronto: Penguin, 1994.

Bouillon de Culture. Réal. Michel Hermart. Anim. Bernard Pivot. Radio-Québec. le 2 juin 1996. France 2. le 7 juin 1996.

Curran, Colleen. Something Drastic. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 1995.

Davidson, Arnold E. "Canada in Fiction." The Columbia History of the American Novel. Ed. Emory Elliot. New York: Columbia UP, 1991. 558-85.

Donnelly, Pat. "Successful Montreal Playwright Colleen Curran Finds Home Town Tough Nut to Crack." The Gazette [Montreal] 17 Feb. 1993: B4.

Daymond, Douglas and Monkman, Leslie. "Introduction." Stories of Quebec. Ed. Douglas Daymond and Leslie Monkman. Ottawa: Oberon, 1980. 5-10.

Gruda, Agnès. "La confusion minoritaire." La Presse [Montréal] le 12 avril 1997: B2.

Harris, Cole R. "Regionalism and the Canadian Archipelago." Heartland and Hinterland: A Geography of Canada. Ed. L.D. McCann. 2nd ed. Scarborough: Prentice, 1987. 532-60.

Hutcheon, Linda. "Crypto-Ethnicity." PMLA 118 (1998): 28-33.

Legault, Josée. "Trois solitudes." Le Devoir [Montréal] le 15 novembre 1995 : A6.

—. L'invention d'une minorité : Les Anglo-Québécois. Montréal : Boréal, 1992.

Leith, Linda. "New English Fiction from Quebec." Introduction. Telling Differences: New Fiction in English from Quebec. Ed. Linda Leith. Montreal: Véhicule, 1988. 4-7.

Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage. Ed. Margery Fee and Janice McAlpine. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1979.

Marcotte, Gilles. "Neil Bissoondath disait..." Conférence. "Le Québec anglais : Littérature et culture." Centre d'études québécois, Université de Montréal. 25 avril 1997.

Sollors, Werner. "Introduction: The Invention of Ethnicity." The Invention of Ethnicity. Ed. Werner Sollors. New York: Oxford UP, 1989. ix-xx.

Taylor, Charles. Reconciling the Solitudes: Essays on Canadian Federalism and Nationalism. Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 1993.

Vachon, Robert. "Qui est québécois?" Qui est Québécois? Ed. Robert Vachon et Jacques Langlais. Montréal : Fides, 1979. 119-51.

Waddell, Eric. "Cultural Hearth, Continental Diaspora: The Place of Québec in North America." Heartland and Hinterland: A Geography of Canada. Ed. L.D. McCann. 2nd ed.Scarborough: Prentice, 1987. 149-72.

Yanofsky, Joel. "The Silence of the Lamb Lobby." The Gazette [Montreal] 26 Apr. 1997: i1 and i4.

1. Quebec's second-largest French-language daily

2. The second referendum on Quebec sovereignty was held on October 30, 1995. The vote was 50.56%(2,360,717) against and 49.44% (2,308,072) in favour of the resolution to grant the present government of Quebec the right to declare independence from Canada within one year. There had been a significant and continuous exodus of English-speaking residents from the province of Quebec since prior to the first referendum in May of 1980 in which the sovereigntist declaration was rejected 58.2% (2,258,002 "no votes") to 41.8% (1,619,662 "yes votes"). The English-speaking communities have become more and more the focus of attention because of their declining numbers and status within Quebec, and
because of the pivotal role these communities continue to play in holding the Canadian federation together and, consequently, obstructing the sovereigntist aspirations of French-speaking Quebecers.

3. "A name/title intended to evoke a reaction" (my translation, as are all subsequent translations)

4. "According to the author, there does not really exist in Quebec a community of English Quebecers. This 'minority' was created from scratch for strategic reasons."

5. Based largely on her reading of journalistic and political texts, Legault concludes that the dominant Anglo-Québécois discourse is one of "desolidarization" (199) and "déresponsabilisation" (210), displaying attitudes thatare "nostagique" and "attentiste" (200) and encouraging "la resistance et la confrontation" (198).

6. Bills 63, 22, 101 and 178 were passed into law by successive provincial governments, both Liberal and Parti Québécois. They were designed to guarantee the preservation and growth of French by limiting access to education in English and the use of English on signs, and by requiring the use of French in larger businesses.

7. "A new identity started to be built, largely in reaction and, indeed, in opposition to the nationalist affirmations of Francophones and to the programs undertaken in their name by the government of Quebec."

8. The Parti Québécois, whose central mandate is the independence of Quebec from the rest of Canada, first came to power in 1976. The Parti Québécois has won three of five elections since 1976. They surrendered power to the Quebec Liberals under Robert Bourassa in 1985, and Bourassa's Liberals won again in 1989. The Parti Québécois returned to power in the election of 1994.

9. Legault cites Alliance Quebec documentation that the organization had over 40,000 members in 1989. In 1995, in an article covering the meeting between Parti Québécois Deputy Premier, Bernard Landry, and Alliance Quebec, The Gazette claimed that "Current membership stands at 3,700, down from 10,000 a decade ago." (see Hubert Bauch, "Alliance Meeting Turns into Love In.") The Equality Party emerged largely in reaction to the perception that the Quebec Liberal government under Robert Bourassa had not lived up to its promises to protect English rights. The Equality Party elected four members to the Quebec National Assembly in the 89 election, but none in the 1994 election.

10. This nascent Anglo-Québécois ethnicity might best be described as what Linda (Bortolotti) Hutcheon calls a "crypto-ethnicity" (see her essay "Crypto- Ethnicity" in PMLA). Not only is there reluctance to acknowledge Anglo-Québécois ethnicity in both English and French communities, but English Quebecers are a non-visible and, frequently, an aurally unrecognizable (when they speak French) minority. Hutcheon describes the pleasures and tensions of her own crypto-ethnicity as liberating, as "transethnic" and as "a reminder of the constructedness of all forms of ethnic identity"(32).

11. "Why go back to the past of the 'conquering' British of Quebec in the context of a study covering the years 1974 to 1991? Because this return to the past is essential to the analysis and comprehension of the 'dominant' discourse of English Quebecers of the last twenty years." In order to accept Legault's image of a pure British line (and a pure French line) one has to ignore the history and patterns of immigration and migration which have constructed the present-day communities. (See, for example, Cole R. Harris's "Regionalism and the Canadian Archipelago.")

12. "The English language, economic domination by Anglophones, as well as their own political culture, which they consider superior to that of Francophones, are at the very heart of their collective identity."

13. In "Canada in Fiction" Arnold E. Davidson, who is also the author of Mordecai Richler, judiciously distinguishes English Canadian, Québécois, French Canadian, Native and Ethnic writing but makes no explicit mention of English Quebec. There is no established critical tradition of identifying English Quebec literature. We might note the difference of nuance in Davidson's description of the first North American novel, Frances Brooke's The History of Emily Montague, as "both record and product of the coming into being of what will be Canada" (558) and Douglas Daymond and Leslie Monkland's description of the same novel, in their introduction to Stories of Quebec, as the beginning of "the tradition of anglophone fiction set in Quebec" (5).

14. The expression "lamb lobby" has come into currency in English Quebec to identify those English Quebecers who have adopted soft or passive or acquiescing attitudes toward Québécois nationalism and the minoritization of the English community. Conversely, the French equivalent of 'wolf lobby' (as in 'those who cry wolf') has gained some currency in the French Quebec media to identify English Quebecers in the public sphere who are viewed as strident, reactionary or simply hysterical.

15. Weintraub is the author of the novel Underdogs (1979) which presents a dystopian vision of a repressive and financially bankrupt independent Quebec. The precursor to this novel was likely Richard Rohmer's political thriller Separation (1976) which ends with a failed referendum vote, "48.3%" in favour of Quebec's independence.

16. "With increasing contact between the two languages, more and more French words—particularly those connected to provincial institutions, linguistic politics, and local life—have been assimilated into English, resulting in a new Canadian regional dialect: Quebec English." quoted in the Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage. Ed. Margery Fee and Janice McAlpine. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1997.

17. "Vendu" meaning "sold" appeared on many "for sale" signs on Quebec property following the election of the Parti Québécois government and prior to the first referendum. The double entendre is that "vendu" can also carry the sense of "a sell-out."

18. "a brioche," a French pastry

19. name of the General who led the French forces and was killed on the Plains of Abraham, the decisive battle leading to the British conquest of New France

20. "A Woodland Feast" or "Banquet in the Woods" but also implies something like "Party Hard"

21. French and Metis explorers in North America who generally travelled by canoe expanding the fur trade

22. women sent to New France to become pioneer brides

23. a Montreal restaurant with "haunted house" decor

24. word for word: "too much giving the blues"

25. very tacky and/or kitsch, but leaves open the possibility of being cute

26. a French-language Quebec daily with modest distribution, but generally considered culturally and politically significant: the paper of the intelligentsia

27. "many Anglophones remain prisoners of their refusal to imaginatively and creatively explore their identity and their connection to this Quebec land. They withdraw into their solitude and fear of the Francophone 'other.' All the more so when that 'other' is nationalist and sovereigntist...Happily, there exists in Montreal a growing number of Anglophones who do not fear the adventure of this exploration. Whether one considers the theatre companies—Centaur, Bulldog Productions, Blac Theatre Workshop and Theatre 1774—or the numerous authors, poets and composers, the desire to communicate and to create a distinct Anglo- Montreal culture is undeniable."

28. Québécois de souche literally translates as being "from the stump."  The expression is usually translated as simply "old stock" but it implies that anyone so described can connect their family origins to the original pioneer inhabitants of New France. In daily usage, anyone who might appear to be a native of Quebec and who is a native speaker of Quebec French will be loosely identified as Québécois de souche. Pure laine (pure wool or 100% pure wool) is simply a more contemporary, colloquial version of the same idea. The obvious problem with these expressions is that, although they are typically used innocently and unconsciously, they inscribe a distinction between "real" Quebecers and "les autres" (another common Québécois expression). Though these expressions seem acceptable as the signifiers of a minority's pride, they take on a different tenor as the common discourse of a nation on the threshold of independence.

29. "money and some ethnic votes." Though the Premier resigned the next day, this remark continued to elicit concern, bewilderment and outrage. Mr. Parizeau is a graduate of the London School of Economics. In "Canada in Fiction," Arnold Davidson classifies the Premier's late wife, Alice (Poznanska) Parizeau, as an "ethnic novelist" (574).

30. "But finally, can you tell me what is a Québécois?" "A Québécois is someone like me." This is hardly the first time the question has been asked. See, for example, Robert Vachon and Jacques Langlais' Qui est Québécois? in which the authors conclude: "Nul d'entre nous n'est vraiment Québécois. Nous somme tous et chacun des Québécois en voie de ledevenir" (151). ["No-one among us is really Québécois. We are each and every one of us Québécois in the process of becoming."]

31. "A Quebec citizen, Neil Bissoondath is not a Québécois writer..." "There is clearly no such thing as an Anglo-Québécois literature..."

32. "though it is undeniable that a certain number of Anglophones do indeed reside in Quebec, one cannot, however, speak of the existence of an Anglo- Québécois 'community.'"

33. "'québécois' in the territorial and not the cultural sense of the term"

34. The "partitionist movement" typically traces its roots to Pierre Trudeau's declaration that "If Canada is divisible, then Quebec is divisible." One of the effects of the last referendum was to clearly identify those (ethnic/anglo) regions which were strongly against independence. Certain municipalities have attempted to pass resolutions indicating their determination to remain a part of Canada should Quebec secede.

35. "According to a survey undertaken by the Montreal Star in 1976, only 20% of Quebec Anglophones worked exclusively in French, and the majority of this 20% was from origins other than British. In effect, nearly all the workers of British origin still worked in their own language."

36. "You would have to live on another planet to believe that Montreal will one day be unilingually French."

37. On December 6, 1989, an anti-feminist gunman killed 14 women at l'École Polytechnique of the Université de Montréal

38. slang term for the popular language of Quebec. It derives from a claim that Quebecers pronounced the French word for 'horse' as 'joual' rather than 'cheval.' Joual has become an object of some pride in Quebec, particularly as its poetic qualities are displayed by Michel Tremblay, Quebec's master playwright and novelist.

39. "small grocery store or corner store"

40. traditional all-night family party

41. adjective for light-headed or spirited or wild behaviour or character

42. night club featuring French folk singers and, often, sing-alongs

43. For example, in Reconciling the Differences, Taylor writes: "...there is something exaggerated, a dangerous overlooking of an essential boundary, in speaking of fundamental rights to such things as commercial signage in the language of one's choice. One has to distinguish between, on the one hand, the fundamental liberties...and, on the other hand, the privileges and immunities which are important but can be revoked for reasons of public policy..." (176-7).

Saturday 2 April 2022

The Concept Formerly Known as Nationalism: Canadian Theatre in Theory and Practice

(This post is a repurposing of a conference presentation from 2002.)

Plenary Panel with respondents Djanet Sears, Richard Rose, Ker Welles and John Mighton, Association for Canadian Theatre Research (ACTR), 25 May 2002, University of Toronto

                                                            Professor Jay Sour, PhD, GDCS, MA, BA

In 1975, the theme for the newly-founded Association for Canadian and Quebec Literatures at the  Learned Societies’ Conference in Edmonton was Canadian and Quebec theatre.  Although the conference programme was designed as a series of  “Confrontations” between French and English Canadian presenters, what emerged was a schism between academics, on one side,  and theatre practitioners, led by George Ryga, on the other.  Ryga would later write that the conference 

. . . left this observer with some critical questions about the role of universities as a supportive force in developments of Canadian drama in both languages.  Well-intentioned and vigorous statements were made about critical study and publication of papers on our dramas.  No doubt, these enquiries will have their effect.  I am in agreement with the sardonic comment by Jean-Claude Germain that more young Canadians are now studying Canadian drama that will ever see it as a living art in our theatres. 1 

The first question I would like to put before the panel is: Has the situation improved since 1975?  In 1975,  I fully agreed with Ryga that the academy did not seem willing to fulfill its moral obligations to promote Canadian theatre.  Today as a university professor I find Canadian theatre the most difficult subject matter I am required to teach.  Despite the existence of organizations like the Association for Canadian Theatre Research, my impression is that the gap between the academy and the theatre, between theory and practice, has grown over the postmodern period.  Is there reason, hope or even a desire to establish a framework for understanding the common ground of mutual interests among Canadian theatre practitioners and scholars? 

In the '70s my answer to this question would have been, without hesitation, “yes,” but its justification would have been couched in terms of Canadian nationalism. The concept of nationalism seems to have proven endlessly problematic and, in the end, perhaps even a liability in this country.  So, how do we get beyond the myths and negative stereotypes of Canadian nationalism?  How do we get beyond what John Ralston Sal calls the “negative nationalism” of fear and panic leading to conformity, ethnocentrism and xenophobia?  How do we steer clear of the pitfalls of essentialism and identity, as well as liberal-humanist illusions of universality?  How do we get beyond that nationalism which has been so readily labelled as zealous, jingoistic, militant and even racist, or condescending multicultural pigeon-holing, imposed bi-culturalism, or hegemonic harmonization?  How do we move toward an embracing and celebration of transculturalism and post-nationalism?  How do we take advantage of what Robert Wallace calls “the opportunities [which indeterminacy] provides for social justice” and begin to imagine the as yet “unimagined” alliances he alludes to ( Theatre and Transformation in Contemporary Canada 52)?     The objective of my presentation is to open reflection on how to continue the process of both theorizing and practising Canadian theatre as part of an  “imagined community” or at least as a crossroads of many “imagined communities,” as part of  what Denis Salter describes as  “an ideological complex which to function completely must always subject its premises and methods to rigorous re-examination” and Richard Knowles calls the cultivation of  “concerted difference and radical contingency.”  How can we participate in what Charles Taylor characterizes as  “deep diversity in which a plurality of ways of belonging would also be acknowledged and accepted” and  Sal calls the “positive nationalism of an open debate”? 

The premise of my argument is simply this:  No thing means anything by itself.   In my thinking, meaning derives from one thing’s connections and relationships to other things, to the world around it.   A text means something because it has a context.  A sign, a gesture, a word, a phrase, a play, a performance, a life–each has the potential to mean something because it can be connected and related to some other matrix of signs, gestures, objects, ideas, lives.  “Meaning,” in my thinking, is never sure, never guaranteed, never absolutely accurate or controllable.  Meaning is an endless process with infinite potential.  Conscious effort is required to grasp particular, specific meanings once the conditions are in place,  but ultimately, I suspect, most meanings simply happen.  We all do it, but I take artists in particular–such as playwrights, directors, designers and actors–to be in the business of putting things together in new and original ways and thus creating new meanings.  Readers, audiences, critics, scholars, teachers and students engage in the process which the artist unleashes.  Sometimes they “get” an intended meaning; sometimes they miss or misconstrue meanings; sometimes they add, transform and even enrich meanings.  Most of the time they do all of the above.   I take theatre artists and theatre scholars to be deeply and actively involved in this meaning-making process.  We have a mutual vested interest in making meanings as full and rich as possible. 

When I make the leap of speaking of Canadian theatre, Canadian playwrights, Canadian audiences, I do so, not to impose a restriction, not to suggest a requirement or even an objective.  I think it is a sound, logical assumption that the meanings circulating through and around plays written and performed by Canadians and viewed by a Canadian public should be particularly rich, full, vigorous and apparent.  If this is not the case, we need to wonder and ask why?   

To begin to illustrate my thinking in concrete terms I will have to outline where it and I came from. My first encounter with what might be called a nationalist issue was as a high school debater in a tournament at the University of Ottawa being asked to debate Mathews and Steele’s proposition that ‘two-thirds of Canadian university professors should be Canadian educated.’  I was opposed.  When I was an undergraduate at Carleton University, Robin Mathews created a stir by publicly complaining that there was not a single Canadian literary work in the required first-year survey for English Majors.  I was not impressed.  Although I knew the lyrics of  Leonard Cohen and Gordon Lightfoot,  could recite poems by Robert Service, had read a number of Pierre Burton’s Klondike books and had seen all the episodes of The Whiteoaks of Jalna on TV, I felt an unmitigated pride in the superiority of my honours BA degree in English because I had been able to complete the first three years of it without ever being required to study a single piece of literature written by a Canadian.  To add to my cynicism about a nationalist agenda, one summer of my undergraduate years  I was part of a theatre troop which garnered an Opportunities for Youth grant by unabashedly claiming that we were going to spread the good news of national unity across the Maritimes.  When a graduate student named Terry Goldie was invited to give a presentation on the history of Canadian theatre in one of my classes, I was honestly surprised to discover that some people thought there was such a thing as Canadian theatre, all the more so that it had a history.  It was at this same moment that I happened to befriend Bill Law, a fellow student who shared my interest in theatre but who was, much to my discomfort, tightly connected with the Can Lit cabal at Carleton University. In 1974 when (my friend) Bill Law and I had taken over the leadership of Sock ‘n Buskin, the Carleton University Drama Society,  I was shocked and dismayed by Bill’s stubborn insistence that we were going to do a complete season of Canadian plays.  I decided to follow along with Bill’s plan because I was convinced that he would see the folly of his aspirations as soon as we tried to put them into action.  I thought I had proven my case when I checked out all the Canadian plays I could find in the Carleton University library–there were eight. 

     Bill Law remained undaunted and in the next twelve months Sock 'n' Buskin produced six plays including the premiere of Robin Mathew’s problem drama, A Woman is Dying, Mavor Moore’s musical Sunshine Town based on the Leacock sketches and Gerry Potter’s collective creation Chaudiere Strike.  The success of this season inspired us to join with Lois Shannon, Robin Mathews and Larry McDonald to form the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa with the continuing mandate of producing Canadian plays.  Although I remained the token liberal in the years I served on the company’s board of management, this period of nationalist awareness left me with the clear impression that nationalism was an obvious and appropriate response to the kinds of events and situations I found myself facing in the mid to late '70s. 

“Nationalist awareness” sounds terribly significant and expansive, but what I mean is simply that once the idea that Canada was a sovereign nation and, as such, should logically be promoting its own growth and development was in my head, I began to notice and question those times when it became obvious that this was not happening.  For example, I discovered that in 1974 there was considered to be an appropriate language for doing theatre in English in Canada.  When I called the Ottawa Little Theatre looking for a lead actor,  I was surprised that the very first question I was asked was would I accept an actor with a Canadian accent.  Thus, in a single moment, I discovered that there was such a thing as a Canadian accent (and, it slowly dawned on me that I must speak with this accent) and that it was not apt for the theatre. I found poetic justice in the fact that the first hit of The Great Canadian Theatre Company was an original play called Yonder Lies the Valley which required that the actors speak a broad Ottawa valley brogue and learn to step dance and appreciate the virtuosity of fiddle music. 

At the 1975 Learneds, I was sitting beside Robin Mathews listening to A.J.M Smith present a paper on Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.  When Smith concluded his paper with the comment that the play demonstrated that Canada didn’t have the kind of heroes which could be successfully dramatized on stage, Robin Mathews began to boo loudly.  The room cleared quickly, everyone trying to get away, as fast and as far as possible, from Mathews.  It probably didn’t help that someone had salted the rumour that I was Mathews’ bodyguard. 

When I became involved in the process of trying to raise funds for the newly formed company, I quickly discovered that the most common reason given by granting institutions, various levels of government and individuals for not supporting the GCTC was that they already supported The Ottawa Little Theatre or The National Art Centre.  When I pointed out that neither of these institutions produced Canadian plays, the argument had little purchase.  In fact, despite my earlier impressions that a nationalist agenda was a guarantee of funding, I began to realize that almost the opposite was the case.  The company’s mission to produce plays by Canadians seemed to put its credibility in question.    

Even after leaving the theatre company and beginning studies in film and television, I seemed condemned to nationalist epiphanies.  I remember a university professor who was giving a course on Canadian film being asked why Don Shebib who had directed Going Down the Road had used only American actors for the leading roles in his film Second Wind.  The professor’s answer was that “there are no Canadian actors.”  When pressed, he allowed that there were three or four significant Canadian actors, but if Donald Sutherland, Genevieve Bujold, Christopher Plummer and John Collicos were busy then a director would have to use American actors. 

When I canvassed my fellow students in this course, I discovered that I alone preferred Shebib’s Canadian classic over his later work.  As one of my fellow students so aptly explained to me, “it makes perfect sense that people would prefer the later film because it looked more like what they already knew and considered ‘good’; that is, an American film.” 

In 1979 I happened to be in the control room in Toronto where CBC producers were receiving the feeds for the National News.  Most of the footage for the Canadian news was being fed to us from American sources.  The control room which was usually a somewhat noisy, bustling place went completely silent as everyone stopped to watch a series of scenes from David Fennario’s Balconville being broadcast to us from Montreal. When the sequence finished, the noise returned and the decision was quickly made not to include it in the National News.  Instead of the scenes from Balconville, there was an announcement that after three days in hospital John Wayne was resting comfortably.     

And so in the 70s, nationalism, to me,  seemed like the right answer, a logical corrective response to what seemed to me obvious errors and oversights.  Nationalism meant that Canadian theatres should be presenting plays written and produced by Canadians, and theatres which took the extra risk of presenting new and original Canadian works should be funded.  It meant that theatre in Canada should be allowed to be done in whatever languages, dialects or accents Canadians happened to speak.  To me, nationalism also meant that Canadians should be cognizant of the fact that there was an overabundance of talent in the country.  Canada had the good luck and grace of attracting talented immigrants from around the world.  Talented people were born and developed here.  Canada had talent enough to export endlessly into the USA and still have enough left at home to keep life interesting.   Nationalism meant recognizing that Canadians were as fit subjects for drama as the peoples of any other nation.  Nationalism also meant educating audiences to an openness to new, original and different styles of performing art, and it meant that when a play came along that was of obvious interest and significance, the national media had an obligation to tell people about it. 

But of course, nationalism was also the wrong response.  Even within the Great Canadian Theatre Company, we talked about how we were a vanguard movement, a radical response to a temporary situation.  When a hundred theatre companies started doing Canadian plays we would be happy to be put out of business.  However, in the years that followed I discovered a heartfelt animosity toward nationalist agendas in the Canadian public–people telling me that they would never accept having Canadian theatre shoved down their throats.  People who had never seen a Canadian play, couldn’t name a Canadian playwright and would be perfectly open to Italian theatre or German, or British or American theatre, still maintained that their liberty would be threatened by Canadian theatre.   There was clearly a mythology of nationalism in Canada; and here I mean "mythology" in the terms used by Roland Barthes; that is, a connection of one word to others that did not derive from its denotation.  The GCTC never seemed to be identified as simply a group of nationalists, but always as rabid, ranting, foaming-at-the-mouth nationalists in addition to being narrow, provincial, parochial and tribal. 

Of course, I understood the objections to nationalism in conceptual terms and from world history, but I still had trouble making sense of the objections in the Canadian context.   Every textbook on the subject of Canada rehearses the same basic set of facts.  At first glance, Canada doesn’t make sense as a country.  Everything about the country’s social and physical geography suggests that it should not exist.  We live in a country that is three thousand miles long, in which 90% of the population lives within a hundred miles of the American border; the vast territories to the north remain largely unknown to the majority of the population.   We are divided by language, race, ethnicity, gender, by sexual and political orientation, province, region and class.  The urban centres are growing, largely in isolation from one another, while every place else stagnates and shrinks.   Such a place can only be held together through conscious and considerable human effort.  Yet, nationalism seems to be a minor and extremely weak force in Canadian life.  I grew up being told that this country was held together by a railway.  The railway was sold because the truth was that in an age of communications the country was really tied together through its public broadcasting system.  As soon as this notion had installed itself, the budgets of the CBC were massively slashed.  Most recently the truism has become that Canada is held together by its distinctive network of social programmes: no sooner said than those programmes are under attack at every level of government in the country.  On the basis of recent history, I am not about to propose that the theatre is or should be a means of holding the country together. 

Of course, I have often wondered about the distinct antipathy of Canadians toward nationalism.  1970s notions of colonial mentalities and inferiority complexes have never rung completely true for me.  The idea of a capitalist conspiracy has at times seemed to supply at least the beginnings of an answer but, these days, the intentions of a globalized economy, though carried out behind closed doors, seem too apparent to be called a conspiracy. To me, Canadians seem quietly conceited about their nationality. 

For the sake of the discussion–because I think the discussion is all–let us bracket nationalism as an impediment and an attack on individual liberty. Let us remove Canadian nationalism from the discussion because of its potential associations with imperialism, racism, fascism, essentialism, patriarchalism, and xenophobia.  But at the same time let us embrace this other thing that celebrates difference and the ex-centric, that takes into account the rights of individuals and the legitimacy of self-interest, as well as justice and reason, tolerance and openness, creativity and imagination, pleasure and play, and critical and aesthetic judgment but which, in the end, allows us to remain net promoters of Canadian theatre and the theatre in Canada.  I am prepared to be unsentimental about the destiny of the Canadian nation, but I would consider it a tragedy if Canadians did not participate fully in the exchange and debate and decision-making process that determined its future and if theatre practitioners and admirers, teachers and critics were not part of that process.   Let us resurrect the lost art of “conversation” (297) which Richard Gwyn alludes to in Nationalism Without Walls and recognize, as Ramsay Cook underlines, that the basic obligation of the nation is “peace, order and good government” and the provision of a structure to “protect cultural pluralism.”  Then let us talk in and about a framework, a forum, an open debate, an encadrement , and recognize that it is time to prioritize problem-solving and construction.  Perhaps we find a hint of the beginnings of what we might be looking for in Alain Filewod’s observation of the documentary theatre’s impulse to “accommodate rapid social change” (qtd in Wallace, 24). 

I speak most humbly in the shadow of great projects and works on Canadian theatre that have been undertaken and completed by scholars in recent years.  My sentiment is that this work has not been celebrated sufficiently and widely enough.   I was also motivated to open this discussion after witnessing the presentations of Guillermo Verdecchia,  Rahul Varma, Michel Marc Bouchard and Aviva Ravel at the Laval conference last year, and recognizing how much they had contributed to the vitality and the validity of the association’s meeting and wanting to encourage more of the same. 

My remarks have been intended to create an opening where I perceived an impasse, a hesitance, a reluctance to discuss.  It is an impasse which I see as having an effect on me as both as an amateur (I like the French word because it implies a lover) of the theatre in Canada and as a teacher.   Last year I taught a course I had created called Anglo-Québécois Literature.  As I told my students, I really didn’t know if there was such a thing as Anglo-Québécois literature and the course title should have ended in a question mark.  However, the course gave me the excuse to present works by David Fennario, Vittorio Rossi and Colleen Curran, and to invite each of these playwrights to speak to the class.  The students’ attitudes toward the concept of anything Anglo-Québécois ranged from chauvinistic attachment to pronounced antagonism, and there was little harmony in the writers’ responses to the expression. Nonetheless, the students’ awareness of the issues in question gave meaning to the works of these writers and significance to their presence. 

During the same period, I led a graduate seminar on Comparative Canadian Drama, a course which I regularly and apologetically describe to students as a study of forensics because although I intend that we should study the theatre, by which I mean the performance of plays, we, in fact, could only study history, biography, theory, and scripts together with our own readings, improvisations and background knowledge of performance.  When I had the opportunity to invite David French, a playwright I have long admired, to this seminar, I realized that the students had very little means through which to relate to French and his work.  The students had read Salt-Water Moon and Antonine Maillet’s much-praised translation of the same play, La Lune Salé, but French was not really a Newfoundland writer although his play is set there, nor could he say very much about the business of translation.  When asked about being a Canadian playwright, French’s answer was an icy “If I was being produced just because I was a Canadian; I’d rather not be produced.”  Immediately, I thought, ‘what a typically Canadian answer!’    What Italian, Swedish, German, Japanese, English, French, Ethiopian, American, Moroccan or Iranian writer would answer the question “what does it mean to be a playwright of your nationality?”  this way?   I am in agreement with Filewod’s observation that “‘true Canadianism . . . can never be achieved” (“Between Empires” 14).    I am not interested in a list of immortal features or a defined and regulated culture or an identity to call Canadian, but I would like to be able to have a conversation on the topic of  “Canadian theatre” and  “theatre in Canada,” whatever these expressions might mean,  just to see where the conversation takes us. 

1. qtd. in Rota Herzberg Lister’s  “Constructing a Canadian Theatrical Culture: The 1975 Conference of the Association for Canadian and Quebec Literatures in Historical and Personal Perspective,”   Textual Studies in Canada/ Études textuelles au Canada , 6 (1995): 22-32. 

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