MACLEAN'S REVIEWS

ON THE FRENCH FACT YOU CAN’T EXPLORE IN ENGLISH CANADA

ROBERT FULFORD May 2 1964
MACLEAN'S REVIEWS

ON THE FRENCH FACT YOU CAN’T EXPLORE IN ENGLISH CANADA

ROBERT FULFORD May 2 1964

ON THE FRENCH FACT YOU CAN’T EXPLORE IN ENGLISH CANADA

MACLEAN'S REVIEWS

ROBERT FULFORD

ONE OF THE CURIOUS FACTS of Canadian cultural life is that in the cities west and east of the province of Quebec, the culture of foreign countries is known far better than the culture of French Canada. As a nation Canada is wondrously self-conscious about culture and the means of distributing it, as all those royal commission reports can testify. And, at the same time, English-speaking Canadians have in recent years been made profoundly conscious of the separate existence, the uniqueness, of the French Fact in Canada. These two circumstances, together, would seem to make it likely that the culture of French Canada would be at least examined by Canadians outside Quebec — examined and rejected, possibly, but at least examined.

THE QUEBEC YOU NEVER FIND IN DOWNTOWN TORONTO

Yet this is just the opposite of the truth, in every field but painting and sculpture. Consider only Toronto, the city which, above all others, prides itself on its new cosmopolitanism and its newly heightened awareness of the arts. In Toronto it is far easier to see a Swedish film than to see a French-Canadian film — though there are good French-Canadian films. In Toronto it is easier to buy a record from France than a record from French Canada — though there are now some superb singers and songs in Quebec, and in fact the best performer in popular music in Canada is a French Canadian. In Toronto it is easier to buy a literary or film magazine from Europe than a literary or film magazine from Quebec — though there are some fascinating Quebec magazines.

Toronto people find it difficult or impossible to buy French-Canadian books when they want them (French books from France are much easier to find) and even French-Canadian daily newspapers are sold in only a very few places. And of course it is impossible in Toronto to see Radio-Canada television, except on three or four (or now, perhaps, six) nights a season. Elsewhere in Canada, except in those cities with French-Canadian ghettos, the situation is similar or worse.

Most French-Canadians live close to the culture of English-speaking Canada. If they care to, they can know how we talk, how we entertain ourselves, what we admire and what we worry about. Our TV and radio, our books and magazines are spread out before them. The result is that many French Canadians have some understanding of the other Canada. But an English-speaking Canadian, outside Quebec, New Brunswick, Ottawa and Winnipeg, has no similar opportunity. In the present crisis, statesmen and journalists on all sides piously demand “understanding” from the citizens. But how is an English-speaking Canadian to understand Quebec except through its culture, and how is he to absorb its culture if it is not physically available to him?

Jean-Louis Gagnon, a member of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, recently pointed out a striking difference between university students in Quebec and Ontario. The Quebec students are increasingly separatist in their views, and increasingly intolerant of English-speaking apologists. But the Ontario students show a surprising willingness to hear what Quebec has to say. Some of the University of Toronto students are so anxious to understand Quebec that they seem to promise an entirely new attitude among Ontario adults. But with the best intentions in the world they can hardly sustain their interest in Quebec if their contact with its culture is limited to an occasional weekend in Montreal or a summer holiday.

No doubt the royal commission, when it reports in 1966, will have something to say about the physical availability of French-Canadian culture. But its recommendations will apply mainly to the activities of federal and provincial government agencies, and many of the problems I have in mind are in the private rather than the public sphere. The government can’t arrange wider distribution of Le Devoir or Cité Libre, but a few storekeepers or hotel owners in each city could make them available. The government can’t insure that the National Film Board’s now famous documentary, Pour la Suite du Monde (the one that went to Cannes last year but still hasn’t reached Toronto), gets shown in movie theatres, but. a few theatre owners, perhaps pushed by their patrons, could do so. The government can’t make anyone listen to the songs of the Quebec chansonniers, but the people who distribute and sell records in English-speaking Canada can promote them.

A PRIVATE PLATFORM FOR THE SAKE OF UNITY

There are two fields in which a few people can make genuine progress by showing interest and exerting pressure:

■ Television: In Toronto, the CBC is now introducing French-Canadian radio over CJBC, but to anyone who has seen them the television programs of Radio-Canada are obviously a far more effective way of communicating the content of French-Canadian life. They have (in their plays, for instance) just what the English CBC network so sadly lacks: a social density, a confident feeling of mutual understanding between producers and audience. To watch part of, say, a serial about office workers in Montreal is to begin to feel the texture of life in contemporary Quebec. The CBC English networks and the private stations could make a serious contribution to our understanding of Quebec if they showed some of these programs on a regular basis, properly subtitled. They need not be shown in prime time — that part of the audience which is curious enough to watch will pursue them to the late-night show, or even to Sunday morning — but they should be carefully chosen and carefully promoted.

■ Records'. Somehow, English-speaking Canada is still ignoring the most fascinating group of singers the country has ever produced. There’s been one TV show about the chansonniers, and one concert at the University of Toronto by Gilles Vigneault, and in Toronto there are a couple of stores which, if pressed, will admit that they have one or two LPs from the new Quebec singers. But otherwise, Vigneault, Felix Leclerc, Claude Lévcilléc and the rest don't exist for English-speaking Canada. I can’t prove in words that Vigneault — the intellectual who sings brilliantly of North Shore fishing villages — is the best performer in this country in his generation, but his records (Columbia FL 292 and FL 298) indicate some of the breadth of his talent. Leclerc (Epic LF 2001 and 2012), the old master of the chansonniers, and Léveillée (Columbia FL 303), whose songs arc mostly about life in Montreal, are two others whose work is well recorded. To hear them sing is to grasp another dimension of Quebec life. They should be on every radio station, and in every record store, in the country.