Closeup/Art

Revolutionary spirits

Under ‘oppression’ Quebec’s arts flourished. And now?

Gail Scott May 2 1977
Closeup/Art

Revolutionary spirits

Under ‘oppression’ Quebec’s arts flourished. And now?

Gail Scott May 2 1977

Revolutionary spirits

Closeup/Art

Under ‘oppression’ Quebec’s arts flourished. And now?

Gail Scott

In San Francisco, on a twisted sculpture that looks as though it might have broken loose from the adjacent freeway, the words Québec Libre appear mysteriously in red paint from time to time. In a major Paris theatre, three Quebec singers who are well known in France, sing triumphant odes to their province after the November 15 victory by René Lévesque’s Parti Québécois. And in, of all places, Tunis, a tourist watches a television show starring Quebec rock musician Robert Charlebois, who is wearing a Montreal Canadiens’ hockey shirt and whose songs include mocking lines: “I’m a frog. Kiss me. ”

Three incidents separated in space and time and, in a sense, unrelated—except, with hindsight, as far-flung indications of the extraordinary role Quebec’s flourishing artistic community played in bringing the separatist PQ to power. Given its linguistic isolation in North America, franco-

phone Quebec’s identity crisis has always been even more profound than that of its English-speaking Canadian neighbors. As a result, the awakening of Quebec during the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s ushered in a flowering of the arts at every level: a dizzying multiplication of record companies that produced a galaxy of Quebec vedettes (stars), of theatres large and small, of publishing houses, playwrights, authors, film makers, and painters. Not all were—or are today—card-carrying Péquistes. But the dizzying explosion of talent was a sure sign that the ancient, inward-looking Québécois inferiority complex was being set firmly aside. Says playwright Michel Tremblay: “For the first time in our history, the artists of my generation talked as Quebeckers to Quebeckers—in Québécois. We made a rupture with the horror we had of ourselves as people. If it weren’t for the artists of my generation, the PQ would never have got in.”

And yet for many Quebec artists, the process of politicization was gradual, and at times vague. On the eve of the November 15 election, a survey by a local tabloid newspaper indicated that a large number of the local showbiz personalities would vote PQ. A year earlier a benefit for the now defunct Péquiste daily newspaper Le Jour managed to rally a list of supporters so star-studded it resembled a kind of Quebec Academy Awards. Yet many of these stars had never been seen at demonstrations or at PQ party meetings. And the reasons they gave for their support of the PQ included nebulous statements to the effect that “things are rotten in Quebec,” “life has no sense,” “things have to change”—statements implying that the quality of life was not what it should be. Yet whether or not they had opted for independence, they saw in Lévesque a credible comrade in the combat for culture, for the thriving of French Quebec.

For others, dedication to the idea of an independent Quebec reached much further back. Film Director Michel Brault, winner of a 1975 Cannes Film Festival award for his movie Les Ordres, based on the 1970 FLQ crisis, recalls that “I was let go from my first job at the National Film Board, so when I went back there in 1957 there was already a certain anger. It was very frustrating. The services were unilingual English. It was necessary for us to im-

pose a séparation of services. That was my first separation...” The fiery and beautiful singer Pauline Julien has been a fierce supporter of separatism since the early 1960s and in 1964 demonstrated her feelings by refusing to sing before the Queen. She became a separatist, she explains, because of the “constant feeling of repression in the head and in the stomach [when] we run up against things like unilingual institutions such as banks.” One of the hundreds of people rounded up and jailed during the FLQ crisis, Julien sings, in a piece written by Claude Gauthier:

I am of America and France,

I am of unemployment and exile,

I am of October and of hope,

I am a race in danger,

I am foreseen for the year 2000,

I am our liberation.

Rock star Robert Charlebois has always eschewed political labels. Yet by his creation of a distinctive, and musically spellbinding Québécois rock style, he left an unmistakably nationalistic mark on his generation. And despite his apolitical stance, he whispers between the verses of one of his songs: “Cent ans, c’est long” (100 years—in Confederation—is a long time).

By his excesses, his affability, and his tremendous energy, sculptor Armand Vaillancourt is a near-paragon of the process that made fierce nationalists—and

more—out of so many Quebec artists. Born during the crash year of 1929, the sixteenth of 17 children of parents who returned to the land to survive the Depression, Vaillancourt went to Montreal at 20, taking with him the optimism and energy of an old Quebec untouched by industrialization. “I was hungry and bursting with energy,” recalls Vaillancourt. “I had so much energy, I was always getting into fights. My beard and long hair didn’t help. It was the Fifties. People provoked me.” He took up sculpture to be able to work with his hands and use up some of that troublesome energy. His first major work was a tree on Durocher Street near McGill University, which caught his eye after it was partially destroyed by a thunder storm. Done often under the cover of night, his sculptured tree caused him much trouble with the authorities. But when it

was finished, the strange, stark object stood as a kind of monument to youthful revolt for years in the McGill student ghetto—until the provincial government acquired it for a respectable sum.

“I was young. I felt good. This gesture was taken as a kind of symbol of pride by young Quebeckers,” he says. He felt none of the shame of growing up as a poor urban Quebecker that Tremblay experienced. While the playwright “felt ugly” and took jobs delivering barbequed chicken, the sculptor refused such lowly employment in the English dominated economy. He preferred to sleep in sheds.

The eyes of Torontonians are still offended by a heap of metal that was the result of a bicultural misunderstanding between Vaillancourt and Toronto authorities and which no doubt helped harden the artist’s nationalism into a desire for independence. Vaillancourt had concocted and cast the pieces for a huge twisted metal sculpture for Toronto, optimistically entitled Je me souviens (I remember), when he fell into a dispute with the city about money. Seeing no solution to the problem, he left town with his workers. He left behind the sculpture—unfinished. To this day its parts lie unassembled on the carefully tended lawns of a west-end park.

A few years later he found himself in trouble in San Francisco as well, standing in a pond at the foot of a towering fountain

he had created, shouting obscenities at the city fathers who were inaugurating it. He had not been invited to the ceremonies, he says. He profited from the occasion anyway to write a few Québec Libre slogans on the base. The differences between the commissioned artist and the city had been going on for some time over matters such as the cost of casting the fountain and the fact that the sculptor had allegedly sheltered Indians suspected of participating in the occupation of what had formerly been Alcatraz prison. He had, in fact, intended to dedicate the work to the Third World. “But it was just after the October Crisis and I found Quebec was closer to my heart.” He says the slogan Québec Libre still appears on the fountain from time to time. Somebody down there remembers.

Back in Montreal, there is an ambience of false middle-class serenity about St. Louis Square and the three-storey grey stone houses that surround it. The handsome, tree-lined square stands as a kind of memorial to the ideas and social tensions that have kept Quebec in turmoil. A gathering place for students, vagrants and the elderly, it is also the rallying spot for political demonstrations. And traditionally the square has been the home of avant-garde poets and intellectuals, a meeting place of poetry and politics. On one side lives Pauline Julien and Gerald Godin, the poet who, as a PQ candidate, personally defeated Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa on November 15. Around the corner, lives Gaston Miron, father of nationalist Quebec poetry, and André Brassard, director of most of Michel Tremblay’s plays. Not

far away there is Gaëtan Dostie, writer, collector of library manuscripts and editor of the new weekly Le Jour's literary page. With the exception of Brassard, these are the intellectuals and poets of the Quiet Revolution who turned separatist before René Lévesque left the Liberal party in 1967.

“There’s a kind of calm unanimity of writers behind Lévesque,” says Dostie, whose apartment bulges with books. “Why have they rallied behind the PQ? Because they want to create in French. It’s normal,” he adds rather coldly from behind his desk. He has in mind Jacques Ferron, Gaston Miron, Paul Chamberland and André Major-passionate nationalist writers who cried the loudest about the painful identity crisis of their people and the need for independence. They were the rule. The exceptions—novelists Réjean Ducharme and Marie-Claire Blais—are essentially vague about politics. But they also write about the mal de vivre (anguish) of Quebeckers with heartrending precision.

The turning point for it all came around 1963. That was the year Parti Pris, a leftindependence review first appeared. Godin, later to become director of Parti Pris when it became a nationalist publishing house, had come down from Trois-Rivières, a bright young poet supporting the politics of the young Pierre Trudeau and other writers for the progressive periodical

Cité Libre. Meeting other poets, including separatist Gaston Miron, influenced Godin greatly and suddenly he was torn. Julien had earlier returned from six years in Paris into the upheaval in Quebec that followed the death of the dictatorial Premier Maurice Duplessis, and also found herself in a period of “political awakening.” Chamberland was writing poems such as The Signpainter Screams, poems that talked of existing within “a living death with a land stabbed in the heart of its harvests and passions.” Over at the National Film Board, young directors such as Brault and Denys Arcand (Réjeanne Padovanï) already had several years of experience fighting for French services, for an understanding that in fact their way of doing things might not be that of their English superiors.

In such cafés as La Hutte Suisse, since demolished, and l’Association Espagnole, still a meeting place for poets, the small group in and around Parti Pris debated the question of identity, the new society—and, increasingly, independence. “It was a major awakening,” says Dostie, pointing out that this was also the period of the first FLQ bombs and the formation of the first separatist party, Le Rassemblement pour l’Indépendance Nationale. Perhaps the thing that made this group different from their nationalist forebears, was a new confidence. “Maybe I was compensating for my inferiority complex,” admits Godin. “Anyway others were saying Quebec is disgusting, vulgar. I said no. It’s not. I could feel in the force of things like my family that we were a small people with great possibilities.”

With all their seriousness, the partipristes remained intellectuals and poets, with little direct impact on the workingclass neighborhoods that were to provide the first electoral base for the PQ in 1970. It was their sympathizers, chansonniers such as Julien, Gilles Vigneault and Félix Leclerc who as artists first reached a wider audience with a poetry subtly imbued with syllogisms for separatism. That is still true today, as, when Vigneault sings about a farmer flying over his barn and madly switching from French to English depending on the altitude—a parody of the airtraffic control language debate. From the stage of Montreal’s Place des Arts, on television or at PQ riding meetings, the impact of the chansonniers over the past decade has been enormous. “They have spoken the loudest,” says Brault. “They have been heard by the people.”

And yet Tremblay, without denying the impact of the chansonniers, has something else in mind when he talks about the impact of his generation on the PQ vote. For him, the important thing is that through the form and language—most often jouai, the street argot of Quebec—of their art they were the first to assert the synthesis of French and American culture, to end the schizoid frenzy in which Quebeckers were always seeking to be one or the other, or

taking refuge in their rural past. “We showed people they were neither subAmerican nor sub-French,” says Tremblay. “And we showed them with something good. 1968 was the year of the rupture. It was the year of Les Belles Soeurs and L’Hostie de Show,” he says, referring to his first play and to a now historical variety show in which both Robert Charlebois and monologist Yvon Deschamps appeared for the first time as we know them now. It was the year young Québécois, with a new pride in themselves, stopped trying to speak textbook French and freely embraced Québécois.

Two years later there was a new stimulus for this growing collective confidence: the October Crisis. Reacting to Ottawa’s imposition of the War Measures Act, Quebec artists mounted a show entitled Songs And Poems Of Resistance. One by one they paraded onto the stage of the packed Gésu Theatre, protesting that Quebec was now “occupied territory.” For most of them, government handling of the crisis caused a hardening of positions. “It only made me angrier,” recalls Julien, who was one of the first arrested under the War Measures Act.

After that, direct protest by the artistic community against the Bourassa government became increasingly widespread. Artists, through their associations, debated politics and participated in direct actions such as an occupation by film directors of government offices to back demands for

laws protecting the Quebec cinema. They protested the tiny budget of the provincial cultural affairs department and decried the federal-provincial division of jurisdiction in that field. “The Liberals were reluctant to do anything because they perceived cultural activity as electorally dangerous due to its tendencies toward autonomy,” notes Pierre de Bellefeuille, parliamentary assistant to the new Parti Québécois cultural affairs minister, Louis O’Neill.

Matters are likely to change considerably under the Lévesque government. When Finance Minister Jacques Parizeau tabled spending estimates for the coming year this spring, he announced a 29.7% increase—to $59.1 million—for the cultural affairs ministry, with two million dollars earmarked for the establishment of a Quebec film institute. The new government also plans to establish regional councils that will allow artists to play an advisory role in the development of policy and the distribution of funds; there are also plans afoot for laws designed to promote Quebec films and records. “The cultural revolution is as important for the Quebec national as economic performances,” declared Cultural Affairs Minister O’Neill. It “will finally reach, we hope, in its results, the colonized and alienated spirits who cannot imagine for our people another destiny than that of dependence, passivity and resignation.”

Even so, will the PQ be able to contain a

generation of artists who, for the Liberals, had come to constitute a formidable opposition? “We’ll see from day to day,” says Pauline Julien. “Right now I’m placing my confidence in it. As in any love affair, we start on a basis of trust.” Yet ironically, the arrival in power of the separatists may pose problems for the artists themselves—as artists. Dostie hints, for example, that writers may be increasingly involved in such tasks as preparing dossiers on Quebec culture, For his part, Tremblay laughs at the suggestion that his PQ sympathies might transform his work into political tracts. “Well, I’m going to have to change the endings of my plays,” he says, referring to the difficulties of his characters in getting beyond their oppressed, impoverished situations. “They’re too pessimistic. It’s extraordinary. My plays will be viewed one day as period pieces. People will say ‘that’s how we used to be.’ ”

Another possible paradox looms. Will a generation of artists, who now see their political ideal all but accomplished and social Utopia just around the corner, lose some of the creative fire that fueled them in more adverse political times? Tremblay admits that the risk is there. “I won’t be writing odes for the PQ like [composer Leonard] Bernstein did for the Democratic party,” he says. Then he adds: “At least the identity problem is solved. If a generation of artists has been burned for the good of Quebec, that’s fine.”