44Quebec has ceased to be an island in the sea of modern America. Here the revolution of the machine threatens the age-old habits of a race and dooms the isolation of an ancient peasant society’
Bruce Mut o in i serra THE IHN KNOWN COUNTRY V
THE DREARY hamlet of Little Pabos stands on the south shore of the Gaspé peninsula—a few houses leaning against the Atlantic gales, a store and garage. Little Pabos is so little that few road maps mention it. But its meaning on the blurred map of Canadian civilization is gigantic and incalculable.
My car, just out of the factory, broke down at Little Pabos and that was fortunate. For half a day I found myself exposed at firsthand to several of the largest and least-known facts in the nation’s life.
They were not immediately apparent. Little Pabos looked like countless villages in Quebec. A bitter wind off Chaleur, Cartier’s bay of warmth, rattled the houses, almost hurled a passing cartload of manure from the road and sent the petticoats of a stout lady flying about her head as she attacked her back garden with a mattock. It was the Queen’s birthday and the children, like children all over Canada, celebrated with purchases of Coke and candy at the big store. The garage might have been any other from here to Vancouver.
But the great national facts were present just the same, all the more vivid because Little Pabos had concentrated them in a small space and saw no reason to disguise them from strangers.
The owner of the garage was a tall man, dark, pale and strikingly handsome in his superbly tailored city clothes, his manner grave, his speech courtly a grand seigneur, if there ever was one, presiding over a garage in Little Pabos. And though he may not have known it, he was the portent of French Canada in revolution.
Nodding solemnly at my outrageous French, he introduced me to a man with swarthy face and quick nervous grin. I had expected a bungling village roustabout. This was a mechanic of genius; also an actor, perhaps in a collective sense the leading actor, of the Quebec drama. In the course of brief acquaintanceship I was to learn that he had been raised on one of these windswept postage-stamp farms at the edge of the sea, had spent five winters studying machinery in Montreal and in all his journeys had learned no English.
Listening carefully to the squeak of the motor, his eyes closed in concentration, he shook his head with evident alarm and said something in French to his employer.
Bad,” the garage proprietor ex| plained. “It is very bad.” He tried to summon the right English word and added, “Organic.”
Yes, organic, and without a moment’s hesitation the mechanic plunged like a surgeon into the bowels of the engine. It was soon stripped apart and laid in fragments across the floor.
Meanwhile, half a dozen local customers needed attention hut they made no complaint and seemed to enjoy the excuse of a leisurely talk among themselves. A market place or a fish wharf had once been the forum of the village. Now its forum was a machine shop.
Two young men in greasy overalls, who spoke English with an Irish’ accent—descended, I suppose, from the immigrants who had fled the great Irish famine brought their smashed truck to the garage and waited patiently, smoking noxious black pipes. They worked in the new Gaspé mines to the north. The rich ore there, they said, had been known to prospectors foi sixty years but until recently no one had bothered to develop it. Now even in remote Gaspé the revolution was going ahead full-blast.
These lads guessed they were Irish but were not sure. Did they get along well with the French Canadians? They eyed me curiously, a trifle coldly, at that question. Nobody around here, they replied, ever thought about that.’ Everybody was the same and got along fine.
A plump Canadien in flashy dress, evidently a commercial traveler, edged up to me and spoke in confidence.
“You come from B. C., eh? I seen your license plate. I’ve been out west, too—in Ontario three years. A good country but I didn’t like it. People treat you all right, not a word to say against them, but there’s something queer about it. I never felt good there with those people. So I came home. You don t make so much dough here, of course, but it’s your own people. You understand?”
I said I understood perfectly but of course I didn’t. Has any western Canadian ever understood these people, about a third of the nation? And how many of us understand what is happening to transform their society, to alarm their Church, convulse their politics and make the Quebec of yesterday almost unrecognizable?
1 strolled down the empty, treeless road and fell into talk, across a wooden fence, with a man who might have heen painted as the conventional portrait of a Freneh-Canadian peasant, or carved in one of those familiar wooden figures foj the tourist trade. He had a sharp, shrewd old face, bony and veined with crimson, a body bent with labor.
He was plowing a scant acre of earth, behind a single horse as bony and tired as its master. The plowman acknowledged my clumsy greeting in French with a knowing, friendly smile, and the horse seemed glad to pause in the furrow.
“Where from?” the farmer asked, and when I told him I was from the Pacific coast he dropped the'reins and strode across the furrows to get a closer look at me.
“Vancouver!” he said and smiled again as if that magic name were a bond between us. “My boy, he goes to Vancouver. He sends de photos. Ah, de big trees! She must be good country, yes?”
I said it was a reasonably good country and hoped his boy would like it there. Oh, yes, the boy liked it all right. He was making big wages in the woods and sending money home every month. A second boy liad gone to Toronto and worked in a factory. The rest of the family was scattered in the St. Lawrence towns.
The children of that man would not come back to Gaspé again. Why should they? He looked across his cramped rectangle of soil, at the ramshackle cottage, the three cows, and his wife, bucket in hand, dropping potatoes along the furrows.
There wasn’t enough land, he said, for him and his sons. It had been cut up again and again and divided between the sons of twelve generations until it could be divided no more.
In the time of this man’s father, less than a century ago, the landless sons of Quebec poured into New England, half a million of them between 1860 and 1890, and bred there a FrenchCanadian stock of two million. Now the industrial revolution offers plenty of jobs in Canada and the boys are moving to the city, are pushing far beyond Quebec into Ontario, the prairies and British Columbia and in that movement are being themselves changed as they have already changed French Canada.
“Big pay up dere in de city,” the farmer said. “Nice house. Easy work. Dat s fine t’ing, okay for young man. Not me—too old.”
Was he a little lonely for his children? For a moment he didn’t answer and his eyes searched mine for communication. He hungered, I could see, for some knowledge of the far-off mysterious land where his sons and daughters had gone. There was yearning, hurt and wonderment in those old eyes. He wanted to know what was happening to his family, to the life he once knew here, to the larger life beyond the hills which he would never see.
A memory turned upside down
I could give him no answer. We were both citizens of the same nation and aliens to each other, both Canadians and forever strangers, In that moment of contact across a fence as formidable as any iron curtain 1 felt, like a physical blow, the awful fact of Canada’s duality.
No words can convey it. It is too deep for words. It is never translated since neither English nor French, as spoken by the lips, can be rendered into the secret language of two separate minds.
This peasant on the other side of an impervious rail fence, this man of strong native intelligence, of unequaled experience on this land, of a will power racially indestructible, has been called a member of a conquered race, and that memory doubtless was never long absent from his thoughts, or from the thoughts of any man in Quebec.
“Je me souviens,” is the watchword of these people. They all remember the same thing, the wrong thing, and turn it upside down, exactly as we do outside Quebec. A conquered race! Maybe an inferior race? At least a weakness and tragic schism in our Canadian nature—so many of us are inclined to think.
As I looked into this man’s eyes, guessed their wordless contents and knew that he was a better man than I could ever hope to be, I almost laughed aloud at the irony and falsehood that so often masquerades as the truth about French Canada.
Conquered? Inferior? Weak? Why. this man and his people, the sixty thousand besieged by the whole force of the British Empire and apparently destroyed, have achieved a conquest of their own with no recorded parallel, have given us our second heritage, the treasures of French civilization, and for all the eddies on the surface of politics, have made possible our transcontinental state. Strangers to us, alas, yes. But the oldest, most deeply grained and fundamental Canadians in this land.
“The French Canadian is a human being, not a label; a person? not a problem’9
All this is obvious, is printed in every schoolbook. Yet the actual discovery of the French Canadian, even if one has been in Quebec many times before, is always a shattering surprise the discovery, 1 mean, that the French Canadian isa human being, not a label; a person, not a problem; that his society is nol a solid lump of race, religion, politics and prejudice as it seems to he at a distance, but varied, complex, troubled and sorely torn by these times like human society at, large.
It may be, indeed, more; troubled and torn than most of Canadian society because here the revolution of the machine is so rapid, after its long delay, so sudden and unexpected.
The same revolution is under way everywhere, of course, from Newfoundland to British Columbia, as Canada becomes an industrial nation. In Quebec it is comparatively large in size and almost different in kind; for it cuts directly across a settled way of life and thought more deeply than in any other province. As nowhere else it threatens the age-old habits of a race and, because modern industry cannot be isolated, it dooms the isolation of an ancient peasant society.
This abrupt change — by far the largest since the so-called Conquest -—is proclaimed by every smokestack beside the river. It issues from every machine in the factories. It clamors over every labor dispute and dominates every manoeuvre of politics.
Quebec has ceased to be a simple farm community, an island in the sea of modern America. Its livelihood is earned mainly by the engines of an industry that must soon be one of the largest on the continent. Two thirds of its people are urban. A peasantry has become largely a proletariat. The quaint French Canada of yesterday belongs mainly to tourist advertising and the holiday diaries of schoolmarms from Boston.
As the farmer chatted with me at the roadside, a shiny new Cadillac went rapidly by in a billow of dust. It contained only the driver, a priest in black clerical garb.
“Nice maysheen,” the farmer said and tilted his pipe at the disappearing car. He permitted himself a private chuckle. In the old days the priest of every Gaspé village used to light bonfires and ring the church bell to guide the fishermen out of the Atlantic mist. Things have changed. The farmer laughed to himself again but offered no further comment.
He could hardly realize that it is from his Church, supposedly the most conservative force in the world, that some of Quebec’s most radical social thinking has lately come, or that the Church, more than any other institution, is feeling with alarm the impact of the revolution.
I asked the farmer whether his sons still went to the Church in Vancouver and Toronto. But, yes, they were faithful to the Church for sure. Then he remarked dryly that his sons had two children each. His own wife had borne eleven.
The operation on my car was now complete, the patient full}' recovered and, with my wife at the wheel (I always put her there when the scenery promised to be attractive), we swung around the long wriggling shore of Gaspé.
It is almost as beautiful as the tourist folders say in their routine of professional hyperbole—and more interesting.
Black headlands are thrust into the ocean like the fingers of a Negroid hand, palm downward. White foam explodes on rusty cliffs. Villages innumerable are fastened like ragged garments to the clothesline of the road. Around every turn a metallic church steeple glistens against the green of the forest and the blue of the sea, some marble Virgin watches the traveler from a hillside, or a solitary wooden cross, successor to the first Canadian cross planted here by Cartier, lists under the weight of the weather.
Around the turn, a ghost ship
Then the road swings inland, through tightly folded valleys, gulches of dark timber and multitudes of lost villages. And always, everywhere, children by the roadside, and behind every house diapers hanging out to dry, the humble banners of fertility.
It was getting on toward evening when we rounded a hairpin turn and almost collided with the harsh fantasy of the Pierced Rock. We stopped the car and gasped. No photograph, no painting, no printed word had warned us of this spectacle.
A ship of polished bronze, glowing hot in the sunset, a ship five times larger than any ship built by man, bored clean through the hull as by a torpedo, her rudder broken from the stern, lay beached a few yards from shore—a dead, deserted, spectre ship with the ghost of some ancient mariner lashed to the wheel, a ship of hallucination and delirium, her only living passengers a white wraith of sea gulls, a ship ravaged and scuttled by the sea and now yearning for her last sanctuary.
Percé’s famous rock has been beached here for quite a spell now. Grain by grain it crumbles and, the geologists say, will sink exactly thirteen thousand years hence. The villagers have not observed much change in it lately but on June 7, 1845, Phillip Le Boutillier looked from his store to see the ship’s stern fall into the sea with deafening detonation of sound, dust and frightened waterfowl. Someone will see that sight again.
Though Percé has built a substantial tourist trade around its prodigy, has primped itself up, rouged its cheeks and dressed in its Sunday best for visitors, it still sends its fishermen out to the cod banks where they have been fishing for three centuries. The boats have changed—the peculiar boats of Gaspé, pointed and high at both ends —but the fishermen, I imagine, are unchangeable.
Two of them painted their tiny schooner by the beach that night. In their black berets and rough sweaters they might have been working by any beach in Normandy. Where, I asked, did they fish? The younger man pointed with his paintbrush to the open sea, that graveyard of many brave ships since Cartier first breached the continental mystery here.
The fishing had been bad, these men said, the weather ruinous. A year ago the village had gone to bed on a calm night, the fleet bobbing peacefully at anchor, and next morning every craft in Percé lay smashed on the rocks by a hurricane. The fishermen shrugged. They knew the Atlantic.
The darkness fell, the phantom ship of bronze slipped her mooring and faded into the nothingness whence she had come, and a rotund figure walked down to the beach.
At first glance he might have been the village avocat, in black coat and stiff collar, but a second glance penetrated that disguise. I saw at once, from his swelling vest, his vinous cheeks and crafty eye that Shakespeare’s justice, “in fair round belly with good capon lin’d . . . full of wise saws and modern instances,” had stepped briefly out of the forest of Arden to play his little part.
He greeted me ceremoniously, in perfect English, noting that my car bore a British Columbia license. That was interesting, very. He had always wanted to visit the west and see what the people there were like.
“Don’t we surprise you here, my friend?” he asked. “Of course. It is everywhere the same—the human comedy, eh?”
He stopped smiling and added, “Perhaps it is the tragedy, we should say. We are all in it together, the same boat, but the French, the English, what do they know about each other? Nothing.”
He glanced at me to see if I caught his meaning and demanded sharply, “Shall we fight? No, there are too many of us to kill, so we must get along. It is formidable. We would get along very well except for a few old people, too set in their ways. But the young will be different. It is the education. It is changing everything in Quebec. When you go home, think about that. Think about it very much. And remember, we are all the same” —he thrust a plump finger into the left side of his vest—“in here.”
Having delivered this extraordinary speech, which seemed rehearsed, pat and probably delivered many times before, the justice saluted me with his cane and rolled away.
Next day we followed a winding route around the sheer cliffs and tidal flats of the peninsula. That blunt nose of land, sniffing the full flavor of the Atlantic, was chilled with wind, spray and mist, but warmer than the interior, where the road lurched and dipped like a roller coaster through a miniature range of Rockies, the inner recesses of the Shickshocks.
Only an occasional scratch
Winter still possessed the mountains. Snowdrifts two feet deep were sweating in the May sun. Here and there farmers plowed some niggard valley. Men with little axes and handsaws cut pulp logs and marked their names on each butt. Even the mechanical saw had not reached a people who spoke no English, hardly looked up as we passed and might have been a thousand miles from civilization.
As suddenly as it had risen, the road dropped a few miles farther on and we were on the southern shoulder of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Here was another primary fact, hidden today by fog but clear enough on the map of Canada—this yawning eastern mouth of the nation, the long gash of geography and the river that carries its cargoes halfway across the continent. Champlain seized the gulf and river and handed on to his race more than he knew.
To the westward the channel narrowed. We could see the blur of the north shore and, in imagination, the plateau of the Canadian Shield, hurling its waters to the Atlantic and Hudson Bay, a treasury beyond measurement, only a portion of it tapped by man.
The liquid reservoir of Quebec holds, they say, almost half of Canada’s potential hydro power and inevitably will nourish a major workshop of the continental economy. Within Quebec the Shield also contains the iron ore of Ungava with other minerals and timber in the perfect combination of industry.
Yet, when you see it, man’s work has made only an occasional scratch upon the surface of immensity. Saguenay’s appalling gorges look as empty as on the day of creation, though they lead, if not to Cartier’s Kingdom of Saguenay and its fabled diamants, to the soaring dams of Shipshaw and the factories of Arvida which turn bauxite from Guiana into aluminum. The same spill and lash of water carries the upland logs down to the river and powers the pulp mills to transform them into paper. Still, if you move a little way from the riverbank, the land rolls on to the north as Champlain must have seen it so many years ago.
Man clings to the river in two thin lines of farm land and industry. The stark chimneys on both banks, the towns clustered around those smoking altars of the new age, the logs in booms or mountainous pyramids, the paper streaming off the rollers, the people no longer following the plow but punching the time clock—all these things acquaint the traveler with Quebec’s revolution. In economic and human terms it is wide and deep, in geographical terms very narrow upon the St. Lawrence shelf and cheek by jowl with the immemorial industry of agriculture.
To be sure, the northern farm country of Maria Chapdelaine around Lake St. John, the newly rich mining towns like Rouyn, Noranda and Val d’Or, the whole industrial complex of the Abitibi country with its spreading network of roads and railways—all give Quebec a new dimension. But its life, as from the beginning, is attached to the river, at once the stomach and the lung of its economy, which digests the food of the hinterland, inhales the traffic of the Atlantic and exhales the traffic of the Canadian interior all the way from the Gz-eat Lakes.
As we drove west the villages began to look more prosperous, better painted, quaint and toylike. Their houses wore those familiar gimcrack poz-ches of the Christmas cards, the gaudy false shuttez’s, hipped roofs and dornzers, all designed like rows of wedding cakes from the kitchen of some fanciful chef. The revolution had not touched them yet and, one hopes, will never alter them, but it was moving this way.
Ata hotel in one of these river towns the agents of the revolution could be seen reconnoitering the next advance.
The same figuz-e who presides over evez-y country hotel in France, the massive fezzzale with genez-ous bosom and calculating eye, carved half a beef in the kitchen, her powerful bare arms spattered with blood. Her daughters waited on table with shy giggles. The chicken was cooked as only a French woznan can cook it and the decorations had a true Gallic tinge. Lace antimacassars protected the mail-order easy chairs. The imznaeulate silver spittoon was intended for ornament only. Exotic birds fluttered in strident prints about the walls. A high-button boot in pink glass held three artificial carnations.
Two mezz dz-ove up from the west in a big car, entered the dining room, crossed theznselves hurriedly and began an assault on the pea soup. They were travelez-s fz-onz Montreal, sleek men, expensively dressed, obviously contemptuous of this village, and they sold machinery which they discussed with the enthusiasm of their kind. They wez-e bringing the znachine to Gaspé. They wez-e pushing back the frontier. And in this village they wez-e strangez-s, like us.
Even as they talked the life now being changed by such zzzen suddenly z-evealed itself just outside the window.
A passing cart had dropped a szzzall stick of wood and it lay in a puddle, a few feet from the travelers’ limousine. Out of a doorway hobbled an ancient woman, a shawl over her head. She clutched the stick and carried it tz-iumphantly back to her stove. Maizpassant’s celebrated story, The Bit of String, told no more than that stick of wood about the natuz-e of Quebec’s Norman folk. They had not changed much in this village but they would change in another genez-ation.
Already the change is cozzzplete in the larger towns. We usually think, oui west, of a French town—any French town beyond Montreal or Quebec City —as rather crude, gauche and pz-ovincial. It was a little surprising, thez-efore, to spend that niglzt in a hotel at Rimouski luxurious enough for any metropolis, and to encounter the commercial talent of the French race at its peak.
Shrill squeaks for fury
Riznouski, I suppose, is almost a model of the new French-Canadian provincial city. Destroyed by fire, it has been rebuilt in architecture more massive and flashy than attractive in dull Anglo-Saxon eyes, leaving only a few of the lovely old gingerbz-ead houses that once lined a village stz-eet. The modern stores are cramzned with the latest gadgetry, the streets with a purely urban people a few ziziles-but a full era of tizzze—frozzz the hamlets to the eastward.
The wrestling match in the skating rink that night offered the usual pretense of skill and agony, enlivened by a certaizi Gallic fury and the shrill squeaks of a fleshy woman, evidently a society leader, wearing a fortune in diaznonds. We left early and fell into talk, over a cup of coffee, with a quiet, well-spoken young zzzan.
He was an engineer izz a paper coznpany, and a sign of the tiznes. Quebec at last is educating its own technicians to manage the revolution. The old educational system which consigned all scholars to the humanities, and thus gave EziglLsh-speaking Canadians all the best jobs in the new industries, is breaking down.
And high time, too, the ezigineer said. Actually, he told us, the portrait of his people as essentially rural and agricultural by their hereditary nature had never been more than an invention anyway.
“We always liked the town,” he said. “Why, it took fifteen years after Champlain got settled in Quebec before they cleared an acre or two of land on Hebert’s farm, if you could call it a farm.
“What,” he asked me, “do you see out west on the prairies? Farms, big farms, far apart. What do you see here? Towns close together. We’re social animals and always were. This idea that we weren’t made for industry is a laugh. Why, we’re far more urban than any Canadians.”
Perhaps he exaggerated but urban civilization is certainly packed tight along the shelf of the St. Lawrence. Rivière du Loup, Sherbrooke, Sorel, Trois Rivières and so many other towns thait no traveler can remember their names, so many villages that a car must slow down at almost every mile, are breeding that modern species, the industrial man. And they are quietly spreading the uniformity of the age, in French version, and transforming overnight the oldest social pattern in Canada. How, I wondered, was this process affecting the largest force in this society?
Ia a certain village, far from the main road, I paced the sunny, walled garden of a monastery with a monk of serene look, powerful mind and quiet speech. Yes, he said, it was true, all too true—the country boy who moved to the city often lost touch with the Church. The village curé knew every family down to the last infant. In the city how could the priest possibly keep such close touch with his flock?
The former peasant, now a factory worker, met men of strange new ideas and, as the monk put it, was “exposed for the first time to the big world.” Often the old faith was weakened or maintained only in form.
The roar of three huge trucks, each loaded with five new automobiles from the factory, interrupted our talk. They were part of that larger avalanche which the Faith must meet and guide.
“Of course,” the monk said, “the impact of things is very great when a society is in this sudden change. The Church may lose in numbers. But numbers are not everything. Quebec is being educated and we are gaining in quality.”
This saintly little man added what was to me a striking piece of information from such a source: “You Prot-
estants imagine that the Church is a monolith, a single thing, inflexible. How absurd! What a caricature! It is single only in a few basic doctrines. Once or twice in a century, perhaps, the Pope pronounces certain fundamentals. Apart from the articles of faith, we think as we please. Do you know that some of the most radical social thinking in Quebec today—that is, radical only by the old standards —is in the Church, in Laval University especially?
“No, my friend, the Church is not monolithic. It is full of conflicting thoughts. Why, there’s more difference between me and, say, a Jesuit, in all things but the Faith than there is between a Methodist and a Christian Scientist. And never forget this or you will never understand Quebec. The Church, too, is changing, not in the Faith, of course, but in everything else. It has always grown with society. That’s why it remains so strong.”
I left the monastery and gave a lift to a university student of mechanical engineering. He apologized for his bad English but he hoped to master the language, he said, and practice out west. The English, he said, were far abler than his people in industry and far more venturesome in enterprise. He must acquire the English ways to get on.
Supposing that any French-Canadian boy would learn these things at his mother’s knee, I asked him what he knew of Papineau, Cartier and Riel. He said he had heard those names in school but couldn’t remember much about them. He had been too busy studying mechanics. This answer astounded me. It shattered another legend, the legend of a French race brooding day and night on ancient wrongs and triumphs. When will western Canadians stop thinking of these people as all one and all obsessed only with racial memories?
Several hundred miles of roads, rivers, towns, villages and mountain forest brought us at last to the meeting place of two great rivers. One hot evening we saw the final autograph of the revolution scrawled across the sky by the smoke and myriad lights of Montreal.
How fertile was that “grain of mustard seed” planted here by Maisonneuve when he founded, within a flimsy stockade, his Ville Marie, dedicated to the Virgin! And how quickly Montreal lost her own virginity!
An ageless trollop with a heart of gold, this city has been called—always a mistress, never a wife—or a metropolitan wen and parasitic growth forever swelling across its island and ravening through the farm lands on the river’s banks. Names and adjectives all wither in this colossal presence. It is simply Montreal, a civilization, a state of mind and the only true city in Canada, beside which all others, however large, are only grown-up towns, or camps of steel and concrete.
Yes, a city, not by the mere measurement of size but by the measurement of time, wealth and diversity, with a city’s violent clash of slum and mansion, its rich men of secret power in mahogany board rooms, its middle class in endless miles of ugly houses, its proletariat swarming through the unspeakable rabbit warrens of the east end, but all this amorphous jumble somehow welded together in a single organism. That is Montreal, and its very name sounds like the thunder of its streets, the gurgle of its two rivers.
Here is an island, joined to the mainland by many bridges and yet forever an island in the life of Canada, separate and alone.
That life flows past and washes the island but cannot erode it. So it has flowed in furious current through the nation’s jugular since 1642 and from the flood Montreal takes what it wants, at pleasure. As it once transmuted fur into French coin, it now transmutes the toil of unknown men throughout the hinterland into the products of its factories and counting houses, into its wealth or poverty.
Montreal, the sleek entrepreneur and greedy broker of our economy, is riddled, they say, with vice and crime. It is continually reforming and always unreformed. Maybe so, but most of its inhabitants, far more than a million people, have never entered a night club, met les filles or made a dishonest dollar.
In short, with all its virtues and vices, all its shocking contrast of money and destitution, all its legendry, fable and fact, this is the heart of Quebec’s revolution, the metropolis of a metropolitan age.
In Montreal I was pursuing a certain quarry. The pursuit carried me into some strange places—a French-Canadian house of wealth heaped up and bursting with bric-a-brac, bronze busts and swollen furniture of unimaginable horror; Henri Bourassa’s dingy office at the newspaper Le Devoir, in which soft-spoken journalists wrote their corrosive editorials in his acid ink; an English club filled with smooth, disarming, dark-clothed men whose word would set other men blasting mountains, clearing forests, boring oil wells and building railways in the wilderness; a street corner where the gargoyle face of former mayor Camillien Houde was contorted by sudden earthquake and the hypnotic eyes burned in a civic pride undimmed by years of the wartime imprisonment that mellowed his mind and reduced his weight by a hundred pounds; strange holes and corners inhabited by scribblers, poets, artists, agitators and passionate reformers, all breaking their hearts and heads against the unbreakable walls and canyons of the city.
After long search, I found what I was looking for in a night club.
Roger Lemelin, the authentic interpreter of his race, was giving a party for the television actors of La Famille Plouffe. Half a dozen men and women ate snails and drank wine with evident melancholy at the end of their winter season. But Lemelin himself was not melancholy. He said he was not melancholy enough for his own good.
This remarkable person of large body, rough-hewn face and burning eyes, lifted his voice above the din of the night club and, speaking in the flawless English that he mastered in six months of study, hurled at me a large chunk of his personal creed.
“I am,” he bawled, “a great beast! You understand—a beast! I am an adolescent! Life is suffering and when I have suffered, then I will be a man!”
What of his people, the real people of Quebec who, on Lemelin’s pages, shed their peasant mask and emerge in urban reality?
“The people!” he cried. “Yes, the people! I will tell you what is wrong with your English concept of the Quebec people. You hear of the people in terms of politics only—false terms, always. What you need, what you don’t get, is Quebec in human terms. I try to paint it in those terms but the traffic is all one way. No one paints the rest of Canada for us in human terms. Why is that?”
Perhaps, I thought, because Englishspeaking Canada has no Lemelin, but I did not venture to answer his question and interrupt his verdict.
Engorging a snail, he went on: “The politicians only divide us. The people unite-—always. Nothing can stop that union in the end. Quebec, you see, is the life of the parish, enlarged to
the parish of the province, but no further—yet. But there is no real hate here for English Canada, as you imag-. ine, only synthetic hate invented and exploited by the politicians in both places. That will pass.”
Another snail and then: “Make no
mistake, the great movement is what you call centripetal, not centrifugal. The streams all flow together and all the politics are only chips on the surface. Nothing can stop the main current. Why?” He glared at me and answered himself: “Because all of us
are only people, that’s why.”
I walked away through the hushed streets as the first light glinted on the river, the great electric cross grew dim on Cartier’s Mount Royal and the jagged silhouette of Montreal turned black against the dawn.
This public philosophy of Lemelin, what did it mean? What was it worth? What, after all—for I knew I had seen only the thin surface of it so far—was really happening to the life of Lemelin’s people? It was too big a question to be answered here, probably too big to be answered at all.
Still, an essential fragment of the answer, I suspected, lay on a country road, in a sleepy village not far off. I decided to follow that road to the ancestral home of the greatest French Canadian and then to Quebec City, the spiritual home of his race.
NEXT ISSUE Bruce Hutchison rediscovers POLITICAL QUEBEC