Gilles de Lalonde, a rebel with detonators and very willing to travel
UNTIL LAST winter the cultural revolution in St. Boniface, the Manitoba city of 14,500 mainly French-Canadian inhabitants, was so quiet as to be almost inaudible. Any rumblings of radicalism there might have been, were drowned out by the authoritarian ring of Roman Catholic church bells, tolling as if Duplessis were still alive and all was as it should be in the Frenchspeaking world. Then down from a train stepped a proselytizing 28-yearold séparatiste calling himself André Tremblay whose real name, Gilles de Lalonde, had been tentatively linked with an incident involving some detonator caps found in Hull, Quebec, shortly before the Queen’s visit to Canada.
Lalonde and his RIN colleagues had decided things were getting too hot for him in Quebec. Lalonde soon succeeded at making things pretty hot for himself in St. Boniface too (he left town for Bolivia at the end of November), but this time the detonators were cultural, not mechanical, and
the target was the city’s professional and Roman Catholic establishment, not les Anglais.
Within months of his arrival Lalonde had grown a Messianic beard, got a job as a reporter-announcer with
radio station CKSB (he was later fired), made Manitoba aware that French - Canadian chansonniers now have more in their repertoire than Alouette and, most important, founded a 13-man cell of angry young revolutionaries known as UAssociation Québec-Manitoba.
Lalonde and his 12 disciples (the parallel appears to have been intentional) set in motion an enterprise that was both a financially successful entertainment bandwagon and a remarkably effective propaganda machine. With it they delivered a series of sharp, unpleasant shocks to many French - speaking Manitobans. Lalonde’s derisive speeches (“The French here are dying, no screams, no yells, no fights”) gained him a reputation as a professional subversive. The feeling, especially in the cautious, conservative l’Association de l’Education Canadienne Française, was that the man calling himself Tremblay (his real name is still a mystery to many Manitobans) had been bankrolled and commissioned by the RIN to stir up trouble in the west.
Lalonde certainly lavished money on publicity projects and steak-andchampagne parties as if he had been bankrolled by somebody. In fact most of his money came first from his wealthy family and later from his efforts as an amateur impresario. Lalonde began inviting Quebec singers for concerts in St. Boniface simply to amuse himself. His audiences were small — they found the entertainment strange, disturbing and frequently “too sexy.” Lalonde continued to promote furiously until chansonniers of the calibre of Pauline Julien, JeanPierre Ferland and Félix Leclerc began playing to capacity houses in five different places — including the Englishspeaking University of Manitoba. By that time, Lalonde claimed, the profits from the concerts had more than repaid the $1,000 he was personally out of pocket.
Lalonde’s political activities gener-
ated less harmony. He cast scorn on the small town “stupor” of St. Boniface and told everyone they had to go to Quebec to live properly. Rumors that he was a Communist and an atheist threw him into rages and he accused the establishment of persecution. He drew some of the best young minds in St. Boniface to his little band (including Michel Monnin, 19-year-old son of Mr. Justice A. M. Monnin of the Manitoba Court of Appeal) but Lalondc’s continual ranting made it difficult for the disciples to follow him. L’Asociation Québec - Manitoba suspended operations when Lalonde left for Bolivia.
“He is too extreme, too pro-separatist,” says young Monnin, “although his ideas did influence me when he first arrived.”
Monnin intends to study economics in Montreal for four years. This decision may owe something to Lalonde’s influence but, as economist Bruno Lagacé points out, the exodus to Quebec is nothing new. “Out of my graduation class of 15 at St. Boniface College only four are still here,” says Lagacé. “I would like to be able to stay and revitalize our French culture. If this doesn’t happen we will leave.”
Lalonde says he is prepared to return from the Bolivian wilderness as soon as someone is prepared to pay him for being a professional link between Quebec and St. Boniface. Meanwhile the potential French renaissance in the West appears to have been nipped in the bud. But if Lalonde’s behavior sometimes seemed more destructive than positive, he did for a time confront French-speaking Manitobans with their ultimate question: are they prepared to make special efforts to be French or are they disguised Anglais under a veneer of sentimental Francophilia? Many people disliked Lalonde simply because the question made them feel too uncomfortable.
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