Portrait Of A Young Quebecker On The Rocky Road To Terrorism
Before 1966 Charles Gagnon was a teacher at the University of Montreal. In September of that year, when he was arrested in New York as a member of the Front de Libération du Québec, his name became synonymous with terrorism. Since his deportation to Montreal with his comrade Pierre Vallières in January, 1967, he has spent three years in jail, been tried and acquitted on a murder charge, faced other counts of manslaughter, conspiracy and sedition — and become, at 31, a rallying cry for Quebec’s most extreme protesters. This is the story of Gagnon’s youth — of the years that turned him toward extremism. It is also, in some measure, the story of the formative years of the dissenting generation so potent in French Canada today.
THE CELL MEASURES a good seven feet by five. It is for two persons, a second bunk piled on top of the first. A space of seven feet by five isn’t much for two men, especially if it has two bunks, a lavatory, two foot-wide planks fixed to the wall, one to serve as table, the other as seat. New York, “The Tombs” (Manhattan House of Detention for Men), September, 1966. The FLQ has just died a fourth time!
I remembered a large room on the first floor. Two beds that almost fill the room. Four brothers who sleep on two straw pallets. The straw gets changed at least once a year, in winter, after the threshing. It’s good to sleep on a pallet that is one’s own and has been filled with new straw. It pricks, but one quickly shapes a nest in it, and it feels so much fresher.
Childhood, for an adult, is a collection of memories one chooses without knowing the reason, but in such a way that they are the only ones that exist at the moment of choice. Adolescence, for an adult, is more a succession, a blending, of moods — of joy, certainly, of sloth, hope, loneliness, revolt, anger . ..
In a cell seven feet by five, where there are two beds, a lavatory and two planks jutting from the wall, and even when you have a cell mate literally stepping on your feet because neither of you wishes to stay abed, it is still possible to revisit your memories and relive the moods of your past.
I was born in a house on the third row at Bic, Sainte-Cecile du Bic, in 1939. Hitler had not yet reckoned out his strategy for the conquest of Europe; my father, when he made his fourteenth child, had no more reckoned on Hitler. That didn’t prevent the Canadian army from calling up an older brother to make war on Hitler, the war “to put an end to the crisis.”
My father was a farmer and woodcutter. My mother was a housewife and farmer. We weren’t well off; this is how they talk of poverty in Bic, in my country. Bic is 180 miles northeast of Quebec City, on the south bank of St. Lawrence, which, at that point, we call the sea.
I was born a mile and a half from the sea — that space which permits unlimited dreams. From the top of the hill on the third row at Bic you saw the sea, the infinity beyond the rocky fields and the tumbledown buildings.
My father had a land of rocks. We weren’t well off. Even if we had enough to eat every day — the produce of the farm. Even if we had a place to sleep every night — our straw pallets, another product of the land. We had the feeling of being at home, of belonging. We could stay as long as necessary. Until the day we would go to live somewhere else. We were convinced we could be much better off elsewhere.
The tradition was well established in my family that at 17, 18, 20 or later, one left home for at least several months a year, to go and work, earn one’s living, hiring on in the bush camp as a woodcutter, or in the town as a casual worker. My father had shown the way, turning himself into a woodcutter every winter.
He was not satisfied with his life at Bic, the life he was obliged to lead because his land was mortgaged and he had had many children. Nor had my brothers any liking for the land; it would not give them a living.
To get out of the muck, that’s the dream of every poor child. We knew we wouldn’t get out of the muck by staying in Bic: we’d have to leave. For Montreal, no doubt. Because people who came from Montreal had a car that looked as if it belonged to them. They also had the money to buy beer and they wore “store clothes” a lot better looking than our homemade breeches. They had to be rich.
The catalogues of the big stores, which also came to us from Montreal, were full of goodies. Marvelous games, clothes of fine fabrics. A wonder. I would try to convince my mother that the next time we sold the farm-made butter it would bring in enough to buy a windbreaker, a little truck or a hockey stick. I rarely succeeded.
Even when I arrived in Montreal in 1960, the people always had an air of wealth. I lived on Decelles Avenue, near the university, a stiff young peasant straight out of the countryside. I arrived in September, 1960, after having spent eight years in the seminary at Rimouski. I had completed my classics course, the royal road for the sons of poor men wanting to get away from poverty. The son of a farmer with debts at the Farm Credit Office, I had mingled with the sons of lawyers and doctors.
At the seminary, I did not repeat the starring performance I had achieved at School No. 7 on the third row at Bic, that tiny school where we never numbered more than 18 or 20 pupils, where seven winters straight I froze like a lump of dung and where, every month for seven years, I was top of my class. In those years nothing embarrassed me more than to see my father trying to dazzle the neighbors
with my scholastic success. Like all fathers frustrated in their own hopes, he counted on his sons and perhaps most of all on me, the youngest, to provide grounds for satisfaction.
Because I was born in a proud family, a family that accepted neither humiliation nor defeat. My father loved fine horses and always kept their harness spick and span. He whitewashed the farm buildings regularly. He had only scorn for the way some neighboring farmers let things go. He held, more than anything, to the good reputation of his children. Soon to be 80, he is still the same.
We could, then, be both poor and proud. This obliged us to hide things. If it was necessary to patch old trousers, the patch must be of the same material, the same shade, well sewn. My breeches had plenty of patches.
Those who are both poor and proud are the last people to revolt. They don’t cultivate their difference. So as not to suffer too much, they try to hide it from others and from themselves. They learn to dream. Fine clothes, sure, good cars, sure, all that is desirable, but . . . there are other things. Spiritual values, for instance.
When I was 12, my parents, especially my mother, wanted me to become a priest. I wanted simply to study: my father’s land of rocks offered me nothing. But for my parents, meanwhile, I was their fourteenth child, my cousin had just been ordained, the land none of the children wanted had to be sold and the family was moving to Rimouski, where the seminary was located ... in short, I would take the classics course. And so in September, 1952, I enrolled in the seminary at Rimouski as a day scholar. My father, having sold his land, had become a full-time laborer and bought a house at Nazareth, a working - class parish on the eastern fringe of Rimouski.
At Nazareth I was “a settler.” A “settler” in Rimouski, he’s a guy who comes from the backwoods. I was a settler all the years I took the bus from my house to the seminary, dressed like a clown in a sea-blue frock coat and green sash (Rimouski was the last seminary in Quebec where the frock coat was obligatory; today it’s back in fashion). A settler living in a workers’ district who attended an institution set up primarily for the sons of the middle class. A settler suddenly introduced as belonging to the elite of FrenchCanadian youth, Lower St. Lawrence section. Enough to traumatize the bravest of settlers!
Inwardly, I experienced a “great blackness.” At the time, I did not recognize it as a result of outside con-
straints. Awareness of constraint, of being stifled, crushed, can come only from the awareness of freer forms of existence. But we knew no forms of life other than our own, except for our dreams. In the 1950s Rimouski had neither intellectual nor political life. I came to adolescence in a great void; only one teacher introduced me to the work of some authors then in vogue, such as Sartre and Camus. I was really “coming from the backwoods” when I arrived in Montreal in September, 1960.
It was in and through my family that I discovered what I now call that “great blackness.” Through my brothers who worked away from Rimouski for part of the year I got to know ideas, attitudes, styles completely alien to the standards of my childhood. I dreamed of getting out myself, changing the air, knowing the world, being alive. Rimouski was a dead town. When I came to this realization, it was my parents who had to pay the price.
My father soon became for me the personification of narrow-mindedness, reaction, pettiness. In a confused way,
I had always felt attracted by everything new, and he, too, was sensitive to what was going on outside; but even if he was more critical than my mother about social and political institutions, he represented for me all that was backward. He was a supporter of the Union Nationale, with deviations to Social Credit. He was opposed to everything from the city.
I grew up at the time Quebec was becoming an industrialized country, when the majority of Quebeckers were becoming workers or salaried employees. It was inevitable that the country folk would bristle: the cities offered many goods, desirable, coveted, but inaccessible. The farmers were locked in an absolutely different way of life: they consumed what they produced, the rest was beyond their reach. My father suffered because he could not offer himself and his family all those goodies becoming plentiful in the city and of which the newspapers, the radio and visitors from Montreal talked constantly. My father had no choice but to withdraw in rejection ... to avoid having to declare every day his poverty, his nakedness, his impotence.
My brothers and I used to say my father was “critical,” “grouchy.” He could identify very clearly the immediate causes of his situation. He knew the political parties, at the top, were a bunch of thieves and profiteers; he knew the Church was tied up with these profiteers most of the time. He knew he was a “little guy” exploited by the “big guys.” But I never saw him attack the big guys head on. He champed at the bit in silence. I was a silent, sullen adolescent. Few had the privilege of my confidences or earned the right to share my inner debates. Morally tortured, incapable of drawing a line between the worries that assailed me — from family problems to my agonies about the meaning of life and death to the plight of the French-speaking minorities of Western Canada (I didn't even know west Montreal!) — I sought refuge in literature.
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At 16 I was a lonely adolescent who read books “beyond his years” and listened to classical music. My mother protected my solitude. I was the tenth of her sons, I was going to the seminary, I would no doubt make a priest: all that was worth a few annoyances...
I had hardly any real friends at the seminary. I lived too far from the group. I went to school as a task more than from taste or interest. I liked to study, but in my own way. I did what was necessary to pass exams; the rest of the time, I read the books that pleased me. It was no curriculum.
The seminary removed me from my background and my family. It prevented my being on an equal footing with workers’ sons of my age. I was a student, I lived in books and knew nothing of life. I succumbed for a time to the temptations of elitism. I became uncritically conscious of my “difference.” With some of my classmates I became a member of ACJC (Catholic Association of French-Canadian Youth) and with a very small number of them I was initiated into the OJC (Order of Jacques Cartier). I was getting out of the muck! I must be a young man of promise because, even if they had some doubts, they had enough confidence in me to introduce me into the “nationalist mafia” itself. They had doubts about me because they hardly knew what I thought, because I wasn’t really a “seminarist like the others.”
The ACJC and OJC provided my first contacts with the nationalist crowd. But their nationalism seemed incomplete. I didn't find what I was looking for in these movements.
My family saw me more and more as a stranger. For my father particularly, 1 was progressively integrating myself with the “educated people” he loathed because he knew their propensity to profit from the uneducated. Those who had most craftily cheated him, brutally shattered his hopes and attacked his dignity as a man, weren't they these “educated people”? Didn't they earn much more than he with less work and sweat? Those educated people were the “big guys”:
him, he was a “little guy” . . .
My emancipated attitudes as a student, my tastes in reading and music, my prim costume — all that put me in the category of the “big guys.” I became an alien in my family. I suffered from this, torn as I was between the world of my childhood and the dazzling illusion of belonging to the “elite of the nation.”
My last two years of study at Rimouski were a time of deep crisis. I was literally sickened by the seminary, its courses, its curates and at times even its students. I took part more in the “parties” organized by the young people of my district. I didn’t want to be the hermit I was in the process of becoming. I was divided. I took long enough to find my balance. But I had already decided that I would not be a new-rich, a social climber, a ' little bourgeois who has only contempt for what he has been and finds nothing better than to project his scorn for himself on to others. I would not get out of the muck alone. I would get out with the others, or damned well stay in it. . .
In June, 1960, I boarded the icebreaker N. B. McLean, an old federal ship that spent the summer in Hudson Bay and then returned to Resolute Bay. Those three months at sea were
an extraordinary experience. I was at sea, in space. From then until September, I wanted only one thing: to find a job on a tanker. But my project ran aground.
One week later, I was high and dry in the Faculty of Literature at the University of Montreal ... I wonder occasionally, even today, how I could have spent years in that supremely artificial environment of rootless intellectualism.
Leaving Rimouski for Montreal was a definitive departure. Even if I tried to convince myself that I was leaving only a provincial small town that was backward, bigoted and without a future, my heart had ties there that I could not identify but were no less profound.
I left Rimouski morally naked. My BA made me sick. Disgusted with Rimouski, the seminary and its pretensions, not knowing who I was or what I wanted, I left for the university more because it was “normal” when one had a BA than because I really had the taste for it. But hadn’t I discovered modern authors such as Camus and Sartre, who seemed to look at the world the way I did? I would, doubtless, discover more of them. And then I would see better. One could do so many things in the city, including
going completely unnoticed and committing suicide without disturbing anyone . . . That definitive gesture tempted me on the way from Rimouski to Montreal. I put it off for another time.
In September, 1966, it wasn’t a new university I enrolled in, but the jail in Manhattan. It was during my first few weeks there, in a 30-day hunger strike with my cell mate Pierre Vallières, that I relived my childhood and adolescence. Vallières wrote the autobiographical part of his White Negroes Of America in this time. I did not write my memoires, but I, too, had been brutally pulled backwards. Prison has this curious power of rendering the past so immediate and necessary, often more important than the present.
It was the FLQ that led me to jail. It was my childhood and adolescence that led me to the FLQ. It was the powerlessness of the elite they had praised so highly at the seminary, or rather its dishonesty and treachery to the people of Quebec, that led to my discovery of the need for the FLQ when I arrived in Montreal in September, 1960. I still had a long road to travel before I actually joined its ranks, and some day I shall recount that journey. Because I want it to be known . . . □