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Vol. 2, No. 3, 2003

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David Solway
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Reflections on Quebec and L'Affaire Richler


David SolwayDavid Solway is a poet, and author of the remarkable Random Walks, essays on literature and life. A collection of literary/critical essays, Director's Cut, is due out with The Porcupine's Quill in Fall 2003 and a novel, The Book of Angels, is slated for Spring 2004 with Mosaic Press.

Chacun se trompe ici-bas:
On voit courir après l'ombre
Tant de fous qu'on n'en sait pas
La plupart du temps le nombre
Jean de la Fontaine

I am the grandson of prophets! I
Shall not seal lips against iniquity
A. M. Klein

The death of Mordecai Richler is an irreparable loss to all of us, of whatever literary persuasion or maternal language. But as I reflect on his checkered and turbulent career in this country and province, what strikes me most forcefully is the almost wilfull misunderstanding he seemed to provoke among those who resented his intelligence, acerbic wit and relentless straight-shooting.

Consider for example what has come to be known in Quebec as l'affaire Richler, a scandal which generated enough controversy in a short time to cloud the major issues that Richler's now-notorious 1991 article in The New Yorker and his 1992 treatise O Canada! O Quebec! tried initially to address. The rumpus quickly reached a level of vituperation which made it difficult to read what Richler actually wrote. Just one instance: our beleaguered author has been taken to task in both the English and French press for having-in a moment of sheer gratuitous nastiness-referred to French-Canadian women as "sows." (The matter was dredged up again on the day after his death by CBC radio broadcaster Shelley Pomerance, who should have known better.) Read his sentence. Mordecai RichlerThe reproduction rate in the past "seemed to me to be based on the assumption that women were sows…"; he neither says nor implies that he shares the assumption. Quite the contrary. The implication is clearly that he deplores a reactionary doctrine, associated with the writings of l'abbé Lionel Groulx, that has women cranking out offspring for political and ideological purposes. This appears to me as, at the very least, an emancipated sentiment. If one is so befuddled or incensed that one cannot decode a simple sentence on the level of mere grammaticality, what does that suggest about the chances for an impartial assessment of either the article or the book?

By common consent one of the most damaging aspects of Richler's j'accuse was the portion dealing with anti-Semitism in the province. But Richler made no blatant or invidious charges, he simply indicated that the issue is far from safely buried and that in Quebec (as in many other parts of the world, be it said) the dead have a tendency to walk, by day as well as night, in the present as well as in the past. Historians John A. Dickinson and Brian Young point out in their A Short History of Quebec, in which they refer briefly to Richler's contestation, that "anti-Semitism was also rife among anglophones," one of those truisms that pop up like a squeegee brigade at our polemical intersections. But they fail to draw a salient distinction, namely, that at one time Francophone anti-Semitism as a daily practice had acquired a distinct fascist coloration not unmixed with violence whereas the Anglophone variety was on the whole exclusionary and restrictive. Having experienced both, I must say that neither are very pretty but, on the domestic scale, I prefer rejection to abuse any day.*

Growing up in Ste. Agathe, a small French-Canadian town in the Laurentians-where, as it happens, Duddy Kravitz spent many of his formative years as well--I was routinely attacked for being a maudit juif (once so severely that I still carry the scar as evidence), and I will never forget the day when, as a loitering five-year old, I was hauled off the street by our neighbor, stationed in front of a picture of the suffering Christ, and accused of cold-blooded murder. I can still vividly recall the terror of that inquisition. My defence, that I had never seen my presumed victim before (whom I somehow believed was my neighbor's long-dead uncle), was summarily dismissed. It seemed my entire childhood was spent in a posture of self-defense. Even my cocker spaniel did not escape stigma by association, run over by the village taxi driver who later explained that Jewish dogs did not deserve to live.+

But that is all in the past, we are complacently told. Richler is just flogging a dead horse, and I, no doubt, a dead dog. But is this really so? Like anything else, prejudice may undergo modifications. Things have indeed changed, certainly for the better, but disturbing biases continue to malinger. Nadia Khouri in Qui à peur de Mordecai Richler staunchly defends Richler before his detractors and ably backs up his argument. Similarly, Esther Delisle, the black sheep of the Québécois family, has alleged that family is still shadowed by the "crazy aunt" of anti-Semitism-albeit in a milder form than before. The French media, of course, are reluctant to publicize her view but have no objection to impugning her credentials. Former Parti Québécois cabinet minister Claude Charron recently and erroneously stated on the French-language specialty TV channel, Canal D, that Ms. Delisle was "financed and supported by the World Zionist Organization." The slander went unchallenged.

About ten years ago I was invited to participate in a conference at the Université de Montréal on the subject of Montréal: L'invention Juive, along with several other writers and teachers, including Robert Melançon, Sherry Simon, Pierre Nepveu and Howard Roiter. The general tenor of the proceedings was literary and sociological, conducted in an atmosphere of professional cordiality and scrupulous personal decorum, except for Prof. Roiter's deposition which attacked some of the repressive features of current language legislation and bemoaned the fact that the Jewish community was being decimated in the direction of Toronto-a profoundly undeserved fate. I felt at the time, along with many others present, that Roiter's tone was perhaps out of place and a little too abrasive. Yet imagine my surprise when I received the published Actes du Colloque to find that the adversarial text had been silently dropped. The rest of us were accurately and honorably represented in the booklet that concluded the symposium, but Howard Roiter was nowhere to be found. Were we supposed to believe that he too had emigrated to Toronto? When I queried the editors about this curious and troubling omission, the response came that Roiter's text was too weak stylistically to merit inclusion, a disclaimer that was nothing less than patent nonsense. The reverberating absence of the essay argued one or all of three possibilities: a politically (and aesthetically) naïve shortsightedness on the part of the editorial board; a parochial and sanctimonious inability to admit adverse criticism; or a more elusive and, if I may say so, a more sophisticated and 'English' discomfort before the Jewish fact than I had been exposed to as a child. In any case, while paying lip service to the Jewish contribution to the Montreal mosaic, all reference to a problematic reality was effectively erased.

Let us try to put the Richler thesis in a broader perspective. It may be argued that Richler was not an especially astute or intricate political thinker and that he was not much interested in the psychological and historical complexities behind the issues he rightly targeted. He could be blunt and he could be witheringly sardonic about the absurdities and prejudices of social life but he left the niceties to take care of themselves. What I would like to point to in this context, however, is a suspicion, a sort of hidden premise, that many people of both political stripes, federalist and separatist, share beneath the layers of rhetoric, sentiment and contention that make up our political landscape. It is not one that I am sympathetic to but I must acknowledge its presence. And that is that the real choice confronting Quebec is not whether it remains a secure part of Canada or opts for glorious independence. The choice as our nominal adversaries implicitly--and perhaps unconsciously--see it is whether Quebec is to remain a second-rate province or become a third-world nation, dependent either on continued transfer payments from Ontario and Alberta or infusions of American aid. Many of those who favor independence seem to be prompted by a "Go for it!" psychology predicated on the belief that, no happy outcome being likely, one may as well acquire the symbols, the famous flag on the fender of the limousine. The fervor and rhetoric are meant to counteract the debilitating infection of self-doubt.

According to this way of thinking, then, even the most zealous sectarians who recklessly pursue the trappings of sovereignty-if at first you don't secede, then try and try again-may be actuated by a secret dread of what they imagine as a devastating insufficiency before the demands of identity and survival. As I have suggested, the fiery oratory is intended to produce enough heat to ward off an icy intimation. Thus an air of both fatalism and theatricality permeates the actual prosecution of the separation debate, which subtly impedes the emergence of fresh speculation and new commitment. Beneath the partisan and inflamed language that we hear constantly around us lies a disabling skepticism about our real prospects for advancement, which expresses itself in the form of social resentment and intransigence, revisionary history and a fear of surrounding ethnicities ostensibly engaged in a species of identity theft. This, if anything, is the present dilemma, not anti-Semitism or xenophobia as such, which are only instances or specifications of an underlying cultural anxiety. Anti-Semitism in particular may still exist in isolated pockets here and there but generally takes a different valence sign from what it did in the past.# In other words, it is only when one is profoundly unconvinced of one's cultural validity that one permits the collectivity to trample on the rights of the individual and the majority to restrict the life and aspirations of the minority, in whatever way this minority may be defined or recognized. And the resulting state of affairs is deeply disquieting.

For, unfounded hopes and rhodomontade aside, an unsentimental assessment of our predicament discloses our real situation. Repressive legislation has driven a vital and dynamic--and indeed, indispensable--part of out society into other parts of the country or to the U.S. (an exodus which includes highly trained bilingual Francophones as well). And the brain drain is accompanied by a worrisome flight of capital, since as we are all aware money not only talks, in today's world money talks English. Add to this litany of woes the following: lagging employment rates, stratospheric taxes (among the highest, if not 'the' highest, in the world), prodigious real debt disguised by "creative accounting" practices, a tradition of massive patronage, deteriorating schools and hospitals, an elephantine bureaucracy coupled with shrinking welfare services, a climate of political recalcitrance, and continued incompetence, chicanery and mismanagement in the highest echelons of government, including a sad confusion of priorities, and then reconsider Gilles Vigneault's celebrated line: L'hiver, c'est mon pays. I would prefer to say: L'été, c'est mon espoir.

There is no doubt that Quebec society has made enormous strides since the bad old days of Duplessis politics, Nazi sympathies and a despotic and ignorant ultramontane Church, and some observers believe that summer--or at any rate, early summer--has indeed arrived. Taras Grescoe in his entertaining romp through Quebec, Sacré Blues, considers, for example, that Richler is fighting yesterday's battles and that a younger generation of Québécois and Québécoises, wired to the Internet and well-traveled, have "little time for the old ethnic shibboleths." Richler, whom Grescoe interviewed for his book, plainly would not concur with this sanguine estimate of the current state of affairs and neither would I entirely. For Grescoe's sample population seems to consist largely of the intellectual café society elite orbiting around St. Denis Street in Montreal's Quartier Latin and of those who inhabit the office towers of corporate success where a contemporary attitude to the world may be expected to have taken hold. (The late Pierre Péladeau, founder of the giant newspaper conglomerate Québécor, was a notable exception.)

But I have a friend who still cannot leave a Canadian flag--what former Premier Bernard Landry called a chiffon rouge or "red rag"-flying from the balcony--pole of his country house without having his windows smashed in retribution. Irredentist filmmaker Pierre Felardeau continues to pursue a rabid anti-English vendetta (on Canada Council money, no less) and convicted killer Raymond Villeneuve publicly favors sawed-off shotguns as a means of resolving the language debate. The school curriculum in both its overt and unofficial modes is distressingly collaborationist. Children learn in elementary school that the indigenous peoples were educated, civilized and privileged by the early French settlers and by explorers like Samuel de Champlain (the same who ordered his men to fire on a Mohawk peace delegation). Some of my college students who attended French-language schools complain that they were not permitted to speak English even in hall, lunchroom or grounds. Such jingoistic sentiment is pervasive. The civil service is 98% Francophone although the non-French portion of the population will soon exceed 23%. The draconian language laws remain in force and, what's more, are selectively applied: large companies manage to evade the Francization requirements while smaller Francophone establishments in contravention of the regulations are seldom if ever targeted, in stark contrast to their Anglophone counterparts. Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson and Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, who addressed the athletes of the Francophone Games in French during the opening ceremonies on July 14 (2000), were hooted at by the crowd and bitterly condemned on the radio talk-shows by old and young alike for interpolating one or two sentences in English. Let's not kid ourselves here: the problem persists and a substantial amount of work needs to be done to resolve it. It's not just a "generational thing" and one cannot simply repudiate Richler, even if his attitude was formed in the thirties and forties, as merely another one-generational man secretly at home in a bilateral colony of political dinosaurs, as if he had more in common with Landry than with Grescoe.

There is also a Grand Guignol side to our dilemma; as many local critics have remarked, our political imbroglio is in itself so ridiculous that foreigners often have difficulty assimilating it. Recently, while on a reading and lecture tour of Austrian and German universities, I was questioned by my hosts about cultural and political life in exotic Quebec. When I recounted stories about the sign laws, about inflated French and shrunken English lettering, and the diligent camera-toting dandiprats of the Office de la langue francaise snapping photos of transgressing beer coasters, there was a general round of disbelieving hilarity among the company. "A good joke, David," said the Referent für Kanada-Studien. No one was willing to believe that I was speaking in earnest. But when I unfolded the intimate details of Bill 101 with its remorseless suppression of English schooling, all good feeling vanished and my interlocutor, looking steadily at me over his seidel, reprimanded me sternly. "This is not funny anymore," he said, "it is what happens in Romania but not in a modern democracy like Canada. One should not diminish one's country." Bock for thought.

But, it may be objected, Quebec, whose people poet Claude Péloquin described as neither born nor dead, has been held back for so long that in its eagerness to reassert its dignity and privilege, it was bound to create a little havoc, make a few mistakes along the way, produce its quota of embarrassments. After all, c'est l'aviron qui nous mene: canoeing into the wilderness has long been superseded by whitewater rafting into the future, which is not a sport for faint hearts and tremulous souls. Apart from the fact --assuming Quebec was indeed "held back"--that it was as much the result of a hidebound and obscurantist church and a corrupt, seigneurial political apparatus as of Anglophone repression (the existence of the notorious Family Compact makes it very clear), this proposition should not blind us to the fact that if a language and culture are inherently vigorous, they will survive of their own accord. In the long term, oppressive and absurd legislation can never save what is moribund or irrelevant, and never has. No amount of pressure, threat or totalitarian jurisprudence can prevent the French language from becoming a new-world Gaelic if that is to be its political and economic fate. I myself do not consider this a likely event--Québécois language and culture are 'intrinsically' strong and viable in this province--but at the same time it seems evident that those numerical atrocities known as language laws (which have us crying and laughing at once), combined with the tedious and prolonged self-obsession that passes for political discourse here, will do Quebec considerable harm.

And this despite the declamations of the chattering classes on the Golden Age that awaits us once we sever the umbilical cord or the rhapsodies of even exceptional poets like Gaston Miron, who writes

Nous te ferons, Terre de Québec
lit des résurrection
et des milles fulgurances de nos métamorphoses…

[We will make you, Land of Quebec
bed of resurrections
and a thousand flashings of our transformations…]

Although I should recount that the late poet, a close personal friend and occasional dinner guest, once leaned across my dining room table and confided that he was no longer interested in identity politics; far more crucial, he had come to believe, was the issue of ecology.

I think it is fair to say that it is high time a modicum of good sense and a respect for the reality principle returned to public life and discourse given over for so long to a kind of champlevé evangelism. It might now be appropriate for a certain stratum of Québécois intellectuals and the governing clique to divest themselves of what the great historical theorist Giambattista Vico called the boria de' dotti or arrogance of the scholars (which asserts the infallibility of their world-view) and the boria delle nazioni or arrogance of the nations (which claims that the history of the "nation" is inviolable and goes back to the roots of things). As Nadia Khouri observes, "les belles et nobles âmes ne voient pas les insécurités et les souffrances de la population. Les belles et nobles âmes, ce sont des gens dangereux." (The beautiful and nobles spirits do not see the insecurities and sufferings of the population. The beautiful and nobles spirits, they are dangerous people.) It would also help if our reputation for political infantilism that has already made us a circulating joke abroad and the U.S.--recall the hirelings of the Quebec nomenklatura running around New York, Boston and Montreal buying up copies of the New Yorker featuring Richler's article, and the 60 Minutes exposé of our foolishness that brought a collective blush to our cheeks--were effectively countered and dispelled.

Our explanatory symbol remains the Olympic Stadium in Montreal, an exorbitant folly falling piece by piece into history. Yet we continue to pour worse money after bad, like wet cement, into what cannot be saved in its present form. Tax concessions, interest-free loans and outright grants to lure often unstable companies to locate in Quebec, vast sums wasted in the propaganda effort, costly municipal mergers undertaken for primarily political reasons, and the obscene proliferation of well-paid administrative jobs in every department of civic life at the expense of real productivity and the public good ensure only further disintegration.

The answer, implausibly utopian as it may sound, is to rebuild from scratch, from a new and rational blueprint, with a sane architect at the designing board and a modest and clear-sighted authority not given to lurid dreams of grandiosity and the pull of liturgical chauvinism. There is no longer any need for a Raoul Duguay (disconcertingly oblivious of triple-k associations) to bellow "KEBEK k-k-k KEBEK." We must instead realize that one begins work under severe constraints of deficit and deficiency, that we now live in an irreversibly pluralistic society in which different languages and customs abound, that histrionics cannot proxy for substance, that Grescoe is at least partly right in assuming that a generation branché will have a salutary effect on future developments, and that one is not simply maître chez nous but résponsable pour nous même as well.

A second Quiet Revolution is now in order, which would have to be an 'interior' one and which would entail Quebec's 'true' discovery of its own enormous vitality and its wealth of cultural resources. It need not fear English Canada, ape the Americans or petition France for legitimacy. It has long ago recovered the culture's Plains of Abraham. Only in this way may we bequeath something a little more livable, a little less Ruritanian, to our grandchildren if not to our children. And only in this way may the corrosive anxiety and overt hostility before the fact of ethnicity reveal itself as the obverse of an acute though inarticulate sense of political and cultural insecurity--but one which, candidly acknowledged and come to terms with, need not be camouflaged under grand symbolic gestures and a dirigiste economy. External stridency always subtends internal diffidence.

The ensuing scenario would then become more hopeful. For once Quebec transcends its crippling self-doubt and confidently recognizes the 'authentic' richness and vigor of its cultural life, it will no longer be necessary to mobilize the National Assembly and its hollow fanfare against anti-Semites like old-time reactionary politico Yves Michaud because Yves Michaud, a "crazy uncle" if ever there was one, would long ago have been laughed off the streets. And it will no longer be de rigeur or politically fashionable to misconstrue and denounce people like Mordecai Richler who, though fallible and rooted in their historical period, are truth-tellers born and bred. Robert Fulford in an article in the National Post for June 15, 2002 is absolutely correct when he claims that Quebec nationalists, if they listened and responded honestly, would realize that Richler "did them far more honor than those pious hypocrites who pretended that government control of language was logical and defensible." Above all, he concludes, "Richler appealed to intelligence rather than pandering to bigotry." Once this is understood, resentment could then yield to insight and affection, as in Robert Melançon's elegiac homage, À Mordecai Richler, In Memoriam, whose penultimate stanza reads

Tu les as aimés ceux qui tu rudoyais:
Ils étaient les tiens.


* On the larger scale, of course, exclusion can lead to egregious violence. Mackenzie King will burn in hell for turning away Jewish refugees seeking asylum from Hitler's Germany. See Irving M. Abella, None is too Many.

+ One thinks of the famous Cossack inscription affixed to four fresh corpses mentioned by André Schwarz-Bart in The Last of the Just: TWO JEWS TWO DOGS ALL FOUR OF THE SAME RELIGION. There are still disquieting signs around us, especially as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict heats up. A crowd estimated at 1000 marching in Quebec City shouting "Death to Jews" and the recent firebombing of its only synagogue should perhaps not be regarded as an anomaly but as a portent.

# This was written before the last intifada got into full swing, which has changed the dynamic of Quebec sentiment as it has provoked a renewed and inflammatory world-wide anti-Semitic movement. French television is distinctly pro-Palestinian in its reporting and violent anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish demonstrations (as mentioned above) are on the rise. Even Concordia University in Montreal has visibly catered to its cohort of radical Islamic student groups and is now popularly known as Gaza U.

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