What We Choose To Remember

Last month I moderated a panel on the Impact of Bill 96 for the Quebec Writers’ Federation. The mood was glum. We do not have to look very far in the world to see deeply divided populations turning nasty, and these are the dark forces Legault and the CAQ are recklessly manipulating for political gain. During the past couple of years I have regularly heard people say, “René Lévesque would never have tolerated this!”

While in Gaspésie recently for a screening of my film What We Choose To Remember, I visited the new René Lévesque Museum. New Carlisle had, and still has, a large English-speaking population. It would not have been unusual for the young René Lévesque to grow up resentful of Anglo domination and for that to have been the motivation for his career in politics. One of the reasons René Lévesque remains a beloved political figure for so many is that he wanted the French language and culture to flourish in Quebec but he was not hostile toward other languages and cultures. Visiting the museum affirmed my admiration for René Lévesque but it did not answer the question of why his vision for Quebec was so different from the CAQ’s divisive politics today. It is difficult to compare conditions in Lévesque’s times (1922-87) with today.

Legendary artist Françoise Sullivan celebrated her 100th birthday in 2023. Born just one year after René Lévesque, she provides a living link across a turbulent century of history. I met Françoise Sullivan in 2015 when we were both inducted into the newly created Ordre des arts et des lettres du Québec and were seated side-by-side at the ceremony. I had been fascinated for years by this multifaceted dancer and visual artist who was one the signatories in 1948 of le Refus Global, an incendiary manifesto that ignited the Quiet Revolution in the 60s. Françoise Sullivan and René Lévesque both fought the oppressive powers of the Catholic Church and the anti-democratic, bullying politics of Maurice Duplessis’s Union Nationale government. My meeting with Françoise Sullivan confirmed that she is as proud of her father’s Irish heritage as of her mother’s French heritage and equally comfortable speaking French and English. Françoise Sullivan and René Lévesque shared a confident vision of Quebec that was open to the world. The great event of their generation was Expo ’67 which invited the entire planet to visit Montreal – and 50 million people came to the party!

I arrived in Quebec after the Quite Revolution, the violent FLQ years and the mega-party that was Expo 67. When I was learning French and exploring Quebec history, I immersed myself in local culture. One of the most popular artists of the time was Paul Piché, a charismatic singer-song writer who was also a vociferous independentist. I saw him at parties in the 80s and presumed that a separatist firebrand would be anti-Anglo so I made no attempt to speak to him.

Imagine my surprise last month as I was walking to the metro when a man on a bicycle pulled over to ask, “Did you make those Waves of Change documentaries I’ve been watching on MAtv? They’re great. Hi, I’m Paul Piché.” It turns out that his mother was English and he is proud of his English heritage. For an instant, nothing computed. Paul Piché resided in my brain in the category of militant separatists determined to liberate Quebec from the oppressive Anglosphere and restore the fatherland to its pre-Conquest unilingual purity. The jovial fellow who appreciated my documentaries that explore Quebec’s linguistic and cultural diversity was irreconcilable with the mental image I had created for him.

These thoughts were with me as I moderated QWF’s panel on Bill 96. Many of the people speaking and asking questions feel that the CAQ government is manipulating politics of resentment in dangerous ways. A growing number of non-Francophones and immigrants are encountering disturbing demonstrations of xenophobia.

The CAQ government has been disdainful of democratic process and dissenting voices, particularly when they belong to Anglos and immigrants. The CAQ has used anti-democratic, bullying politics to create a climate in which narrow-minded xenophobes are having their moment. But when I hear fears about the ‘Francophone majority’ I think of René Lévesque, Françoise Sullivan and Paul Piché. I continue to believe that fair-minded Francophones, Allophones and Anglophones are the real Quebecers and we will have the last word.

Guy Rex Rodgers was founding Executive Director of the English Language Arts Network (ELAN) and recently returned to filmmaking. You can reach Guy at: [email protected]