Guy Rex RodgersWhat We Choose To Remember

We are living in times of division, frustration, resentment and hostility. Friendships can be damaged by a misplaced word, destroyed by a misinterpreted comment. The automatic physiological reaction is fight or flight.

Last month I was invited to Emcee the 25th Quebec Writers’ Federation Literary Awards. It was a joyful gathering of the writing community, although the nominated authors were on tenterhooks, preparing to be gracious and eloquent if the fates smiled upon them, or not too obviously crestfallen if the winner’s name pulled from envelope was not theirs.

The first award went to a young writer who seized the moment in the spotlight to make an impassioned appeal to “Free Palestine.” A voice in the audience shouted back, “Free the hostages.” That same evening, protestors stormed the stage at the Giller Prize with signs proclaiming ‘Scotiabank Funds Genocide.’ Police arrested the protestors In Toronto. In Montreal, the spotlight shifted from celebration to confrontation.

The charged atmosphere brought back vivid memories of an evening at theatre Usine C a week before the 1995 referendum. I was one of the few Anglos in a room full of artsy Francophones, all presumably planning to vote for Quebec’s separation. During the intermission a voice three rows in front of me began to speak very loudly about the referendum, proclaiming that Quebec would finally gain its independence unless cowards, traitors and foreigners stole the vote.

The voice belonged to a friend of mine, a close friend. I was stunned by his words and his conviction that true Quebeckers must necessarily vote for separation; that dissenters were cowards or traitors. Premier Jacques Parizeau, a week later, blamed the referendum loss on “money and the ethnic vote.” Several of the people I interviewed for my documentary film What We Choose To Remember voted No because they feared Québec Libre could be an unhappy place for foreigners.

Many of us who voted No were not opposed to independence per se. I used to compare Quebec independence to living in Rimouski. I have nothing against Rimouski but I have no desire to live there. However, if my family and friends decided to relocate to Rimouski, I would join them. Many people who voted No in 1995 could have voted Yes – and only a handful of votes were needed to change the outcome – if we had not heard so many strident voices proclaiming that independence would avenge the historical grievances of the sons and daughters of Nouvelle France.  Grievances caused by … foreigners.

The most passionate advocates of independence were primed for a fight. They created a climate in which debate was difficult and reasoned conversation was impossible. The flight response caused many dissenting voices to fall silent. Other dissenters literally fled Quebec. Truth could only be spoken in the privacy of the ballot booth, where the silent majority voted to remain in their familiar neighbourhoods.

Quebec’s independence project failed because its fervid promoters lacked the foresight to realize that even the noblest cause cannot be imposed. Telling people they are cowards and traitors if they disagree never has the desired effect. Bullying people into silence does not signify submission. As anthropologists observe in the jungle, the most powerful primate can be overthrown by a determined band of mini-monkeys.

Demagogues divide the world into us versus them to marginalize their enemies, continually adding to the list. Our CAQ government is starting to taste the bitter fruit of its authoritarian treatment of foreigners, immigrants, non-Francophones, urbanites, teachers, nurses, unions, big city mayors and six ex-Premiers.

We are living in times of division, frustration, resentment and hostility. We face serious problems that require urgent attention. It is easy to understand the impatience of activists who want action and want it now. They take to the streets, call out the enemy and demand justice. They are ready to fight anyone who opposes their cause, or questions it – even friends and family. We used to caution the impetuous to ‘choose your battles.’ Now they need to be cautioned to ‘choose your enemies.’

Yes, someone needs to speak for the voiceless and defend the defenceless. Good causes are not lacking, or good people. Sometimes it is necessary to fight. But fighting the wrong people for the wrong reasons with the wrong tactics is the most tragic of follies. It can be lamented in hindsight or avoided with foresight.

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]

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