Guy Rex RodgersWhat We Choose To Remember

Lionel Groulx – priest, historian, public intellectual and nationalist – understood the power of history to shape a national identity and make youth proud of their nation. Other countries had real and mythical heroes. Groulx wanted to make the descendants of Nouvelle France proud of heroes like Champlain, Radisson and Dollard des Ormeaux. Groulx’s idea of a good hero was based on the triple criteria of religion (Catholic), language (French) and race (European French). These criteria have exposed Groulx to accusations of xenophobia, and worse.

The CAQ government has resurrected the Lionel Groulx school of history. Francois Legault wants the new National History Museum in Quebec City to celebrate Quebec’s heroes and make young visitors proud to be Québécois. Legault belatedly conceded that the museum would need to find room for some non-Francophones.

I have been accused of ethnic bias in my documentary film What We Choose To Remember, although I have always made it clear that my film is an eyewitness account of contemporary Quebec history from the perspective of Anglos, Allophones and immigrants. One of the reasons I felt the need to make a film about Quebec history from this perspective is that the Lionel Groulx school dominates Quebec’s textbooks.

Last January I was speaking to a group of McGill students studying to become history teachers. I asked how many of them saw their family’s story reflected in the history they had been taught in high school. One student raised her hand, looked around and saw she was alone, and then offered an explanation. “My mother is French…”

“The museum wanted the new history show to be inclusive, but the politics of land rights were incendiary in the wake of the Oka Crisis. The official story had to be that Indigenous peoples were nomadic and therefore had no specific land claims.”

I first realized how deeply Quebec history biased while working for the Pointe-à- Callière history of Montreal museum. In 1999 I was hired to write the large multimedia show because the version written for the opening of the museum had been accused of being too Franco-centric. I was hired to diversify the history and make it more inclusive of all Montrealers.

The group of content experts overseeing my work was happy with a scene in which recent immigrants wrote postcards to relatives back home in Italian, Greek, Yiddish and Mandarin.

The content experts were not happy with my proposed opening scene that presented several indigenous groups conversing in different languages, negotiating and arguing, and then falling silent as the first French explorers arrived. The museum’s content experts vetoed the scene because, “That would make it look like we stole the land!” The museum wanted the new history show to be inclusive, but the politics of land rights were incendiary in the wake of the Oka Crisis. The official story had to be that Indigenous peoples were nomadic and therefore had no specific land claims.

The rigidity of the official history became clear when I wanted to present a working-class Irish Montrealer. Using the city’s flag as a large visual image, I associated the fleur de lys with Montreal’s French history (the wife of mayor Viger), the rose with British immigrants (John Molson), the thistle with Scottish immigrants (John Young, chairman of the Montreal Harbour Commission), and the shamrock with an Irish immigrant who was digging the city’s sewers and had risked his life labouring on the Victoria Bridge.

The oversight committee said ‘No!’ and was intractable. They would only agree to present a bourgeois boarding-house keeper whose fancy Victorian gown made a much louder statement than the words she spoke to an invisible audience of Irish labourers. It took quite awhile for me to figure out why the subject matter experts refused to show a labourer. During the next ten years, the multimedia history of Montreal I wrote for Pointe-à- Callière would be seen by two million visitors, mostly school students with impressionable young minds. A working-class English-speaking character would have undermined the popular myth that all Anglos are part of a powerful, wealthy elite.

Pointe-à-Callière’s management and staff were sincerely trying to make the history of Montreal more inclusive, yet some myths were too sacred to challenge. The CAQ government has given this new museum a mandate to present the Lionel-Groulx version of history. Non-Francophones will feel their stories are excluded.  Some nationalists will celebrate the victory of reclaiming Quebec’s history for its rightful owners – the descendants of Nouvelle France.  The museum will stir up divisive identity politics but will not convince young Quebeckers to reject global (English) culture. It will also fail to persuade bilingual youth to share the Groulx-CAQ dream of restoring the unilingual world of pre-Conquest Nouvelle France.

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]