Many won’t say it out loud, though many others will, but it has been a commonly held belief for over four decades that Quebec culture is superior to culture in the Rest of Canada (ROC). (This will not be the only irritating idea I will share here, so if you can’t handle that . . . look away.)
The fact is: I was one of those who believed this at one time because I was one of the artists within this milieu and I was so arrogant about it that when I went elsewhere in the country with my plays, I would drive people nuts. I know this because a couple of people told me I was doing precisely that.
There was a time when this may have actually been true. It was when artists in Quebec saw — in their government — a reflection of their hopes and dreams for the future and the government (especially as embodied by René Lévesque) took artists into its heart and promoted them, defended them and supported them. The premier felt that artists were symbolic of a culture — of a nation. Lévesque had the same concerns as the present government about language, yes, but there was no xenophobia in him. Culture was all of us.
It was when my mother died and my father remarried a Québécoise that we began to speak and live French in the house.
He captured our imagination. I became an ardent nationalist because of him. Please remember this: I am an anglo-Quebecker. I was raised in English by franco-Ontarians. Our disconnection from francophone Québec was so complete that my father — the only man I have ever met who was completely bilingual — insisted on a French day each week so that we would not be stereotypical Quebec City anglos (a place where the biggest employer of my school-friends’ fathers was called — I kid you not — Anglo Pulp and Paper). It was when my mother died and my father remarried a Québécoise that we began to speak and live French in the house. When I was 14 we began to go to French theatre often. I read a French-language paper. We watched French-language TV and laughed together at the practical jokers on French-language radio. With the arrival of the soldiers in our streets during the October Crisis (and my dad was one of those soldiers) we were also part of a massive upheaval that also gave us the explosion of the career of Michel Tremblay — the playwright laureate of Quebec.
But something else happened.
With the rise of the language and culture came the rise of local entrepreneurs and huge corporations owned locally. Slowly — through a wide array of premiers who were more businessmen and lawyers than culture warriors — the consciousness changed here.
And now? Quebec culture is in decline. Despite us trying Parti Québécois governments several times, provincial budgets have never included the always promised 1% to art. Our schools are a mess; many will argue you can’t get a decent education anymore outside of a private school.
Don’t get me wrong! The flagship companies — like Théâtre du Nouveau Monde (TNM) — are still heavily subsidized by three levels of government, but Quebec doesn’t support La Relève (new generation of artists). I have written before — and to a hue and cry — that mainstream culture as represented by our big companies is old school, bourgeois, and its dominant esthetic (shared by a cadre of establishment directors and designers) is nothing more than an irritating theatrical cliché — like the once-omnipresent kitchen sink. (In passing, the artistic director of TNM is running as a Parti Québécois candidate.)
Some companies are trying desperately to turn policies toward a new generation of spectators but they are having very mitigated results. It’s hard to draw, for instance, a new audience to a spiffy production of Wagner if the ticket price is through the roof.
None of this will change anytime soon. During one of the leaders’ debates of this present election, the theme of culture was raised for precisely 10 seconds by the candidate who will never be premier.
Instead, Quebec’s cultural aspirations are expressed, politically, by two aberrations both which would have Lévesque swiveling in his grave: a deep suspicion of non-francophones and a proposed charter of values (it makes me sick to see that word used here). The charter — at its core a decent idea — is now being used as a brickbat against the very immigrant communities which once defined the richness of life here. Moreover — during the election — the charter has been used to grab votes by stoking an easily-stoked xenophobia which exists outside of Montreal.
I have never been as ashamed of a political party I once ardently supported. Nor have I ever been as ashamed of this so-called nation.
Now, lest you be dancing with anti-Quebec delight — let me remind the ROC how badly Harper and the Tories have treated artists. Not only do we get the cuts to budgets, we get a mockery of artists (and our “riches” and “galas”), a suspicion among the political classes that has included indirect censorship (witness the cases of the plays Proud and Homegrown). Also, if there is one refrain I hear constantly from every corner of this country it is that there is little, if no, support for La Relève by any level of government.
So what — exactly — is culture? What is our culture? Who are we?
. . . more hard questions for the 21st Century.
First published in The Charlebois Post