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Quebec Love: Defining National Identity

Thomas Frenette

Arts & Culture Editor


Via Le Journal de Québec


Québec is the biggest French-speaking enclave in English-dominated America. The culture generated by its unique geographic and political circumstance justifies, for Robert Charlebois, the title of “presqu’Amérique.” Initially, Québec’s culture resisted external influences — France and the United States — in an effort to promote self-determination and to scorn the structure of the Grande Noirceur of Maurice Duplessis, Québec’s prime minister in the mid-20th century, who championed religious, artistic, and political conservatism.


In classrooms, the history of Québec is often limited to the economic and political shifts — from French colonizers, to citizens of the Bas-Canada, to an oppressed working class — spanning the 16th century to the Second World War. When the timeline approaches the last half of the 20th century, where culture — cinema, music, television productions, and language itself — finally matured as its own distinct entity, the educational system shies away and the province’s culture become harder to access, especially if one is not actively involved in a French-speaking environment.


A new vision of societal values began to emerge when, in 1948, 16 automatist artists, including painter Paul-Émile Borduas, poet Claude Gauvreau, and dancer Françoise Sullivan published an anti-establishment and anti-religious manifesto entitled “Refus Global.” From there on, Québécois culture vowed to expand beyond tradition and question its own identity. Félix Leclerc and Gilles Vigneault wrote unofficial Québécois anthems and nursery rhymes like  Gens du Pays, Moi, mes souliers, and Le p’tit Bonheur, later adapted as popular proverbs like “Mon pays ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver.” In the 1970s’, the band Harmonium, led by Serge Fiori, adapted a progressive rock style and metaphysical lyrics to an orchestral scale in their album L’Heptade. Robert Charlebois validated the joual, the French Canadian dialect, with titles such as Te v’la and Y’a sa Pichou and polished a playful, yet conscious irony to his politically active songwriting—namely by modifying Vignault’s classic: “Mon pays c’est pas un pays, c’est un job.” In the 2000s’, Les Trois Accords had a special knack for producing comedic hits like Hawaiienne and J’aime ta grand-mère that will never cease to be quoted by bickering children. Les Cowboys Fringants have composed songs which address concerns from the distressing climate crisis in Plus Rien, to the saving grace of love in Tant qu’on aura de l’amour, and the ephemerality of life in Les Étoiles Filantes


In fact, the cultural sanctity in Québec was manifested on November 15th when Karl Tremblay, the lead singer of Les Cowboys Fringants, passed away at the dismay of people around the province. Although the singer preferred to remain reserved, the nostalgic significance of Karl’s voice could not be denied — I, for one, did not expect to cry over a childhood memory — and the national funeral on November 28th at the Bell Center celebrated his life and music.


Cinema too is a thriving cultural industry — second to France in the number of productions of French-speaking cinema — defined today by the famous careers of Denis Villeneuve, Jean-Marc Vallée, and Xavier Dolan. Surnamed the grandfather of Québec cinema, Claude Jutra created a marvelous meditation on identity, race, and homosexuality in À tout prendre (1963) — although indignation followed Yves Lever’s biography of Jutra, which accounts that he regularly had sex with boys as young as 14 and 15. Pierre Perrault, a prominent direct cinema documentary director, traveled through Charlevoix, interviewing locals and recording their music for his weekly radio series, Au pays de Neufve-France (1959-60) and following films. Gilles Groulx reacted to the hypocrisy of the daily lives of Québecers in Où êtes-vous donc? (1969) with a disturbing mix of voice, song and mass media samples to dissent against consumer society. Shortly after the letdown of the first Québec referendum, Pierre Falardeau created the famous character Elvis Gratton, a federalist who is alienated from his own cultural identity under the pervasive influence of America, in Les Vacances d'Elvis Gratton (1981). Denys Arcand’s Les invasions barbares (2003) describes the ideological confrontation of an ill father, best described as a “sensual socialist,” who is joined at his deathbed by his son who is plagued with an affinity for money and individualism.


As film-watching has become a personal activity, American providers such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Crave have provided digital access to vast collections for a small monthly fee. But the National Office of Film (ONF) offers a free alternative to American omnipresence and fees. Created by an act of the Canadian Parliament in 1939, the ONF’s mandate is “to produce and distribute and to promote the production and distribution of films designed to interpret Canada to Canadians and to other nations.” The ONF is thus to thank for the production of many cinematographic productions — documentaries, feature and short films, animated movies, indigenous and female voices — in Canada up to this day. Québec’s culture, though seemingly remote, is demonstrated by events like the death of Karl Tremblay and disseminated by platforms like the ONF.


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