By WILLIAM JOHNSON – February 15, 2018
“Speak white.” That was the central theme of Robert Lepage’s autobiographical play titled 887, which was presented at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre from January 10 to 27, 2018. Lepage, the internationally renowned playwright, director and performer, combined in this unusual solo performance his personal memories from childhood with the recital of an angry poem by Michèle Lalonde titled provocatively “Speak white.”
887 can already claim the status of something like a Canadian classic. Its world premiere was held in Toronto as part of the Arts and Culture Festival of the 2015 Pan American Games. Its many performances in France were presented in Nantes, Châlons-en-Champagne, Paris, Annecy, Lyon, Le Havre, La Rochelle, Mulhouse and Clermont-Ferrand. It has been performed in Edinburgh, in Aarhus (Denmark), in Rome, Barcelona, Tokyo, Niigata (Japan), Melbourne, New York, Bergen (Norway), London (UK), Amsterdam, Moscow, Luxembourg, Athens, Liège (Belgium). In Canada, besides its premier, it was seen in Vancouver, Ottawa (for a first time in April 2016), Montreal, Quebec City, Sherbrooke, Toronto (again, in April 2017). It is soon to be performed in April in Minneapolis, in May in Berkeley.
Robert Lepage’s play is particularly significant. What I’m about to present is not another conventional theatre review. The show has been reviewed many times, notably in The New York Times, The Times of London and The Guardian. Most reviews were enthusiastic. So what I’m proposing here is a sociological analysis of the play I attended in Ottawa, Canada’s national capital. I believe it tells us something important about the country in which we live.
887. Lepage comes on stage and addresses the audience, at first colloquially, conversationally. He speaks in English: this is the mostly English version of the play originally performed in French. But, increasingly as his performance gathers momentum, his intensity rises, and French takes over, with explanatory English subtitles appearing on a screen. The climax of the evening comes when Lepage recites, entirely in French, the 528 smouldering words of “Speak white.”
887, perhaps the briefest title ever for a play, has much significance for Lepage. That was his family’s address on Murray Street1 in Quebec City when Robert was born in December 1957. They lived one on top of the other, the four children with their parents and a grandmother suffering from dementia, in a several-story apartment block, now constantly reproduced on stage from different angles. Lepage points out that the apartment building’s occupants
1. Murray Street was presumably named after British General James Murray, James Wolfe’s second in command at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. When Wolfe fell, Murray succeeded him in command, becoming the military commander of surrendered Quebec City. In 1763, after New France was ceded to Britain, Murray was named first governor of the Province of Quebec. This is one of the underlying hard ironies of the play.
corresponded ethnically to the population of Quebec, with 80 percent of the tenants being French Canadian. In other words, the childhood home of Lepage became in this play the symbol of the Province of Quebec.
His father, he tells us, was forced to quit school at the age of eight to get a job. He enlisted in the Canadian navy during the Second World War but, on his return, because he was functionally illiterate, the only job he managed to get was as a cab driver in a rented car. The father is projected throughout the play as an emblem of sadness and defeat.
The performance begins with Lepage’s personal reminiscences, but the plot soon melds Lepage’s memories with historical events in Quebec, leading up to the October Crisis of 1970. That was when the Front de Libération du Québec kidnapped British diplomat James Cross and Quebec’s Deputy Premier Pierre Laporte, who was soon found strangled. The federal government invoked the War Measures Act. Several hundred individuals were summarily arrested. The revolutionary manifesto of the Front de Libération du Québec was read on Radio-Canada television, Lepage recalls, and even Lepage’s father concurred with its depiction of French Quebecers as the oppressed – though he could not bring himself to agree with the acts perpetrated by the revolutionaries.
Lepage’s narration takes the audience with him in a coherent dramatic progression from the manifesto of the FLQ to his passionate reciting of Lalonde’s poem, “Speak white.” In fact, the play derives its continuity and attains its climax through Lepage’s recurrent references to Speak white. For example, in his seemingly spontaneous narration, Lepage said this, sarcastically:
About a minute before going on stage, I wondered what anyone would wonder in a situation like this. Why did I agree to put myself on the line like this? Why did I paint myself into a corner once again?
As I walked on stage, I immediately had my answer.
It certainly wasn’t for the immense privilege and the honour of having to recite this seminal poem. But rather than try to impress the gallery of socialites and media people who were there that night: representatives of the federal government, representatives of the provincial government, representatives from Montreal City Hall, people from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Conseil des Arts et des Lettres du Québec, an ex FLQ member, who every Thursday, crosses the Pierre Laporte Bridge to go and teach political science at Laval University. A journalist from Le Devoir, who probably doesn’t even know that Henri Bourassa, the founder of Le Devoir, was himself told to “speak white” when he tried to speak French in the House of Commons in 1889. And a whole stable of ex-hippies who pride themselves for “being there at the time” but who all arrived late because they couldn’t find parking for their brand-new SUVs with license plates that read: “Quebec. Je me souviens.” Quebec – I remember.2
What is it exactly that we are supposed to remember?
Then I thought I’m not worthy of reciting this poem. No more than the people sitting in the room are worthy of hearing it. And I don’t know exactly what I’ve inherited from my father’s DNA, but it certainly isn’t his great humility. And in a situation like this one, only someone like him would have the authority of speaking these words.3
“These words,” of course, are Lalonde’s poem and “speak white.” Lepage informs the audience that he had been asked to recite that “Speak white” poem at an evening dedicated to Quebec’s poetry. He was specifically instructed to recite it from memory. But as he prepared, he found himself blocked, mysteriously unable to recall the words. He even hired a language coach but, it seemed, to little avail. The reason for his blockage emerges at the climax when Lepage delivers a thundering full recital of Lalonde’s “Speak white.” He spits out those two words, that blistering taunt, 15 times. The story evoked by the poem is appalling.
Lepage began his recital softly, almost cajoling:
Il est si beau de vous entendre
Parler de Paradise Lost
Ou du profil gracieux et anonyme qui tremble dans les sonnets de Shakespeare
Nous sommes un peuple inculte et bègue
Mais ne sommes pas sourds au génie d’une langue
Parlez avec l’accent de Milton et Byron et Shelley et Keats
The tone of irony contrasts the elegance of Milton and Shakespeare with the brutality of that constant order to “speak white.” And the poem dejectedly embraces the stereotype implied by those who order French Canadians to speak white: “We are an uncultured and stammering people,” in supposed contrast to the distinguished English speakers.
But then the tone changes. The poem addresses the hard reality symbolized by the title of Speak white.
2. Je me souviens is the official slogan of the Province of Quebec.
3. I obtained this quotation on February 7, 2018, from Édouard Garneau, | Coordonnateur du marketing et des communications | Marketing & Communications Coordinator of Robert Lepage’s company, Ex Machina.
Nous sommes un peuple peu brillant
Mais fort capable d’apprécier
Toute l’importance des crumpets
Ou du Boston Tea Party
Mais quand vous really speak white
Quand vous get down to brass tacks
Pour parler du gracious living
Et de la Grande Société
Un peu plus fort alors speak white
Haussez vos voix de contremaîtres
Nous sommes un peu durs d’oreille
Nous vivons trop près des machines
Et n’entendons que notre souffle au-dessus des outils
The image projected by Lalonde’s poem, and now again by Lepage’s recital, is that of a people made to do the dirty work of those elegant people who actually speak white (i.e., English). The “nous” of the poem, us, the people who speak French, are a people who have been fatally degraded by their English-speaking masters. This is the reality of Quebec, according to the poem, and it is at the same time a reality that is replicated across the world.
Speak white and loud!
Qu’on vous entende
De Saint-Henri à Saint-Domingue
Oui quelle admirable langue
Donner des ordres
Fixer l’heure de la mort à l’ouvrage
Et de la pause qui rafraîchit
Et ravigote le dollar
The poem is a cry of outrage and anger. And at whom is the anger directed? The guilty are not explicitly named but they are powerfully identified: they are those who speak English and spit out the taunt: “Speak white!”
After Lepage has completed his tempestuous charge, the play ends on a darkened scene: Lepage, now wearing a cab driver’s hat, impersonates his father sitting there isolated in his rented cab, overcome by tears, broken. The father personifies the cruel fate that was imposed on us French Canadians, the collective fate that was projected by the poem.
In the program that was distributed to the audience, Lepage gives this explanation of “Speak White,” one that he also recites on stage: “Michèle Lalonde’s poem is a dramatic direct response to the famous Speak White slogan, formerly used on North American plantations to command slaves to speak at all times the language of their white masters. This same expression was later used to urge French-speaking Canadians to speak English and remind them of their inferiority or subordinate position.”
NAC English Theatre Artistic Director Jillian Keiley also offers in the program her brief explanation of Speak White: “The poem is a fierce and furious diatribe against white English cultural imperialism.” Both she and Lepage take at face value the underlying assumptions of the poem and of Lepage’s recitation: that, in fact, English-speaking Canadians did typically address French Canadians by ordering them to “speak white,” and that this utterly contemptuous ejaculation expressed symbolically the fundamental relationship between English speakers and French Canadians. Does this poetic assumption conform with historical reality?
André Laurendeau, the former publisher of Le Devoir, was appointed by Prime Minister Lester Pearson in 1963 to be co-chairman of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism.4 The mandate of the commission was precisely “to inquire into and report upon the existing state of bilingualism and biculturalism in Canada and to recommend what steps should be taken to develop the Canadian Confederation on the basis of an equal partnership between the two founding races…” So, clearly, the issues raised by Lalonde’s poem and Lepage’s autobiographical play were precisely at the heart of the mandate of the royal commission. In the diary that Laurendeau maintained while he headed the commission, he did comment in one passage on the expression, “speak white.” This was not long before Lalonde’s poem would consecrate the expression. It is worth noting what Laurendeau wrote about it privately:
May 5, 1964
Among the commissioners we have sometimes talked about this insult to French Canadians speaking their own language in places where anglophones are the majority. Frank Scott couldn’t believe it existed: according to him, it’s not even an English expression. It is obvious to us that it comes from the United States, and that it combines two insults.
Since that conversation with Scott, I’ve often asked Acadians or French Canadians from the West if they’ve had that expression thrown at them. If I’d thought of it sooner, I could have put together a veritable collection of foolish quotations. I note here the account of a French Canadian from Mallardville who attended our sessions last Tuesday. When he arrived in Vancouver in 1937 (I think he came from Saskatchewan), he met up with a very hostile milieu. He was constantly told to “speak white” or “go back to Quebec.” These days, he encounters less aggressiveness. But at the factory where he works, and where there are two other French Canadians, it is not unusual that when they speak French they hear the comment: “Why don’t you go back to Quebec?” All in all, it would seem that the fact of speaking French irritates anglophones more than the fact of being French Canadian.
4. Davidson Dunton, a former journalist and former chairman of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, was appointed as co-chairman of the royal commission, but Laurendeau was by far the more imposing and influential commissioner.
It would be interesting to go more deeply into the psychology that produces this insult: are they upset by hearing a foreign language? Or more specifically by hearing French? Do they feel left out? Do they have the impression that French Canadians are making negative remarks about them? I have a feeling that the need for conformity plays a large role in all of this.5
Some comments are in order here. According to Laurendeau, Frank Scott, a poet, a Francophile, the Dean of Law at McGill University and also a fellow royal commissioner, did not believe that “speak white” was really a common taunt and he claimed that it wasn’t even recognizable as English. Laurendeau himself never suggests that he ever heard those two words himself or that they were uttered in Quebec. He speaks of the taunt being used in Western Canada and Acadia. Now, although he writes that he often questioned people on whether they were told to “speak white,” he cites only one case, that of an unnamed factory worker who told him that, when he moved to Vancouver in 1937, he had been taunted constantly to speak white. Presumably that means that he had never heard those two words in Saskatchewan. Also, he was recalling what had happened almost three decades earlier, and in answer to a leading question from Laurendeau. Did Laurendeau ask: “Were you ever told to speak white?”
To conclude that “speak white” was a common and significant expletive based on that one tenuous piece of evidence suggests that Laurendeau, a noted journalist, never seriously pursued the inquiry, never took the issue seriously enough to warrant trying to locate and quantify its occurrence. And yet, it became a monumental accusation against the English-speaking people in general, as Lesage’s play testifies. Laurendeau only asked the factory worker whether he had been served the taunt. There is no indication that he attempted to ascertain how often it had occurred, under what circumstances, what sort of people uttered it, and how socially significant or otherwise it would prove to be. All was left vague.
Yet, when in 1965 the commissioners published A Preliminary Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, they recounted with an abundance of quotations what they had heard at the many public hearings held across Canada. They cited in their report some nasty and prejudiced words that were uttered by some of the people who turned up. But there was not a single quotation drawn from any of the public meetings that included the words “speak white.” Nevertheless, in paragraph 80 of that report, the commissioners wrote:
In the course of conversation, people assured us that in certain English-speaking circles there is still a considerable hostility towards anything that “smells” French. Anyone who speaks French still runs the risk of this kind of insult – “Speak white”; “Why don’t you speak a white man’s language?”; “If you want to speak French, go back to your province”; or simply “Why don’t you speak English?” (The italics are mine.)
5. André Laurendeau, The Diary of André Laurendeau. Written during the Royal Commission in Bilingualism and Biculturalism, 1964 – 1967. Selected and with an introduction by Patricia Smart. Translated by Patricia Smart and Dorothy Howard, Toronto, James Lorimer, 1991, p. 90-91.
The commissioners’ only published estimate of the extent of these taunts was that they took place “in certain English-speaking circles…” And yet, it was a threat to “anyone that speaks French,” and so a nation-wide threat. Yet there was no attempt by the commissioners to assess the frequency, locations and impact of these taunts. And this has also been generally the cavalier attitude towards “speak white” ever since.
That defining attempt was made, instead, by Michèle Lalonde: for her, “Speak white” was the perfect summary of the relations between speakers of French and English in Canada. The reality of Canada was not the existence of two solitudes, but rather the conjugation of a wolf and a lamb locked together.
And Lepage, by using Lalonde’s poem as his dramatic vehicle, projected that same vision. The poem does not only speak of contempt, of exploitation. It also accuses the oppressor of causing French Canadians to lose their integrity, their identity, their honour, their collective soul:
C’est une langue riche
Mais pour se vendre
Mais pour se vendre à perte d’âme
Mais pour se vendre.
To give plausibility to the poetic denunciation of the Anglos as contemptuous oppressors, Lepage gives only one specific example that demonstrates how Anglos were responsible for the collective poverty and misery that he evokes. He tells the audience, as quoted above: “Henri Bourassa, the founder of Le Devoir, was himself told to “speak white” when he tried to speak French in the House of Commons in 1889.” Lepage was referring to an historical fact: Henri Bourassa did oppose in the Commons the participation of Canadian troops in Great Britain’s South African War and he was copiously booed for it. But was Bourassa actually told to “speak white” as Lepage and so many others claim?
Lepage’s specific assertion has a far-reaching implication: to shout out “speak white” was not merely a reflex of some nasty adolescents and a few ignorant adults. It was shouted in the House of Commons by the representatives of all English-speaking Canadians across the country. The words, speak white!, thus acquired a quasi official national character. Moreover, the statement suggested that this racist taunt was not the expression of some Johnny-come-lately teasing, but rather it has enjoyed a history going back more than a century. So it is embedded deep in Canadian history.
What is astounding is how irresponsibly Lepage makes so provocative and heinous an accusation against his English-speaking fellow citizens. He gives the year of the supposed event as 1889. But Henri Bourassa was only elected to the Commons 10 years later, in 1896, when Wilfrid Laurier won his first Liberal majority. Moreover, what caused the dramatic denunciations to which he was subjected was his outspoken opposition to Canada’s participation in the Second Boer War, which ran from 1899 to 1902. The date of the dramatic confrontation in the Commons was actually June 7, 1900. Here is how The Globe of Toronto reported that scene the next morning, at the top of the front page:
MR. BOURASSA HOOTED DOWN
Groans, Hisses, Cries of “Traitor” and “Shame” Greet His Speech
Ottawa, June 7 – A member standing with folded arms while the air echoed with groans and hisses and cries of “Traitor” and “Shame:” This was the extraordinary scene witnessed in the Canadian House of Commons this afternoon. It is doubtful if there has ever before occurred such a unique and intensely exciting incident in the popular chamber of the Dominion. For a brief minute or two the place rang with angry, passionate voices. Members leaned over their desks and hissed out epithets. […] The member who was responsible for this strong outburst of feeling was Mr. Henri Bourassa, the young French Canadian member for Labelle. It was provoked by the statement that the South African War was an unjust one, and that it had not brought a particle of glory to the British arms.
The Globe reporter listed several taunts that were hurled at Henri Bourassa, but he made no mention of “speak white!”
The words actually uttered that afternoon in the House of Commons were transcribed verbatim in shorthand by stenographers, then translated and delivered to the press gallery within hours. Here is an excerpt from that official record for June 7, 1900:
Mr. BOURASSA . Sir, this war will not add an ounce to the glory of the English flag—
Some hon. MEMBERS. Shame!
Mr. BOURASSA—and to the greatness of England—
Some hon. MEMBERS. Shame! Shame!
The MINISTER OF FINANCE (Mr. Fielding). This is a free country.
Some hon. MEMBERS. Shame! Shame!
Mr. BOURASSA. Is this a free parliament? Is free speech allowed here?
Mr. FOSTER. Such a speech from a member of this House! Shame on him!
The MINISTER OF FINANCE. This is a free parliament.
Mr. WALLACE. Not for traitors.6
6. Official Report of the Debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada, Fifteenth Session – Eighth Parliament, Vol. LII, Part 2, p. 6908.
The Official Report repeated several words of invective including the most serious charge that could be made to a member of Parliament, that of being a “traitor.” But the words, “speak white” were nowhere to be found.
A lively account of the day’s proceedings also appeared on the front page of the June 15 edition of the weekly, Le Canada français.7 Here is an excerpt:
UNE SÉANCE MÉMORABLE À LA CHAMBRE DES COMMUNES
M. Henri Bourassa s’est levé pour protester contre l’adresse à Sa Majesté. Profitant du droit de tout sujet britannique d’exprimer sa pensée et de parler librement, il a dit tout haut et très fort ce qu’il croit à propos de la guerre contre les Boers.
Aussitôt, l’opposition montée, cette fois, par tous les fanatiques, les pires, les plus méprisables tories, s’est mise à crier, à hurler plutôt.
Les Foster, les Clarke Wallace, les Montague, les Taylor, les Prior, n’ont pas cessé durant le discours de M. Bourassa de clamer : Honte à vous ! Honte à vous !
Le député de Labelle ripostait
« Mais ne suis-je pas ici dans un pays libre? N’ai-je pas le droit, comme sujet britannique, de formuler mon opinion? »
– Non, non, répétaient méchamment les bigots
– Vous êtes un traître, hurlait Clarke Wallace.
Once again, there was no evocation of “speak white.” The writer of that account dared to use the expression, “the fanatics, the worst, the most despicable Tories.” If “speak white” had been spoken, would he not have quoted it?
The uproar in the Commons even drew the attention of the Boston Evening Transcript. Its edition of June 8, 1900 carried a story on page 3 that included this:
His [Bourassa’s] statements were received with fierce cries from the opposition benches of “traitor,” “shame,”, “scoundrel” until his voice was drowned in a storm of hisses and wrathful exclamations. A scene of disorder unparalleled in the history of the House then ensued.
7. The full account can be found online at the following link: Le Canada français, 1893-1958 (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu), 15 juin 1900, http://numerique.banq.qc.ca/patrimoine/details/52327/2658128
No mention of “speak white” there, nor in the story carried on page 2 of June 8 by the Toronto newspaper the Daily Mail and Empire, nor in the account of La Presse on that same date, which began:
Ottawa, 7 juin 1900.
Les grandes journées se succèdent.
Aujourd’hui nous avons eu un grand tapage et beaucoup d’indignation en Chambre.
M. Bourassa a protesté contre l’envoi, à la Reine, d’une adresse de félicitations à propos de l’heureuse issue de la guerre.
Il est inutile de dire quel tapage a provoqué ce mouvement inattendu.
Not only is there a total absence of the slightest contemporary evidence that Bourassa was told to “speak white,” there is in fact conclusive evidence that the whole trumped-up accusation is absurd and could not have happened. Why? Because Henri Bourassa actually delivered his controversial speech in English, not French!
In 1900, unlike today, the Hansard transcripts of the speeches in the Commons did not specify in what language the words were spoken. Most newspapers reproduced the words in French or in English, in accordance with the language in which the newspaper was published. Through the quick work of the Commons’s stenographers and translators, the transcripts were available in both languages after the speeches were delivered.
The newspapers cited above did not specify in what language the quoted transcripts were actually spoken. But, on June 8, 1900, the influential Montreal daily La Patrie, closely affiliated with the Liberal Party, noted the language in which Mr. Bourassa spoke: it was English! Here is an excerpt of what La Patrie published on page 4, the day after the Commons debate:8
ADRESSE À LA REINE
Proposée par Sir Wilfrid Laurier
À L’OCCASION DE LA PRISE DE PRÉTORIA PAR LES TROUPES ANGLAISES
LA VOIX DISSIDENTE DE M. BOURASSA
L’opposition exhibe une fois de plus son intolérance
M. Bourassa se leva ensuite et prononça en anglais le discours suivant :
DISCOURS DE M. BOURASSA
The text of Bourassa’s speech was thereupon quoted in La Patrie in French. But the reporter had made clear that the speech was given in English. So there was no conceivable reason why any member in the House of Commons should have shouted “speak white” that day. The scandalous story propagated by Robert Lepage is a malevolent forgery.
8. The issue of La Patrie can be found online at the following link: http://numerique.banq.qc.ca/patrimoine/details/52327/741138?docref=yVwv6d25R3ZUoBW3GRd1kw
Robert Lepage is not the only one to provide fabricated confirmation to the thrust of Lalonde’s poem. The same assertion is made in a book of popular history titled Le Mémorial du Québec: “He [Bourassa] was booed. ‘Speak white!’ was shouted at him from all sides when he tried to explain himself while using the French language.”9
That provocative charge is made in the book without a reference to back it up or even a date assigned to the supposed event. But that sentence then became the justification for innumerable repetitions of the same false claim. Here is one example, from Wikipedia:
L’insulte speak white est une injonction raciste permettant d’agresser ceux qui appartiennent à un groupe minoritaire et qui parlent une autre langue que l’anglais dans un lieu public. Dans le contexte colonial du Canada et des traites négrières de l’époque, l’injure signifie qu’un esclave ne peut parler sa langue et doit adopter celle de ses maîtres. Au Québec, l’usage de cette insulte a continué jusque dans les années 1960, moment où elle a diminué avec la diminution de l’emprise colonialiste de l’Ordre d’Orange qui a accompagné la Révolution tranquille.
Le 12 octobre 1889, au cours des débats à la Chambre des communes, Henri Bourassa se fait huer par des députés anglophones. Quand il tente de s’expliquer en français, il se fait crier : « Speak White ! »10
This article claims to explain the origin of the expression, but without any reference to a source. It also gives a precise date, October 12, 1889, for Henri Bourassa’s being told to speak white. But, not only is it a fact that Bourassa was not yet elected in 1889, it is also a fact that the Commons was not in session on October 12, 1889, as can be confirmed by consulting the Official Report of the Debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada.
On the website of Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias, one finds an entry on the National Film Board’s short film by Pierre Falardeau and Julien Poulin, which features a recital of Michèle Lalonde’s poem while the screen shows terrible scenes of violence against the wretched of the earth. The entry has the following assertion:
Origin. “Speak White” was an insult used by English-speaking Canadians against those who spoke other languages in public. […] The earliest allegation of the slur was recorded in the Canadian Parliament of 1899 as Henri Bourassa was booed by English-speaking Members of Parliament while attempting to address the legislature in French against the engagement of the Dominion in the Second Boer War.11
9. Le Mémorial du Québec, tome IV, 1890-1917, Montréal, éd. La Société des éditions du Mémorial, 1981, p. 89.
10. See https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speak_white
11. See at this link : http://enacademic.com/dic.nsf/enwiki/1406190
If anyone actually wants to see the Falardeau film, it can be retrieved at this link: https://www.nfb.ca/film/speak_white/ There is a reservation, though, for those whose email address is from Quebec: they can see the picture but will not hear the sound.
Then, here is yet another example of misinformation from a site called Wiki30:
“Speak White” was an insult used by English-speaking Canadians against those who spoke other languages in public. In his controversial Dictionnaire québécois-français, Lionel Meney quotes a Maclean’s article from 1963 that for “every twenty French Canadians you encounter in my house or yours, fifteen can affirm that they have been treated with the discreditable ‘speak white'”.
The earliest allegation of the slur was recorded in the Canadian Parliament of 1899 as Henri Bourassa was booed by English-speaking Members of Parliament while attempting to address the legislature in French against the engagement of the Dominion in the Second Boer War. André Laurendeau recorded anecdotal evidence in his 1963 journal during the Laurendeau-Dunton Commission that English Canadians would hurl the phrase at French Canadians outside Quebec, and speculated that it was borrowed from the Southern United States. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that the phrase was used against immigrants.
Although the expression has never been directly quoted and attributed to an individual, the expression continues to enter the public sphere in the course of rhetorical political debate.12
This article repeats the allegation that Bourassa was assailed by shouts to speak white, this time attributing the event to the year 1899, but without stating on what day of that year the event supposedly took place. In fact, as already noted, the altercation occurred in 1900.
The same article also claims that “Speak White was an insult used by English-speaking Canadians against those who spoke other languages in public.” This seems to suggest that it was in general use. In support, the article cites two dictionaries and, indirectly, a Maclean’s article that supposedly makes the astonishing claim that “for every 20 French Canadians you encounter in my house or yours, 15 can affirm that they have been treated with the discreditable ‘speak white.’” This is obviously worth looking into.
12. See: http://www.wiki30.com/wa?s=Speak_White
The source cited is Lionel Meney’s Dictionnaire québécois-français.13 Here is a re-typing of the relevant entry in that dictionary, with slight changes of typography:
Speak white: Expr. employée pour dénoncer le mépris de certains Blancs anglo-saxons à l’égard de ceux qui ne parlent pas l’anglais comme eux; reprise au Québec pour dénoncer les anglophones qui imposaient aux francophones de parler anglais :
Speak White: titre d’un poème de Michèle Lalonde (née en 1937) :
Speak white / haussez vos voix de contremaîtres / nous sommes un peu durs d’oreille / nous vivons trop près des machines (Michèle Lalonde).
« For every twenty French Canadians in my house or yours, fifteen can affirm that they have been treated to the discreditable “speak white” » (Maclean’s, 1963, cité par DCHP14)
So, to get to the source of the startling quotation, one must now consult A Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles.15 Here is the relevant entry:
2 Derog. In speak or talk white, like an English-speaking Canadian.
1912 popcock Man in the Open 37: “Sounds like Injun languages,” says he, “can’t you talk white?”
1963 Maclean’s 2 Nov. 58/1: I refuse to look forward to a future time when one of my children will come home hurt because he has been ordered to “speak white.”
1964 Globe Mag. 28 Nov. 15/4: Every English Canadian who…says “speak white” to a French compatriot, is equally totalitarian and Fascist.
1966 Saturday Night Apr. 14/3: As we toasted the action later that day in the prize bottle of Scotch, Yves had to agree that “speak white in Toronto,” if it had been true, was certainly not true now.
This entry provides four dates on which the words “speak white” or “talk white,” were supposedly uttered. The first quotation is drawn from a novel, a book for boys, written by Roger Pocock and published in 1912, titled A Man in the Open. It presents absolutely no reference to telling French Canadians to speak white. The story is told in the first person by a boy from Labrador whose father died when he was ten. The boy is then adopted by a sea captain and lives thereafter on a ship, sailing down the St. Lawrence River and along the east coast of the United States. He never went to school. He speaks ungrammatically but colorfully, like Huckleberry Finn. One day, while his ship is in port, he meets a cowboy who is seeing the ocean for the first time. When the boy, now 15 years old, tells the cowboy the names of the ships in port, the cowboy reacts by uttering the two fabulous words. Here is the passage:
13. It is sub-titled: Mieux se comprendre entre francophones. 2e édition revue et corrigée, Montréal, Guérin, 2003.
14. DCHP refers to A Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles.
15. Walter S. Avis, editor-in-chief, Toronto, W. H. Gage, 1967. An online version is available at this link: http://www.dchp.ca/dchp2/entries/view/white%252520%252528%252528adv.%252529%252529%252520
He’d never seen salt water before. The shipping, making the port, or clearing, foreign or coastwise, the Hellafloat Yank, the Skowogian Coffin, the family packet, liner, tramp, fisher, lumberman, geordie and greaser was all the same to him. “Sounds like injun languages,” says he, “can’t you talk white?”16
The second quotation listed by the Dictionary of Canadianisms is far more pertinent. It is drawn from a series of letters exchanged in 1963 between two Canadian writers, novelist Gwethalyn Graham and journalist Solange Chaput-Rolland. As Chaput-Rolland explains in her first letter, the two met on a train in December 1962, when returning from a demonstration on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill against Canadian acceptance of nuclear weapons. The demonstrators were addressed by Howard Green, a minister in John Diefenbaker’s cabinet. As Chaput-Rolland recalls: “For twenty minutes he said nothing, but he said it entirely in English. The majority of the delegation were French-Canadian women, many of whom couldn’t even understand him.”17
That chance encounter on the train led to the exchange of letters and their ultimate publication in a book18 and in Maclean’s. Chaput-Rolland recalls:
In the train coming back, I collapsed in the seat beside you, my heart pounding and my sense of patriotism outraged. I felt so humiliated and angry that I had to make an immense effort not to lose my temper. Sensing how I felt, you deplored our politicians’ lack of common courtesy in impeccable French Your kindness and your insistence on speaking my language calmed me down. I was grateful to you and a few weeks later I suggested that we should write a “dialogue” on French and English Canada.
Gwethalyn Graham had grown up in Toronto but moved to Montreal when she was 21 years old and it was there that she wrote her two published novels. Of the second, the Canadian Encyclopedia writes:
Graham quickly found fame in Canada and abroad. Earth and High Heaven was the first Canadian novel to reach number one on the New York Times Best Seller List, and it stayed on the list for 37 weeks, selling over 1 million copies.19
Solange Chaput-Rolland was six years younger than Graham. According to her biography on the website of Quebec’s National Assembly, she studied at the Sorbonne and the Institut catholique de Paris. She worked as a journalist and hosted public affairs programs on radio and television. In 1955 she launched a monthly magazine titled Points de vue (Viewpoints) that appeared over the following six years. Eventually, Solange Chaput-Rolland would be elected to the National Assembly as a Liberal in a 1979 by-election, and she would be defeated in the general elections that followed in 1981. In 1988 she was appointed to the Senate by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and served until 1994.
16. Roger Pocock. A Man in the Open (Kindle Locations 404-406). The book was originally published in New York by Syndicate Publishing Company in 1912.
17. HOW TWO WOMEN FEEL ABOUT ONE CANADA OR TWO, Maclean’s, November 2 1963, p. 19.
18. Published by the Macmillan Company of Canada in 1963 under the title, Dear Enemies. A Dialogue on French and English Canada by Gwethalyn Graham and Solange Chaput Rolland (sic).
19. Article on Gwethalyn Graham by Rodger J. Moran.
In their exchanges, it was Solange who brought up the question of “speak white.” Gwethalyn had never heard the words, either in Toronto or Montreal, and doubted that it was a common saying. Solange, whose letters smoulder with anger at English Canada for its past repressive actions against the French language and its general attitude of superiority, insisted that “speak white” was indeed a common taunt. Given her prominence and the singularity of her testimony, I relay her comments at length because they are virtually unique: a discussion in the first person singular of a subject in which almost every other participant spoke about what she or he had heard from others, and usually, in the past. Here is what she wrote in the last of her letters:
Since you fail to recognize your fellow countrymen in what I’ve been telling you, Gwen, I am going to introduce you to some of the ones I encountered haphazardly in the course of my lecture tour across the country.
In the course of this Canadian tour I realized that the expression “speak white,” by which certain English Canadians mean that we are to switch to English at once, is always current in our country. When I involved you in my anger and my revolt against this “speak white” your difficulty in believing me made me realize suddenly that English Canadians who use the phrase are neither well brought up nor well educated nor anything else. But, whatever their background, they exist and there are many of them. You have even had to admit their existence in the very heart of Quebec since, for every twenty French Canadians you encounter in my house or yours, fifteen can affirm that they have been treated to the discreditable “speak white.” I harvested it three times in the course of my trans-Canada tour. I had already received such an order in Montreal in a very smart bar but, all the same, I jumped when first a head-waiter, in a train, second a bank clerk in Manitoba, and third a very chic English woman in Vancouver frightened me with it because I had inadvertently addressed them in my own language. I should add that the lady asked me in these exact words: “Do you speak white?” – and that she didn’t understand why I replied curtly in English, “No, I don’t,” or why I walked out on the spot. I could, perhaps, mention the “white” anger of a good friend, a lieutenant colonel in the Canadian army who was asked by his hostess at a cocktail party given in his honor in a small western city to “please speak white.” I could cite names, examples and places, even in Montreal, where this odious phrase is thrown to our faces by English Canadians. I regret that I am not capable of talking about the execrable subject with composure, but I should be betraying my pride in my French ancestry if I didn’t react violently in the face of open contempt. Don’t delude yourself, even if your understanding and respect for French Canada prohibits you from quite believing that an insult implying such contempt could be thought up for use against us. I assure you that French Canadians go on being shocked by it.
Let me sum up my hopes as a French Canadian. They are definite and precise.
I no longer want to be considered a second-class citizen in my own country.
I no longer want to think of my compatriots living outside Quebec struggling heroically for a right to speak and pray in French.
I no longer want to think of the unjust sacrifices to which parents in an English area are forced to agree in order to give their children a French education, when in fact their numbers justify the construction of French and Catholic schools.
I no longer want to believe that in 1967 there will still be places where it will be unacceptable to speak French.
I no longer want to have to prove in a book, an argument, a conversation or a newspaper article that Quebec is not still living in the words of Goldwin Smith, “like an antediluvian animal preserved in Siberian ice.”
I refuse to look forward to a future time when one of my children will come home hurt because he has been ordered to “speak white.”20
This is a powerful indictment. But I believe that one part of it at least is misleading. Chaput-Rolland states: “for every twenty French Canadians you encounter in my house or yours, fifteen can affirm that they have been treated to the discreditable ‘speak white.’” There is no evidence that the two women assembled 20 French Canadians in each of their two homes and questioned them systematically over whether they had been told to speak white. Chaput-Rolland was simply affirming her gut feeling and the numbers, 15 out of 20, are simply arbitrary, a guess. But her guesses are closer to common prejudices than to fact.21 She states in another letter:
The majority of your compatriots […] content themselves with running down our language, putting it on a level with patois, talking about the purity of Parisian French; and, without concerning themselves any further with our difficulties, they take themselves back to their peaceful little English life. But if we speak a French interlarded with anglicisms, isn’t it true that 22 hours out of 24 we are obliged to speak your language, and in almost every activity in Quebec?22
Chaput-Rollland guessed that French Canadians spent 22 hours a day speaking English. But a public opinion survey on the language of work, carried out eight years later for the Gendron Commission, established that while most people surveyed believed that French Canadians worked more than half of the time in English, the reality was that most francophones worked mostly in French. Pierre E. Laporte, research director for the commission, reported that in Montreal, French-speakers worked in French 19.1 days out of 20, while outside of Montreal they worked in French 19.6 days out of 20. He concluded:
Nous croyons pouvoir affirmer que la diffusion du français chez les travailleurs francophones est plus forte que nous ne l’avions prévue. Nous le savons, il existe au Québec français un climat d’opinions qui veut que la majorité des Canadiens français soient dans la triste situation de « vivre en français et de travailler en anglais. » Or, ce climat d’opinions nous poussait à prévois un degré de diffusion du français dans la vie économique qui serait bien en deçà de ce qu’il est en réalité. Notre enquête a permis de constater jusqu’à quel point la situation linguistique des francophones au travail est meilleure que ne le croit le grand public. En elle-même, cette découverte constitue un élément d’information fondamentale pour le lecteur qui veut se faire une opinion sur la situation du français dans la vie économique québécoise.23
What is certain is that Solange Chaput-Rolland wanted to shock English-speaking Canada and provoke a new awareness about the fate of French. She certainly succeeded.
The third quotation cited by the Dictionary of Canadianisms was taken from a book review by Ronald Bates, then a professor in the English Department of the University of Western Ontario, that appeared in the Globe Magazine of November 28, 1964, on page 15. Bates was reviewing a compendium of articles, editorials, statements and speeches by leading figures in French Quebec, collected together by F. R. Scott (yes, the royal commissioner) and Michael Oliver. The book included an article by a law professor named Pierre Trudeau that had appeared in Cité libre, a speech by Premier Jean Lesage and a manifesto issued by the Front de Libération du Québec, the terrorist organization that had appeared dramatically on the Quebec scene the previous year with the explosion of bombs.
20. Maclean’s, op. cit. The first paragraph cited is from pages 55-56. The rest of the text is from pages 56-57.
21. My mother, Églantine Levert, was a Franco-Ontarian who grew up in northern and eastern Ontario and then spent most of her adult life in English-speaking districts of Montreal. Before she died at the age of 86, I asked her if she had ever heard someone utter those two words, speak white. She replied that she never had.
22. Dear Enemies, op. cit., p. 75.
23. Pierre E. Laporte, L’usage des langues dans la vie économique du Québec : situation actuelle et possibilités de changement. Synthèses réalisées pour le compte de la Commission d’enquête sur la situation de la langue française et sur les droits linguistiques au Québec, Québec, l’Éditeur officiel du Québec, 1974, p.42.
The title of the book was QUEBEC STATES HER CASE. Bates’s review was titled “An education for the xenophobes.” Bates urged the readers to learn to understand from this book the political agitation that was then shaking Quebec, and not merely to react with anger to the bombs of the FLQ. He warned that intemperate comments in the English press would only strengthen the separatist and/or the terrorist movement. He urged a more open mind.
We can ill afford the position of the Pharisee: we are not necessarily better than other men, though we may, because we are a majority, tend at times to be worse. Minorities can be bothersome; majorities, however, can be oppressive. […]
Every English Canadian who writes to a newspaper to say “never trust a Frenchman”, or says “speak white” to a French compatriot, is equally totalitarian and Fascist. Such French-baiters are of great help to their opposite numbers in Quebec, who are trying to convince more and more French Canadians that we patronize them, despise them, hate them, oppress them. One can hope that the reception of this book will not be a mighty, echoing silence. (The underlining is added.)
Bates took for granted, perhaps as a result of Solange Chaput-Rolland’s letters, that the insult was in common use. He did not attempt to estimate its prevalence.
The final quotation in the entry of the Dictionary of Canadianisms is paradoxical. It seems to establish that “speak white” was commonly uttered in Toronto, at least in the past. The author of the article, titled “SPEAK WHITE IN TORONTO,”24 was Arnold Edinborough, and his intention was entirely the opposite. He invented a prank to put “speak white in Toronto” to the test:
I have persistently been told by people from Quebec that when they come to Toronto and speak French they are ridiculed. In fact, on the Don Sims’ Show on CBC one evening [noted French Canadian novelist] Yves Thériault said to me that it was quite usual for French Canadians speaking one of the official languages of Canada to be told: “Speak white in Toronto.” […]
So I suggested that we do a tour of Toronto next day and neither he nor I would speak anything but French, and that if anyone told him to speak white or even ridiculed him in less blunt terms for speaking French, I would buy him a bottle of Scotch.
They set out the next morning in a car with a Quebec licence plate. They stopped to ask directions “to the university” from a Metro Toronto police officer. Thériault spoke only in French. The officer went to great pain, with gesticulations and hand-drawings in the air, to trace the route to the university. No rudeness there.
24. Saturday Night, April 1966, pp. 13-14. Arnold Edinborough was the editor of Saturday Night.
Then they stopped at the Canadian National train station to ask to send a telegram. The man behind the counter said in English that they would have to go to Bay Street to send a telegram. When Thériault indicated that he did not understand, the clerk came from behind the counter, drew Thériault to the window and proceeded by pointing fingers to show the route to Bay Street.
They moved on to a slummy section of Toronto and went into a seedy-looking store. Edinborough recalls:
Then Yves went to the wicket and asked, quite slowly, for two 15c stamps and an airmail sticker. The man, who was quite old, blinked a bit and said: “D’you want stamps, is that it?” And then he said: “Five cents?” showing them. Yves replied: “Non, non… quinze,” at which point the man apologized, and explained in slow careful English that he’d not spoken French for a long time and even when he used to he always got numbers confused. He detached two 15c stamps and, in an accent which would make even John Diefenbaker sound Parisian, launched into a long, rambling reminiscences of his time in French during the First World War.
The two other people in the store listened and it was some time before Yves, with all the tact in the world, could disengage himself from the man who was absolutely thrilled to be speaking French and reliving his youth at the same time.
And so it went at several other stops to speak French. At each, people were courteous and tried to be helpful. Edinborough concluded his account:
As we toasted the action later that day in the prize bottle of Scotch, Yves had to agree that “speak white in Toronto,” if it ever had been true, was certainly not true now. Like the Buick with its trunk full of cement or the jet which somebody dreamed about before it crashed, such stories are folklore, not fact. In the beginning may have been the myth, the word is now the thing – In English or French.
Michèle Lalonde’s poem, “Speak white,” acquired over time a monumental reputation. Strangely, there is some confusion as to when it was first performed publicly. Louis Fournier, in his history of the F.L.Q., gives the date as May 27, 1968, when a money-raising event was held to help pay the legal expenses of FLQ leaders Pierre Vallières and Charles Gagnon, both then imprisoned in Canada after being held prisoners in New York. Fournier writes:
Le 27 mai , Le Comité Vallières-Gagnon organise le premier grand spectacle-bénéfice de la série « Poèmes et Chansons de la Résistance » pour venir en aide aux prisonniers politiques du F.L.Q. Dans la salle du Gesù à Montréal, remplie à craquer, une cinquantaine d’artistes défilent bénévolement au micro : Robert Charlebois, la nouvelle vedette rock du Québec, qui chante pour la première fois « CPR Blues » avec Louise Forestier, Pauline Julien (une des organisatrices), Clémence Desrochers, Raymond Lévesque (« Bozo-les-culottes »), Georges Dor, Tex, le comédien Jean Duceppe, les poètes Gaston Miron, Claude Gauvreau et Michèle Lalonde (qui crée « Speak white »), le Quatuor du Jazz libre du Québec, etc.25
25. Fournier, F.L.Q., op.cit., p. 173é
But Michèle Lalonde herself told another story when she was interviewed in 2016 by La Presse journalist Mario Girard, who wanted to speak to her precisely in the context of his reporting on Robert Lepage’s play 887, then performed in Montreal at the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde. Girard reported:
Pour plusieurs, le mythique poème Speak white est né lors de la fameuse Nuit de la poésie du 27 mars 1970. Il n’en est rien. Ce texte trouve ses racines dans un autre texte de Michèle Lalonde (Terre des Hommes) écrit à l’occasion du gala inaugural d’Expo 67 présenté en avril 1967 à la Place des Arts. « C’était un texte pour deux récitants, raconte Michèle Lalonde. J’avais désigné Albert Millaire et Michelle Rossignol, que je connaissais déjà. Les deux comédiens récitaient sur une musique contemporaine d’André Prévost. On y retrouve les mêmes thèmes que dans Speak white : les forces de destruction et le sort des minorités. »26
Michèle Lalonde then recalled that she was approached by actress Michelle Rossignol who told her that she was to participate in a fund-raising poetic event on behalf of Pierre Vallières and Charles Gagnon. It was to be held on a Monday in October 1968 at the Comédie Canadienne, now renamed Théâtre du Nouveau Monde. Among those who would be participating would be singers Pauline Julien and Robert Charlebois, comedian Yvon Deschamps, poets Gaston Miron and Pierre Morency. The event was to be called Chansons et poèmes de la résistance.
So Lalonde said that she wrote out the text of “Speak white” while standing, to put herself in the mood of the actress who was to deliver it. Finally, she rushed a copy of “Speak white” to Michelle Rossignol just a few minutes before the final rehearsal before the inaugural performance later that day.
« On est allées dans les toilettes de la Comédie-Canadienne et je lui ai donné des indications. Je lui ai dit : « Si tu le récites comme ça, tu vas voir, la salle va lever. » J’étais assez certaine de l’impact que ça aurait. »
Le poème a eu l’effet d’une bombe.
The rest is history.
26. Mario Girard, « Petite histoire d’un grand poème, » La Presse, 7 mai, 2016.
The event which turned Lalonde’s “Speak white” into a legend was called “La Nuit de la poésie.” Organized by two film makers from the National Film Board, Jean-Claude Labrecque and Jean-Pierre Masse, it was held on March 27, 1970 in the hall called le Gesù, that had once been the chapel of the Jesuits’ Collège Sainte-Marie. Here, on the NFB website, is the description of the event – and of the film documenting it that came out in 1971.
La plus grande fête de la Parole qui ait jamais eu lieu au Québec! Dans la nuit du 27 mars 1970, au théâtre Gesù à Montréal, avait lieu le rassemblement prodigieux, inespéré, enthousiaste de milliers de Québécois autour de l’événement « notre poésie ».27
Before a full house, with doors locked and large screens outside so the overflow crowd could follow what was happening inside, some 50 Québécois writers paraded and performed before the cameras. Michèle Lalonde’s recitation of “Speak white” was the hit of the night.
One of the poets who performed that night was Gaëtan Dostie, who went on to organize other celebrations of poetry, but which were also money-raising events for F.L.Q. prisoners. In an article published in February 2008, Dostie recalled that night of poetry in 1968.
Michèle Lalonde monta sur scène pour la première fois. Sa lecture à la « Nuit de la poésie » le 27 mars 1970, pour les besoins du film de l’ONF, c’était que, devant l’impossibilité de filmer un spectacle politique alors, les cinéastes Jean-Claude Labrecque et Jean-Pierre Masse ont concocté ce subterfuge.
Ainsi est né l’un des textes fondateurs de la poésie du pays : « Speak white », tout comme « La Nuit de la poésie » est l’événement fondateur de la poésie québécoise vivante.
Un texte fondateur
Texte fondateur, revendicateur, révolutionnaire, qui situe à la fois le combat des Français d’Amérique, dans la noblesse de revendiquer la justice, l’équité, le respect, le droit de vivre et de nous épanouir en français, et la liberté des peuples de disposer de leur pays.28
A similar epic and heroic dimension was given to the poem by Marvin Richards, associate professor of French at John Carroll University:
Another manifestation of solidarity with the oppr4sswed, against the same colonial centers of the UK, USA, and France, occurs in Michèle Lalonde’s poem “Speak White,” a text dated by its late 1960s anti-colonial message, yet whose status as manifesto merits that we italicize the title rather than use quotation marks. For this is epic poetry, the history of a people, just as surely as the Chanson de Roland invents the Frenchman as a Catholic Gaulois […]. Unlike the personal lyric experience usually associated with poems, this text was written for public, communal consumption as it blurs the lines between literature and cultural manifesto.
28. Gaëtan Dostie, « 40e anniversaire de « Speak white » de Michèle Lalonde, » L’aut’journal, le 27 mars, 2008. http://lautjournal.info/20080227/40e-anniversaire-de-%C2%AB-speak-white-%C2%BB-de-mich%C3%A8le-lalonde
Robert Lepage adopted Lalonde’s poem for his autobiographical play because it raised his personal memories to become part of an epic and tragic statement of a people’s history. His performances ended in a climax of high intensity that could never have been attained by his memories alone. He needed to incorporate his memories within a nationalist myth.29
“Speak white,” whether as a poem or as a racist taunt, has become the favourite formula for projecting a collective myth that was adopted in Quebec after the Second World War. This myth replaced the previous favourite myth of ultra-Catholic Quebec: that of an original paradise in the land of Eden that was lost through the connivance of a serpent.
In the current myth, the serpent has been succeeded by the generic Anglo. What are its central components? I will invoke the original research carried out by Jocelyn Létourneau, professor of contemporary history at Laval University. In 2010, he published a book30 in which he summarized the results of a research project conducted over the previous decade. He had invited more than 3,000 students – from the fourth year of high school, from junior colleges and from universities — to write a summary expressing their perception of the history of Quebec. As he tells us, he asked them to “raconter, par écrit, l’histoire du Québec comme ils s’en souvenaient, et ce, ‘depuis le début.’”
Their summaries submitted by the French-speaking students, he says, described Quebec’s history as having known three very different eras or time periods: a golden age, followed by a great reversal, then finally the current renaissance or restoration. Here is his description of the three periods31:
L’âge d’or. Au départ se trouve une population vivant de manière assez rudimentaire mais en paix, qui se construit un monde en français, qui subit les nuisances du régime colonial et du système mercantile sans toutefois avoir à se rebeller contre la mère patrie, qui commerce avec les Autochtones, qui prend conscience du potentiel économique considérable du coin d’Amérique qu’elle habite, qui connaît peu de conflits internes, qui reste sous la coupe des intérêts de la métropole, mais qui n’a pas à se battre pour protéger ses droits et sauvegarder sa langue.
29. Marvin Richards, « Putting Québec studies on the map,” Contemporary French and Francophone Studies, Vol 12, No. 1, January 2009, p. 86.
30. Jocelyn Létourneau, Le Québec entre son passé et ses passages, Montréal : Fides, 2010. He published a subsequent book on the subject titled Je me souviens ? Le passé du Québec dans la conscience de sa jeunesse, Montréal, Fides, 2014. For my purposes, quoting from the 2010 book is more convenient.
31. Op. cit, p. 44.
Le retournement de destin. Puis survient le Grand Basculement dont l’épisode inaugural est la conquête de la Nouvelle-France par les Britanniques en 1759. Commence alors une histoire scandée par l’interminable lutte des francophones pour leur émancipation et liberté contre les tentatives continuelles d’assimilation, belliqueuses ou sournoises, que mènent les anglophones. C’est dans le cadre de cette dynamique conflictuelle (quête d’affirmation d’un côté et volonté d’embrigadement soft ou hard de l’autre) que s’inscrivent les événements marquants de l’histoire québécoise entre la Proclamation royale (1763) et la Révolution tranquille (1960).
L’hésitation. Pour différentes raisons, notamment parce que les Québécois sont divisés sur leur avenir et qu’il y a des forces, en particulier le gouvernement fédéral, qui contrarient l’avènement contenu en germe dans la Révolution tranquille (la libération des Québécois et la souveraineté du Québec), l’élan du Québec est comme brisé à l’occasion des référendums de 1980 et de 1995. S’ouvre alors une période d’incertitude, de recherche d’une voie de passage vers l’avenir, voire de tentative de redéfinition identitaire qui reste néanmoins ambiguë. C’est sur cette finale marquée par la nostalgie (« ce qui nous est malheureusement arrivé et ce que l’on aurait pu être si… ») tout autant que par l’espoir mélancolique (« ce que l’on pourrait encore devenir si… ») que se clôt la narration des jeunes.
So New France was a “golden age.” That is particularly astounding, even ironic. All the facts of genuine history point to the direct opposite. To choose what is now Quebec City to be the heart of French settlement was brilliant from a military point of view. The St. Lawrence River allowed the French to penetrate the very heart of the continent, unlike the hemmed-in situation of the southern colonies that were barred from most of the interior by mountain ranges. Moreover, the narrowing of the St. Lawrence at Quebec offered a unique opportunity to control the navigation attempting to pass through.
But from almost every other point of view, Quebec was a terrible choice for colonization. It meant a much longer voyage from Europe to reach the northern colony than was required to reach the coastal colonies to the south. The trip was also more dangerous because the Atlantic had fiercer storms the further north one sailed. In addition, access to the colony was prevented by ice for several months of the years and the winters were extremely cold. And the growing season for food was much shorter than it was to the south.
One consequence of these factors was that France always had difficulty luring volunteers to migrate to New France. The French, like other Europeans, preferred to colonize lands much closer to the equator where crops grew more abundantly for most of the year. Moreover, in the southern lands there was greater wealth already accumulated by the aboriginals, who were also far more numerous. But the aboriginals near Quebec City were mostly nomads, so their only possessions were what they could carry with them.
Particularly startling in the students’ summaries was this sentence: « Au départ se trouve une population vivant de manière assez rudimentaire mais en paix. » Peace was a rare occurrence during the entire century and a half of New France’s existence. Wars with the Iroquois or other aboriginals, wars with the British colonies, these were the more usual living conditions.
The best contemporary description of New France was written by the Jesuit Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix, whose credentials as a witness are described by the Canadian Encyclopedia as follows:
Author of the first comprehensive history of New France, Charlevoix taught at the Jesuit College at Québec (1705-09) and in 1720 was again in New France, charged with reporting on the boundaries of Acadia and on the existence of the Western Sea. In 1721-22 he travelled by canoe in the Great Lakes basin and down the Mississippi to New Orleans before returning to France. His years in North America were marked by frustration and illness, but his detailed notes and scientific observations furnished the material for a travel narrative published in 1744 as part of his three-volume Histoire et description Générale de la Nouvelle France.32
Charlevoix, despite submitting to the demands for diplomacy when publishing his descriptions of New France, made it clear that it was not a colony that was attractive for those who lived in France. Canada, he noted, had got off to a bad start:
On néglige en France le Canada.
Cartier eut beau vanter le pays qu’il avait découvert, le peu qu’il en rapporta et le triste état où ses gens y avaient été réduits par le froid et par le scorbut, persuadèrent à la plupart qu’il ne serait jamais d’aucune utilité à la France. On insista principalement sur ce qu’il n’y avait vu aucune apparence de mines, et alors, plus encore qu’aujourd’hui, une terre étrangère qui ne produisait ni or ni argent n’était comptée pour rien.33
During the period that followed the fall of New France, according to Létourneau’s interpretation of the students’ essays, there was total opposition between anglophones and francophones. In fact, it is still generally believed in Quebec, just as it is vividly expressed in the poem “Speak white” and in 887, that the comparative poverty experienced by French speakers between 1759 and 1960 was due to their colonization by English speakers. But, in fact, that same disparity in wealth and cultural development already existed between those living in New France and those living in New England. Charlevoix clearly implied this, though he expressed it in diplomatic language:
33. Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix, Histoire et description générale de la Nouvelle France, avec le journal historique d’un Voyage fait par ordre du Roi dans l’Amérique Septentrionnale. À Paris, Chez Nyon Fils, libraire, 1744, Livre I, p. 15.
On ne voit point en ce pays de personnes riches, et c’est bien dommage, car on y aime à se faire honneur de son bien, et personne presque ne s’amuse à thésauriser. On fait bonne chère, si avec cela on peut avoir de quoi se bien mettre; sinon, on se retranche sur la table pour être bien vêtu.
Il n’en est pas de même, dit-on, des Anglais nos voisins, et qui ne connaîtrait les deux colonies que par la manière de vivre, d’agir et de parler des colons, ne balancerait pas à juger que la nôtre est la plus fleurissante.
Il règne dans la Nouvelle Angleterre et dans les autres provinces du continent de l’Amérique soumises à l’Empire Britannique, une opulence dont il semble qu’on ne sait point profiter; et dans la Nouvelle France une pauvreté cachée par un air d’aisance, qui ne paraît point étudié. Le commerce et la culture des plantations fortifient la première, l’industrie des habitants soutient la seconde, et le goût de la nation y répand un agrément infini. Le colon anglais amasse du bien, et ne fait aucune dépense superflue : le Français jouit de ce qu’il a, et souvent fait parade de ce qu’il n’a point. Celui-là travaille pour ses héritiers; celui-ci laisse les siens dans la nécessité, où il s’est trouvé lui-même, de se tirer d’affaire comme il pourra. Les Anglais Américains ne veulent point de Guerre, parce qu’ils ont beaucoup à perdre; ils ne ménagent point les sauvages, parce qu’ils ne croient point en avoir besoin. La jeunesse française, par des raisons contraires, déteste la paix et vit bien avec les Naturels du pays, dont elle s’attire aisément l’estime pendant la guerre, et l’amitié en tout temps.34
Charlevoix described the New France that he knew well. His contrast between the poverty of New France and the prosperity of the English-speaking colonies was implicitly confirmed by another visitor to New France, the Swedish botanist and naturalist Peter Kalm, who traveled in North America between 1748 and 1751 on a mission of scientific exploration. He observed from his visit to New France:
Mechanical trades, such as architecture, cabinet work, turning, and brick making, are not yet so advanced here as they ought to be, and the English in that particular outdo the French. The chief cause of this is that scarcely any other people than dismissed soldiers come to settle here, who have not had any opportunity of learning a mechanical trade, but have sometimes accidentally, and through necessity been obliged to do it.35
34. Ibid., p. 80.
35. Peter Kalm, Travels in North America, Volume II, p. 404. The English Version of 1770, revised from the original Swedish and edited by Adolph B. Benson (New York: Dover Publications, 1937).
Now, looking back on that period with the benefit of current historical studies, we can observe that New France was never allowed to have a printing press, it never published a book, it never put out a newspaper, it never established a university. Even putting on a play was usually forbidden by the bishop. In each of these respects, the British colonies were remarkably more developed.
As for the economy, it was stifled by the mercantile policies imposed under Louis XIV and Louis XV. Without significant economic growth, New France could never sustain a substantial population, unlike New England and the other American colonies.
According to Marcel Trudel, the most eminent 20th century historian of the French period, New France was kept by France in the economic sphere as “une colonie de fourrures,” a fur colony. He explained:
Malheureusement, la politique de la métropole va bientôt restreindre l’industrie aux besoins essentiels et immédiats de la colonie. Par exemple, en 1704, le roi écrit qu’on ne doit pas faire de toiles au Canada pour se passer de celles de France : « Tout ce qui pourroit faire concurrence avec les manufactures du Royaume ne doit jamais estre fait dans les colonies », celles-ci n’existant que pour fournir les matières premières et n’étant là que pour l’utilité des pays qui les forment et jamais dans l’intention de se passer de ces pays.
Ce sera la politique définitive de la France. C’est pourquoi, lorsqu’à Montréal et à Québec, on entreprend de fabriquer des chapeaux de castor (la chapellerie aurait pu devenir le point de départ d’une vie industrielle intense), la métropole donna l’ordre rigoureux, en 1736, de fermer boutique.36
By far the most complete and reliable portrait of New France is provided by two French historians, Gilles Havard and Cécile Vidal, in their monumental 863-page Histoire de l’Amérique française. They demonstrate, for example, the lack of attraction that New France exerted for the French in comparison with the attraction of their French colonies in the Caribbean.
Les travaux les plus récents du démographe Mario Boleda fixent à 33 500 le nombre d’émigrants vers la vallée du Saint-Laurent. De son côté, l’historienne américaine Leslie Choquette estime à 70 000 le nombre total de départs vers le Canada et à 7 000 celui vers l’Acadie, en tenant compte des migrants saisonniers. C’est peu, comparé aux 300 000 émigrants qui débarquèrent aux Antilles françaises ou aux 700 000 qu’accueillirent les treize colonies britanniques d’Amérique du Nord; c’est néanmoins beaucoup par rapport aux 7 000 émigrants qui parvinrent en Louisiane.37
36. Marcel Trudel, Initiation à la Nouvelle-France. Histoire et institutions (Montréal et Toronto : Holt, Rinehart et Windson, 1968), p. 213-15.
37. Gilles Havard et Cécile Vidal, Histoire de l’Amérique française, Édition de 2003 revue, Paris, Flammarion, 2014, p. 205.
The downfall of New France was written in those figures. Not only did many times more migrants move to the British colonies, but, as the two historians point out, a majority of those who did make the ocean crossing to Canada would eventually go back to France.
Seule une petite partie des émigrants qui survécurent à la traversée ou à l’arrivée contribuèrent durablement au développement des colonies françaises d’Amérique du Nord. L’émigration vers l’Acadie, le Canada ou la Louisiane était largement de nature temporaire. Deux tiers des émigrants vers la vallée laurentienne retournèrent en métropole. […] Laissant parfois une famille en métropole, ils se rendaient souvent dans les colonies à la recherche d’un travail pour quelques années sans aucun projet de s’y établir, même si tous ne réussissaient pas toujours en raison de la dureté du milieu et du déséquilibre du marché matrimonial. Ils pouvaient alors décider de rentrer en métropole, de la même façon qu’un séjour dans une ville du royaume pouvait être interrompu en cas d’échec.38
Certains, une fois le contrat d’engagement signé, désertaient avant le départ en empochant l’avance sur les gages. La plupart de ceux qui se rendaient an Amérique rentraient en métropole, la durée du contrat expirée.39
Whereas migration to the British North American colonies usually involved families and members of the same community, most migration to New France involved young single men, mostly soldiers, who came for a term but without the intention of remaining permanently.
Près des trois quarts [des émigrants] étaient de jeunes adultes dont l’âge moyen à l’arrivée était de 25 ans pour les hommes et de 22 ans pour les femmes. Peu d’enfants ou de personnes âgées émigrèrent au Canada.40
Au Canada, bien avant les engagés, le groupe socioprofessionnel le plus important fut celui des militaires. Recrutés par voie d’affichage et d’annonces faites au son du tambour sur les places publiques, ils comptèrent pour plus de la moitié des migrants. En conséquence, les dates d’envoi des militaires correspondent aux pics dans la chronologie de l’émigration vers le Canada : 1663-1673, 1683-1693, 1755-1756.
38. Op. cit., pp. 207-8.
39. Ibid., p. 216.
40. Ibid., 210.
De fait, le pouvoir royal avait parfois du mal à recruter des soldats pour le Canada et le Mississippi, deux colonies souffrant d’une mauvaise réputation. En 1687, un officiel en charge du recrutement au Havre expliquait ainsi au ministre de la Marine qu’il ne réussirait à réunir sa levée de 100 hommes que s’il omettait de les prévenir qu’ils seraient envoyés au Canada. […] La difficulté de trouver des recrues donnait lieu à de nombreux abus dans les méthodes employés et dans les personnes recrutées, l’âge minimal n’étant pas toujours respecté. […] La faiblesse de la prime d’engagement et de la solde, les critiques portées à leur encontre par les autorités coloniales laissent à penser que les soldats recrutés dans les Compagnies franches de la Marine provenaient des milieux populaires les plus humbles.
La grande majorité des troupes envoyées dans la colonie laurentienne n’y demeuraient pas et rentraient à la fin de leurs années de service. Pourtant, dès 1665, le pouvoir royal avait considéré l’établissement des militaires comme un moyen de peupler durablement le Canada. Il accorda des libérations et des gratifications aux soldats du régiment de Carignan-Salières afin de faciliter leur mariage et leur établissement dans la colonie, et plus de 400 d’entre eux acceptèrent.41
This description brings out starkly just how unattractive New France was to potential immigrants. It also contrasts with the long tradition in Quebec of glorifying New France with patriotic zeal.
While literacy was a priority in every New England town and village, and colleges and then universities were established in several cities, in New France literacy was somewhat common only in the administrative capital, Quebec. In the rest of the far-flung population of New France, literacy was the exception.
En 1760, il existait ainsi au Canada42 des petites écoles dans plus du tiers des paroisses, ce qui correspondait à la situation métropolitaine. À la fin du Régime français, 45 % des habitants de Québec étaient alphabétisés, ce taux tombant néanmoins à 23 % pour l’ensemble de la population coloniale.
Seule, la ville de Québec était dotée d’institutions d’enseignement secondaire et universitaire, et ce de manière très restreinte. Le collège des jésuites dès 1635 et le Petit séminaire [de Québec] à partir de 1726 délivraient le seul enseignement secondaire de la Nouvelle-France. C’est en vain que les habitants de Montréal, en 1727, mais aussi Bienville, gouverneur de Louisiane, en 1742, demandèrent l’instauration d’un collège. Dans la capitale canadienne, l’enseignement universitaire se réduisait à la formation des clercs dans le Grand séminaire dès 1663, à une classe d’hydrographie ouverte par les jésuites au début du XVIIIe siècle pour la formation des pilotes et des arpenteurs, et à quelques cours de droit donnés par le procureur général Verrier à partir de 1733.43
41. Op. cit. pp. 216-17.
42. The word, Canada, refers to one of the three French colonies in New France. The other two were l’Acadie and La Louisiane.
43. Ibid., p. 181.
During the entire existence of New France, not a single secondary school was established anywhere outside of the administrative capital, Quebec. That undereducated population would become the chief legacy, apart from the territory, ceded by France to what was to become Canada by the 1763 Treaty of Paris. That legacy would have long-time significant consequences on the development of Canada until it would be reversed by the Quiet Revolution.
Central to the general underdevelopment of New France was the constant underdevelopment of the economy. There were several factors causing this backwardness but the main one was the dependence of the colony on the King of France and his policies that kept the colonial economy strangled. The people of New France were prohibited by law from having any commercial relations with their southern neighbours. The result was that agriculture in New France remained almost entirely a subsistence industry. To sell their goods to people in the Caribbean, given their much greater distance, the farmers on the St. Lawrence could not compete with the prices offered by British colonials living on the Atlantic coast. And selling products other than raw furs to France was difficult.
La mauvaise réputation du Canada et de la Louisiane dissuadait, en effet, les candidats à la migration outre-mer, qui préféraient partir aux Antilles, à la riche économie sucrière et caféière. Dans l’opinion publique, le Canada était associé aux difficultés de la traversée, aux hivers longs et rigoureux, aux innombrables moustiques estivaux, à l’isolement et à l’ennui ou encore au danger iroquois, tandis que la Louisiane apparaissait comme un lieu de relégation. Cependant, cette mauvaise réputation ne suffit pas à rendre compte de la faible attractivité de ces colonies, car l’hécatombe liée à la fièvre jaune et au paludisme qui frappait les nouveaux venus dans les îles du Vent représentait une menace bien plus grave. Seules les fortes possibilités de mobilité sociale offerte par l’économie antillaise expliquent qu’un nombre relativement important d’émigrants aient accepté de braver ces risques pour tenter leur chance. Le Canada était moins attractif non pas à cause de la dureté du milieu, mais en raison de ses structures économiques : la traite des fourrures, peu demandeuse en main-d’œuvre, et une agriculture de subsistance. Le « mirage » n’était pas assez puissant pour que les jeunes gens de milieux modestes quittent la métropole, et la colonie ne suscitait pas de profits assez substantiels pour que les entrepreneurs privés (transporteurs, marchands, colons…) investissent de manière importante dans le recrutement d’émigrants. D’ailleurs, au temps de la Compagnie des Cent-Associés, les bénéfices provenant de la traite des fourrures ne furent pas non plus suffisants pour financer les énormes dépenses indispensables à la fondation d’une colonie de peuplement. Quant aux profits fabuleux que l’on attendait dans les années 1717-1723 de l’exploitation des mines de Louisiane, du développement des plantations (de tabac, indigo, riz, etc.) et du commerce avec les colonies espagnoles voisines, ils ne virent jamais le jour, de sorte que la Compagnie des Indes ne fit plus aucun effort pour promouvoir l’émigration européenne.
Au Canada, comme en Louisiane, l’action de l’État s’avéra donc nécessaire. Mais la politique migratoire de la monarchie fut limitée par ses difficultés financières tout au long de l’Ancien Régime. En dehors de la décennie 1663-1673, période phare de l’intervention étatique, la priorité fut toujours donnée au financement de la guerre en Europe, en dépit des quelques efforts fournis pour assurer la défense des colonies, en particulier au moment de la guerre de la Ligue d’Augsbourg et de la guerre de Sept Ans. Cette question financière mise à part, l’État, fidèle à ses principes mercantilistes, adopta une politique ambiguë à l’égard de ses possessions d’outre-mer. Leur développement ne devait pas nuire à celui de la métropole : il n’était pas question d’autoriser les exportations de blé vers la France ou de laisser les colonies établir des manufactures pour leurs propres besoins. Enfin, l’idée selon laquelle le royaume se dépeuplait – idée partagée par la Couronne et l’opinion publique – constitua un frein à une politique migratoire royale plus ambitieuse. C’est pourquoi le recrutement actif de l’État ou des acteurs privés pour le Canada, et plus encore pour la Louisiane, fut faible et discontinu. Il ne permit pas d’engendrer un mouvement migratoire autonome. Les émigrants qui souhaitaient quitter la France choisissaient plutôt de partir pour les Antilles, mais aussi pour l’Espagne.44
I have quoted at great length from this history by Gilles Havard and Cécile Vidal for two reasons. First, the excellence of this history is compelling. The first edition won the Grand prix d’histoire Chateaubriand in 2003. The following year, it won the Grand prix de la Société des gens de lettres. Other books by Havard have won several prizes, including the Prix Lionel Groulx.45 Havard received it in 2017 for his book, Histoire des coureurs de bois. Amérique du Nord, 1600-1840, Les Indes Savantes, 2016.46 That book also received le prix Pierre Savard (« meilleur livre de langue française ou anglaise sur l’histoire du Canada, décerné par le Conseil International d’Études Canadiennes. »)
But the second and most compelling reason for all the quotations is that in Quebec, reverence for New France is engrained in the culture and it keeps students and the general public ignorant about the reality of an underdeveloped New France and its consequences after the transfer to British rule. Given the eminence of France on the world’s cultural scene over the past five centuries, it seemed impossible that a population transferred from France in the 17th and 18th centuries could have been other than impressive. This generated a conspiracy theory of French Canadian history: if the French Canadians were backward before the Quiet Revolution, it must be because they were oppressed and colonized by English speakers. This is the very conspiracy theory projected by the vituperative poem, “Speak white,” and by Robert Lepage’s articulation of it.
44. Ibid., pp. 228-29.
45. Le prix Lionel-Groulx, décerné par l’Institut d’histoire de l’Amérique française, récompense “le meilleur ouvrage paru durant l’année portant sur un aspect de l’histoire de l’Amérique française et s’imposant par son caractère scientifique”.
Another variation of the conspiracy theory was articulated many times by film-maker Pierre Falardeau. Here is what he published in June 1994, in the magazine Lectures:
La liberté est devenue pour nous une marque de yogourt, ou une marque de jeans. La révolte, une marque de chemise. La résistance, un composé des systèmes électriques. La révolution, une nouvelle façon de couper son gazon ou d’ouvrir sa porte de garage.
Des sous-boss bilingues et biculturels ont réduit la lutte de libération nationale à une lutte constitutionnelle. Des petits avocats de province à l’esprit ratatiné ont transformé une lutte pour la liberté en articles juridiques sur un torchon appelé constitution. Tout ce que le Québec contient comme vendus et comme crosseurs nous a présenté l’inclusion des deux mots société distincte sur un bout de papier comme une immense victoire. Deux mots insignifiants. Trente ans de luttes pour deux mots. Pas un peuple. Pas une nation. Même pas une tribu. Même pas une gang. Même pas une bande.
Le système de Vichy, c’est ici et maintenant. Les collabos pétainistes, c’est depuis 234 ans.47
The proof that we are dealing with a myth rather than an exercise in consciousness-raising is the evident fact that so little effort has been made to investigate the key elements of the “Speak white” complex. For example, it is constantly reiterated that the taunt, “speak white,” originated in the southern U.S.A. and then migrated northward. In fact, though, no one to my knowledge has ever quoted one line demonstrating that “speak white” was ever a popular phrase in the United States, north or south. If it were now or if it had been in the past, you would find those two words joined together in American dictionaries. I consulted the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 2014 edition. It offered several definitions of “white,” but not one that defined “white” as a language. There was no entry for “speak white.” So I consulted the Dictionary of Americanisms by John Russell Bartlett, both the 1848 and 1859 editions. Neither had an entry for “speak white.” So I consulted The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, by Christine Ammer (2013); the Dictionary of Americanisms, Briticisms, Canadianisms and Australianisms by V. S. Matyushenkov (2010) and McGraw-Hill’s Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs, by Richard A. Spears (2005). None had an entry for “speak white.”
Similarly, I have demonstrated how fraudulent was the claim that Henri Bourassa was assailed by cries of “speak white!” No one bothered to research that claim because myths are a matter of faith, not fact.
The Quiet Revolution was in a sense, a period of rapid institutional and cultural modernization for French Canadians living in Quebec. It produced many beneficial changes, the effects of which are evident to this day. But, at the same time, the cultural maturation of the Quiet Revolution was accompanied by the emergence of a form of adolescent rebellion against the powers that were. A vast conspiracy theory was adopted and projected by a generation of writers that included poet Gaston Miron, playwright Jacques Ferron, novelist Hubert Aquin, poet Paul Chamberland, sociologist Marcel Rioux, poet and politician Gérald Godin, novelist Jacques Godbout, the writers who contributed to the revolutionary magazine Parti pris (1963-1968) and many others, including, of course, poet Michèle Lalonde.
The common denominator for the conspiracy theorists was that, in Quebec, French speakers were poorer, less educated and not in control of major industry because Quebec was colonized by the Anglos. French speakers were treated like the Indians in Canada, like black people in the southern U.S.A. Quebec was colonized, just as Algeria and Vietnam were colonized by the French, the Congo by the Belgians and Rhodesia by white immigrants.
One of René Lévesque’s favourite taunts was to claim that Quebec was like Rhodesia – at that time, Rhodesia was the sole country in the world to be under sanctions by the United Nations for the white minority’s repression of the black majority. Pierre Vallières wrote Nègres blancs d’Amérique. Gaston Miron projected the same vision as Michèle Lalonde. He wrote:
47. Reprinted in Pierre Falardeau, La liberté n’est pas une marque de yogourt, Montréal, Édition Typo, 2009, p.p. 25-26
Longtemps je n’ai su mon nom, et qui j’étais, que de l’extérieur. Mon nom est “Pea Soup!”. Mon nom est “Pepsi”. Mon nom est “Marmelade!”. Mon nom est “Frog”. Mon nom est “dam Canuck”. Mon nom est “speak white”. Mon nom est “dish washer”. Mon nom est “cheap”. Mon nom est “sheep”.48
These writers shared a consensus that the descriptions of the colonization of black people provided by Aimé Césaire, Léopold Senghor Frantz Fanon, Albert Memmi, Jean-Paul Sartre and others, applied literally to Quebec. The obvious solution was decolonization, that is independence, by whatever means.
The best rebuttal to this conspiracy theory is represented by Robert Lepage himself, who has achieved an international reputation as one of the best contemporary producers and performers. The Quiet Revolution was not a revolution from below, it was a rapid modernization from above of French Quebec’s political, educational and economic institutions. That modernization resulted in the current dramatic flowering of Quebec’s culture in all the arts that is recognized world wide. Simultaneously, the economic status of French speakers in Canada soared.
Indeed, according to the 1916 Census of Canada, the median income from employment was higher for French speakers than English speakers in eight of the 10 provinces and two of the three northern territories. The only two provinces where it was lower were Alberta and New Brunswick.49 That hardly squares with “Speak white” or with 887.
In sum, the myth of speak white should more properly be designated as the speak white persecution complex. Those who suffer from this persecution complex would be well advised to consult a psychiatrist. The poem by Michèle Lalonde does not deserve to be treated as the true national anthem of a people, as Robert Lepage chose to celebrate it. We, both French speakers and English speakers, are much better than that nasty exercise in xenophobia suggests.
48. Gaston Miron, « Notes sur le non-poème, » dans L’homme rapaillé, Montréal, Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 1970, pp. 123-124.
49. Cf. http://montrealgazette.com/opinion/opinion-new-figures-on-language-of-work-in-quebec-point-to-strengths