Talking to filmmaker John Walker, you’d think he’d been working on the most dangerous documentary ever. “I talked myself out of this for a long time,” he says. “Even recently, when I discussed the idea with some of my Francophone friends, they would say, ‘Oh, you’re brave.’ I think it’s something that’s a bit taboo.”
The topic is something that’s not exactly verboten but is something that can leave people a bit queasy: in Quebec My Country Mon Pays, Walker explores his complex relationship with Franco-Quebec culture, his Quebecois compatriots, and how and why many of his family members felt compelled to leave Quebec as the nationalist movement grew and thrived. Walker shows all of this from his perspective—that is, someone who identifies as a Quebec Anglo. When Walker recalls that, as a child, a bomb was blown up by the radical organisation FLQ (Front de libération du Québec) mere blocks from his home, he still remembers the shock and horror his grandparents expressed. He also recalls his father’s heartbreak at deciding he had no choice but to leave Quebec for the better opportunities that Toronto represented—a decision that never made him entirely happy. Walker talks to family members and colleagues, but what’s most intriguing about Quebec My Country Mon Pays is that most of the time he’s talking to Franco-Quebecois—including fellow filmmakers Jacques Godbout and Oscar-winner Denys Arcand —about Quebec nationalism and language tension.
“This is a story I’ve held within me for a long time,” says Walker, who’s been making films for decades. His career as a filmmaker includes the Genie-winning documentary Strand: Under a Dark Cloth (1989) and he was a member of the filmmaking collective that made the unique 1987 feature A Winter Tan. As a cinematographer, he lensed The Champagne Safari (1995) and Referendum: Take 2 (1996). “It’s a story I’ve really been eager to tell. Every film I make these days, I think it may be my last. I’m half-joking when I say that, but with the funding situation the way it is, I do wonder.”
Walker recognizes that the political is deeply personal, so he has interwoven the history of the Quebec Quiet Revolution with his own life story. “The politics of English and French for me began on the ice rink when I was playing hockey. The French didn’t like us, but I had no idea why. When I was eleven, bombs started to go off, and what I did know was the bombs were against the English. I’ll never forget when a bomb went off so close to our house. Terrorism works—the psychological impact of that gave me a deep-seated anxiety. On some level, this film is dealing with those adolescent fears, but also feelings of rejection.”
For Walker, his strongest feelings of rejection were not so much for him, but his father. A thriving artist in the ’60s, by the time the Parti Québécois formed the government in 1976, Walker’s dad felt he had little choice but to head down Highway 401 to Ontario. “He was then 52, and a graphic artist, and more and more of his work was moving to Toronto. He left because of work. He had respect for Levesque, but he still didn’t want to leave. It wasn’t about deep-seated animosity. But it was traumatic. He had a great time in Montreal; it was a great city and he had his artist friends who he was working with. When he went to Toronto, a lot of that changed. I really felt for him when he had to make that move. Toronto didn’t really suit him—it was a very tough transition.”
But here’s the best part about Quebec My Country Mon Pays: unlike so many discussions about Quebec nationalism and independence that come from an Anglo perspective, Walker doesn’t really come from a position of bitterness or blame. He never comes across as an “angryphone”—the term given to Anglos who won’t let go of the past and who assume a victim posture. Instead, it is clear Walker has great respect for the cultural leaps and bounds made during the Quiet Revolution, when Quebec went from being a quasi-feudal society into a modern state, throwing off the shackles of the Catholic Church and embracing higher education and socialist ideals.
Walker refers to what he sees as “mythunderstandings” between the Franco and Anglo communities. “There are myths and untruths about either side. Through a better understanding of history, you can poke holes in those myths. One was the idea that the English are all wealthy and took their money when they left. A lot of English took a hit for the one per cent. My ancestors didn’t have any power, they were farmers with no wealth, but they were English-speaking.”
As Walker is speaking to his cultural peers—usually other filmmakers—we can feel his respect for the advances Quebec society made, very quickly. Denys Arcand recounts leaving the church, once and for all. He describes it as a sudden sensation: one minute he was sitting in church, next he was asking himself why on earth he was there, and then he was gone, never to return. As Walker points out, the shackles of the church teachings were tied to bad governance and widespread corruption.
Walker says the feeling in the film reflects his own sentiments. “I was sympathetic as I grew older to what was going on in Quebec—the importance of language and culture and the independent spirit. The other thing that comes up is growing up in a minority. We’re the most privileged group of people on earth, but still a minority. What’s interesting is that the minority status is felt on both sides: the French feel they are a minority within North America, while the Anglos feel they are a minority within Quebec. We have a similar sensibility on some level.”
It’s here that the film ties together the strange connection the Quebec Franco and Anglo communities share: a dire existential dread. While the Quebecois sense they are a minority in North America, grappling with a federal government run mainly by Anglophones and a dominant American culture, Quebec’s Anglos feel threatened as a minority within Quebec’s borders. Quebec My Country Mon Pays indicates how both cultures feel caught in the existential crosshairs.
And perhaps not surprisingly, Walker refers to a quote from a famous existentialist to explain why he suffers no ill will towards Quebec’s Franco majority. In 1963, Jean-Paul Sartre stated: “It is recognized as a truism that the consequences of people’s actions often end up escaping them, since every undertaking has repercussions upon a vast number of unsuspected relationships within a society.”
“For me, that quote is just perfect,” Walker explains. “It explains how Quebec’s emergence, its independence, its finding itself, would leave all other considerations aside.
“Jacques [Godbout] said it was a poetic revolution at the beginning, which led to a political one. It was about artists who wanted to take down a conservative, Catholic-controlled society. I knew French kids who were kicked out of school for reading Sartre. [Then-Quebec Premier] Duplessis censored NFB films in Quebec—the authorities saw them as films made by communists.”
Walker also points out that some of the most lasting terminology to describe Quebec and Montreal came from outsiders. The Quiet Revolution was a term first coined in The Globe and Mail, Canada’s first national newspaper. (Though some have referred to it as “Toronto’s national newspaper.”) And the term “Two Solitudes” came from the title of Hugh MacLennan’s 1945 novel. In it, the author has a fictional character attempting to reconcile his two different identities as Franco and Anglo. The term has come to refer to the indifference and ignorance Quebec’s Franco community has towards Anglos, and vice versa. In a 2005 speech, then-Governor General Michaëlle Jean declared that “the time of ‘Two Solitudes’ had finished.”
But where Walker’s film becomes a bit dark is his current reflection on the state of Franco-Anglo co-existence. Watching the film, one gets a great sense of his respect for the Quiet Revolution, but the Two Solitudes seem as entrenched as ever. Part of this comes from the endearing bluntness of Arcand, who doesn’t hold back. Did he or anyone else think about the exodus of Anglos—hundreds of thousands of them—from Quebec during the ’60s and ’70s? Arcand chuckles and basically says that just meant there was more real estate for the people who stayed behind. Arcand clearly doesn’t care if what he says sounds insensitive: Francophones didn’t care what was going on in the English-speaking community, he states, and for all intents and purposes, they still don’t. He speaks with a candor that commands respect.
The long shadow of the Two Solitudes came up again, as one of Walker’s researchers on the film, Christina Clark, expressed her own feelings about not quite fitting in, despite speaking French fluently. “She spoke to me about the inability to assimilate, even when you speak French very well. I was surprised to hear that those separations often remain. When I was young I wanted to integrate, but so many of my friends were leaving, it was as if there was no future here. Christina’s going through that too, years after I did. And sometimes she gets the suggestion that, well, it’s not that bad—just head down the 401 if you need to.”
But, Walker insists again, “I’m not angry. When Hitchcock shot a film in Quebec, he called it a “priest-ridden society.” People wanted to get past the church and all its control. I say at one point in the film, “I’ve tried anger but it doesn’t work.” When you can understand something, it doesn’t make you angry. Despite the exodus and everything else.
“I tried as hard as I could not to generalize in the film,” Walker explains. “If the people I interviewed wanted to generalize, that was up to them, but I didn’t want to make generalizations myself. And I don’t see this as the definitive film on Quebec from an Anglo’s perspective. Everybody’s story is different.”
The Jutra dilemma
Building up to locking his final cut, John Walker found himself in a bit of a dilemma. Quebec My Country Mon Pays was to open with a fascinating quote that goes like this: “I believe in ideas: the right of a people to self-government, each person’s need for a national and cultural identity. But, as I get carried away with enthusiasm, I can’t help thinking that the worst collective crimes were committed in the name of nationalism. This contradiction tortures me and it is to this contraction that I am committed.”
It’s a fantastic quote, one that perfectly reflects certain aspects of the film. The problem? The person who said it was Claude Jutra, widely regarded as one of Quebec’s greatest filmmakers—but also the man at the centre of one of the greatest posthumous scandals ever in Quebec or Canada’s cultural history.
On February 16, a new biography of Jutra hit bookstands, and in a few pages, author Yves Lever described Jutra’s sexual attraction to boys. Many knew of Jutra’s interest in teenage boys, but within 24 hours of that news came an interview in La Presse, in which an unnamed man described first having been sexually assaulted by Jutra when he was 6 years old.
Within 48 hours, Jutra’s legacy had been completely rewritten by the scandal. If the allegations were shocking—and they are at best allegations, seeing as Jutra has been dead for over 30 years so cannot respond to them—the sheer velocity of the scandal was even more jolting. Several streets, a park, the main cinema in the Cinémathèque québécoise, the Canadian National Screen Award given to the best first feature film director and the name of the entire Quebec film awards—all would have the name “Jutra” removed.
After much thought, Walker and his producers and distributor have decided not to open the film with this quote. -MH