For English Canadian writers, covering the political landscape of Quebec has its perils. Most begin with the unspoken assumptions that Canada is the best country in the world (the United Nations even said so) and that you'd have to be a fool or a knave to want to dismantle it, or even radically change it. For a much smaller number-the Globe and Mail arts correspondent Ray Conlogue comes to mind-the desire to escape the self-serving rhetoric of English Canada leads to the largely uncritical adoption of the Quebec nationalist canon (Anglo Quebeckers are Rhodesians and Canada is not a real country). The result is another sort of political evangelism with the angels and demons simply reversed.
It is a rare pleasure, then, to turn to a writer, Ann Charney, who for the past twenty-five years has been recording the complex twists and turns of Quebec's political life with insight, eloquence, and an unequalled degree of evenhandedness. Defiance in Their Eyes is a collection of six of her most important articles spanning the turbulent period in Quebec between October 1970, when 8,000 Canadian troops moved in to sweep the FLQ and their supporters off the streets, to 1990, when the Canadian military again left the barracks to quell uprisings in two Mohawk communities near Montreal. The articles, originally printed in Saturday Night, The Idler, Weekend Magazine, and Maclean's, stand the test of time remarkably well, but for the purposes of the collection Charney returned to her sources to add postscripts bringing the people and events she covered up to the present. In some cases, we are re-introduced to men and women who have managed to stay the course; in others we discover some surprising reversals of fortune.
Most of Charney's defiant ones, as the subtitle suggests, operated on the margins of Quebec society. They include three Quebec revolutionaries, Pierre Vallières, Paul Rose, and Jean Castonguay, a Montreal organized crime boss, Paolo Violi, a group of Mohawk Warriors, and the internationally acclaimed Quebec film-maker, Claude Jutra. In the background of each is Charney herself, playing the role of empathetic listener while her subjects often appear to reveal to her more than they intended.
The earliest article is a profile of Pierre Val-lières, originally written for Maclean's in 1973. For Vallières this was a time of relative calm. Behind him were the publication of the widely acclaimed Nègres Blancs d'Amérique and four years in Canadian prison for manslaughter and sedition. In 1971 he withdrew his support for the armed struggle and backed the Parti Québécois' sovereignty-association option as a necessary first step toward the goal of socialism and independence for Quebec.
Charney's 1973 piece begins with a snapshot of young Quebeckers of the period. She finds the thirty-five-year-old revolutionary staying at a younger friend's flat in the working-class Plateau Mont Royal district of Montreal. She begins by noting the counterculture trappings, which come complete with a guy with a guitar off to the side providing "melodic background to the chatter."
Finding the kitchen table conversation aimless, Charney manoeuvres Vallières out to a restaurant for a late supper and puts her evocative skills to work. During the meal, he admits he was troubled when, upon his release from prison, he was met by welcoming crowds and people pushing forward for autographs. The reception made him realize that "in Quebec people like strong personalities" and he says "it frightens him."
The comment seems out of place from a doctrinaire revolutionist but helps explain why, a short time later, Vallières broke with the sovereignty mainstream and embarked on a wider critique of Quebec society that saw him scorned in nationalist circles as a political gadfly or worse, a turncoat. His uncompromising stance continued into the 1990s, with Vallières-almost alone among Quebec intellectuals-speaking out in favour of the Mohawks during the Oka crisis, when they were under siege by the police, the Canadian military, and angry Québécois mobs.
Paul Rose, one of the leaders of the FLQ cell that kidnapped and killed a Quebec cabinet minister, Pierre Laporte, took a much different route, but Charney's profile of him and the hardline indépendantistes he represents is equally illuminating. She met Rose in 1984, when he was working at the J. Henri Charbonneau long-term care hospital. Two years earlier he had been released from prison where he had served twelve years of a life sentence for Laporte's murder, though he had not been in the house at the time of the killing.
What Charney notices at the hospital is his kindness with the disabled patients and their reverence for p'tit Paul. As she delves into his past, she finds a connection between the gentle Rose and the terrorist Rose in his early life in a two-room shack-without any running water-in a Québécois working-class quartier on the South Shore of Montreal.
His father worked in the choking dust of the Redpath sugar refinery in the industrial area below Westmount. In this sharply divided world, the young Paul Rose knew exactly where he stood. To fight for the rights of the Québécois was to fight for the poor and weak. The patriotic passion and fervour for social justice that infused the twenty-seven-year-old as he leapt onto Pierre Laporte's lawn in 1970 with a revolver in his hand, was still present when Charney met with him in 1984 and continues today as he serves as a spokesman for the independence movement on behalf of a Quebec union federation. In Rose, Charney offers a portrait of one of the most "consistent radicals of our time" (in her words), with his ideas living on in Quebec among a small but active minority within the sprawling sovereignty movement.
In "What is Wrong with Claude?", an account of the life and death of the film-maker Claude Jutra, Charney shifts gears. Jutra and his circle of upper-class Quebeckers who inhabit the genteel Carré St Louis district near Rue St Denis, are as at home in Paris and New York as they are in Montreal. Jutra himself was revered by young Quebec film-makers, although he was suspect in some quarters for his lack of nationalist fervour. In this award-winning article, Charney chronicles not only a personal tragedy but also paints a deft portrait of the casual class of Montreal artistes among whom Jutra moved.
The personal tragedy begins when Jutra undergoes the early onset of Alzheimer's disease. It ends in his suicide at the age of fifty-six. As well as speaking with his family and friends, Charney had access to Jutra's journals and takes us through the private and at times terrifyingly lonely hell of a brilliant mind dissolving. On a cold November night in 1986, Claude Jutra made his escape by jumping off the Jacques Cartier bridge into the St. Lawrence River. His body wasn't discovered until the following spring, when a resident of a small riverside town near Quebec City noticed a large boot on the beach. The nation mourned. Jutra had provided an ending to his life that, as Charney points out, would not have been out of place in one of his own films.
The fullness of the complexities of Quebec, of nations striving for physical and political space and grappling with their individual and intermingled histories, comes in "The Last Indian War", which Charney wrote only months before the Oka Crisis. In the South Shore Mohawk community of Kahnawake she finds a new wave of native radicalism bankrolled by the profits from the booming cigarette trade. In the smugglers, the politicians around the Nation office and band council office, and the Warriors, who are already forming into a kind of professional militia, Charney finds common ground: an underlying fear of loss of identity and assimilation which would soon lead the whole nation to come together in a remarkably disciplined stand-off against the Quebec police and the Canadian military in the summer of 1990.
The postscript here has some poignancy. When Charney revisits Kahnawake five years later, the once confident Mohawk nation-builders are now living from hand to mouth or off welfare; the issues that drove them to the barricades are still palpably unresolved.
That sense of a community fighting for survival is not only present in the nations of Quebec, but also in its ethnic groups. When Charney visits Montreal's Italian district of St-Léonard in the late 1970s to write about Paolo Violi, an ice cream shop owner and local crime boss who was murdered the year before, she finds his memory is fiercely protected by his people. "René Lévesque and his cohorts," she is told, "cause a lot more trouble around here than Violi ever did."
In the final article in the collection, "Emerging from the Shadows", we return to the radical side of the Quebec independence movement with her profile of Jean Castonguay, a felquiste from the 1960s who never managed to find a new niche in Quebec society. In a final unfocused protest on August 9th, 1993, he climbed Mount Royal, doused himself in gasoline, lit a match, and was "transferred instantly into a human bomb."
It is a testament to how much Quebec has changed in the twenty years since Charney sat with Vallières and his counterculture comrades in the Plateau apartment, that Castonguay's spectacular self-immolation went almost unnoticed in the Quebec press. Attempts by a few former colleagues to give him a hero's funeral fizzled. Yet most of the others, Vallières, Rose, Jutra, the Mohawk Warriors, and even neighbourhood gangsters like Violi, have already worked their way into the tapestry of Quebec's ever-unfolding national myth, which shapes Quebeckers' view of the present.
The relevance of these defiant ones to Quebec today is underscored by the book's reception in Quebec, where both English and French reviewers (the book has been translated into French as Héros inconfortables and many of the articles have been published in German as part of a collection on modern terrorism) have been expressing concern that Charney was sometimes mixing criminals with genuine heroes. But, typically, they disagreed over which was which.
For the English reviewers, the demon is Paul Rose. During a book-flog interview, one radio host demanded to know what she'd say if Pierre Laporte's widow was sitting across from her. The French reaction focused on the Mohawk section. "They thought I was glorifying the Warriors," Charney says. "People tend to mistake empathy for sympathy. I simply trace a life."
In tracing these lives, Charney has also used her proven skills as a novelist to turn each life into a dramatic short story, where the reader is invited to see the world, if only briefly, through the eyes of the characters. When the stories are taken together, they offer a compelling account of the restless search in Quebec by the Québécois, the First Nations, and the smaller communities to hold onto their political, cultural, and economic space in a shrinking world. Charney's defiant ones have been at the forefront of those struggles and her deft portraits chronicle and illuminate an era.
As Quebec heads toward a promised (or threatened) third referendum, and the apostles of Unity and Independence prepare a new barrage of sermons designed to win converts, Defiance in Their Eyes offers an opportunity to reflect on those deeper questions of personal and collective fears and yearnings that cannot be settled by marking oui or non on a ballot. Ultimately, what Charney is promoting is as rare in Quebec as it is in the rest of Canada: understanding.
Peter McFarlane is a Montreal author and journalist. His next book, The Old Country, will be published by Knopf Canada in the spring of 1999.