My name is Alison Bowie and I am a bilingual theatre artist and scholar working and living in Montréal, Québec. I want to begin my blogging for this project by positioning myself in the conversations regarding Canadian and Québécois theatre identities.
Let me be clear: I do not claim to be an expert in all things Québécois or French Canadian. I am originally from Kingston, Ontario – about a three-hour drive from Montréal. My family is Anglophone, but attended school in French until university through the French Immersion program. I attended Queen’s University, an English institution, for undergrad and studied history, including some Canadian history. I then moved to Mississauga, ON (near Toronto) and was immersed in the Franco-Ontarian culture and community, as my job was to develop a French educational arts program for an Anglophone arts centre. Through my research and the professional relationships I built, I learned a great deal about the history of the Franco-Ontarian struggle to maintain French in Ontario.
I decided to go back to school and entered the Dramaturgy MFA program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, another Anglophone institution. By stepping outside of my own country, I was able to get perspective on the rather similar pluralities of identity that exist within Canada and myself. I identify as culturally and linguistically bilingual. I do not see myself as having one singular identity. I have spent my life weaving my way between the French and English worlds that have existed around me and in me, and they both make up who I am today. This realization opened me up to seeing the identity crisis that has existed in Canada for most of its existence because of the settler culture and multiplicity of voices in Canada (French, English, First Nations), all of whom have been vying for language rights, cultural claims and power for centuries. My thesis project at UMass explored the linguistic and cultural stakes of translation in Canadian theatre texts. I have now returned to Canada, to Montréal specifically, to continue my research as a PhD student at Concordia University.
That brings me to today. Professor Louis Patrick Leroux is my lead advisor for my PhD studies and he connected me with Heather for this project. I am excited to provide some context for the plays that you are going to read. I cannot emphasize enough that there is no one way of looking at the history of Québec. There is no way to look at each and every side to each and every event that has happened through the history of Québec and Canada. Therefore, I am not even going to try. My goal is to explain the political and cultural crises that were occurring around the time that these plays were written. I am going to explain what the ideas were and who were the main players. I am going to offer a way into these plays that is based in a historical context and seeks to spark conversation and questioning. I will provide a timeline of events and biographical information about the creators.
Now it is my turn to ask: Where do I begin? The cultural conflicts that exist in many of these plays, i.e. those plays that deal with French-English relationships, politics, and/or language rights, are rooted in the history of the French-English relationship from 1759 and the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. I can’t sum up two hundred years of history in one blog entry and even remotely do justice to the complexity of the issues at hand. But I will try to give you an understanding of what happened. Québec City and Montréal were founded in 1608 and 1642 respectively. The French set up trade roots, commercial enterprise, and their lives, in that area. On the eve of September 13, 1759 the British attacked Québec City – and won. A year later, in 1760, after several more battles, the French had been pushed back into Montréal and on September 8 Governor Vaudreuil officially surrendered to the British army on the terms of a treaty of capitulation. In 1763 as part of the Treaty of Paris (Seven Years’ War), France gave New France to the British.
Throughout the remainder of the 18th century, various acts were passed granting or withdrawing religious, political, language, and land rights to or from the French. Paired with an influx of British colonists, it was decided in 1791 and ratified by the Constitutional Act of 1791 that the colony be divided in two: Upper and Lower Canada (Ontario and Québec respectively). I would suggest looking at the terms of the Act, as they are far too complicated to explain here. The important cultural phenomenon that came out of the Act was that it created an English-Protestant province (Upper Canada) and a French-Catholic province (Lower Canada) each with their own separate governing bodies. This created an us/them dynamic with strict boundaries. The division of the province of Québec and the institution of two governing bodies did nothing to lessen the fissure between the French and the English. Not only were there two provinces in the same colony operating side by side under vastly different social, economic and political systems, but there was even disparity within the provinces themselves. In Lower Canada (Québec) in particular, the government’s Executive branch became known as the Chateau Clique, a small group of upper class families who controlled not only the government but also a great deal of the mercantile industry in the province. These families were primarily English even though the majority of the population of the province was French. The frustration with the government prompted the Rebellions of 1837, which took place in Upper and Lower Canada as they each had their own problems.
On November 1st, Seigneur Louis Joseph Papineau led the French Canadian nationalist group known as the Patriotes into a bloody battle in the streets of Montréal with British troops and English volunteers. The Patriotes were swiftly defeated, which led to widespread looting and burning of French Canadian settlements. Over three hundred people died during the rebellion and almost all of them were French. Although the Rebellions of 1937 seemed on the surface to have been failures (the rebel group in Toronto had no more success), they unsettled the British government and prompted the commission of the 1839 Report on the Affairs of British North America written by Lord Durham, which called for two things: responsible government and the union of Upper and Lower Canada.
This report led to the Act of Union of 1840, which once again united Upper and Lower Canada, placing French and English in direct cultural and linguistic conflict with one another. The Act of Union not only solidified the political structure, but also the cultural hierarchy. It determined that all government documents and proceedings would be written and performed in English. By the mid-nineteenth century expansion of the colonies required a change in structure, and prompted the British North America Act of 1867. This Act was designed to unite the provinces of Canada (Upper and Lower), Nova Scotia and New Brunswick into a single Dominion under the Crown of the United Kingdom. What began as Nouvelle France in the sixteenth century (Cartier first landed in Québec in 1534) had metamorphosed into the two independent provinces of Ontario and Québec as we know them today by the mid-nineteenth century. They were given separate provincial government systems, but were also subject to the rule of a central Canadian government controlled by the British Parliament.
Although a lot more could be said, I will leave this historical journey at this point. That does not mean that the conflict was over – far from it, in fact. Language rights, cultural oppression, and political influence continued to be (and continue today) sources of intense divergence and struggle, particularly in the multi-lingual and multi-cultural city of Montréal. In the upcoming blogs I will be focussing more on the crises of the twentieth century, particularly the 1960s and 1970s when many of the plays were written. I ask you, however, to keep this history in mind as we move forward towards the present.—-A.B., dramaturg