Vol. 21 No. 1 Spring/ Printemps 2000



Les pays qui n'ont pas de légendes meurent de froid (1)

It can certainly happen that countries run the risk of dying when, for lack of legends in their culture, there are no seasons of germination, growth, and fruition for the collective soul. By highlighting this statement on the need for countries to nurture and renew their past in a present that vibrates imaginatively with living legends, Jean-Claude Germain is warning the people of today's Québec in an absolute way to neither forget nor allow to be forgotten. It is vital for collective survival that shared legends, such as those that reside in many countries in stories of the North, be cherished and renewed.

Yet, as I hope will be apparent in this brief study of the North in Québec, the preservation of a legendary past is inevitably problematic. Meanings cannot fail to be ambiguous and ambivalent. In the case of legends surrounding the North, one cannot even say with certainty what it means. Its denotations and connotations in conceptual and social practice certainly far exceed the explicit sense of one of the four cardinal points of the compass. We realise today that the place of enunciation is of critical significance in determining the meaning of spatial markers. Even geographers' definitions remain uncertain and variable, as Louis-Edmond Hamelin showed convincingly in his study Réalités canadiennes. Le nord canadien et ses référents conceptuels. Representations of the Québec North in popular culture and theatre have often shown themselves to be contradictory, ideologically troubling, and ambiguous in interpretation and value.

Legends about the North continue to emerge and to vary today as their social, historical, material and economic moment, place and technological impact change. They vary as well by the medium in which they are conveyed, no less than by the voice narrating the stories. For all their imaginative and creative force, legends of the North in francophone Canada do not tell of timeless truths. They have, in fact, never been detached from specific socio-economic contexts and hegemonic discourse.

Study of the complex, multiple, and evolving messages contained in the notions of North in Québec can provide insight into historical forces at work in that society, popular and other forms of its culture, and directions taken in theatre practice. Along with a look at the North as a mother lode of cultural treasures, this study will touch on some still seldom discussed negative aspects of these very treasures. Negative aspects that need consideration include gender issues and, perhaps most disturbingly, First Nations issues. The unexamined assumption that the territory of the North is vast and empty, void of culture and human presence has played a vital role in driving European settlement in North America. Dominant discursive patterns that filtered into politics, the law, literature, and popular culture depended upon this assumption. This study will draw attention to this fact and will trace one part of the complex ways the assumption played itself out in exploration of the continent, expansion into it and settlement of it. Although history records many encounters between French and First Nations peoples, Québec legends of the North provide to indigenous peoples in the collective imaginary no unromanticised, autonomous place in which to recount their stories, no legitimacy of voice, agency, or even cultural space. In fact, First Nations are frequently characterised by their discursive absence. Such terrible oversight has caused their legends, and thus their lived realities, to be either erased or else drastically distorted; in effect, to be frozen to death. Almost always, when First Nations peoples do appear in the narratives that Québec has told to itself, they are represented as either indefinite, silent, shadow figures vaguely assimilated into the primary non-aboriginal story to serve the discursive objective of that story, or else as the Other, usually a hostile presence closely linked with the surrounding landscape that needs to be vanquished in order for the presumably legitimate occupation of the North by peoples of European origin to take place, be celebrated, and be legitimated.

At the beginning in francophone North America, the idea of the North took on the primary meaning of "the land up there": le pays d'en haut. Most of the French who came to North America had to worry about survival and about economic imperatives. It was only in le pays d'en haut that these objectives could be achieved. The conflation, then, of the North and le pays d'en haut in the conceptualisation of where was "here" derives from the fact that the fur trade impelled the voyageurs to undertake vast explorations, explorations that could be done only by boat following water routes. (2) Their activity was conceived as a northern one; to participate in it, they had to go "up there." Water was also the primary avenue for the habitants of La Nouvelle France. To get to the continent's arable lands, they traveled up the St. Lawrence River and further north when necessary. It appears to have seemed somehow natural that the first settlements were almost entirely on the great river's north shore, not on the south. They continued to use the northern waterways in summer and winter as their primary transportation routes.

Penetration into the continent, regardless of how far or in what actual direction, necessitated in the founding years of New France, then, a difficult passage upstream, up the Saint Lawrence and Ottawa rivers and beyond. Such a journey north, undertaken for reasons of survival, economics, politics, and adventure, quickly became romanticised, taking on the heavier semantic layers of journeying to places of transcendence. This material that also mythologised North was characterised by forests, rushing waters, wild birds and animals, rebirth and renewal, mystery and danger, spiritual fulfilment, solitude and freedom, adventure and death, and the dazzling whiteness of snow. This constructed image of the North, imbued with quests of romantic adventure and grounded in beliefs of spiritual destiny, resonated at an early historical stage with other material and cultural elements of the shared sense of being of Quebeckers in North America.

Louis-Edmond Hamelin used an image that evokes an active process of birth to suggest that the notion of North as something much more complex than a material cardinal point is a virtually universal phenomenon. He has said of le pays d'en haut, regarding its symbolic significance and its powerful form as inner landscape: "Le Nord n'est pas «dans la boussole», il se dilate dans les esprits depuis des millénaires et on y réfère par le mot nord lui-même depuis au moins [le IXe siècle]" (11). Jack Warwick was among the first to show that, much more than a particular geographical location, the North has flowed from the beginning in Québec through the collective cultural spirit as bearer of legend and master narrative.

Le pays d'en haut has offered for almost four centuries the outlines of shores, waters, and spaces within and against which the collective imaginary of Canada's francophone community has determined where is "here" and who shares the identity needed to belong "here." At every dark moment of history, the idea of the North's material and spiritual resources has offered hope for survival, renewal, and new beginnings. The people of the North form a recognisable cast of players in francophone North America: the voyageur, the bûcheron, the draveur, and the habitant, colon, or settler. Their various Norths have often produced conflicting imperatives for members of the community.

The cri qui vient de loin for the voyageurs and the bûcherons, a cry of freedom, purity, and innocence, evoked so urgently by Françoise Loranger in her TV play of that name and so hauntingly by Marcel Dubé in Au retour des oies blanches, was, according to Jean-Claude Germain's Coureur des bois in Un pays dont la devise est je m'oublie, like the unforgettable taste of spruce gum:

Mais une fois qu't'as été libbe dans ta tête pis dans té-z-os une fois . . .ça s'oublie pus! Ça peut sparde . . . par accident . . . mais ça s'oublie pas! Ça resse! Ça resse pis ça stransmet . . . scomme un arrière arrière arrière ptit goût dgomme d'épinette qu't'aurais dans lpalais en vnant au monde icitte. (34)

This lingering taste of freedom in the mouth was associated with vast spaces, canoes and waterways, wild animals, and detachment from all family. The tangy taste of adventure for those who traveled far into the North was almost always anathema to the habitants and colons, whose narrowly confined North meant settling down in monotonous, isolated communities. Their community leaders, most of them men of the cloth, dedicated considerable effort to keeping the young men of the community down on the farm, rather than heeding the call of adventure and the dream of riches.

Such conflicting calls from the North were further complicated by factors of gender, as le pays d'en haut made radically different kinds of demands on women and men. Adventurous young men were admired for the mystique of an unknown North that surrounded them, while the women of the early Québec North had little choice but to reproduce, to play the role of mother, or to otherwise serve. The archetypal representation of the ideal woman of the North was distilled in Louis Hémon's early twentieth-century novel Maria Chapdelaine. The illustrations of Clarence Gagnon in the most cherished edition of this novel from 1933 serve to enhance even more its nordic qualities. Marie Laberge's award-winning play C'était avant la guerre à l'Anse-à-Gilles is an explicit and harsh response to the hegemonic, patriarchal discourse of Hémon's work.

Another significant characteristic of Québec's North has been its inextricable links with economic development. These links have been so powerful because survival itself has depended upon them. The North has meant jobs and money to keep communities alive--in the fur trade, lumbering, agriculture, mining, and, in recent decades, construction of huge dams such as La Manic and James Bay. It is clear that the North as figurative construct in francophone Canada has had a range of complements in the form of the North as economic resource. All of the players on the economic stage--voyageurs, bûcherons, travailleurs, habitants--are reflected in the characters of the Québec theatre canon.

I began research for this paper noticing that traditional representations of the North continue to have broad public appeal on the popular culture forum, in advertising, for example, in films such as Gilles Carles's recently re-released Mon oncle Antoine, and on television. An amusing example of this in the form of a beer coaster that combines a boreal flavor with iconography from the Florentine Renaissance was picked up recently in an Eastern Townships bar:

[Photograph currently unavailable]

Another example that I shall discuss later is the release by Radio-Canada in 1998 of nine video cassettes, each containing four one-hour programs from Claude-Henri Grignon's weekly television series that played through the 1950's, 1960s, and 1970s: Les belles histories des pays d'en haut. Is such cultural practice to be understood as primarily a reflection of nostalgia, or is this re-release, along with other popular TV series in Quèbec, representing the good old days in the North, a reflection of something more significant? What do tales from le pays d'en haut have to say today to urban, end-of-the-millennium citizens of the world, who appear to be absolutely removed from the places and conditions represented in the legends of the North?

Marc Lescarbot's Le théâtre de Neptune prefigured almost four hundred years ago the convention whereby le pays d'en haut would provide a compelling matrix for francophone culture in the New World. In Lescarbot's dramatic réception the triumphant return of Poutrincourt to the nascent community at Port-Royal is celebrated, despite the less than triumphant facts surrounding his exploration. The play was, in fact, written before Lescarbot had any information about the actual journey. The point of the play is to show for the non-traveling community that a few of its members have visited le pays d'en haut and have returned in glory. A factual representation would have lessened the ceremonial importance of the spectacle, the powerful implicit message of which is that the stay-at-home community is much more firmly and safely established thanks to the exemplary exploits of the returning heroes. Stories, plays, films, and songs of the adventures of the voyageurs and bûcherons have frequently served the same cultural and ideological function.

I would like to open a brief parenthesis here about the conventionalised representation of First Nations peoples in Le théâtre de Neptune, since here too we find a prefiguring of what would become a dominant pattern. First Nations peoples are represented as part of the Port-Royal community; they are at home here; they participate in the welcoming home celebration, not the exploration and its battles. I see this representation as problematic, and I suggest that the Micmac are dramatised as neither independent agents nor as other by this protocol. They represent, at most, a supporting cast. They have no discrete identity of their own other than an exotic one that is superficial and has nothing to do with who they are in reality. Although apparently welcome in the European community, they have no place of their own in which to stand. Their own language and culture are set aside and left unrepresented as apparently irrelevant, even non-existent. In the play, these characters speak the peasant dialects of rural France. They are seen to be allies, low in the social hierarchy but not ostracised for their lack of culture, capable of making minor, although not unambivalent, contributions to the life of the European community. This is a partial representation of the indigenous community which assumes implicitly that aboriginal peoples have no stories of their own to tell, no voice, and that they are pleased to be assimilated into the pleasures, languages, and cultural practices of European society.

Such a fundamental assumption made it possible for the colonising community to use ties with the aboriginal community when it was convenient to do so and, otherwise, to overlook cultural differences and the distinct identity of aboriginal peoples.(3) The phenomenon produced a sort of assumption of complicity among les Français de souche whereby they could feel close to other peoples colonised by the British and also augment their attachment to a northern landscape, through the usually unexamined assumption that there was a unique bond between them and the indigenous peoples in this imaginary place.

Félix-Antoine Savard's La Dalle-des-morts glorifies the extraordinary journeys of the coureurs de bois as far as the Columbia River. In this play, Savard created heroic characters who celebrate the Bois-brûlé blood that flows in their veins because of is connotations of freedom, strength, and courage.(4) They nevertheless retain their identity as white men. Dramatic representation of men of the North in his play and others almost never includes First Nations people among the explorers. Savard's La Dalle'des-morts is, however, unusual in that one of its most powerful characters, Élise, is a proud Métisse, integrated into the francophone colony and yet angrily opposed by the other female characters who seek desperately to keep their menfolk down on the farm. Élise is the exception to the rule in the Québec literary and social tradition that almost always sees aboriginal women erased or represented as sauvagesses, sexulaised to an extreme and bitterly feared by the women left at home by the voyageurs.(5) Anne Hébert is one of the few Québec authors to have given fictional representation to the cynical voyageur who returns a rich man from le pays d'en haut, thanks to the wealth of furs and the skilled, dedicated support of his wife "Délia la métisse." In Hébert's story, Augustin Berthelot marries the vapid daughter of a wealthy non-aboriginal burger, spurns and humiliates his former wife, yet manages to turn her undying commitment to him to his own egotistical advantage and so obtains continuing sexual services, a concession that Délia knows will mean eternal damnation for her.

Representations of First Nations peoples during periods of colonisation in le pays d'en haut are similarly partial and problematic, particularly when one realises that the North is the part of the continent to which many aboriginal peoples were relegated as waves of colonisation advanced. Claude-Henri Grignon's various dramatisations of colonisation settlements in the North when he adapted his novel Un homme et son péché are typical of the convention by which aboriginal peoples are almost never seen as players, except as poverty-stricken, vaguely threatening, and unsavory shadows, or minor, stereotypical characters in the parish. The conventions determining the roles to be played by aboriginal peoples have been from the beginning an integral element in the dramatic representation of the North in francophone North America.

The motif of the North remains still today a powerful discursive presence in social, cultural, economic, and political representations produced by Québec voices. The word and the construct continue to be heard frequently. In view of the apparently unflagging attachment to the North on public stages, it is surprising that so few works of literature, whether plays, novels, or poetry, have seriously exploited the theme since the time of the Quiet Revolution. Indeed, there have been strong pressures since the early decades of the twentieth century to avoid subjects that smacked in any way of regionalism. The last plays I can think of that presented the North with a straight face, that is without irony, bitterness, or banality, date from the 1950s and 1960s. These include Thériault's Le marcheur, Ferron's Les grands soleils, Roux's Les Bois-brûlés, Dufresne's Les traitants and Le cri de l'engoulevent, and Savard's La Dalle-des-morts. I do not include Languirand's Klondyke in this list, for its representation of the North places in it another paradigm, one that is much closer to anglophone North America.

Not even a gifted writer and committed traditionalist like Savard could make the North look attractive for women, except in the perspective of an ultra-conservative and masochistic ideology of duty and self-sacrifice. In the 1980s, Marie Laberge and Jeanne-Mance Delisle boldly dramatised the dark side of the North as a reality lived by women and children. They thereby broke taboos on subjects such as poverty, violence, abandonment, rape, and incest. Laberge specifically attacks the conservative ideology usually associated with the North through the discursive irony of the final scene of C'était avant la guerre à l'Anse-à-Gilles, during which the play's main character reads the concluding paragraphs of Maria Chapdelaine in order to display its dangerous hypocrisy.

I want to suggest here that images and legends of the North have retained their positive associative power in Québec in social practice and political rhetoric, as well as in oral culture, popular culture, and mass media. You can, for example, hear one of its most enduring and compelling representations in Gilles Vigneault's classically popular 1965 song Mon pays: "Mon pays, ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver…c'est la plaine…c'est la neige." These same images and legends have rarely served since the 1970s as positive thematic or identary ground for literary, dramatic, or expository texts. This can be seen in the boreal images on which Marie-Claire Blais constructs Sommeil d'hiver. In this play, such images establish a powerful equivalence between the North and death.

There is an interesting implicit tension between the positive associations of the North that play through the discourse of popular culture, and the negative associations with which the North is either evoked or remains absent in essays and works of serious literature of the past three decades.

Popular images and legends of the North have evolved somewhat through time to appeal to the tastes of today's largely urban public whose high tech existence has usually buffered them from the real experience of roughing it in the northern bush. Despite this evolution, though, the highly stylised and conventionalised qualities of representation and stories of the North that have survived have not been radically transformed. It would be interesting to do a discourse analysis of the many ways in which politicians, writers, and advertisers of today exploit the unexamined stereotypes of popularly received representations of the North in order to sell their products and their agendas. Legends of the North have been popularised through the media, advertising, and political propaganda in the twentieth century at the same time that live realities and serious writing have departed from them. A simulacrum of what is taken to be a geographical reality serves as a quite widely received comforting illusion in the harsh realities of today's modern life. Frédéic Lasserre has recently studied "le mythe du Nord" in Le Canada d'un mythe à l'autre. Territoire et images du territoire. In particular, he has shown the ways in which 'images' of the territory can and have been exploited throughout the history of this country for political purposes.

I conclude this overview of representations of the North in some Québec plays with a discussion of the passage into the realm of popular culture of a novel on the rural colonisation of the North at the end of the nineteenth century, Claude-Henri Grignon's Un homme et son péché. This passages serves to illustrate the astonishing transformation that can occur when myths and legends that resonate with a broad segment of a population are adopted and adapted by the mass media. Grignon published the definitive version of the novel in 1935. It is the story of a despicable miser, Séraphin, his suffering wife, Donalda, and a few members of a community of settlers who represent the harsh but glorious days of colonisation under the leadership of the famous curé Antoine Labelle. Grignon profoundly admired and attempted to further the messianic dimension of Father Labelle's mission: "[la] reconquête de la terre promise du Nord" (Un homme et son péché 13). Grignon's novel attracted deserved public and critical attention at the time, but would undoubtedly have long been left gathering dust on the shelves had Grignon not spent the rest of his life developing adaptations of it for the popular media. Between 1938 and 1965, fifteen-minute radio sketches ran three to five times weekly on CBF and CKVL. Between 1956 and 1970, and again in 1972, 1977, 1986, and periodically since then, more than sixty episodes for an incredibly popular television series entitled Les belles histories des pays d'en haut ran on CBFT. Grignon wrote the scripts for two feature length films made in 1949 and 1950; he wrote six sets of theatre scripts that toured Québec and Ontario in the 1940s and 1950s; he published a serialised version of the stories in a newspaper and he collaborated in the further distribution of his stories in cartoon form, in pamphlets, and other journalistic works. As a result of this massive effort of popularisation, the novel became a best seller, had several new editions and became known, to use the words of literary critic François Hertel, as "le roman des Laurentides" (Un homme et son péché 51).(6)

The media versions of Les belles histoires des pays d'en haut, as Un homme et son péché came to be called, allowed the voices and accents of northern landscapes to be heard, the wild beauty of these landscapes to be actually seen, the homes of the colons, their costume, cuisine, and work to be enjoyed. Over the years, the demands for the creation of such a number of versions and episodes required that many more characters be created, that Séraphin and Donalda play in other situations, that characters evolve and age, that fashions change. The Québec public seems to have easily been enticed into believing that its members truly knew this eventually large cast of characters as their neighbours. In the end, the harsh realism and conservative, moral rigor of the original novel were lost in the glossy TV representations, where the women are all beautiful, their hair impeccably coiffed, and vaulting violins celebrate the glories of a mythic land. The presentation of le pays d'en haut slowly but surely evolved into a popular sitcom with just the right dose of an exotic Québec North. Other televisions series have taken advantage of the public taste for a conventionalised and idealised representation of the North to develop it in yet other imaginative directions.

The North in Québec has had dramatic representation through its oral traditions, on the political stage, in the theatre, and by the media. Sometimes the North evoked the vast North-American continent; sometimes it was just a few miles out of Montréal. The legend has grown and changed through its various and diverse iterations. It is intimately associated with a sense of collective identity, and it has been used for powerful creative purposes, as well as for cynical political or commercial ones. As myth, legend, and colonising force, it remains dynamically alive.


1. Patrice de la Tour du Pin, chosen by Jean-Claude Germain as epigraph for Un pays dont la devise est je m'oublie (11). I shall use the concept of "legend" in this paper as Germain uses it here, that is to represent collectively shared narratives and images that serve as the weft of cultural fabrics.
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2. I am using the word voyageur here as a category that includes les découvreurs, les explorateurs, and les coureurs de bois. In this I am following the usage of Félix-Antoine Savard in La Dalle-des-morts (10-11).
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3. For an excellent discussion of this usurping of culture, identity, and territory see Michel Morin, L'usurpation de la sourveraineté autochtone.
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4. The term Bois-brûlé was usually used in French to designate persons of mixed blood, specifically those whose father was French and mother a First Nations person. Although the word Métis is French, it is not often used in francophone Canada with the same meaning it has come to have in English.
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5. For a full discussion of this representational distortion and the major psychological, social, and political consequences produced by it, see Anne André/An Antane Kapesh's Je suis une maudite sauvagesse/Eukuan Nin Matshimanitu Innu-Iskueu. Another interesting study of similar phenomenon in the Canadian West is Sarah Carter's Capturing Women. The Manipulation of Cultural Imagery in Canada's Prairie West.
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6. Renée Legris has provided complete information on radio and television adaptations of Un homme et son péché in her article in the Dictionnarie des oeuvres littéraires du Québec, II.
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