Movie says much about Quebec today


Friday, May 16, 2003
"Mission accomplished." That's how Prime Minister Jean Chrétien summarized his lifelong battle against sovereignists at a $500-a-plate Liberal fundraising dinner in Montreal this week. And it looks like he's right. At least for this moment in history.
Galvanized by the election victory of Jean Charest, Chrétien isn't the only prominent federalist who's celebrating these days. He was joined by Paul Desmarais, wealthy chairman of Power Corporation and member of the Privy Council. Surely the most influential force behind the federalist camp, he has nurtured the likes of Chrétien - whose daughter France is married to Desmarais's son André - Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, Daniel Johnson Jr., Paul Martin and so on.
On Tuesday, Desmarais was handed an award by the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars if Washington, D.C. As he congratulated Charest, Desmarais glowingly stated "I sincerely believe we stand at the dawn of a new era in Quebec." In fact, that era has been in gestation since the last referendum with Ottawa constantly on the offensive and the Parti Québécois government sitting idle.
Witness the much publicized Denys Arcand movie Les invasions barbares, the sequel to Le déclin de l'empire américain. Critics have lauded the film's no-holds-barred depiction of the spoiled baby-boom generation. But what is most striking is what it says about politics and how its intellectual, world-travelling baby-boomer characters relate to their identity as Quebecers in these post-referendum times. And what it says is that Quebec is no longer worth identifying with.
In a serious throwback to the past, characters identify themselves not as "Québécois" but as French-Canadians. One character even says he's from "Chicoutimi, Canada." Whoever heard of anyone saying: "Hey, I come from Chicoutimi, Canada"? But Arcand's characters aren't the only baby-boomers confused about their identity. Witness this astounding statement in the Globe and Mail on April 14 by Bernard Landry's companion, Chantal Renaud: "There is nothing frightening about sovereignty because I will always be a Canadian. The French are European, the Spanish are European, and we will always be Canadian." Pinch me, somebody.
But the most telling part of the movie is when all the characters assemble and reminisce about the 1960s and '70s. They make fun of how foolish they were when they believed in Marxism-Leninism, Trotskyism, Communism, Maoism and ... sovereignism. They talk about it as some distant, youthful folly on a par with Maoism. Chrétien, Desmarais and even Bouchard - who attended this week's award ceremony for Desmarais - would certainly get a kick out that scene.
On the other hand, Quebec is represented as something dark and negative. It's shown as a dysfunctional society worth fleeing. The adult children of the main characters embody that rejection. The main character's son lives in London, is "perfectly bilingual" and makes tons of money working in English. In one disturbing rant, he calls Quebec "une province de ti-counes" - a province of two-bit losers - as he throws piles of money at hospital administrators and corrupt union workers to get his dying father a private room on an entire private floor. His sister is happy, sailing far away somewhere. The only adult child who still lives here is a junkie hooked on heroin.
Although the very word "Quebec" isn't uttered much, it's referred to by the image of the fleur-de-lis appearing on fake government posters on health-care services that are depicted as Third World like. All the while, another baby boomer returns from Rome and tells his dying friend, still stuck here, of how wonderful his life is, living comfortably in Italy on generous subsidies from the federal government in a bogus Canadian institute that studies Canadians who live abroad. Ah, federal money.
So this film might be about the baby-boomer generation; that is, those among it who have reaped the financial rewards of the post-war boom. But it's specifically about those francophone, Quebec baby boomers who control most of the levers of political and economic power here. It's about those who used to dream of an independent Quebec but who now look upon it as either a lost battle, a danger to their material well-being, or simply as too much trouble to achieve. That's the impact the Western baby-boomer brand of individualism and narcissism has had on our current elites.
With some notable, rare exceptions, they're the new incarnation of Le confort et l'indifférence, the brilliant documentary that the same Denys Arcand shot after the 1980 referendum. They're the ones who don't mind going back to saying "la province de Québec."
But there is one hope. Even in this brave new Canadian era: there are still 40-45 per cent of Quebecers who support sovereignty. They just need a new generation to pay attention to it once again.

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