Documentary Film in Canadian Studies

In my teaching of Canadian Studies courses at the University of Edinburgh , I made use of documentary film from the National Film Board of Canada. The following notes were prepared to assist students in using this form of study material. They were compiled in the 1990s, and the recommended reading has not been updated. 

Background notes were prepared for three documentaries: "THE CHAMPIONS" (Parts 1 and 2 ), made in 1978, JOURNEY WITHOUT ARRIVAL (made in 1975) and FLORA: SCENES FROM A CONVENTION (made in 1976).

THE CHAMPIONS traced the rivalry between Pierre Trudeau and René Lévesque. JOURNEY WITHOUT ARRIVAL was an examination of the interpretation of Canada by Northrop Frye. FLORA: SCENES FROM A CONVENTION followed Flora MacDonald’'s bid to become leader of the Progressive Conservative Party in 1976. These films were subsequently made available through the website of the National Film Board of Canada.

 

THE INTELLIGENT USE OF DOCUMENTARY FILM

Merely because a film is a "documentary" does not mean that it neutral and objective. In some of the films featured, the point of view is made very obvious, but in other cases there are subtle influences in the presentation.

Watch out for bias. Are some personalities presented through unfavourable footage, such as awkward body language? Does the sound-track use music to create drama or imply ridicule?

Watch out also for omissions. Are counter-arguments glossed over or ignored to make a case?

Film-makers sometimes take a cavalier attitude to precise historical accuracy. Is the same clip used to illustrate events at different times? Do troops march off the Second World War against a First World War soundtrack?

Sometimes there are different levels of "message" in a documentary. One example is The Champions, in which the commentary portrays Trudeau and Lévesque as antagonists, but the material can leave the viewer with the impression that they were Siamese twins.

It is rare for film to be taken by accident. Why was the camera there? Was the episode staged? Has the camera shown us everything, or has it left out inconvenient people in the wings?

Remember that videos on Canadian politics are chiefly made by Canadians for other Canadians. There may be nuances and shared assumptions in the film that outsiders do not detect. There will be certainly be puzzling allusions to events and people.

When you watch a video, have a notebook with you and jot down any reference that is not immediately explained. Ask the course tutors if they can throw any light on such items. Keep an eye on the counter and note the approximate time of any part of the film that requires more explanation. This will enable you to play it back for closer study.

VIEWING "THE CHAMPIONS"

Parts 1 and 2 of The Champions were made in 1978, and each runs for 58 minutes. Part 3, made in 1982, runs for 88 minutes, but the first hour, dealing with the 1980 referendum, is the most important.

Canada has a world reputation for documentary film, and The Champions ranks among the finest ever made. The first two parts were made in 1978, and inimitably narrated by Donald Brittain. The Champions contrasts the lives and careers of Pierre Trudeau and René Lévesque. Trudeau is portrayed as a member of the Montreal haute bourgeoisie; Lévesque as the poor boy from the rural Gaspé (look out for the short of the Orange Lodge in his home town of New Carlisle). The internationally minded Trudeau settled in Quebec and fought the narrow and oppressive right-wing government of Union Nationale premier Maurice Duplessis. Lévesque was also internationally minded, but until the late 1950s directed his attention to the wider world, as a radio commentator and later television journalist. (The film does not stress the fact that Trudeau's mother was an anglophone.)

In 1960, Lévesque switched his sphere of activity to provincial politics, running for office as part of Jean Lesage's Liberal "team of thunder", which scraped into office and initiated the "Quiet Revolution". In 1962, Lévesque persuaded Premier Lesage to call another election to seek voters' approval of the plan to nationalise the Shawinigan Water and Power Company as part of Hydro-Québec.

The provincially owned electric power company became a powerful symbol of a newly unleashed radical nationalism which alarmed Trudeau and his friends, the trades union leader, Jean Marchand, and the intellectual, Gérard Pelletier, who had been a focus for opposition to Duplessis through their magazine, Cité Libre. Lévesque was opposed to the old right-wing nationalism of Duplessis, which had subjected the people of Quebec to the control of big business and the Catholic Church, but he supported left-wing nationalist policies, which sought to put the people of Quebec in control of their lives. Trudeau distrusted all forms of nationalism. Nationalist slogans might sound attractive at the outset, but he feared that they led to blinkered intolerance towards all outsiders. (Paradoxically, Trudeau did not see his Canadian nationalism in the same light.)

In 1965, a struggling federal Liberal government sought to persuade the popular Marchand to come to Ottawa and take over leadership of the "Quebec wing" of the national party. Marchand would only accept if Pelletier and Trudeau were taken aboard too -- a hard demand for the Pearson government to swallow, since both had been stern critics of its defence policy. Despite the reservations of the party's old guard, "the three wise men/ les trois colombes" went to Ottawa.

Part 1 of The Champions ends in 1967, Canada's Centennial year, with Canada and Quebec at the crossroads. Canadians celebrated at the Montreal Expo. Perhaps for the first time in their history, being Canadian ceased to be a matter of solemn duty -- to the Empire, to the responsibility to create a new northern nation on the American continent, to traditional ties of family and respectability -- and might instead be joyous and fun. Yet Quebec faced the challenge in a different way. In 1966, the Lesage Liberal government had been defeated at the polls. To everybody's surprise, the discredited Union Nationale returned for another (as it proved, its last) term of office, under Daniel Johnson. Johnson attempted to hitch the new wave of radical self-assertion to the conservative nationalism of the party of Duplessis. In opposition, tensions within the provincial Liberals could no longer be papered over by the fruits of office. Lévesque moved towards separatism; his friend Eric Kierans fought him and held the party faithful to federalism. In the key battle, an ambiguous role was played by the youngest ex-minister from the Lesage cabinet, the economist Robert Bourassa.

Part 2 of The Champions takes the saga into the key year of 1968. Lévesque had left the Quebec Liberals a year earlier to form first the Mouvement Souverainté-Association and then, in 1968, the Parti Québécois. That same year, Pierre Trudeau unexpectedly succeeded Pearson as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, and was confirmed in office as prime minister by a landslide election victory. A confrontation with militant separatists at Montreal's St.-Jean-Baptiste Day parade almost certainly helped him to win at the polls.

Trudeau was an unknown quantity when he became prime minister, and many regarded him as a 'sixties, "flower-power" figure. His tough response to the October 1970 terrorist crisis in Quebec seemed to show a different Trudeau, although The Champions finds the roots of his response deep in his life history, portraying him as somebody to whom all nationalists were a potential threat to law and order. However, Trudeau had little practical experience of government, and the Canadian public soon tired of his aloofness. Meanwhile Lévesque built up his party, blocking off extremists like Pierre Bourgault, and presenting the PQ as an alternative to the stumbling Quebec Liberal government. Opinion polling had told the Quebec Liberals that voters wanted a young, technocratic leader in the John F. Kennedy mould. They chose 36 year-old Robert Bourassa as their provincial leader in 1970, in place of the more experienced Claude Wagner and Pierre Laporte. In this case, "image politics" did not work: Bourassa became extremely unpopular, and on November 15 1976, Lévesque and the "Péquistes" were swept into office. The scenes at their election night rally recall one of the most stunning moments in Canada's history: the excited woman at the microphone proclaiming that the PQ had now won a "gouvernement majoritaire", the CBC commentator unable to speak for the noise and emotion, the singing of the campaign song "Demain Nous Appartient", and the tiny figure of Lévesque, tearful but still smoking, hauled to the platform by his supporters.

The Champions provides revealing portraits of many important figures in modern Canadian politics -- not just Trudeau and Levesque, but also those who are interviewed: Jean Marchand, the inspiring trades union leader, Gérard Pelletier, the intellectual, Thérèse Casgrain, looking every inch a Victorian matron but in reality leader of the Quebec socialists, Robert Cliche, also a socialist but later a judge who gave Brian Mulroney one of his first big public assignments and Maurice Lamontagne, the smooth machine politician.

Yet while Brittain's gravelly voice, the excited musical accompaniment and the clever mix of film clips combine to create a persuasive product, there are ambiguities in The Champions. First, it dramatises the conflict between Quebec nationalism and Canadian federalism in personal, almost gladiatorial terms. The opening sequence has a symbolism to Canadians which is easily missed by outsiders: the two men are seen as guests of honour at the Grey Cup final. Football [i.e. Canadian football, which is close to American gridiron] is not a popular game among the Québécois: the urbane, outward-looking Trudeau is at home with the play, while Lévesque is ill at ease and not sure when to applaud. The implication is that Lévesque, the separatist, is already not part of Canada, "Canada" being defined here as a community of people who enjoy watching Canadian football. Yet elsewhere in the film, young Quebecers are shown playing the quintessential Canadian game, hockey, while in a clip from a television show Lévesque himself talks about Canadians as civilized people who will not resist the secession of his province, in terms that sound very much like Canadian patriotism. Most of all, there seems to be an ambiguity in The Champions between Brittain's narrative, which portrays the two men as antagonists, and the material itself, which somehow implies that each was necessary to the other. Their political philosophies both began in opposition to Duplessis, and certainly once he became prime minister of Canada, Trudeau seemed almost to need nationalism in Quebec: why else would English-speaking Canadians go on voting for him? Nor is it necessarily true that the two represent totally opposed poles of the Quebec identity. An observer commented that Trudeau represents what Quebecers would like to be -- urbane, outward-looking, the product of Montreal's bourgeois Outremont and its elite Brébeuf College; Lévesque embodies Quebecers as they actually are -- flawed, embattled, courageous, a man of the ordinary people.

Part 3 of The Champions was made four years later. Part 2 ended inconclusively, but the story of the Trudeau-Lévesque battle now comes to a final showdown. Yet the 1980 referendum was more than a simple two-person shoot-out. This is a film about identity, as the people of Quebec were forced to choose which country they belonged to, and it is also a study of decisions -- the decision of the voters on 20 May 1980, but also a series of decisions by individuals and small groups of politicians which determined the timing and context for the campaign.

René Lévesque's Parti Québécois [PQ] had been elected as the government of Quebec in November 1976. The following year, they carried the important Bill 101, which underpinned the role of French as the working language of the province. PQ strategy was to let the people of Quebec get used to having a separatist government, to remove the fear of the unknown and so make voters ready to plump for independence when the promised referendum came. Perhaps this was a mistake: instead, voters got used to having the PQ as their provincial government, and thought them well qualified to stand up for Quebec interests against Ottawa. In any case, if the province could take such sweeping measures as provided in Bill 101 to defend French inside Canada, why take the risky path of independence?

One reason for delay was that the government in Ottawa was headed by Pierre Trudeau, living proof that a French-speaking Canadian could get to the top in Canada. However, Trudeau's government had again become unpopular, and in May 1979, Canadians elected a minority Progressive Conservative [PC] government under westerner Joe Clark. The PCs won 136 seats out of 282: they could govern only with the support of 6 Créditistes from Quebec (or the forbearance of the opposition Liberals and New Democrats [NDP]). Widely perceived as a weak leader, Clark could only overcome his image problem by acting tough. In December 1979, his government was defeated in its attempt to raise taxes on gasoline. The Créditistes, who were close to the PQ, appealed to one of Lévesque's advisors on policy, Daniel Latouche, for guidance on the vote: Latouche failed to realise that there would be a better chance of a "Yes/Oui" vote in the referendum if separatists could campaign against a Canada led by a prime minister from Alberta. The election of February 1980 brought Trudeau back to office.

Confident of facing the anglophone Clark, who had conspicuously failed to gain support in Quebec, the PQ government had at last set in motion the machinery for a referendum. The people of Quebec would decide the question -- but who would decide what question they would be asked? The "question" which emerged was a classic example of what happens when decisions are made by a committee. The English version was over 100 words in length. Broadly, Quebec voters were asked to give their government permission to begin negotiations with Ottawa (although there was no guarantee that Ottawa would talk) for a package which would include the independence of Quebec but an economic association with what would be left of Canada (which there was no guarantee that the rest of Canada would accept), with a further referendum to be held to approve the outcome.

The referendum campaign swept these subtleties aside. Under the rules adopted, all campaigning had to be undertaken under the control of a "Oui" or "Non" umbrella committee. The PQ government launched a slick and well-organised campaign. The "Non" side was headed by the leader of the Quebec Liberals, Claude Ryan, an old-fashioned figure who distrusted opinion polls. Gradually the real leadership of the "No" campaign was seized by the federal Liberals from Ottawa, especially Jean Chrétien, whose policy advisor Edward Goldenberg appears in the film. Trudeau promised a new Canadian constitution: a "No" vote could now be seen as a positive move for change. Other issues of identity complicated the Quebec/Canada question. Polls usually showed that women were less favourable to independence than men.. A PQ minister, Lise Payette, attacked Ryan for treating women as "Yvettes", the name of the good little girl in school texts, and tactlessly added that Mme. Ryan was an Yvette. The Non campaign was able to mobilise the ensuing protest among women. A parallel blunder by Lévesque raised the even more basic issue: who or what was a Quebecer? Trudeau, he reminded a heckler, was Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and he had "decided to follow the Anglo-Saxon part of his heritage." In a devastating reply, Trudeau recited the names of PQ ministers such as Pierre-Marc Johnson, Louis O'Neill, Robert Burns, denounced Lévesque as a racist, and even hinted that the Trudeau ancestry included native Indian blood. Yet opinion polls suggest that these exciting clashes only marginally influenced the result.

A record 84% turned out to vote. Some of the absentees had abstained on purpose: abstention was the official policy of some First Nations organisations (although not of the Inuit) and of some English-speaking radical intellectuals. 59.6% voted "Non"; 40.5% "Oui". Given that non-francophones voted overwhelmingly to remain in Canada, it was clear that French-speaking Quebecers were almost evenly divided.

Reading: G.Radwanski, Trudeau is the "official" biography. Less flattering portrayals are by R.Gwyn, The Northern Magus and W. Stewart, Shrug. For Lévesque, see P. Desbarats, René: A Canadian in Search of a Country.

For the history of their times, see some of the following: R.D. Francis, R.Jones and D.B. Smith, Destinies: Canadian History Since Confederation, ch. 17; R. Bothwell, I.Drummond and J.English, Power, Politics and Provincialism: Canada Since 1945; J.L. Finlay and D. N. Sprague, Structure of Canadian History (2nd ed.); J.L Granatstein, et al., Twentieth Century Canada (2nd ed.), esp. ch. 11; A.Finkel, Conrad and Strong-Boag, History of the Canadian Peoples, vol. 2, pp. 520-28.

For the 1980 referendum campaign, S.Clarkson and C. McCall, Trudeau and Our Times, vol. 1; J. Fitzmaurice, Quebec and Canada: Past, Present and Future.

Footnote. A second referendum was held in 1995. This time there was no offer of a follow-up vote. If Quebecers said "Yes", the province would become independent within twelve months. The turn-out was well over 90 percent, and the Yes vote rose to 49.9 percent. In acknowledging defeat, the Premier, Jacques Parizeau, blamed "l'argent et le vote ethnique". He resigned the next day.

JOURNEY WITHOUT ARRIVAL (1975)

Journey Without Arrival features the interpretation of Canada by the University of Toronto intellectual, Northrop Frye, and draws upon ideas expressed a decade earlier in the Literary History of Canada. Frye was influenced by the communications theorist Harold Adams Innis, who also inspired Marshall McLuhan ("the medium is the message") and the historian Donald Creighton. He was born in 1912 and spent his early years in Sherbrooke, Quebec, and Moncton, New Brunswick. Both are unusual towns by Canadian standards, since they contain mixed English- and French-speaking populations. This early influence of living alongside French-Canadians does not seem to have left much of a mark. Frye graduated from Victoria College at the University of Toronto in 1933. He studied for the ministry of the United Church of Canada and also spent two years at Oxford (not mentioned in the film), but otherwise his career was spent as a Professor of Literature in Toronto. He is world-renowned for his interpretation of William Blake (a study which led him deep into myth and imagery). He was generally pessimistic about Canadian literature, and one starting point for his speculations on national identity was a desire to explain why Canada had not produced a writer of the stature of Shakespeare. A quarter century after Journey Without Arrival, this question may seem to have been rendered irrelevant by the movement of time: Canadian writers, both in English and French, are now extremely prominent around the world, and Frye himself mentions the rise of Margaret Atwood et al. towards the end of the film.

Journey Without Arrival begins with a train journey: Frye re-enacting his student days, when he took the overnight train from Moncton to Lévis, opposite Quebec City, and onward to Toronto. Thus he begins with a statement of the "Laurentian thesis" of Innis and Creighton, that the east-west transcontinental axis of Canada represents not a defiance of North American geography but rather a natural extension of the St Lawrence waterway system across the continent thanks to the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. In an implicit response to those who might regard this as illogical and far-fetched, Frye insists that only those who have experienced the journey can grasp its fundamental truth.

Throughout Journey Without Arrival, Frye recites cutting one-liners, apparent put-downs of Canada and Canadians, such as the opening joke that the Maple Leaf flag (adopted in 1965) made Canada the only major country in the world to adopt a vegetable form of national symbol. Many of these one-liners involve explicit comparisons with the United States. Do they reflect Canadian national insecurity and uncertainty about identity -- or are they in reality ironic ripostes to the stridency of American nationalism? Just as Americans define their identity by asserting that everything American is biggest and best, do Canadians take a perverse pride in claiming the reverse?

Early in Journey Without Arrival, Frye asserts that Canadians (by implication, English-speaking Canadians) are different from Americans. Note that the film underlines the irony of the point by showing students at his own college playing baseball. Frye then takes us to the map of Canada, reminding us that in order to depict a spherical planet on a flat page, Mercator's projection distorts the Canadian North, making it into a looming ghost that hovers above the populated part of the country (and, by implication, overshadows any sense of Canadian identity).

The map enables Frye to redefine the "famous question of Canadian identity". It should not be asked in the form of "Who am I?" but rather "where is here?". The history of Canada, he points out, began in the 17th century, the age of mathematics. Thus the country was "launched into history by men confident of the power of the mathematical mind". He takes us to the small town of Orillia in Ontario (inspiration of Stephen Leacock's Sunshine Sketches) where a monument symbolically links the explorer Samuel de Champlain, who travelled widely in the St Lawrence system in the early 17th century, with traders and missionaries as pioneers of Canada.

"We are closer to them than we may think," Frye claims. The Jesuit missionaries and the fur traders of the Hudson's Bay Company both operated like modern multinational corporations. In Canada, they were at the end of a chain of command, reporting to a head office that was always somewhere else: Rome, Paris, London -- and, later, Washington. Canadians have always respected authority and always accepted that authority was located somewhere outwith Canada. The dignity of individuals was ultimately related to their place in an organisation that had its headquarters somewhere else.

This explained not simply the incomprehension with which the first Europeans treated First Nations peoples (in Frye's generation, the term "Indians" was still standard). The age of mathematics was the Age of Reason, and in the name of reason, white people were entitled to subjugate Natives. "We have never lost the sense of the absolute cultural rightness of what we came to do." In the 17th century, European countries believed in their right to exploit colonies for their own benefit, especially for precious metals. (Canada, he implies, was something of a disappointment here, one of the many reasons why Canadians have become accustomed to apologising for their existence). From earliest times, Canadians came to think of themselves as hewers of wood and drawers of water for others. (Frye slips naturally into the Biblical image, but "wood" and "water" carry powerful subconscious imagery for Canadians.) As with First Nations, animals were "merely counters" in a mercantile system. Just as the Jesuits submitted accounts of souls to Head Office in Rome so the Hudson's Bay Company recorded the fur trade in ledgers sent to London (its headquarters was in Fenchurch Street). The diversity of Canadian wildlife was subjugated into an accounting device by which all pelts were "Made Beaver", translated into a common scale of value based on the skin of the beaver.

At this point, Frye engages in some word juggling. The essence of Canada, he claims, is the balance sheet. The Canadian hero is the accountant. (It is hardly necessary to draw the contrast with the American frontiersman or entrepreneur.) Americans make money; Canadians count it. The Canadian emphasis is not upon brilliance and creativity but upon striking a  balance. From this idea of the balance sheet as a national symbol, Frye leaps to the Canadian system of government, also based on balances and moderation. This is clever word play, but it cleverly glosses over the historical link between the phrase "checks and balances" and the Constitution of the United States.

Back to mathematics, and Champlain. Frye focuses upon Champlain's astrolabe as a symbol of the age of mathematics. He omits to tell us that we associate the astrolabe with Champlain because the great explorer dropped it while travelling in the Ottawa valley in 1613; it turned up when a swamp was drained in 1867. To remind us of this tale would throw some doubt upon his equation of mathematics with control, his claim that devices such as the astrolabe enabled Europeans to impose their own dominance upon the landscape. "the conquest of nature by an intelligence that does not love it".

Champlain, he reminds us, was a voyageur, a French term for an early fur-trader that bites deep into the psyche of all Canadians (it is, for instance, the name of a major bus company). To Frye, it symbolises "the eternal seeker in Canadians". The first Europeans came to Canada because they were searching for a route to Cathay (China): Canada simply got in the way. (Rapids above Montreal were sardonically called "Lachine" [=China] by the early explorers.) Canadians were still apologising for not being Cathay. Was it just a joke that "Canada" derives from a Portuguese phrase meaning "nothing here"? Hence Canadians have failed to see that the real ending of the journey was ironic, "because it's here", i.e. in Canada, -- but Frye himself has asked us "where is here?"

Frye then takes us to the banks of the Niagara River, where a few yards of water divide Canada from the United States. He draws a moral from the site of the battle of Queenston Heights, beneath the Brock Monument (which recalls the heroic if notably stupid death of a British general leading a charge against American invaders). The War of 1812 was an attempt by the United States to drive the British empire from the American continent. Hence it was "Canada's war of independence" -- again, the minor-key counterpart of a unifying national symbol from south of the border. Yet Frye insists that the War did not create but merely confirmed Canadian distinctness.

Americans, he argues, show much more clarity in their sense of history. They owe this to the blunt and uncompromising nature of the eighteenth-century ideas, such as Liberty, that inspired their nationhood. Canadian sense of history is much more vague, partly because the country "missed out on the Enlightenment". In effect, there was no eighteenth century in Canada at all: the country "simply prolonged" the wars of the colonial seventeenth century right through to the nineteenth.

Coupled with this fuzzy sense of history is an equally mysterious sense of geography. When Frye states that the first settlers in what became the United States hit the east coast and then advanced inland, he implies that they were in control of the process and of the environment which they penetrated. However, in Canada, there is no such obvious point of arrival. Ships can sail right up the St Lawrence, and the route leads onward through the Great Lakes so that travellers may find themselves in the very heart of the continent without ever arriving anywhere definite at all. (Frye does not spell out all the implications of this imagery, but it is not difficult to see how it chimes with interpretations of a "feminine" Canada in contrast the "masculinity" of the United States.)

This brings Frye back to the Laurentian interpretation of Canadian history. He insists that it is not true to regard the east-west, transcontinental axis of Canada as illogical, especially when we remember that the people who built the railway saw themselves as serving a head office that was somewhere else. For Sir John A. Macdonald, the transcontinental railway did not simply link together two ends of Canada, but the British empire as a whole. This was the interpretation that Canadians proclaimed in a famous postage stamp of 1898 (communications again), that used the Mercator projection to show Canada as the keystone and largest component of those parts of the globe coloured red.

For Frye, one of the great challenges that the 19th century posed for Canadians lay in its romanticisation of "Nature". This was a problem since in Canada, nature seemed always to be out to kill people. (He even indulges in a pun, pronouncing the Latin phrase "terra incognita" [unknown land] to suggest "terror incognita".) The Canadian answer was the Geological Survey, the imposition of mathematical order upon landscape. He claims that this enlargement of the Canadian sense of space was accompanied by a decreased respect for time, pointing out that international time zones were invented by a Canadian (Sandford Fleming from Kirkcaldy). Paradoxically, geology demonstrates that the Canadian landmass was "older than all spirit". Frye demonstrates the harshness of the Canadian environment by reference to the Arctic expedition led by Sir John Franklin, which simply vanished in 1847. All this explains the "curious streak of anxiety that distinguishes us from other North Americans". Not for the first time, Frye seems almost proud of this proclamation that Canadians are smaller-than-life people.

Early Canadian painters tried to tame the landscape by making it look "European". Wilderness was converted to parkland, and Paul Kane converted brutal prairie hunting scenes into colourful pageants. Canadians, Frye argues, took a long time to get a grip upon their own space. Unable to comprehend and subdue the environment, they retreated into what he calls the "garrison mentality", in which groups within the country walled themselves off, each suspicious of the other, each drawing its "sense of worth" from allegiances external to Canada. This is about as close as Frye comes to attempting to accommodate French Canada into his overall picture. There is a hint that the garrisons within garrisons are somehow reflected in Canada's federal system. Certainly, he tells us, Canadians have always found it easy to blame some externalised "Them" -- Ottawa, the Americans -- rather than accept responsibility for their own destiny.

This leads to a discussion of Canadian art in the 20th century. Emily Carr, Tom Thomson and Thomson's associates in the Group of Seven broke new ground in taking a cold, cautious attitude to landscape. [The Centre has several videos on Canadian painting, which do not form part of the course but are recommended viewing for those interested in Canadian art.] One feature of 20th century Canadian landscape paintings is the almost total absence of people, or even of traces of habitation. Thomson (who was drowned in a canoeing accident) was a modern voyageur. In his paintings, there are "no arrivals at any human place". The qualification is significant.

Frye then introduces us to the poet E.J. Pratt (not to be confused with the bard of Private Eye) whom he regarded as landmark figure in Canadian Literature. In effect, he is telling us that Pratt did for writing about Canada what Thomson, Carr and the Group of Seven did for painting, by producing a matter-of-fact evocation of a terrifying environment, this time in verse. Pratt was a Newfoundlander, and the island did not become part of Canada until 1949. Accompanied by David Blackwood's bleak, sad prints of Newfoundland life, Pratt recites the terrifying power of the sea and imagines the awesome silence of the struggles of life and death underwater.

Later, Pratt united the 17th and 19th centuries with a narrative poem about the martyrdom of the Jesuit Jean de Brébeuf (the young Trudeau attended the smart Montreal college named in his honour). Then, in his Towards the Last Spike, Pratt told the story of the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, culminating in the ceremony in November 1885 when the lines from east and west were joined together at Craigellachie in the mountains of British Columbia. There are no individual heroes in the building of the railway (as we might expect in a similar epic from the United States). The real heroes are the groups, especially the anonymous construction workers, in which individuals subordinated their identity. This, too, Frye is telling us, is quintessentially Canadian. (Remember that the country's defining heroes tend to be collective: the voyageurs, the Mounties, the Blue Jays....) Frye stresses that Pratt portrays the Last Spike as something anti-climactic. Once again, there is no arrival, we are merely here, with all the ambiguity that here implies.

In some respects, Frye's admiration for Pratt is hard to understand. Pratt's poetic style was a million miles from the psychedelic imagery of William Blake. It would be cruel to call him the poetic equivalent of a chartered accountant, but Frye at least might have confronted the conflict between the concepts of narration and control that he had postulated earlier.

However, by 1975, Canada was no longer "a country without a silhouette". Writers such as Atwood were mapping the Canadian imagination, just as the aeroplane had completed the mapping, and hence the control, of landscape. In the sequence on the paintings of Thomson, we have already been prepared for the suggestion that stark outline paintings of trees and rocks was a step towards abstract art. Now geological maps are specifically compared with Riopelle to claim that in Canada, "behind abstract art there is always some kind of landscape".

The other great achievement of the aeroplane was to destroy the notion of Canada as a purely two-dimensional country, a line of points from east to west on a flat map. Polar air routes offered a new answer to the conundrum "where is here?", revealing that Canada was neither an obstacle on the route to Cathay nor a country on the sidelines of Mercator's map, but rather a country at the heart of a world dominated by the United States, Russia, Europe and Japan. Oddly enough, Frye seems to think that this reinforces Canada's garrison mentality, and he passes over the opportunity to discuss the multiple ambiguities by which Canadians describe their country as a "middle power" (medium-sized, middle-of-the-road, crossroads of the planet). Nor does he seem entirely sure about television, despite his professed enthusiasm for the medium. It brings Canadians together and helps them to occupy their own space on the globe -- but at the cost of encouraging them to watch more and more American programmes.

A Canadian, Frye insists, is "an American who avoided revolution". That defensive and negative quality, of course, is why Canada was always a garrison of garrisons. Yet here Frye seems to switch track. Even though he believes that the 20th century has subdued Canadian space, nobody can occupy all of it. Hence identity must be localised. There follows a haunting and witty recitation of Canadian place-names, from Newfoundland to the Pacific, with detours out of sequence to the Arctic and into Ontario. Only one name is singled out for comment: Qu'Appelle in Saskatchewan, an early voyageur name meaning, "what do you call it?" -- another journey without arrival. A Canadian, Frye announces, is anyone who identifies with any of these places.

One year after the film was made, a separatist government was elected in Quebec which chose to identify with one particular set of places to the exclusion of Canada. This was a development that conflicted with Frye's mind-set, because the Laurentian thesis told him that an east-west Canada ought to exist. He made his first visit to Vancouver late in life, a side-trip from the American city of Seattle. "How do you know you are in Canada?", he was asked. He did not know how he knew, but he was certain that Vancouver was Canada. This was a point of view that would find it hard to enter into dialogue with separatists who were equally certain that Quebec was not Canada.

Frye concluded in 1975 that Canadians had reached the boundaries of their space and should now begin the inward journey of their spirit. It is worth waiting for the end of the film credits to savour the final ironic comment on its title, which throws its own doubts upon the feasibility of achieving Frye's ambitions. Other and larger questions surely arise. Is national identity merely about the occupation of some stretch of territory, however large? Is it feasible to construct an identity around the theme that the main thing people share is their suspicions of rival garrisons-within-the-garrison? Even if Frye's Canadian identity exists, what are the implications for policy? Does a distinct Canadian identity impose a duty upon governments to defend Canadian culture -- or does the fact it requires to be defended prove that it does not or cannot exist?

Most of all, Canada has moved on since 1975. To all intents and purposes, there is no transcontinental railway any more. Since 1988, free trade has emphasised Canada's north-south links or -- more accurately -- the north-south links of the different regions of Canada. How far can national identity be sustained by a shared sense of culture and history -- especially in a country where so many people have recent roots overseas, and even more so in a country in which about half the members of one official language community have voted to form a separate national state?


FLORA: SCENES FROM A CONVENTION
 
This NFB documentary was made at the 1976 Progressive Conservative leadership convention. The British Tories had chosen a woman leader the year before, and the NFB decided to track the 49-year-old Flora MacDonald in her campaign to become the first woman to lead a Canadian political party.

Leadership conventions are a Canadian adaptation of an American institution, complete with the razzmatazz (but with more bagpipes). On the face of it, the idea of delegates from the party rank-and-file choosing a leader sounds democratic. In reality, the system is open to manipulation. The 1983 PC Convention (in which Brian Mulroney defeated Joe Clark) was a more notable example of this problem, but in 1976 the party had to live with its habitual weakness in Quebec. As a result, Quebec delegates had a large share in the result even though there was no guarantee that they would deliver any seats to the party at the next election.

Thirteen candidates broadly represented the two wings of the party, the Red Tories and the right-wing. Questions about Canadian politics arise from a. the fact that two of the candidates were not only former Liberals but ex-cabinet-ministers as well (Paul Hellyer from federal politics, Robert Wagner from Quebec) and b. both were drawn to the right wing of the PC party.  Flora's claim to be "a Tory from conviction not convenience" was well aimed.  Her posters coupled her with Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, also a Tory from Kingston.  Soon afterwards, one of the Tory leadership candidates, Jack Horner, defected to the Liberals.

In such a large field, the serious contenders were jockeying for a leading place on the first ballot, after which it was likely that candidates would drop out, hoping to throw their support to allies from their wing of the party. Thus convention politics focus much more on stopping the people you don't want than upon backing those you do.  The left-right split was complicated by a fight inside Quebec for delegates between Mulroney and Wagner. This was made even more unpleasant by the fact that Mulroney (and Flora' s campaign "bagman", Eddie Goodman) had helped put together a "trust fund" (a blind trust to provide the equivalent of a pension) to help persuade Wagner to return to active politics in 1972 after serving as a law-and-order judge.  Ultimately, the Mulroney forces swung behind Clark to block Wagner.  (Seven years later,  Mulroney challenged Clark and defeated him.  Clark returned to lead the PC party in 1998 after federal leader Jean Charest switched to become leader of the provincial Liberal party in Quebec. Confused? If so, you are getting there…).

To fund her "populist" campaign, Flora asked people across Canada to send a dollar each. She raised $40,000 this way, clear indication of her popularity. But promises of support did not translate into votes. In the event, Flora ran 6th on the first ballot, and on the 3rd ballot backed the 36-year-old little known Alberta MP, Joe Clark. "They walked into the booths wearing our buttons and voted for someone else," said Eddie Goodman."The country was ready for a woman but the party wasn't."

The film shows many personalities at close quarters. These include Joe Clark, the eventual winner, accompanied by his wife, Maureen McTeer. (Traditionalists were suspicious of Ms McTeer's refusal to use her husband's surname.)  Chants of "Go, Joe, Go!" were later derisively adopted by his critics. Two former party leaders also appear: John Diefenbaker (1956-67), who inspired but divided the Tories (notably by firing Flora from her job at the party headquarters), and the intellectual and gentlemanly Robert Stanfield (1967-76).

Other powerful party figures include Ontario Premier Bill Davis and Toronto's "tiny perfect mayor" David Crombie.  New Brunswick premier Richard Hatfield is seen at Flora's side. Associated with a group of Tory activists known as the "Maritime Mafia", Hatfield later became a controversial and tragic figure, nicknamed "Disco Dick". His party was wiped out in the 1987 New Brunswick election, losing all 57 seats to the Liberals.  Also glimpsed is an embarrassed Roy McMurtry (looking oddly like Harold Steptoe), rebuked by Eddie Goodman for supporting a rival candidate in defiance of orders from Premier Davis that the Ontario cabinet should remain neutral in the contest. In 1981, as Attorney-General of Ontario, McMurtry helped strike the crucial deal over the amending formula that ensured the patriation of the Constitution.

 

 
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