Lumière's Revenge (First of a series)

In 1992 a major statue of one of the founders of Canadian confederation was decapitated in a local park in Montreal. Although poorly maintained up until that time, rusty and neglected, the decapitation provoked a major outcry from Canadians across the country. To make matters worse, the head was stolen. A year passed and no effort was been made to replace the statue or repair it. Pigeons now roost on the remains and the statue has deteriorated further although a new head has been put on it. From time to time journalists have commented on the history of this loss but the symbolism of the gesture will never be forgotten nor did the symbolic death of the federal spirit in Quebec simply reappear when the statue was restored.

Sir John A. Macdonald

Sir John A. Macdonald

There is a sense in which this sculpture, both in its full and fragmented form, stands for historical realities which transcend its status as an object and are a clue to its transformation into an image. The aura of the statue (negative or positive) seems to bring history, the man himself and notions of the nation state into a synoptic grid from which nearly any set of meanings can be drawn. So complex is this interplay, so naturalized are its premises, that the task of “writing” about this history of the image of Sir John A. Macdonald will be richly endowed from the start.

It will move through a number of sometimes contradictory and sometimes similar levels of meaning, creating a sphere of relationships in constant need of interpretation and reinterpretation. The process will oscillate between the micro-historical and the macro-historical and even then the terms of that interaction will produce new and different relationships dependent on context and the subjective choices of the interpretator.

In other words the statue is both a powerful presence and an incidental component of what we do to it, the base of a hierarchy of interpretations upon which we build and the reason we tear at the statue’s foundations. Although headless, the statue retained all the qualities which allowed it to be identified with Sir John A. Macdonald. As a focal point of the debate about the future of Canada it mattered little whether the head was there or not. Yet as an image, the loss of the head brought the arguments of history into the forefront and suggests a rather paradoxical homology in which image and history are one, in which the visual and the tactile co-exist through the absence of the eyes of one of the founders of modern day Canada. 

The Frontiers of our Dreams are no Longer the Same (Part Three)

Aquin develops a stringent critique of the Patriote rebellion. He analyses the weakness of the leadership, the lack of battlefield strategy, the sense he has that the Patriotes were looking for defeat — a masochistic response to both the possibility and potential for victory.

“What pains me about this rebellion is precisely the passivity of the loser — the noble and desperate passivity of someone who will never be surprised to lose, but who will be all at sea should he happen to win. What pains me even more is that their carefully botched adventure perpetuates, from  generation to generation, the image of a conquered hero. Some countries remember an unknown soldier, but we have no choice: the soldier we commemorate is famous in defeat, a soldier whose incredible sadness goes on working within us like a force of inertia.”12



I have tried to share this sadness. But I cannot share it with the same intensity as people whose experience of history has been forged from generation to generation. I cannot expect myself, nor should others expect me, to internalize the history of Quebec as have the descendents of the original 30,000 French settlers. Mine is an abstract (though profoundly emotional) reading, born of a desire to know and understand. Similarly, there must be reciprocity, for if one national culture is to assert itself, with all of the contradictions which that entails, then it too must recognize other memories and other histories.

I am not one of those who believes that the national question can be obliterated. The struggle for identity can go in many different directions. At the root of this struggle, however, are the different strategies which we must all take to understanding, in a very personal sense, the role which we can play at the present time. Whether we are part of Québecois culture or not, we are still the recipients of the contradictions of memory, the idealizations and the errors of history and the ways in which history has been understood and acted upon.

One can talk, as many Québecois do, about a collective state of mind, which operates in most modern societies (zeitgeist ). This state of mind cannot be legislated. It can't be created exclusively through political activity. It cannot be constructed through the idealizations of the nationalist perspective. All of these elements, taken together, constitute a fragment of what it means to build up and recognize one's own subjectivity. But the space for subjective growth must not be narrowed to suit the exigencies of the moment. It is precisely this lack of historical perspective which worries me and which characterizes the almost evangelical quality of present-day nationalists. The debate which we have entered into in Quebec seems to be codified along very constricted lines. It is increasingly monological and deferential (e.g., witness the August 1991 Young Liberal Convention in which anybody who was not a nationalist was shouted down). It is a debate in which the future is only being discussed in the most abstract of ways. This is as much a result of an impoverished Canadian understanding of the present and the past, as of an insensitive nationalist movement which does not want to look at the complexity of what it is proposing.


At one point in the book which Andrée Yanacopoulo wrote about her husband's death she describes how she and Aquin had read a book by Umberto Eco entitled, L'œuvre ouverte . Yanacopoulo says, and this is my translation: “What was so important to me about the book was the idea that all works of art, every kind of creative activity, is a transformation of the world and this implies the ability to be critical and distant at the same time. Eco tried to show that the success of a written text is dependent on how open it is. No work should try and explain itself completely. It should leave the possibilities for interpretation open to the reader while remaining structured.”13

It is this notion of openess which has to be introduced into the nationalist discourse. For it is clear that Aquin remained as sensitive to his desires for the independence of Quebec, as he did to his knowledge that it could not be achieved without a heightened appreciation of the complexities of historical knowledge. Among the many lessons which must drawn from his death, one of the most important is that no private act is ever less important than the public context into which it is finally placed. The future of Quebec has to be wrested from the politicians who have taken center stage in defining the rhetoric of change and returned to the people who will have to live with the consequences.


This article was written in the 1990's. In September of 2012, the Parti Québecois again came to power and this time with a radical separatist agenda. The ideals of a separate country remain as vaguely articulated as they were in 1980 and 1995. The longing for identity and exclusivity is covered with the same rhetoric of the past as if the world has not changed. The simple equation of language and identity has in fact been reinforced. The Parti Québecois remains caught between a secular world and its roots as a party in the Québec of the 1960's.

13 Yanacopoulo and Sheppard, p. 247.

12  Aquin, The Art of Defeat, in Writing Quebec, p. 71.

Part One…

Part Two…