I always love underrated, unspoiled places. There are certain uncelebrated places I like to visit that I hesitate to recommend to others, for fear that they will be destroyed by their own success. Most are already aware of the cosmopolitan pleasures to be found in Quebec City and Montreal. But almost every other place I have visited in Quebec falls into the category of "underrated places." I grew up learning about France and the French language, but, despite my relative proximity, knew virtually nothing about Quebec. I have not had the pleasure of a long enough stay in Quebec to speak with any authority, but after three short visits and a lot of reading, viewing and listening, I find Quebec inviting and intriguing.
The artistic output of Quebec frequently contains regional elements. Another commonality is that Quebeckers often seem to be rebelling against something. In the 1960's it was the pervasive authority of the Catholic church, the economic domination of the anglophone Canadians, and the frigid winters. The frigid winters are still there, but the first two have been largely vanquished. This economic struggle can be seen in films like Mon Oncle Antoine, in novels like Roy's Bonheur d'occasion (The Tin Flute) and in poems like Lalonde's Speak White. Mon Oncle Antoine shows the hardships endured by French speakers in the agrarian society that preceeded the Quiet Revolution in the 60's. Lalonde equates the travails of the economically-disadvantaged francophone majority in Quebec with a civil rights struggle in this bilingual poem, which has been made into a video with an accompanying photo-montage to reinforce the connection.
Singers like Vignault and Gauthier celebrate the French language and their Quebecois identity. In Le Plus Beau Voyage, Gauthier describes that identity and declares Je suis Quebec mort ou vivant (I am Quebec dead or alive). He seems to imply that he would give his life to the cause if necessary. This attachment to the French language is reflected in the politics of the province during the 1970's and 80's when landmark language laws were being enacted in Canada.
The diminished role of the church is shown in a scene of Arcand's 2003 Barbarian Invasions. A church official tries (without success) to interest an art and antiques dealer in dozens of pieces of religious statuary that have been in storage for years, symbolizing the secularization of post-revolution Quebec.
The 1995 referendum for a sovereign state failed. It looks like De Gaulle's envisioned "Quebec libre" will not come to pass. In the ten intervening years, the province seems to have grown more bilingual and less divided. But younger artists have not forgotten the activism of their parents' generation and do not take their sacrifices for granted. After dispensing with the obstacles of oppressive church authority and economic marginalization by anglophones, Quebeckers still voice opposition to certain aspects of their world.
Groups like French B, Les Cowboys Fringuants, and Loco Locass sing about the globalization, war, and the politics of language. In the tongue-in-cheek Cowboys Fringuants song Quebecois de souche, the refrain is: Chu un colon anglicise (Je suis un colon anglicise; I have been colonized by the English) It is sung in a French idiom shot through with anglicisms and conveys a bizarrely schizophrenic bi-culturalism. On Loco Locass's CD Amour oral (referring to love of the French language), songs of opposition and resistance are sung in a rap style infused at times with rai or reggae influences. Their targets range from Canadian politicians, to liberals, to George Bush. They call the US a peuple imperieux (an imperious people) and continue on ne peut pas etre le Maitre du Monde sans mepriser le monde (one cannot be the Masters of the World without being contemptuous of the world). Their song W Roi (King W) is based on Jarry's Ubu Roi, a play satirizing an ineffectual and grotesque mythical Polish king. (Although I don't listen to rap, I must say this Loco Locass CD is a rippin' good listen with some interesting lyrics.) I don't want to give the impression that all arts and entertainment produced in Quebec are tinged with politics, because they also sing, write and make films about love and death and other universal themes. I just happen to find these works compelling due to my own interest in language. Cultures that have had to contest their status are always interesting to me.
Quebeckers enjoy great topography, high-quality artisanal products from their terroir, a rich cultural output, and a civilized lifestyle. The cuisine there is a lot like French cuisine, but uses local ingredients. Monastery cheeses rival their French counterparts. Poutine, the province's iconic comfort-food dish, (French fries smothered in cheese curds and brown gravy) sticks to your ribs on a cold winter evening.
The more I learn about French-speaking Canada, the more I admire the francophones there and the effort they have made in order to defend (without resorting bloodshed) their linguistic and cultural heritage. Another theme that appears is Quebec's relationship to France. In Godbout's 1967 novel Salut Galarneau!, the Quebecois protagonist humorously expresses feelings of inferiority vis-a-vis France. At one moment he is filled with pride that his stationary is of superior quality to French stationary (since Quebec surpasses France at least in one area--wood pulp products). I sometimes wonder if citizens of the mother country appreciate the extent of the commitment of their cousins in North America to remain true to their cultural roots, despite so many pressures and obstacles.