During Quebec's 1837 uprising, a spy told the British army that Louis-Joseph Papineau's rebels intended to kill all Jews and confiscate their property.
The British dismissed the charge out of hand, since the rebels were allies of Quebec's Jewish community and had won the vote for them long before it was accorded elsewhere in the British empire. A few years ago, Jewish historian David Rome looked into the affair and concluded it was a "figment of fantasy."
None of this prevented Mordecai Richler from resurrecting the slur and presenting it as fact in his 1992 polemic Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! It joined a long list of Richlerian attacks on the supposed anti-Semitism of French Quebeckers. Without apparent compunction, he dismissed their religion (in Saturday Night magazine) as "a spiritual sewer," and described their best-loved leader, René Lévesque, to the British Broadcasting Corporation in these terms:
"If he had decided to hang me, he'd have been complaining about the humiliation of having to use a gallows even as he tightened the cord around my neck. Afterwards, as my body swung in the wind, he'd have blamed me for making him assassinate me, a sweet, modest and oppressed francophone like himself."
His most infamous accusation -- demonstrably false -- was that the Parti Québécois's theme song was inspired by the melody of a Nazi anthem.
Richler's polemical writing is littered with this kind of thing. Many French Quebeckers, not unreasonably, decided long ago that he was a bigot.
With his death earlier this month, the Canadian media were presented with an awkward challenge that every country has to face sooner or later. When mourning a great artist, how does one deal with his dark side?
By and large, eulogies and reminiscences written in English overlooked the matter. Where mentioned, it was pooh-poohed as part of Richler's well-known tendency to exaggerate for effect, a lovable curmudgeon shooting from the hip against the French, the English, or his own Jewish community.
Things were, as you might imagine, more complex in Quebec. Writer Jean-François Lisée pointed out that, during the 15 years after separatists won Quebec's 1976 elections, Richler dominated discussion of Quebec in the U.S. media.
He wrote an astonishing seven out of eight major articles in magazines such as The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker. In all of them, he defamed Quebec with considerable venom.
Given this damage, and the inability of francophones to defend themselves in the English-language media, you might expect his death to have caused a good deal of bitter commentary in the French press this month.
Certainly, there was some of that. La Presse noted that a number of prominent francophones refused to comment on Richler's death. Separatist Raymond Villeneuve said he had "dragged the people of Quebec through the mud." The newspaper Le Devoir opined in an editorial that Richler had written "wounding and insulting, even defamatory" words about Quebec nationalism, "enormities which he never took back."
But a surprising amount of commentary was sympathetic. Columnist Nathalie Petrowski, who has little use for English Canada at the best of times, spoke of his "sweetness and timidity" on the occasions they met. "In spite of all the insanities Mordecai wrote, I've never been able to hate him," she wrote.
She argued that as a Depression-era child, he had to deal with the true anti-Semitism of Adrian Arcand's short-lived fascist movement.
"The wounded and excluded child," she speculates, became "the resentful and bitter adult" whose tirades concealed a "wounded love for Quebec."
Michel Vastel of the newspaper Le Soleil said Richler had been friendly to him, and recalled the author's childhood "in a 1930s-era Quebec that was pretty anti-Semitic."
Even La Presse's Gérald Leblanc, who has long chronicled the mistakes and stereotypes about Quebec that appear in the English-language media, argued that Richler's anger came from an understandable "nostalgia at seeing the ancient places of the Jewish anglophone community pass into the hands of francophones." If Richler sought "vengeance on those who had modified the landscape of his childhood," this was only human on his part.
Several commentators regretted the late translation of Richler's novels into French, and the relatively few Québécois who have read them.
At the same time, La Presse printed an excerpt from Barney's Version that showed why: A heart-attack victim phones a French-language hospital and listens to a message stating that, "you must dial 17 to receive information in the accursed English language," while the ambulance attendants play strip poker.
Francophones rarely appear in Richler's fiction, and when they do, they are usually go-go dancers grinding their crotches on a dirty stage, or imbecilic junkyard workers. English-speaking reviewers of his novels have rarely, if ever, expressed indignation about this. Only George Woodcock, a transplanted Englishman, noticed that the sole sympathetic French character in Richler's fiction (Duddy Kravitz's girlfriend Yvette), is "unconvincing. There is a strange kind of indifference in her portrayal."
Richler was also unconvincing in his non-fictional observation of the French, several Quebec commentators noted last week. Said Yves Boisvert in La Presse, "The French in his vision were reduced to a sort of joyful 'tribe.' He praised our 'vitality' while describing us drinking on the terraces of the rue St-Denis. To be more clichéd than that, you'd have to have us living in a maple-sugar cabin."
Some commentators have implied that the French have been bad sports in their reaction to Richler's death. You may judge for yourself from the above examples. What strikes me is that the French are attempting to incorporate Richler into their community, much as Quebec's Jews have done. But the task is harder for them: While Richler knew the Jewish community intimately (and in the words of Canadian Jewish Congress director Max Bernard, portrayed it well), he never knew, and refused to know, the French.