The trouble with most reality TV is that it's not real enough about anything that matters. No wonder programmers at Historia, the French-language version of Corus's History Channel, leapt at the chance to base a Survivor-style reality series on an actual event in Quebec history.
Le lot du diable (The Devil's Lot), which had its debut on Historia and Séries+ on Wednesday, takes off from a Depression-era program of settlement in the Abitibi area. The idea was to thin the ranks of unemployed industrial workers and strengthen Quebec's agrarian economy by giving provincial cash incentives to anyone willing to clear forest land and start new farms.
In Le lot du diable, eight contestants are turned loose on a similarly rugged corner of the province, to homestead with no more resources than were available to settlers in the 1930s. A provincial settlement inspector turns up periodically, just like in the old days, to see how the work is proceeding and pose new challenges. The best settler wins $100,000 at the end of the series.
The show's producers divided the colonists into two teams, and gave them a pair of partially ruined cabins, supposedly abandoned by earlier settlers who gave up. Without that head-start, "the contestants would have been cutting trees the whole show," says Catherine Vidal, Historia's director of original programming.
The show's 10 episodes don't mention another group of locals who didn't give up: the Abitibi Algonquins. The omission is significant, because settlers paid by the Quebec government to occupy land were a major factor in the displacement of the Abitibiwinni from their long-held social, political and cultural base around Lake Abitibi.
"That wasn't part of our storyline," Vidal says, adding that there was another way aboriginal presence could have been felt in the series. "We did invite everyone in Quebec to participate," she says, "so it could have been possible to have a First Nations person as a contestant."
In other words, indigenous people could have had a place in the show only if one of them had applied to represent a colonist, whose state-subsidized occupation of land helped to dispossess the aboriginal inhabitants, who were denied reserve land until the mid-1950s. A perverse form of colour-blind casting, to say the least.
Le lot du diable could have made some reference to the area's aboriginal history and the effects of local colonialism without destroying its narrative line. Instead, the show avoided the inconvenient truth, and went with the one-sided story presented ever since settlers headed for Abitibi eight decades ago.
It was a tale often and widely told in Quebec at the time. A priest and enthusiastic agrarian named Maurice Proulx made annual treks to Sainte-Anne-de-Roquemaure on Lake Abitibi, where he filmed the growth of the colony. His footage became a 1937 film called En pays neuf (In a New Land), which the Quebec government used to promote further settlement. Proulx and the government produced a colour sequel in 1942, in which happy families stroll in their Sunday best past fields bulging with wheat, toward a gleaming big church. A more perfect fantasy image of life before the Quiet Revolution would be hard to find.
A decade later, the National Film Board made a four-part mini-series about the Abitibi settlers, called Les Brûlés (The Promised Land), which was broadcast in both official languages and edited into a feature film. The well-made feature (streaming in French here) was clearly influenced by Proulx's reality film-making, though the story is based on a more nuanced novel by Hervé Biron. The film begins on a train to Abitibi filled with wary unemployed workers, one of whom – played by legendary chansonnier Félix Leclerc – passes the time by singing. A priest tries to encourage his seatmate by pointing out the window and saying, "Nothing here but forests and good rich land, as far as the eye can see!"
Nothing here. That's almost shorthand for terra nullius, the idea that if there's no European system of land use in evidence, the territory belongs to no one. Terra nullius, and the Right of Discovery that gave ownership to the first Europeans to come upon such land, were the basis of colonization in the Americas.
Terra nullius and Right of Discovery are legal fictions that underlie everything that's happened since, including the settlement of Abitibi. The concepts still have weight in the present day, which is why the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report called on the government of Canada to repudiate them formally. For a show presented by a channel that ostensibly cares about history to ignore them, while telling a story that directly relates to their operation, is obnoxious and wrong.
As it happens, the CBC also has a forthcoming program that touches on colonization in Canada. It's called Colonization Road, and it's hosted by Ryan McMahon, an Anishinaabe comedian whose segment of the CBC documentary series Firsthand takes off from roads that were made with the specific goal of making settlement easier. Many are still named Colonization Road, including the main street of McMahon's hometown of Fort Frances, Ont.
One point made in the show is that colonialism, as Australian anthropologist Patrick Wolfe says, is not an event that has a clear beginning and end. It's a world view that becomes embedded in the structure of a society, its institutions, and its habits of thought. As with any habit, you can't change the routine unless you start to act and think differently, and even make TV shows differently.