The Black Book of English Canada
By Normand Lester
Translated by Ray Conlogue
McClelland & Stewart,
294 pages, $24.99
Normand Lester has outed a conspiracy. The French in Canada and all non-WASPs are the victims of racist, paranoid, xenophobic anglophones. Modern conspirators include journalists Diane Francis, William Johnson and Allan Fotheringham -- and Mordecai Richler, stigmatized because of his opposition to Quebec's language law.
Richler also earns Lester's ire for comparing rapturous young Péquistes to Nazis. In an Atlantic Monthly article, he accused René Lévesque's supporters of celebrating the PQ's 1976 election victory with a rendition of Tomorrow Belongs to Me -- the Hitler Youth song from the musical Cabaret. Not so, says investigative reporter Lester. They were actually singing Stéphane Venne's Partir d'aujord'hui, demain nous appartient (Starting today, tomorrow belongs to us).
Enter the Bronfman Trust. It partly financed TV's saccharine Heritage Minutes. Outraged that they "whitewashed . . . the dark and bloody side of Canada's history," Lester began researching The Black Book of English Canada. He uncovered a conspiracy within a conspiracy. Most of the money promulgating happy images of hewers of wood, drawers of water and builders of railroads came from the federal government. Lester's employer, Radio Canada, concealed its knowledge of the true source of the funds -- $7.2-million -- that Heritage Minister Sheila Copps hid behind dummy foundations. "The Battle of the Plains of Abraham," Lester fulminates, "will be fought once more, and this time they hope to wash their hands of the French problem once and for all."
Lester likens arch-fiends Wolfe and Monckton to Nazi officers. Other indicted co-conspirators are Mackenzie King (who thought Hitler was okay because he loved his mother), Lord Durham ("supercilious and pretentious") and Lady Astor, wife of the English press baron. Inspired conspirators were the authors of the largely-forgotten 1836 exposé of naughty nuns, Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk -- the rabid anti-Catholic reverends Hoyt and Slocum.
Among the conspiracy's numberless victims were the Acadians (celebrated in Longfellow's poem Evangeline), Papineau and the Patriotes, the Métis and Louis Riel (his execution was "a state crime"), and Jewish refugees from Hitler's Germany. Why European Jews would want to leap out of the frying pan into the fire is a question Lester does not ask. And it's too bad that Richler cannot return from the grave to refute Lester's charges. (Mordecai, I hope you're in a better place than Montreal.)
Who orchestrated this conspiracy? The Orange Order, of course. Only Anglophones suffering from "historical amnesia" could fail to recognize the truth of this factoid.
"It's characteristic of all racist discourse," Lester avers, "to demonize the group it attacks while attributing all virtues to itself." True enough. To remind the Anglos of their forgotten past, the virtuous Lester treats readers to a reprise of English history. His tone resembles 1066 and All That -- the collection of schoolboy howlers that W. J. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman wove into a comic masterpiece. According to Lester, William the Conqueror imposed "civilization upon the raffish Anglo-Saxon countryfolk." The English loathe the French "because they have long coveted the women of France, together with its cuisine, geography, and climate."
If Lester can be believed, Henry VIII's lust for Ann Boleyn made Protestants out of the fogbound islanders. Religious hatred then fuelled English covetousness, which set its baleful eye on the North American Empire of His Most Excellent and Catholic Majesty King Louis XIV and his successor.
While Lester chronicles the English colonists' use of germ warfare against France's Indian allies, he neglects to mention the Fort William Henry massacre of 1757, in which Montcalm's auxiliaries murdered English troops who had already surrendered. This horrified the French. It also meant that the Seven Years' War would not be conducted in the gentlemanly style of European campaigns. Lester is similarly silent on the Seven Oaks massacre of 1816, in which the Métis killed Governor Semple and 35 Red River colonists near Fort Douglas. Nor is there even a sanitized whiff of France's mission civilisatrice,which brought untold suffering to indigenous peoples the world over. Perhaps, to paraphrase Hegel, the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.
When Le livre noir du Canada anglais was published in Quebec in November, 2001, Radio Canada suspended Lester, claiming that he had lost his journalistic objectivity. "Lestergate," a.k.a. "l'affaire Lester," ensured that the book would become an instant bestseller in Quebec. It also made strange bedfellows out of Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe and Alliance leader Stockwell Day, who represented the issue in the House of Commons as one of freedom of speech.
Lester has every right to rant and rave -- and to be silly. But freedom of speech isn't the issue. Nor is race or religion. The issue is propaganda.
In his essay Ideology and Utopia, the great German sociologist Karl Mannheim wrote of "a particular conception of ideology." It is used when "we are sceptical of the ideas and representations advanced by our opponent." These ideas may include "distortions that range all the way from conscious lies to half-conscious and unwitting disguises; from calculated attempts to dupe others to self-deception."
Lester has promised a sequel to "pick up the tale of French Canada and carry it forward from 1920 to the present day." "Tale" is as good a word as any. I suggest that the volume be titled The Protocols of the Elders of Albion.
Novelist Chris Scott is a former writer-in-residence at Concordia University.