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Canada The passion of Pauline Julien – and the fading dream of sovereignty for Quebec

“I feel so alone, perhaps because I loved too much.” These words by singer Pauline Julien, undated but probably written after the death of her long-time partner Gérald Godin, appear near the start of a new film about a performer who gave much and held back little.

Pauline Julien, Intimate and Political is director Pascale Ferland’s documentary ode to a key figure in the flowering of popular chanson in Quebec during the 1950s and 60s. The NFB film’s account of Ms. Julien’s political passions captures the sovereigntist ferment of decades ago, so different from the movement’s feeble state today.

Classic Quebec chanson combined aspects of French cabaret songs, Quebec poetry and folk music to produce some achingly specific expressions of the lives and dreams of Quebeckers. Ms. Julien’s intense performances of the Québécois songbook made her a star at home and in Paris, where she was the first to sing chansons by Gilles Vigneault.

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A still from the film Pauline Julien, Intimate and Political.

The film includes a Parisian performance of La Manic, a 1966 classic by Georges Dor, about a worker building a hydro-electric dam that became a symbol of Quebec’s new economic might. Mr. Dor’s labourer is both a man longing for his absent lover and a semi-mythic figure addressing the whole of Quebec.

The intimate part of the film covers Ms. Julien’s 30-year relationship with Mr. Godin, an accomplished poet, journalist and politician. His first love letter to her was a rapturous newspaper article, in which he described her singing as “truer than life.” The film includes many readings from their letters, which are full of romance, poetry and aspiration.

Ms. Julien saw independence as a natural evolutionary step for Quebec. She was an early supporter of the Parti Québécois, and sang at a 1968 benefit concert for imprisoned members of the Front de libération du Québec.

English Canada was dumbfounded by this charismatic Québécoise performer who rejected Canada. Patrick Watson opened a CBC Television interview by summarizing her beefs with federalism, and then said: “She’s a separatist. But she’s also a fine singer …”

Mr. Godin and Ms. Julien were both arrested under the War Measures Act in October, 1970, and jailed for eight days without charge. In an undated TV interview after her release, she is sombre but unbowed. “I am more resolved than ever to do what I think we must do here in Quebec,” she says.

Mr. Godin ran for the PQ in 1976, unseating Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa in his own riding. The exuberance following that historic election is crushed during a one-minute scene after the 1980 sovereignty referendum, when the losing result is revealed to a devastated crowd. Ms. Julien is shown singing her adaptation of Mommy, Daddy, a nightmare lullaby by Gilles Richer and Marc Gélinas, in which a child asks in English what happened to the French names and language of her community.

Mr. Godin served as immigration minister, and steered the Charter of the French Language (Bill 101) into law, remaining in office till shortly before his death from cancer in 1994. Ms. Julien was overwhelmed with grief, and by her own degenerative aphasia. The day after attending a show at Montreal’s Place des Arts, she swallowed a carefully hoarded stash of pills, and died alone on Oct. 1, 1998.

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English Canada was dumbfounded by this charismatic Québécoise performer who rejected Canada.

The 20th anniversary of her death coincides with the first provincial election in more than four decades in which independence is not an issue. The two sovereigntist leaders in the race (the PQ’s Jean-François Lisée and Manon Massé of Québec Solidaire), and former Bloc Québécois chief Gilles Duceppe, wasted part of the campaign’s final week fighting about who is most faithful to the memory of René Lévesque, and who is too extreme or too awkward in French to run the province.

A more serious reason sovereigntism is languishing may be the growing acceptance in Quebec of a Canadian notion of multiculturalism. Coalition Avenir Québec Leader and ex-separatist François Legault got a taste of that recently, when his polling numbers sank after he proposed expelling immigrants who can’t speak French and pass a values test after three years in Quebec.

Near the Mont-Royal subway station in Montreal, a 1983 poem by Mr. Godin, embedded in a seven-metre wall, celebrates immigrants riding to work early each morning: “The old heart of the city still beats thanks to them.” The future of Quebec independence may depend on a more attentive reading of those lines.

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