Seventy years ago this month, a group of Quebec creators released a manifesto announcing an end to the “reign of fear” that had strangled art and society alike in Canada’s so-called priest ridden province. Their clarion call for total freedom of expression, titled, “Le Refus global,” would go on to earn them a mythical place in Quebec history and plant the seeds of the Quiet Revolution.
The members of the group who called themselves Les Automatistes, Jean-Paul Riopelle and Paul-Émile Borduas among them, became better known outside Quebec as some of the most important Canadian creators of the 20th century. But inside Quebec, their influence extended well beyond the arts by inspiring an entire generation of francophones to declare “enough."
For too long, the Catholic Church and the establishment had conspired to keep francophone Quebeckers compliant. The clergy determined what books were available in the province and what professions French-speaking Catholics could exercise. This ensured that Quebeckers, as Les Automatistes put it, were “kept in the dark about the evolution of universal thought.”
“Le Refus global” is suddenly back on the minds of many Quebeckers, and not just because the manifesto turns 70 next week. In the wake of the July cancellations of two productions directed by Quebec theatre giant Robert Lepage – after they were hit with cultural appropriation accusations – many in the province’s artistic community are rightly concerned that the cancellations could cast a chill on creators who might otherwise dare to disturb or disrupt.
“If this is what you call a victory for the integration of cultural diversity into artistic practice, then I’m disillusioned,” Lorraine Pintal, artistic director of Montreal’s renowned Théâtre du Nouveau Monde (TNM), told La Presse last week. “These successive cancellations make me fear that any artistic act that bears witness to another’s reality will be ostracized, banned, censored.”
That was one of the milder reactions to the cancellations of SLAV, a TNM rendering of African-American slave songs by a mostly non-black chorus, and Kanata, a still-in-the-works retelling of the history of white-Indigenous relations that did not include any Indigenous actors. The Paris-based Théâtre du Soleil, where Mr. Lepage was to debut Kanata in December, released a statement saying it would respond in due course, “with the non-violent weapons of theatrical art, to this attempted intimidation of theatre artists.”
With the Oct. 1 provincial election in mind, Quebec politicians of all stripes were quick to deplore the cancellations of both productions and insist they would stand up for freedom of expression. Some even warned against a return to the dark days of the past.
How absurd. The church and the politicians it co-opted exerted their control over Quebeckers from a position of authority. The black and Indigenous activists who took umbrage with Mr. Lepage’s artistic choices, and his refusals to consider making changes to his productions, acted in the absence of any authority. Most did not seek to silence his work but rather to educate him and society in their reality, as they experience it.
Mr. Lepage is an artistic visionary and a global citizen. His art has crossed more cultural divides than any diplomat at the United Nations. But like most creators, he is stubbornly possessive of his art. Kanata was denied a grant by the Canada Council for the Arts in 2016 because the application by Mr. Lepage’s theatre company contained no information about Indigenous participation in the project. So, Mr. Lepage should have seen this coming. Was it because he had never got a bad review from the critics that he thought he should ignore the culturecrats?
The reality is that what most non-Indigenous Canadians know about the history and culture of Indigenous peoples comes from history books, novels, TV shows and films that were created by white people.
According to Anishinaabe artist Aylan Couchie, as quoted by Canada Council head Simon Brault in a 2017 open letter outlining the council’s position on cultural appropriation: “The appropriation of Indigenous stories, ways of being and artworks is simply an extension of colonialism and settlers' assertion of rights over the property of Indigenous people. The history of colonizing Indigenous identity through images, film and narratives has played its part in placing Indigenous perspectives at a subordinate level.”
Is it too much to ask non-Indigenous artists to be sensitive to that?
No artist should sacrifice his or her art in the name of reconciliation or to assuage a fickle sponsor. But the cultural appropriation debate helps us separate the truly open-minded from those who only call themselves open-minded. Just like “Le Refus global” did, 70 years ago.