The Role of the Quebec Historian: A Review of Alan Gordon's The Hero and the Historians, Ronald
Rudin's Making History in Twentieth-century Quebec, and Jocelyn Létourneau's, A History for the
Future: Rewriting Memory and Identity in Quebec.
By Will Pratt, for UofCalgary's HTST 623, Dr. Nancy Janovicek, 25 Jan. 2011.
Alan Gordon's The Hero and the Historians: Historiography and the Uses of Jacques Cartier (2010), traces the construction of the public memory of the famous Breton explorer in Quebec from "amateur" beginnings, to the rise of "Cartiermania" in the late nineteenth-century, and finally to contemporary dispersal. In tracing the sacred and secular motives in commemoration of Cartier's role as either founder of the Catholic French-Canadian "race" in New France, or the originator of the Canadian national project, Gordon explores Cartier as a "contact point" between French and English nationalisms.1 Examining the historical craft of Cartier historians, the work revises the historiography of Ronald Rudin, questioning the boundaries between "amateur" and "professional" history and the periodization of Quebec historiography. Gordon hopes to draw attention to the role that historians play (and the limits of the historical discipline) in the construction of common sense knowledge. Here he claims to take a step beyond the "invented tradition", which Eric Hobswan associated as a bourgeois manufactured method of control, and in the spirit of both Antonio Gramsci and Jocelyn Létourneau, concerns himself with the populace's acceptance and use of history in forming an identity.2
The tension between the secular and the sacred is a familiar theme in Quebec historiography and it is also central to the construction of the meaning of Jacques Cartier's voyage. As "Cartiermania" reached its height in the late nineteenth-century, it was an increasingly Catholic hero that was portrayed in historical monographs.3 This association of the explorer with the conservative Catholic society was represented also in the public domain. Floats in Montreal's annual St. Jean Baptiste Day celebrations payed tribute to Cartier as an important figure in the "national family of heroes."4 In 1889 the erection of a monument on the site of Cartier's fort shared a space with Father Jean de Brebeuf's Jesuit mission, further linking Catholicism and the hero-explorer.5 The use of this public space, like the earlier proliferation of Cartier's portrait, is central to Gordon's argument that "historical heroes do not assume their importance via the strength of rational discourse but are held in place by the power of emotion and symbolism."6 This focus on the ways historical symbols are used to form identity and give meaning to the world is a benchmark of cultural history. Gordon notes, however, that cultural history production is not limited to the historical profession. Gordon emphasizes the role of public space, pageants and monuments in forming the common sense view of the past which molds collective identity.
Gordon shows a decline in Cartiermania among French Canadians when anglophone federalists attempt to co-opt his symbolic value. Gordon notes with a latent sadness that Jacques Cartier's role as heroic founding father of the French religious "race" in Quebec diminished in the twentieth-century under the pressure of Canadian nationalism and modernity. The newly founded Historical Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC), established in the interwar years marked the beginning of official commemoration of Cartier's voyage which separated itself from the religious interpretations of the past.7 The interpretation that graced the plaque of Cartier's second fort emphasized colonization and cultivation, portraying Cartier as the first of Canada's governors, and suggesting he was the true founder of Canada. Despite the efforts of the Commission des Monuments historiques de la Province de Québec (CMHQ) to perpetuate the symbol of a Catholic Cartier, the HSMBC continued to secularize the explorer's memory.8 Gordon notes that the new understanding of Catholicism that emerged from the Quiet Revolution rejected the old Catholic heroes and further obscured Cartier's meaning.9 Recent depictions of Cartier have seemed to reduce the once heroic explorer to a meaningless prelude to Canadian history.10 In this decline of Cartier's heroic image, Gordon observes that the common sense idea of history "evolved to mirror new aspects of modernity."11 One can detect a tone of lament for his subject's old glory when Gordon notes that these old national heroes have been replaced by the "icons of commercial consumerism" found in sports, film and the entertainment industry.
|Ronald Rudin also works on Acadian memory|
Gordon's study of the construction of Jacques Cartier's image is an important contribution to a contested Quebec historiography surrounding professionalization of the discipline. Ronald Rudin's Making History in Twentieth-century Quebec (1997) offers the claim that the clergy's influence in nineteenth-century Quebec universities delayed the scientific aspirations of the historical profession, in defence of religious mores.12 For Rudin, the professionalization of the Quebec historical profession began in the interwar period with the transition of its central figure, Abbé Lionel Groulx. Rudin's rehabilitation of Groulx, shows his conversion from a historical project, which interpreted French-Canadian history as survival against its oppressors (both historical in the form of colonial France and England and the modern liberalism of the day), to a more scientific approach. The ultimate professionalization of Quebec history in the 1940s, is seen as a culmination of the journals, associations, and conferences organized primarily by Abbé Groulx. In Rudin's interpretation, Groulx's abandonment of a Christian Quebec nationalist historical project was accompanied by his early contribution to the professionalization of history.
Gordon's Hero and the Historian's questions the dichotomy between amateur and professional historians, and shows that those nineteenth-century Cartier scholars that Rudin's periodization would classify as amateur historians had a "fixation" with the archives, specialized, and championed documentary evidence as the objective empirical basis of their work.13 Rudin's interpretation unnecessarily combines Catholicism with amateur history. An overarching religious project may cause us to question nineteenth-century Quebec historian's criteria of selection, but as Gordon proves, it does not diminish the rigour of their scholarly work. For Gordon the divide between the amateur and the professional is not as important as for Rudin. In his focus on the end product of a a collective common sense of history, he notes that the university-bound historian's articles and monographs do not solely affect the past and collective identity. A peripheral criticism can be found in Gordon's examination of the origins of the Quiet Revolution. Gordon seems to misread Rudin's periodization, neglecting the modern trends that the later author prescribes to Groulx in the interwar years. When Gordon notes that the changing of Cartier's reputation in the interwar years suggests a rejection of an "old clerical nationalism", he is in fact agreeing with Rudin that the modern roots of the Quiet Revolution can be found in this period.14
In calling for historians to pay attention to their role in crafting common sense, Gordon's work echoes that of another Quebec intellectual. Jocelyn Létourneau's 2000 treatise, A History for the Future: Rewriting Memory and Identity in Quebec, emphasizes the high moral stakes involved in the creation of French-Canadian public memory and notes that little work has been done on this sensitive subject.15 In Quebec's motto "Je me souviens", Létourneau finds both inspiration and constraint. Létourneau identifies a strain in the identity of the Quebecois that draws on a nationalist victim narrative. He describes this victim narrative by noting, "in order to exist now and in the future, Quebecers have a duty to remember their sorrows, to bear in their turn the suffering of their ancestors, an immemorial suffering branded with the stigmata of so many tragic events."16 Létourneau's project is to recreate this national historic memory on a more positive, yet ambivalent, foundation. He has noted that the historical pendulum has swung since the Quiet Revolution, with new historians revising the old story of the survival of a backwards society against a host of oppressors. New works have dismissed the narrative of a economically and socially stunted Quebec, found cultural revitalization in nineteenth-century religion, and even reinterpreted the "La Grande Noirceur" of the Duplessis period as containing modern elements.17 Létourneau's positive recreation of Quebec's history does not condone, however, this search for modernity in the past. Instead the historian wishes to acknowledge both the "wounds" and "possibilities" in the power struggles across the "structural realities[of] linguistic-cultural dualism, regionalism and provincialism."18 Létourneau does not deny the tragedies of French-Canadian history central to both its early historiography and public memory, yet instead of a history of blame and victimization, a complex narrative of both these "withdrawals", as well as the "victories and advances" is substituted. For Létourneau, a complicated and ambiguous middle ground is found, as "the quest for affirmation by Quebecers of French-Canadian heritage, has involved a search for an optimal, satisfied, peaceful intermediate position between the spectre of assimilation and that of marginalization much more than a desire to become completely independent or to withdraw into self-effacement."19
In calling for historians to address their role in constructing common sense knowledge, Gordon shares Létourneau's concern for the role of historians in providing the building blocks of collective identity. In his studies on the historical memory of young Quebecois, Létourneau suggests that "mythistories" are formed from sources outside the classroom.20 While Létourneau points to television, radio and family conversations as central to the forming of the historical trope of victimization,Gordon notes that public monuments, pageantry and portraits also have their effect. A 2008 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation special on Létourneau's ideas, however, exposes a problem for those historians who seek to describe common sense and collective identity. A discussion with a group of Quebec youth exposed no adherence to the victim trope which Létourneau claims is so prevalent.21 The fragility of theses regarding collective memory may expose a limitation of Gordon's examination of common sense. While the rigour of his scholarship regarding the construction of meaning surrounding the Breton hero-explorer cannot be denied, the extent of acceptance of these meanings are less certain. Gordon notes that floats depicting the Catholic Cartier in the St. Jean Baptiste parade were prevalent insertions of loaded historical symbols in the public space, but what is to say that the ambivalence found in Letourneau's neighbourhood youth was not equally present in the observers of nineteenth-century parades, or for that matter twentieth-century statues. While such criticisms may be averted by the suggestion that Gordon's The Hero and the Historian`s was primarily concerned with the construction-workers who laboured on the explorer's image, the question as to how the historian can access the tropes, common sense knowledge and collective memory that statues, pageants, and history books effect is a difficult and fascinating enquiry for historians in the growing field of historical memory.
Gordon, Alan. The Hero and the Historians: Historiography and the Uses of Jacques Cartier.
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.
A History for the Future: Rewriting Memory and Identity in Quebec. Translated by Phyllis Aronoff and
Howard Scott. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2000, 2004.
“Remembering Our Past: An Examination of the Historical Memory of Young Quebecois” ed. Ruth Sandwell
in To the Past: History Education, Public Memory, & Citizenship in Canada. U of Toronto Press:
Toronto, 2006. p. 70-87.
Rudin, Ronald. Making History in Twentieth-Century Quebec. Toronto: University of Toronto, 1997.
Wolch, Sarah and Jocelyn Létourneau. "Passages to the Future: Part 3" ed. Paul Kennedy Ideas. CBC:
Toronto, 30 March 2008. Radio.
1Alan Gordon, "The Hero and the Historians: Historiography and the Uses of Jacques Cartier" (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010), 187.
3Writing in 1866, Monsignor L.F.R. Lafleche's associated Cartier's arrival in New France with Abraham's arrival in Caanan. George-Etienne Cartier claimed that Jacques Cartier, like John the Baptist, "prophesied" Catholicism's spread to the New World. Gordon, 85-86.
8A concession was made in including the religious message when the 6 September 1535 landing on Ile aux Coudres was commemorated, but even this story was noted as the first "Christian service on Canadian soil", with no mention of Catholicism. Gordon, 138.
10 Historica's "Heritage Minute" commercial depicts the explorer as confused when explained the term "Kanata", while the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's "Canada: A People's History" shows Cartier as unimportant in what Gordon describes as a "snapshot of myths and misconceptions." Even Ramsay Cook's recent edition of Cartier's Relations (still the best source for Cartier's voyages) largely features the Huron natives and relegates Cartier to a supporting role. Gordon, 186.
12Gordon, 82. Ronald Rudin, Making History in Twentieth-Century Quebec (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1997), 14.
15Jocelyn Létourneau, A History for the Future: Rewriting Memory and Identity in Quebec translated by Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2000, 2004), 5-6.
20Jocelyn Létourneau “Remembering Our Past: An Examination of the Historical Memory of Young Quebecois” ed. Ruth Sandwell in To the Past: History Education, Public Memory, & Citizenship in Canada (U of Toronto Press: Toronto, 2006), 71.
21Sarah Wolch and Jocelyn Létourneau, "Passages to the Future: Part 3" ed. Paul Kennedy Ideas. (CBC: Toronto, 30 March 2008). Radio.