Denise Duhamel

Dance me to the end of the Charter of Values

This post originally appeared on The Town Crier on April 12, 2014, five days after the Québec general election of 2014 gave Phillipe Couillard’s federalist Liberal Party a majority government. It was a response to Denise Duhamel’s poem, “Zou Bisou Bisou.”

When Megan Draper sang “Zou Bisou Bisou” on Mad Men, American television took some bite out of the Parti québécois’s political rhetoric. Denise Duhamel’s poem opens with Jessica Paré’s iconic moment. “Zou Bisou Bisou” appears in Issue 24 of The Puritan and name drops a number of Anglo Canadian actors in Hollywood whose Canadian nationality may come as a surprise. Her focus is that trenchant subset of Canadians, the French. Denise Duhamel herself belongs to the Québec diaspora in New England. Despite growing up with many Canadians on screen, Céline Dion was, for Duhamel, the sole Québécoise on the airwaves in the era before Jessica Paré and Régine Chassagne.

In 1968, René Lévesque described Québec as the only survivor of a French America:

“We are also heirs to that fantastic adventure—that early America that was almost entirely French. We are, even more intimately heirs to the group obstinacy that has kept alive that portion of French America we call Québec.”

Lévesque and Duhamel leave out the fact that French America is and always was multiracial, and that it incorporates vastly different migration histories. Even if we set aside the problems of a strictly Caucasian francophone identity, there are more to be found in Duhamel’s poem.

Denise Duhamel embraces a part of the francophone spectrum north of the border. The last line of her poem lists a variety of Canadian dialects, “Today I want to sing it all—Brayon French, Québécois, Chiac, Joual, Michif. Little kisses of Acadian.” That phrase, “I want to sing it all” boldly announces a Whitman-esque inclusiveness. However, Duhamel includes Québécois in a list of small and marginal French dialects and creoles, some as small as Michif with only a few hundred speakers. With seven million speakers inside and outside Québec, Québécois French may look small from the outside. However, the French language is the sole official language in the province, spoken by a majority and institutionalized in both politics and business.

Duhamel’s narrative of an isolated and invisible French culture in New England is the same narrative the Parti québécois used to justify stricter language laws and their Charter of Values. That ex-premier Pauline Marois promoted institutionalized discrimination out of a fear that outside cultures and languages threaten to make Québec’s language and culture disappear is worth noting. The PQ’s narrative of cultural extinction relies on the invisibility of Québécois language and culture. For the first time possibly ever, an intelligent and cosmopolitan Québécoise character exists on an American TV show. Mad Men emphasizes rather than hides her francophone family and explores the uncomfortable relationship she has to her father’s Quiet Revolution values.

Duhamel may only be naive to equalize Québécois with “little kisses of Acadian,” where French culture is all but eradicated in New England and Louisiana. Canadians, on the other hand, need a more complex perspective on the role of French in North America. French in Québec is neither a menace to anglo- and allophones nor an endangered language in the dreaded “sea of English.” Institutionalized racism and restricted access to education, on the other hand, are a menace to everyone in that province, not only non-francophones.

Jessica Paré’s character on Mad Men is not far off from many young francophones today who want to learn English and travel to, and do business with, the world beyond the Rideau Canal. René Lévesque’s speech recognized, in 1968, that Quebec’s isolation in the world is over. While that isolation helped Québec survive as francophone in ways that Louisiana and New England did not, it is not an isolation that anyone but Pauline Marois’s PQ wanted to recreate. One sometimes sees the slogan, “Québec, un nouveau pays pour le monde” hanging from balconies in Québec. It may send shivers down anglo spines, but the sentiment may be nobler than that. The phrase promotes a Québec that is confident enough in its language and culture that it can engage freely with the rest of the world. A strong francophone majority that has taken control of its own government, economy, and political destiny does not need to fear Arabic, Creole, or even English, or that any of the languages and values of the rest of the world will render them as lonely as rootless as Denise Duhamel.

We can compare Megan Draper to Denise Duhamel’s lost culture narrative. Megan Draper leaves a comfortable upper-middle class life in Montréal for New York and makes the decision to assimilate into Anglo-American culture. In one episode she mentions that she despises Montréal’s old and haunted housing stock and prefers her modern Upper East Side apartment. To her, Québec is oppressive, old, and provincial. On Monday, Québec rejected Marois’ race baiting, fear mongering, and her vision of an isolated Québec as old and provincial. Despite the last year and a half, Monday’s poll suggests that Québec is a place prepared to accept Arabic, Creole, and maybe even English.

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