“An epic of the most brilliant exploits…”

“An epic of the most brilliant exploits…”
“An epic of the most brilliant exploits…”

This is the story of a government announcement which was only supposed to serve to make people forget a modest embarrassment for the Legault government and which ended up embarrassing it even more. Because creating a museum of Quebec history is launching a debate that will never end.

Published at 2:22 a.m.

Updated at 6:00 a.m.

In June 2021, Prime Minister François Legault announced with great fanfare the creation of a network of 17 regional museums called the “Blue Spaces”. A great idea which would have renovated a heritage building in each region and installed a museum, a performance hall or other cultural facility.

Unfortunately, we had thought too big – or planned too little – and the initial budget of $260 million was quickly exceeded and covered the renovation costs of only 4 of the 17 planned sites.

Last March, the Minister of Culture, Mathieu Lacombe, announced the abandonment of the Blue Spaces project. The four buildings whose renovations were the most advanced will have another purpose.

The Blue Spaces were intended to be an “assumed nationalist legacy” of the Legault government. A way to strengthen the pride of Quebecers in all regions.

But with the abandonment of the Blue Spaces, the question arose of what to do with the buildings whose renovation is almost complete, in particular the Camille-Roy pavilion of the Séminaire de Québec. Hence the idea, announced recently, of installing a national museum of Quebec history there.

A museum that should arouse Quebec pride in visitors, said the Prime Minister when announcing the project last month.

And that’s when the slip-ups begin. Who does the history of Quebec include? “The idea is to demonstrate the history of the nation which was French-Canadian and which is now Quebec and which began with Champlain,” the Prime Minister repeated this week at a press briefing.

Obviously, the first objection will come from indigenous nations. The Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador (APNQL) rightly recalled that the history of Quebec did not begin with the arrival of Europeans.

“We are inseparable from the history of this land and the arrival of Champlain does not define Quebec,” argued the leader of the AFNQL, Ghislain Picard, who demands that indigenous historians be associated with the museum project.

The AFNQL also protested against the comments of historian Éric Bédard, who chairs the scientific committee responsible for determining the content of this museum, and who had associated Aboriginal people with prehistory.

History begins with writing, he said in an interview, which is undoubtedly a good definition for a historian, but in the always delicate context of political relations with Aboriginal people, it is clumsy to say the least.

Even the Minister responsible for Relations with First Nations and Inuit, Ian Lafrenière, normally very cautious on these issues, got carried away and said that the museum “will tell the history of the Quebec nation, and not the history of Quebec.

It just goes to show that when we want to use history and national pride for partisan purposes, we enter into a spiral that we don’t know where it will lead us.

But the debate over what should be in the “museum of the Quebec nation” has only just begun.

Midway through last week, Prime Minister Legault responded to other questions on the subject, affirming that “obviously, we are going to talk about the Indigenous people who were there before we arrived.” It remains to be seen what place we will give them.

But Indigenous people are not the only ones who question their place in the national story that the museum will tell.

What do we do with English speakers, for example? Is Leonard Cohen part of the history of the Quebec nation? “I see a place for people like Leonard Cohen, they are part of our history, so I see a place for them,” said the Prime Minister. Very good.

But some less pleasant questions will arise. If Leonard Cohen is unanimous, what do we do with Mordecai Richler? He is probably the greatest author in English-speaking Quebec. But he was also a polemicist who could be downright vicious, particularly when he denounced Quebec nationalists in the pages of New Yorker.

It was written, wrongly, that the PQ celebrated René Lévesque’s victory in 1976, by singing Nazi-inspired songs. He was talking about the PQ campaign theme song, written by Stéphane Venne. He also denounced Expos fans who sang “Valderi, Valdera” at Olympic Stadium when their team won. Another Nazi song, according to him…

As a slightly exasperated Brian Mulroney said at the time: “Mordecai, he’s good… In fiction. » But Richler’s case will be just one of the inevitable controversies of a museum like this.

Creating a museum is not like singing, in the national anthem, “your story is an epic of the most brilliant exploits”.

It’s going to quickly get a lot more complicated than that.

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