Ottawa Through the Eyes of Franco-Ontarian Writers
par Sylvestre, Paul-François
Ottawa may be Canada’s capital, but it is a much smaller city than Montreal or Toronto, both of which once vied to take its place. As a smaller centre, it also garners less attention in Franco-Ontarian literature—less than Toronto, Montreal, or even Quebec City. Despite this, Ottawa has carved out a respectable niche, often as a target of gentle irony, if not outright satire. Such, at least, is the portrait that emerges from the writings of various journalists, novelists and short story writers over more than a century.
From Anglicism to Official Name
The earliest mentions of Ottawa in writings and literature about Canada have nothing to do with the city per se, but rather with the river known in English as the “Ottawa” (in French, the Outaouais). Indeed, the first francophones to employ the word essentially used it as an anglicism. Thus in 1882 Benjamin Sulte writes (in French) that “as far back as we can remember, at least to the fourteenth century, the Saint Lawrence and Ottawa valleys were inhabited by two proud races, each with their own language: the Iroqouis and the Algonquins.” (NOTE 1) The Reverend Jean-Baptiste Proulx, secretary of Monsignor Narcisse-Zéphyrin Lorrain, Bishop of Pembroke, Ontario, used “the Ottawa” instead of “the Outaouais” (again in French) when he writes of “the tourist who travels up the Ottawa from Pembroke to Mattawan.” (NOTE 2)
Ottawa: Seat of the Federal Government
In other writings Ottawa denotes not the city, but the federal government that makes its home there. Instead of referring to a dispute between the federal government and la belle province (Quebec), writers might say that Ottawa and Quebec City are not seeing eye to eye. An example of this usage can be found in Honoré Beaugrand’s Jeanne la fileuse: “And since there are, in Quebec City and Ottawa, ministers paid handsomely to study and solve political problems, they will thus be able to make informed comparisons that lead them to an enlightened decision on the question of repatriation.” (NOTE 3)
As the capital first of the province and then the country of Canada since 1857, Ottawa is the gathering place for members of parliament from all across the land. As such, the federal parliament is the setting of a number of fictional narratives. One example is L’Appel de la race, published in 1922 by Lionel Groulx under the pseudonym Alonié de Lestres (a real historical figure and companion of early French colonist Dollard des Ormeaux). This work of patriotic propaganda called on French Canadians to resist assimilation. The story unfolds in Ottawa at the time of Regulation 17, which banned French-language schooling in Ontario. The protagonist Jules de Lantagnac—an anglicized Franco-Ontarian with an English-speaking wife—rediscovers his French roots and becomes a member of parliament, taking the struggle for French-language schooling to the very floor of the House of Commons.
Groulx delights in painting Ottawa as a symbol of the English Conquest, a place where honourable members of the French-Canadian “race” struggle for their rightful share of power. “As he takes the Interprovincial Bridge back to Ottawa, the convert sees the capital city rising before him with its imposing bluffs, a symbol of his bitter fate. To the right on Parliament Hill were the chambers of government and Ministers’ offices, then the tower where the conqueror’s flag flies…So many places, so many institutions, Lantagnac says to himself as he walks, where those of my race must fight for their fair share of influence and work.” (NOTE 4)
A very different depiction is found in the work of Jean-Louis Gagnon. He arrived at the University of Ottawa in September 1933, knowing “nothing or next to nothing about the capital of my country. But I wasn’t alone: no one in my circle knew anything either, and no one seemed embarrassed about it.” (NOTE 5) For most writers, however, Ottawa remains closely associated with politics. Charlotte Savary is an example: her 1961 novel Le Député features a character in the thick of the action on Parliament Hill, where “politics is a jungle, and all too often a festering backwood.” (NOTE 6) Likewise, one year after Pierre Elliot Trudeau took office, François Loranger published a 1969 patriotic comedy in which a character feels the winds of change blowing: “I heard they was doing everything in Ottawa in both languages now.” (NOTE 7) And since you can’t have politics without bureaucrats, who better to describe them than Maurice Henri. In his 1989 novel La Vie secrète des grands bureaucrates (published in English as The Mandarin Syndrome: The Secret Life of Senior Bureaucrats), the former top civil servant unabashedly mocks his former colleagues. “A salesman sells, a boxer boxes, a thinker thinks—but that doesn’t mean a civil servant serves.” (NOTE 8)
Other Satirical and Critical Perspectives
Franco-Ontarian literature of the last thirty years rarely casts Ottawa in a flattering light. The city is a repository for the worst qualities. In his 2006 novel La Kermesse (published in English as A Secret Between Us), for example, Daniel Poliquin’s hometown is a place where “you dream of getting the hell out.” For Madeleine Vaillancourt, Ottawa is “such a well-behaved city that the journalists have to go to Quebec for their juicier news tidbits.” (NOTE 9) And Daniel Poliquin is wryly observant in Nouvelles de la capitale: “Virtually nothing is open on Sundays. The stores close early, the restaurants are lousy and unfriendly, the people are boring, the francophones speak poorly, their jobs are boring and there aren’t any men in Ottawa—they’re all either gay or married.” (NOTE 10) A few years earlier Poliquin, author of L'Écureuil noir (published in English as Black Squirrel), had affectionately called Ottawa a “little colonial capital” while taking care to point out its little-known virtues. “Since I started my new life, I haven’t run into any of my old acquaintances. That’s one of the little-known virtues of Ottawa, my little colonial capital. People come and go; the population is always in flux.” (NOTE 11) Maurice Henrie, in Mémoire vive, compares Ottawa to Montreal finding that Ottawa has “few stores, little to do, and scant opportunity compared to Montreal. There’s no intensity, effervescence, no craziness…” (NOTE 12) Christian Bode is even more scathing when he writes that moving to Ottawa is the one decision that “Canadians of all stripes can agree is crazy.” (NOTE 13)
Ottawa is also sometimes described as the English capital of a bilingual country. Maurice Henrie, in his collection of short stories La Chambre à mourir, puts this observation into the mouth of his character, “the grandfather,” who says “Mathias saw him leave again last year, and he told me he had a big black car…Sounds like he’s from the Ottawa side. He doesn’t speak French, in any case.” (NOTE 14)
Gay and Lesbian Writers Speak Up
For gays and lesbians, Ottawa is clearly overshadowed by Toronto and Montreal. But that doesn’t mean you won’t find gay-themed novels set in the nation’s capital. In Paul-François Sylvestre Homosecret, the main character Damien tells the story of an escort service—“Un Choix capital”—that services a male clientele with great success for a number of years. “Several conference delegates in the capital of Canada use the service. Some do so openly while others—ambassadors, a few members of parliament—are more discreet. Damien had once run into a senator at Wilfrid’s in the Château Laurier, engaged in a tête-à-tête with a man evidently supplied by Un Choix Capital.” (NOTE 15) In his very first novel, Temps pascal, Daniel Poliquin notes that Ottawa’s francophone gays prefer the word gai to homosexual, the latter being “cheerless and overly scientific.” He observes, “It isn’t the first anglicism to catch on in Ottawa (or Paris, or Montreal) and it won’t be the last.” (NOTE 16)
Sylvestre also gives one of the few glowing description of Ottawa in his Amour, délice et orgie. Sylvestre, a Franco-Ontarian who spent 30 years living and working in the capital, likes to remind readers that the city is full of “civil servants proud to frequent the National Arts Centre and happy to ride their bikes in the Gatineau hills and skate on the Rideau Canal.” (NOTE 17)
Children’s and Young Adult Literature
Ottawa has also come into its own in children’s and YA literature. Novelist Dominique Demers from Hawkesbury, Ontario created a young hero loosely based on Sir Lancelot whose grandfather lives in Ottawa: “Sometimes, in my Sir Lancelot dreams, I mounted a “haughty steed” as they say in the books, and set off to attack my grandfather’s fortress in Ottawa. I found him in in bed in his ridiculous drawers and, without hesitating, thrust my sword into his throat.”(NOTE 18)
Until her death in January 2010 Françoise Lepage edited the Cavales collection at Éditions L'Interligne, where she also published her final YA novel, Les Chercheurs d'étoiles. The book is full of Ottawa landmarks and traditions: the ByWard Market, Parliament Hill, the Rideau Canal, the Cenotaph, the changing of the guard for Canada Day. The story is told in the voice of main character Noémie and features her childhood friend Grégoire. Twelve-year-old Noémie lives in Ottawa and dreams of becoming a mime, but her mother is strictly against it, not seeing how anyone, “let alone a woman,” could make a living in this way. But at Canada Day celebrations Noémie meets a gypsy who sells her a “magician’s spy glass” that shows a film, a story that shows her how to “soar to new heights” and get what she wants out of life.
Prize-Winning Franco-Ontarian Authors with an Ottawa Connection
Françoise Lepage, Maurice Henrie and Daniel Poliquin have all won the prestigious Trillium Book Award, Ontario’s top prize for authors. The award opens doors and helps Franco-Ontarian literature attract notice in other provinces. The same goes for Radio-Canada’s Prix des lecteurs, a readers’ award that Poliquin won for La Kermesse. Through novels, short stories and tales Franco-Canadian authors paint a portrait of Ottawa—sometimes rediscovering ghosts of the past, sometimes making readers laugh but also providing food for thought. These writers are not afraid to mix fact and fiction, going from ironic to comedic modes and putting Ottawa on the map along the way.
Writer and Book Reviewer for Toronto’s L'Express
1. Benjamin Sulte, Au coin du feu : histoire et fantaisie. Quebec City: Typographie de C. Darveau, 1882, p. 160.
2. Jean-Baptiste Proulx, À la Baie d'Hudson ou récit de la première visite pastorale de Mgr N.-Z. Lorrain. Montreal: Librairie Saint-Joseph, 1886, p. 23.
3. Honoré Beaugrand, Jeanne la fileuse : épisode de l'émigration franco-canadienne aux États-Unis. Fall River, no editor, 1878, p. 239.
4. Alonié de Lestres, L'Appel de la race. Montreal: Bibliothèque de l'Action française, 1922, p. 39.
5. Jean-Louis Gagnon, Les apostasies, vol. 1 : Les coqs du village. Montreal: Éditions La Presse, 1985, p. 41.
6. Charlotte Savary, Le Député. Montreal: Éditions du Jour, 1961, p. 68.
7. François Loranger et Claude Levac, Le chemin du Roy. Montreal: Leméac, 1969, p. 53.
8. Maurice Henrie, La Vie secrète des grands bureaucrates. Hull: Éditions Asticou, 1989, p. 61.
9. Madeleine Vaillancourt, Ottawa, ma chère. Montreal: Éditions Libre Expression, 1982, p. 151.
10. Daniel Poliquin, Nouvelles de la capitale. Montreal: Éditions Québec Amérique, 1987, p. 128–129.
11. Daniel Poliquin, L'écureuil noir. Montreal: Éditions du Boréal, 1994, p. 22
12. Maurice Henrie, Mémoire vive. Québec: L'instant même, 2003, p. 104.
13. Christian Bode, La Nuit du rédacteur. Ottawa: Éditions Le Nordir, 1996, p. 71.
14. Maurice Henrie, La Chambre à mourir. Quebec City: L'instant même, 1988, p. 87.
15. Paul-François Sylvestre, Homosecret. Ottawa: Éditions Le Nordir, 1997, p. 19.
16. Daniel Poliquin, Temps pascal. Montreal: Éditions Pierre Tisseyre, 1982, p. 45.
17. Paul-François Sylvestre, Amour, délice et orgie. Montreal, Éditions Homeureux, 1980, p. 61.
18. Dominique Demers, Le pari. Montreal: Éditions Québec Amérique, 1999, p. 57.
Beaugrand, Honoré, Jeanne la fileuse : épisode de l'émigration franco-canadienne aux États-Unis, Fall River, [s.é.], 1878.
Bode, Christian, La Nuit du rédacteur, Ottawa, Éditions Le Nordir, 1996.
Demers, Dominique, Le pari, roman, Montréal, Éditions Québec Amérique, 1999.
Gagnon, Jean-Louis, Les apostasies, tome 1 (Les coqs du village), autobiographie,Montréal, Éditions La Presse, 1985
Groulx, Lionel, sous le pseudonyme Alonié deLestres, L'Appel de la race,Montréal, Bibliothèque de l'Action française, 1922.
Henrie, Maurice, La Chambre à mourir, roman, Québec, Éditions L'instant même, 1988.
Henrie, Maurice, La Vie secrète des grands bureaucrates, Hull, Éditions Asticou, 1989.
Henrie, Maurice, Mémoire vive, Québec, Éditions L'instant même, 2003.
Lepage, Françoise, Les Chercheurs d'étoiles, roman, Ottawa, Éditions L'Interligne,coll. Cavales, 2008.
Loranger, François et Claude Levac, Le chemin du Roy, comédie patriotique,Montréal, Éditions Leméac, 1969
Nézyme, La Patrie, Montréal, 12 octobre 1918.
Poliquin, Daniel, Temps pascal, roman, Montréal, Éditions Pierre Tisseyre, 1982
Poliquin, Daniel, Nouvelles de la capitale, Montréal, Éditions Québec Amérique, 1987
Poliquin, Daniel, L'écureuil noir, roman, Montréal, Éditions du Boréal, 1994
Proulx, Jean-Baptiste, À la Baie d'Hudson ou récit de la première visite pastorale de Mgr N.-Z. Lorrain, Montréal, Librairie Saint-Joseph, 1886.
Savary, Charlotte, Le Député, Montréal, Éditions du Jour, 1961.
Sulte, Benjamin, Au coin du feu : histoire et fantaisie, Québec, Typographie de C. Darveau, 1882
Sylvestre, Paul-François, Amour, délice et orgie, nouvelles, Montréal, Éditions Homeureux, 1980
Sylvestre, Paul-François, Homosecret, roman, Ottawa, Éditions Le Nordir, 1997
Vaillancourt, Madeleine, Ottawa, ma chère, Montréal, Éditions Libre Expression, 1982.
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