It’s shocking how casually and quickly Claude Jutra’s star has fallen from the Quebec firmament for crimes that were apparently common knowledge long before the deceased director’s name was chosen, 17 years ago, to honour the best of Quebec cinema.
Actually, the shock comes not from the speed with which action was taken to erase Jutra’s name everywhere from movie halls to street signs, but from the decades it took for the whispers of his sex with boys to reach the public. When Jutra biographer Yves Lever decided to devote four pages of his 360-page book to the filmmaker’s relationships with young boys, he told the Huffington Post Quebec he had no idea it would create such a whirlwind.
His publisher didn’t even deem it worth mentioning on the book’s official web page.
“Even though I knew this was going to cause a little stir, I did not expect it to that degree. I’m frankly amazed, because many people I met for the purposes of the book knew that about Claude Jutra,” Lever told HuffPo.
“It was a period in the history of Quebec where love between an adult and a child was celebrated by several artists. I’m not trying to defend it, but you need to put everything in context with the years 1960 to 1970.” Lever then goes on to say something that smacks of an apology to Jutra fans for bringing it up at all. “ Yes, he had reprehensible relations at the age of 40 with 14-year-old victims,” said Lever, “but I couldn’t avoid (talking about) this dark part of the man.”
Part of the context cited by Lever and others was the widespread and often violent repression of gays and lesbians in that era. Although Jutra did little to hide his orientation, the sexuality of Quebec vedettes wasn’t something openly discussed in the pages of La Presse or on Radio-Canada’s D’une génération à l’autre.
The other “context” raised by some Jutra defenders was that the age of sexual consent at the time was only 14 (it was only raised to 16 in 2008), so he wasn’t really committing any crimes then, was he?
It turns out that at least some of Jutra’s sexual partners were in fact much younger, but the argument that it was legal to manipulate a 14-year-old into having sex with a 40-year-old man at the time doesn’t excuse behaviour that, regardless of context, involved sexual exploitation of minor children. Legal or not, it was an activity that only a morally bankrupt crowd of sycophants could agree to keep hidden from parents whose sons were in close contact with Jutra. It was an activity that was bound to leave deep psychological scars on many of its young victims, yet people close to Jutra, and the man himself, chose to see consent where they should have seen coercion, manipulation and desperation.
To keep that secret even 30 years after Jutra’s death is so incomprehensible that one has to assume his confidantes have been suffering from some sort of collective amoral amnesia.
Jutra’s sexual orientation will be exploited by some to either demonize or mitigate the circumstances, but the public outrage would be just as fierce and justified if we were to discover that some other cultural icon was regularly soliciting teenage girls for sex, trading on fame for fellatio.
The issue isn’t sexual orientation but betrayal of our obligation to protect our children from predators who are much wiser in the ways of the world, experts at grooming and coaxing and cloaking their sins, both moral and legal.
But where do we go from here?
The Jutra affair is hardly an isolated incident. Quebec is far from being the only place it happens. The BBC’s Jimmy Saville scandal in Britain and the Silvio Berlusconi “bunga bunga” parties in Italy reveal that privileged elites are quite adept at catering surreptitiously to their lowest vices with little regard for public opinion. They are aided in this by a rather large group of people who — like all the those who partied with Jutra over the years and watched him leave with children under his wings — willingly keep their secrets.
Word leaks out regardless, as party guests offer, with a nudge and a wink, “inside knowledge” to their hairdressers or accountants. Soon even journalists begin to hear about private events involving prominent guests engaging in activities that would make a TMZ announcer blush. But there’s a hesitation to look into it.
“It’s his private life, after all. I mean, would I want someone to report on what I did after that office party last year? It’s probably just bullshit anyway. Besides, if no one else is reporting it, it can’t be serious, can it?”
Rumours of prominent Canadian politicians meeting in Montreal hotel rooms for regular sex parties? “Nah. Anyway, didn’t Kennedy do much worse?”
That’s the type of rationalization that allowed Jutra’s activities to remain hidden for decades, considered so banal that his biographer seemed shocked that everyone didn’t already know and, if not actually approving it, had agreed to look the other way.
Jutra’s is not the only untold tale. He is not the only well-known Quebecer about whom it can be said that their basest vices were and are “common knowledge” among anyone with an ear to the mucky ground covered by our tattered red carpets.
Let’s hope, for the sake of future victims, we don’t have to wait until after their deaths to seek out and expose the naked truth.
We won’t need to strip our counterfeit heroes’ names from the marquee or the monument tomorrow if we only have the courage today to expose their names, and their sins, long before they ever make it onto a pedestal. ■