John Walker and Jacques Godbout in Quebec My Country Mon Pays.
Filmmaker John Walker was born in Montreal before the Quiet Revolution, the 1960s movement that saw Quebec move out from under the thumb of the church and come into its own as, many argued, a distinct society. Out of that grew the separatist movement, the actions of the Front de libération du Québec, the 1980 referendum and an exodus of English-speaking Quebecers who no longer felt at home in a province where many (like Walker’s own family) had been for centuries.
It’s Walker’s father’s death that originally pushed him towards making the documentary Quebec My Country Mon Pays, out in theatres this week. Walker himself has mostly lived in Toronto since his beginnings as a filmmaker, but his family’s history in Quebec goes back hundreds of years.
“As I’ve sort of implied in the beginning of the film, my father died and we had to bring him back to Quebec to bury him with the rest of his family,” Walker explains. “It brought back the whole story and the memories of my dad being somewhat in exile from his family and his friends after he’d moved away from Quebec. It’s also a point in your life when you’re looking back and reflecting on things — reflecting on what shaped you. That’s why it became such a personal film.”
Throughout the film, Walker traces not only the general history of Quebec from the 1950s on but also the personal history of his family. He interviews relatives of his father as well as various Quebec luminaries like Denys Arcand and Jacques Godbout. In the film’s last act, he also traces the parallel lives of two young Montrealers on each side of the linguistic debate. It’s pretty rare to see people like Arcand speak about this era of Quebec in films that come from an anglo perspective, and Walker often puts himself in somewhat contradictory positions. (He outlines his own personal political affiliations over time — suffice to say they run the gamut.)
“It was a difficult film to make, because I didn’t want to generalize,” he continues. “What helped was making it personal – it’s just my story, you know, but that’s hard. It’s hard to have the confidence to tell a personal experience. (…) In Quebec, you have to navigate your relationship with Quebec as an anglophone. What I was searching for was, as I say in the film, history is a path to understanding. You have to challenge half-truths. There’s myths that all the English are wealthy and that they all live in Westmount, that they eventually took all their money and left. That’s, you know, the cliché. But there weren’t 600,000 people that lived in Westmount! Yet the idea remains that only wealthy people from Westmount left. That’s a half-truth.
“The other thing was that I wanted to make it clear that I didn’t leave Quebec because I didn’t like it, or because I didn’t like francophone culture,” he says. “I was inspired by Québécois filmmakers and inspired by the culture, but I also have an immense respect for the importance of language within culture. I come from an Irish-Scottish culture and we spoke Gaelic, another language that was colonized by English. In Ireland and Scotland, they’re still fighting to retain Gaelic. There’s Gaelic television, but it’s a minority language. The interesting thing about growing up in Quebec as an English-speaking Quebecer is that you’re in a minority. All minority cultures have to fight for their rights. You have to somehow make noise to survive.”
It certainly doesn’t constitute a spoiler to say that Quebec My Country Mon Pays doesn’t exactly end with every loose end tied up neatly, or any solutions, really. “I don’t want to point any fingers,” says Walker. “I’m not the victim here. It’s not about feeling that I’m a victim. This is the impact of what happened, and the ultimate lesson of the film is this idea by Jean-Paul Sartre that, sometimes, when you live amongst other cultures, you’re influencing each other, but you’re not really aware of how you’re being influenced. This is a film that shows the impact of what was going on during the Quiet Revolution.” ■
Quebec My Country Mon Pays opens in theatres this Friday, June 23.