Explaining Poutine

Sacre Blues: An Unsentimental Journey Through Quebec
Published on October 1, 2000

Sacre Blues: An Unsentimental Journey Through Quebec
Taras Grescoe

McClelland & Stewart

Don’t be put off by the tone of this book’s first chapter, “Poutine Nation,” which seems tacked on to make the book appeal to the hipster in Edmonton or Toronto but will probably elicit groans from anyone who has passed through a Montreal Cégep. Fortunately, the rest of the book is well written, meticulously researched, and relevant to post-referendum Quebecers and non-Quebecers alike.

A Vancouverite who lived for many years in France before settling in Montreal, Grescoe admits to bringing an outsider’s perspective to Quebec. This position makes it easier for him to take a stand on some controversial issues. He seeks out well-spoken, opinionated people to give both sides of any debate. The book is charmingly readable even while gently dropping statistical nuggets in the reader’s path. Grescoe’s descriptions of his interview subjects often border on the lyrical. I laughed out loud at many of his quick-witted observations: poutine is “a heart attack on a plate,” Quebec is “Canada’s smoking section.”

Grescoe has no patience for outdated models of Quebec which do not reflect the modern cosmopolitan reality. He looks around and sees faces which are never represented in Quebec culture, and he is not shy to accuse older artists and politicians of explicit racism. Huge hydro-electric projects created a substantial Québécois middle class at the expense of the Cree, so “The Natives’ tales of victimization blow away the competing victim discourse of Quebec’s nationalist elites, making them look like a bunch of whining children.” He does not limit his attacks to separatists, however, and is just as scathing with narrow-minded Anglos, one of the “most strident, self-righteous minorities in North America.” His condemnation of Mordecai Richler is particularly acidic.

Young Anglos who stay in Quebec are being forced to adapt alongside the immigrant population. Young Francophones who wish to succeed realize they must embrace les autres. The new generation is too busy with survival to worry about the outdated politics being argued by tenured baby boomers.

The most interesting chapter for me was the discussion of the French language and the etymology of uniquely Québécois expressions. The casual adoption of anglicisms, now hip in Paris, has become dangerously instinctual in Quebec. This is a place where buying a dictionary becomes a political act. Grescoe discusses the joual pride movement with Michel Tremblay, and notes that “much of the vocabulary and pronunciation that modern Parisians find alternately barbaric and charming is actually faithfully preserved aristocratic French of the seventeenth century…” He even slips in a few of the 890 liturgical swear words, or sacrés.

Other chapters present Quebec as a cultural hybrid, a mix of American cowboy kitsch and the high culture of France, which results in a “form of cultural schizophrenia.” Where else could a literary novelist like Victor-Lévy Beaulieu write a téléroman which shares the dial beside La Petite Vie, a parody of the genre that “sends academics into paroxysms of postmodern ecstasy.” Television seems to be Quebec’s strongest cultural stronghold.

In the end Grescoe’s thesis is clear: “Quebec’s profound distinctness on this continent, its continued – though increasingly diluted – defiance of the Anglo-American notion of individualism at all costs, means that Canada has available to it a different way of looking at society, an original blueprint.” He is then quick to point out that the issue of distinctness becomes a moot point if the threat of economic globablization is not addressed.

This book would be a perfect Christmas gift for my father, a Liberal Vancouver Loyalist and John Ralston Saul fanatic. I want him to know about where I live because, like Grescoe, “I didn’t begin to understand Canada until I started understanding Quebec.” mRb

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