Drawn & Quarterly
White Rapids is the English-language release of Quebec cartoonist Pascal Blanchet’s historically-based story about the rise and fall of Rapide Blanc, a village purpose-built in fine style in 1928 by the Shawinigan Water and Power Company. The company constructed high-quality brick houses and other amenities to entice working families to move up north to service its remote Rapide Blanc hydroelectric power station. White Rapids offers us a stunning view into the villagers’ seemingly idyllic lives in this remarkable setting.
But what policy creates, policy can also destroy. With the nationalization of Quebec’s power industry in 1963, together with the increasing automation of hydroelectric installations, Rapide Blanc becomes an anachronism, and Hydro Québec moves to shut down the town.
While the book does capture the villagers’ profound disappointment at having to vacate their homes, no one puts up any real fight when the decision to close the town and relocate the workers comes down. The village newspaper faithfully reports Hydro Québec’s claims that the workers will be consulted and given new jobs. How could this apparent fait accompli have been pulled off so smoothly? Did these blue-collar families really just pack up their cars, leave their lovely homes, and drive away forever from their delightful little town, as they do in this book?
Then again, the absence of such political struggle does underline the relative powerlessness of ordinary people against the grand scale of economic policy decisions. But the workers of Rapide Blanc didn’t live on such a scale. We glimpse their rich, hope-filled individual lives while the village thrives, but we see very little of them as the community closes.
Critics could fault White Rapids for being more about style than substance, and they would be partially correct – but that may be Blanchet’s point. His streamlined style relocates White Rapids from the realm of history to that of myth.
Canada’s history – and to a great extent Quebec’s – is a story of resource extraction on a massive scale. Pre-planned, prefabricated ghost towns litter the North American landscape, not just in the Old West, but wherever some mine, dam, or reactor once stood. In that sense, White Rapids represents a potent Canadian myth. Blanchet’s treatment aptly reminds us how the decisions handed down by government and big business can make tourists out of us all – here today, gone tomorrow.
Indeed, only two things in this book can rightly bear the label “indigenous.” The first is the Wemotaci Indian Reserve, which is featured only once, as a dot on a map. The second is “The General,” a great blind pike of such power that he’s said to shake the town’s bridge whenever he collides with it. Both, we may presume, are still there. mRb