Satiric Lament for a City: Mordecai Richler's Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!, Bill 101 and Montreal

Article excerpt

In the last decade of his life, Mordecai Richler found some of his favourite satirical targets - cultural nationalism, special pleading, injustice and anti-Semitism - fused in the province of Quebec's aspiration for nationhood, especially as that ambition was expressed in 1977's Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language, and its many refinements. This law drastically restricted the use of English in Quebec, violating in outrageous fashion, in Richler's view, the democratic right to free expression of Quebec's non-Francophone minorities. Richler first gained notoriety among the Québécois when he published his criticisms in an article for the New Yorker (1991), which became the book Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country (1992). The present article first contextualises Richler's satire in the history of Canadian satire, then briefly in Richler's relation to Montreal, and finally in Quebec history with particular reference to language. It proceeds to offer an explication and analysis of Richler's satirical criticisms of Quebec's nationalism and language laws, and, in closing, shows more extensively that embedded in Richler's satirical analysis is a hitherto overlooked prose elegy for his beloved native city of Montreal.

English-Canadian literature was satirical in its beginnings, and Canada's comic writings have continued to be distinguished for an ironic voice expressing the character of a conservative culture, as Northrop Frye first observed (1960: ix).1 Multi-national immigration has changed the face of both English and French Canada over the past few decades, but the lasting force of English- Canada's dispositional conservatism continues to be expressed in the communal consciousness of its comic writings, whether literary satire or even in such as television's Trailer Park Boys. Such a conservative mindset respects traditions and institutions that have proven their worth over generations; it valorises history and informed individual memory; it is not reactionary but suspects radical change and change for change's sake; and, most relevant eventually for present purposes, it recognises a definitive relation between place and self-identity.

This English-Canadian satirical tradition began in the late eighteenth century with the fictions of the disaffected Loyalists and their descendants in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. It came to first full flowering in the writings of Thomas McCulloch and Thomas Chandler Haliburton: McCulloch's The Letters of Mephibosheth Stepsure, which was serialised in the newspaper The Acadian Recorder (1821-3), and Haliburton's internationally popular The Clockmaker: Or the Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick of Slickville, which was first serialised in Joseph Howe's weekly newspaper The Novascotian, or Colonial Herald (1835). One thing these first Canadian comic writers distinctly have in common with their satirist descendants is devotion to their particular places: in McCulloch's determined moral-ethical programme to renovate his fellow Nova Scotians on their farms; in Haliburton's satirical attempt to define his 'Canadian' place as a middle-way country between England and America; later in Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912), with its ironic championing of the life of smaller communities in the onslaught of metropolitan modernity; and in Mordecai Richler's late twentieth-century satirical attack on Quebec's language laws, particularly Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language, in defence of his native place, Quebec and Montreal. Frederic V. Bogel has shown in The Difference Satire Makes (2001) that the relation between satirist, satirical object and readership is more complexly involved than the persistent New Critical approach to satire had allowed, because the first motive of satire is an unacknowledged similarity between author and object.2 As the present article will show, Richler's satire on the Parti québécois (PQ) and its dream of Quebec independence, particularly as that nationalist ambition was expressed in Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language, serves as an intriguing 'test case' for Bogel's view of satire as an involved rhetorical dance of identification and Derridean 'differance'. …