Ottawa should learn from Québec’s censorship history

By P.A. Sévigny on May 1, 2008

The federal government should take the time to watch Québec journalist Eric Parent’s new film, “Les Ennemis du Cinéma” before letting Canada’s fundamentalist evangelical groups bully him into making a humiliating, and possibly fatal error for his party’s chances in a not-too-distant election.

If fundamentalist leader and spokesman Charles McVety has his way, the fine print in the Harper government’s new Bill C-10 would permit government censors to revoke financial aid for any film or television production they deem to be offensive even after government agencies have already invested the taxpayer’s money in selected productions. As per the new bill, every project receiving federal funding will be examined by government bureaucrats in the new “Canadian Audio-visual Certification Office” who would then take the necessary steps to protect the Canadian public from what they perceive to be displays of sin and corruption considered to be not in the public’s evident and morally acceptable interest.                

Should Prime Minister Harper take the time to consider Parent’s thesis, he might understand how such cultural roadblocks have already proved themselves to be ineffective and nothing less than a humiliation for any government that would propose such legislation. While Québec’s mass media have long moved away and out of the province’s “Grande Noirceur”, right-wing evangelical groups in the rest of the nation seem determined to plunge the ROC (Rest of Canada) into a new post-modern version of Québec’s dark ages.

Not only does Parent’s new documentary take a quasi-academic, medium-cool look at one of the more bizarre episodes in Québec’s modern history, it also provides a sub-text which is a reflection of Québec’s own historic, linguistic and cultural insecurities. Given the hard-core sex and violence that defines much of today’s so-called “popular culture”, it’s hard to believe Québec’s Catholic Church once defined what people could or could not watch on the city’s “silver screens”. While much of Parent’s film deals with the censorship bureau’s prurient and sometimes comic obsessions about human sexuality, its message is nothing less than a warning for today’s journalists, film-makers and their audience.

Parent believes much of today’s contemporary free flow of hard core sex and violence is nothing less than a fiction designed to blur and hide a more disturbing and sometimes dangerous reality. In other words, today’s reality will beat fiction every time. While many believe Québec’s quiet revolution tossed the province’s censors into the trash bin of modern history, Parent’s film takes the trouble to warn the viewer as to how an established society’s censors are still at work and how Québec’s assorted media are still being censored by different people for different reasons and a different purpose.

In 1913, after a long legal battle against Montreal’s Ernest Ouimet, the owner of Montreal’s first cinema, Québec’s new Premier, Lomer Gouin, established the provincial government’s “Bureau de la Censure des vues animés de la Province de Québec”. Based upon a previous censorship model as developed by the “British Board of Film Censors” and inspired by the rigid Catholic dogma of the period, the church would dominate Québec’s censorship bureau for next 50 years. Once opened, the Québec censor’s bureau would soon become one of the strictest censorship institutions in the western world.     While the censor’s scissors tore into many a Hollywood or European classic, Parent’s documentary pays special attention to what was done to Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis, which many consider to be the best French film ever made. Produced shortly after the end of World War II, the film was scheduled to be released in 1946. When psychoanalyst André Lussier organised a screening of the film for students at L’ Université de Montréal , film and church authorities managed to have the event scrapped at the last minute. Lussier’s anger is still one of the high points of the film, leaving no doubt as to the reasons behind the eventual and inevitable success of Québec’s quiet revolution. After the sudden death of Premier Maurice Duplessis, Jean Lesage’s Liberals were swept into power and the government’s censor was soon forced to find other work. 

As the female breast soon became the centrepiece of Québec’s new film industry, Parent believes the origins of today’s new censorship began to take hold as the documentary became the province’s post-modern battlefield. Film-maker and Oscar-winner Denys Arcand recalls how his documentary, On est au cotton, produced by Canada’s own national Film Board, was shelved after executives at strike-bound Dominion Textile asked their Liberal friends in Ottawa to halt its distribution.

While Heritage minister Josée Verner recently told opposition critics her government had absolutely no intention to alter the new bill, more than a few media and political professionals believe the bill has a chance of clearing the Liberal controlled senate’s finance committee. However, others continue to question why Stephen Harper would ever want to repeat Québec Premier Gouin’s mistake and allow religious conservatives to influence what people can do or even think about.


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