Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Workers Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist)

Roland Lepage’s La complainte des hivers rouges

A play that distorts the Patriote’s history

First Published:The Forge Vol. 5, No. 8, March 7, 1980
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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No Quebecois could see La Complainte des hivers rouges (“The Lament of the Red Winters”), which recalls the Patriotes’ insurrection of 1837-38, without being moved and justly feeling proud. But the play’s emotional appeal is a trap, as the author, using this appeal and distorting history, tries to snare us into the dead-end of narrow nationalism.

Dramatic portrait

The play is billed as “a dramatic portrait in twenty-five couplets presenting the hardships of the winters of 1837-38 and 1838-39.” Five men and four women, individually or in chorus, represent all the characters: Quebec “habitants” and their wives, Patriotes, a priest, and several British soldiers.

The play is not a historical reconstruction of events, but a series of different scenes interwoven with recitations and songs to portray the various episodes in the rebellion: a battle, resistance, betrayal, imprisonment and hangings.

In each episode the accent is placed on the “hardships’ the people suffer following the repression that strikes every family following the military defeats. And the form of a lament – a song with a mournful tone, generally on a tragic or religious subject – is well chosen to evoke the people’s suffering.

Distortion of history

The author uses the emotions he draws out of the spectator to hide his distortion of history.

The play drives home the point that everything “is the fault of the English”, then and presumably today. But while the 1837-38 rebellion did target British colonialism, it was not a war between English and French inhabitants of Canada. English-speaking people in Quebec and Upper Canada (today Ontario) joined with the Patriotes to take up arms against colonial rule.

Though in Lower Canada (today Quebec) the Patriotes were fighting the oppression of the Quebec nation as well, the enemy was the same – British colonialism. Solidarity messages were exchanged between the two peoples. The following resolution, which was adopted in July, 1837 in Toronto at a meeting of Upper Canada reformers, is but one example:

The warmest thanks and admiration are due from the Reformers of Upper Canada to the Honorable Louis Papineau... and his compatriots... for their present devoted, honorable and patriotic opposition to the attempt of the British Government to ... overawe them by coercive measures into a disgraceful abandonment of their just and reasonable wishes... The Reformers of Upper Canada are called upon by every tie of feeling, interest and duty, to make common cause with their fellow-citizens of Lower Canada. (in Unequal Union by Stanly Ryerson, Progress Books, 1968, p. 119)

What the play omits makes the struggles of 1837 appear as a fight between the Quebec and English-Canadian nations. This suits narrow nationalists just fine in this pre-referendum period.

Scorn for the people

Along with his contempt for history, the author also holds in contempt the people he claims to pity. The play lays great emphasis on the people’s fear and on defectors and traitors among them. Women are presented as tearful mothers and wives.

Thus he transforms the courage of the Patriotes into humiliation, hiding the fact that these popular rebellions advanced the struggle against colonialism in Canada, despite the military defeats.

In this way he creates a historical shame in the audience that he then uses to serve narrow nationalist aims. The play ends on a long chorus that parallels the PQ’s slogans of today: “Why have we never kicked out the Acts of Union and the Confederations?... Why have we never carried the struggle through to the end? To the end! To the end!”

Narrow nationalism

In La Complainte des Hivers Rouges Roland Lepage has put his art at the service of narrow nationalism. Objectively, this plays into the hands of the PQ and its ’yes’ campaign: distorting history, stirring up and then exploiting the legitimate feelings of the Quebec people.