The Errant Canadians

It’s fun to see Jean-Paul Riopelle, now considered to have been of Canada’s foremost artists, described as a “young abstract painter” in Les Canadiens errants, a 1956 National Film Board documentary. He describes the open atmosphere of Paris as being particularly conducive to the creation of art. Implicitly, of course, he is referring to the atmosphere back home in Quebec, which was decidedly hostile to any sort of innovative thinking. In 1948, when Riopelle joined fifteen other artists and intellectuals in publishing the Refus global, a manifesto against the conservative Quebec establishment of the era, he was essentially chased out of town. He moved to Paris in 1949 and he continued to split his time between France and Canada until the 1990s.

Canada has always been a country of immigrants but what isn’t as widely known is that it has been, for just as long, a country of emigrants. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, immigration and a high birth rate were the only things preventing Canada from losing population as hundreds of thousands of people left for better economic prospects in the United States. Throughout its history, many of its luminaries have found it more worthwhile to live abroad — Mordecai Richler in London, Leonard Cohen in Greece, Mavis Gallant and Anne Hébert in Paris, just to name a few. Even today, an estimated two million Canadians live outside of Canada.

What interests me about this is how the expatriate experience has informed the Canadian identity. Unfortunately, the film above doesn’t really offer much in that regard, dwelling mainly on the surface of why such talented people decided to leave Canada for Paris and London. Unlike immigrants, who leave their countries to join family abroad or to pursue better educational or economic opportunities elsewhere, expats tend to come from positions of relative privilege. For them, moving abroad is a lifestyle choice more than anything else. That has been my experience in Hong Kong, at least, and from what what I can glean in Les Canadiens errants, it was true in 1950s Europe, too.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Monday December 15 2008at 04:12 am , filed under Europe, Society and Culture, Video and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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