An Ode to “Loveletter to St. Boniface”

An Ode to “Loveletter to St. Boniface”
Written by Stéphane Oystryk
Published: December 2011 

St. Boniface Cathedral
ABOVE: The St. Boniface Cathedral burns.

Watch Loveletter to St.Boniface HERE!

One of my favourite moments in Mireille Huberdeau’s (now known as Rémy Huberdeau) documentary short, Loveletter to St. Boniface, is the scene where she scales a wall to reach the St. Boniface Cathedral roof. It must be the middle of snowy January. The roof looks slick and slippery. Undaunted with her camera in hand, Huberdeau carries on to the top and treats us to a rooftop view of two kids with hoodies in the dimly lit ruins below. They dance like goofs for the camera, smiling and free. The scene so captured my imagination that it inspired the Cathedral scenes in my short film, FM Youth.

The Cathedral itself has always been a magnet for us living in St. Boniface. We’re drawn to these ruins that are steeped within the very roots of our identity and our history. Whether you’re religious or not makes no difference. You know that all of your ancestors have passed through this very place since the start of it all. We hang out on her steps late at night with our friends and talk about what’s going on in the neighbourhood. We air out all our secrets and theirs too. We try to figure out where we belong.

It must have been about six or seven years ago. I remember seeing a poster with Burton Cummings’ head and something about Franco-Manitoban films taped to the door of the Centre Culturel Franco-Manitobain. Burton Cummings was a pretty polarizing figure in the French community at the time. His ties to Salisbury House and Mayor Sam Katz arose suspicion that he may have been involved in the deal to tarnish L’Esplanade Riel’s vacant “1-million-dollar-toilet” bridge space with a Sal’s. Needless to say, Burton’s likeness sold me on this screening.

I had recently graduated from the U of M’s Film Studies program and I had a desire to know more about my own culture’s films. The screening included some of the earliest films from Manitoba, shot by l’Abbé Léon Rivard, and a lot of experimental films, from Québec and elsewhere, that left me scratching my head as to their relevance to the Franco-Manitoban theme. However, there was one short Franco-Manitoban documentary film that stood out for me and has stayed with me ever since. Mireille Huberdeau’s Loveletter to St. Boniface was a defining moment in my film and cultural education. I consider it one of the starting points for my growing obsession with St. Boniface. It was contemporary, controversial and deeply personal. It challenged everything I’d ever been told to believe in. Most importantly, it was unlike any Franco-Manitoban film I’d ever seen. It spoke to me directly.

The film introduces us to Huberdeau, a young woman, who confides that she struggles with memories of growing up queer in St. Boniface. She tells us that she never felt fully accepted by her own community. She goes on to exposes the elitism and homophobia present in the community and wonders if the Franco-Manitoban culture is in fact dying or if it might actually be suicidal, unwilling to grow and progress with the times.

The last living Reil Rebellion
ABOVE: A still of the last survivor of the Louis Riel Resistance from Rémy Huberdeau’s film, Au pays des esprits / Home of the Buffalo

I have to admit that it was difficult for me to watch. At the time, I was heavily invested in the community. I had acted in plays by the Cercle Molière and the Collège Universitaire de St. Boniface (which she criticizes quite heavily in the film) and I had worked with several Franco-Manitoban youth organizations. I felt like one of the Franco-Manitoban poster children Huberdeau was challenging. It occurred to me that I’d been living in a kind of Franco-Manitoban bubble. Huberdeau was showing me the way out.

My first reaction was anger. How could this person tell me that my Franco-Manitoban community was elitist and prejudice? Suicidal even! After all, weren’t we the ones in danger of assimilation? Fighting to survive? Weren’t the effects of that assimilation fully displayed in the way she spoke? It made me cringe to watch her speak a disjointed mix of French and English throughout most of the film. The way I saw it, if she was going to indict her whole French-speaking community, she should at least speak the correct language and consistently. Speaking a mixture of the two languages was only reserved for casual conversation amongst friends, never for any kind of “official” broadcast. We wouldn’t want others to hear how we’d mangled the French language. Radio-Canada (Manitoba) and Les Productions Rivard even require a certain “universal” accent for their radio and television hosts. The Franco-Manitoban accent isn’t good enough. (I’m reminded of the way my mother softens her accent ever so slightly when she speaks to a Quebecker.)

I realized that I wasn’t accustomed to hearing our own voices being broadcast through speakers. It was embarrassing at first. We all harbour resentment towards our own failings with the French language and those of our peers. We cringe every single time we hear an errant word or an anglicized expression. Huberdeau’s common way of speaking was a statement. It was the equivalent of confronting one’s self in the mirror, receding hairline, wrinkles and all. Hard to take at first but liberating at the same time. It became a representation of truly uninhibited and free Franco-Manitoban expression for me. An undeniable truth.

ABOVE: Stéphane Oystryk

Her observation that homophobia and elitism had stifled the progress of the community began to resonate in me as well. Homophobic undercurrents did in fact exist in St. Boniface at time. I’d witnessed it first hand in Ottawa of all places. By some sort of weird coincidence, I had been in the House of Commons as an observer during the vote to legalize gay marriage. Raymond Simard, federal Liberal MP for St. Boniface, voted against the act that day. He stated that he had voted in the interests of the constituency. It made me sick to my stomach because I knew we weren’t standing on the right side of history. I knew that history would remember St. Boniface’s vote to deny equality to a whole segment of the population.

As for the elitism, Huberdeau observed it in the animosity that immersion students feel towards the French community. It reminded me that, as children, we weren’t ever encouraged to fraternize with immersion kids. Even today, the French school division’s policy does not allow for certain mixed cultural activities with immersion students. The fear is that their “poorer” language skills will hinder our own. This prejudiced attitude instills a feeling of entitlement and superiority in Franco-Manitoban kids. Why did there have to be such a large divide between me and kids who were just trying to learn a new language? I began to agree with Huberdeau that it was hypocritical of the French community to put down immersion kids just because their accent was “too English”, the very same kind of prejudice Franco-Manitobans are subjected to when traveling to Quebec or France.

It’s this kind of wall building that Huberdeau laments as she sits on the roof of a Cathedral that’s been completely gutted by flames and of which only the stone walls remain. I can’t help but think that this image serves as an analogy for her statement that Franco-Manitobans are a suicidal culture. We may do everything possible to insulate our culture from outside influences, but it only suffocates us in the end. There’s nowhere to go from here and there’s nothing new to see. We look back and celebrate our carefully idealized past ad nauseum as today’s voices are muted or simply do not exist.

Provencher Boulevard remains underdeveloped and culturally dead, the “C’est si bon!” signs lining its sidewalks seem to ring false and there are very few venues for the new generation to express themselves in their own words and work towards defining an identity for themselves. Everything is drowned out by an explosion of 55+ condominium projects and nursing home developments that have begun to saturate St. Boniface, a sign of a rapidly ageing population. If what Huberdeau says is true, one day, all that will be left to remember us by will be old folks homes with French names and a Cathedral’s ruined walls standing in the midst of a community gutted of its vibrancy and relevance.

From the first shot, Loveletter to St. Boniface takes the perspective of an outsider looking in. The old Provencher bridge becomes the film’s gateway into a culturally sheltered St. Boniface. We enter from the west or the “Anglo” part of the city as we sometimes refer to it. This opening shot explicitly portrays the division between St. Boniface and the rest of Winnipeg. However, I like to think that bridges aren’t only representative of division in this film. They become a recurring visual trope that seems to entice the viewer to think about what’s on the other side. I feel as though she’s trying to get us to realize that living insulated lives is no way to live at all. Bridges bring people together, they don’t have to be reminders of otherness.

-Stéphane Oystryk


~ by cineflyer on December 1, 2011.

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