Serge Bouchard: the legacy of the “woolly mammoth”


“You have to be demanding,” said Serge Bouchard at the end of the wild sparrowa documentary about his life made as part of the show The major reports, in 2021. Demanding, the anthropologist, writer and radio man was so to the end of his fingertips. Towards himself, first, forcing his thoughts to remain in motion, his mind to remain curious, his gaze to marvel, and his listening to be active. Towards his interlocutors and also towards the public, whom he invited to wisdom, nuance, openness and introspection.

His death in May 2021 sent shock waves through the province. More than an artist or a scientist, Quebec lost a voice; that of reason, some will say, one of the few to resist the contemporary drive for immediacy, to refuse to stick to one position, to weigh the upheavals of one’s conscience.

“The black spruce, glory of prehistory, is an antenna that connects us to eternity,” he wrote in The Black Spruce Prayera posthumous collection of short editorials read on the radio program of It’s crazy, broadcast on ICI Première. She infuses us with a morose wisdom, a long-term melancholy. It’s the tree I lean on, where I rest my spirit, my broken back, my dead legs. The tree under which I drink my cup of tea, resolute, tired, happy in front of the little fire that smells so good. »

For many, Serge Bouchard was like a black spruce, paving the road to common sense: a comfort in the midst of chaos, a beacon resistant to polarization, an angel, perched on the shoulder, to whisper caution, patience , perspective.

Jean-Philippe Pleau, his great friend and co-host of the show, receives weekly messages from listeners who wonder what the anthropologist would have thought of such and such a social subject. He himself has the impression of still being in constant dialogue with him. “It remains in my head, like a radar on which picks up the unthought. In my office, there is an illustration of Serge made by a listener who was able to capture his gaze perfectly. When I’m in a dead end, I turn back to the frame and unblock. He had this gift of creating such a solid bond with people, that he maintained himself beyond death. »

This ability to relate to others and to the world is at the heart of his writing, and is probably one of his greatest and most distinct literary legacies. “I want to say that he had a perfect journey, in his encounter with the other, says philosophy professor and columnist Jérémie McEwen. In one of his books, he recounts a canoe trip north. His face swollen with mosquito bites, he refuses to turn back. He wanted to live the real experience, to meet people and to step aside in front of their reality. He’s done it all his life. Even in chronic illness, even though he couldn’t walk and was in pain, he disappeared when he started talking to someone. »

From intimate to universal

It took time for the literary community to recognize the value of the writing work of Serge Bouchard, who had a unique way of building bridges between individual and collective experience. His essays took on, in addition to an intellectual rigor and a marked erudition, the clothes of the tale, touching at the same time the head, the heart and the child in each of his readers.

“I think that if we wanted to honor him, we should continue this battle and never forget that the quality of the subject is nothing without the literature, the work of form. His talent for proving to us that the intimate experience is not without interest in the face of the world inspires me continuously, ”says the poet Catherine Voyer-Léger, who has often collaborated on the show.

It was therefore from his encounter with what was smallest, the particular, the individual — whether human, flower, drop of water or object — that Serge Bouchard apprehended the world, he told it, deconstructed it, dreamed it. “One of the important things he was able to convey was this very simple idea that each person has a story to tell, and that each of them says something about the world. It is often said of a thing that it is ordinary by referring to the banality. However, for Serge, life, the universal were found in the ordinary”, emphasizes Jean-Philippe Pleau.

Serge Bouchard gave the immense effort that is writing a universal scope. More than that, he wrote for humanity to be better, to bring itself into the world.

For example, this column entitled “In the skin of water”, in which the “woolly mammoth” recalls a radio program where he had adopted the perspective of a drop of water. “Questions arise,” he writes. Does the water prefer to be warm or does it seek the darkness of cold seas? Is she afraid of falling? And above all, in the countries of the Antarctic, is it afraid of falling on a glacier, of being held prisoner, frozen for hundreds of thousands of years? »

The Adventure of Thought

This ability to put oneself in the shoes of all that exists, he called it “the wild empathy of a heart on the lookout, the absolute remedy against neglect”. Against indifference also, certainly, and against fear. He made it a gateway to change the world. “Serge Bouchard gave the immense effort that is writing a universal scope. More than that, he wrote for humanity to be better, to bring itself into the world,” says Michel Biron, editor at Boréal.

To do this, he led by example, encouraging the continual movement of his thought through constant questioning; an attitude that defined his entire relationship with the indigenous peoples, whom he rubbed shoulders with and brought to light throughout his life. “He was able to make the difference before anyone else between appropriation and encounter. At the end of his life, in an interview with Franco Nuovo, he recalled that he had had to build bridges at the start of his career, when no one was interested in the First Nations. Today, he recognized that all he had to do was get out of the way and let the main stakeholders tell their story”, specifies Jérémie McEwen.

His positions were not always unanimous, especially among the younger generations. Each speaker mentions times when he disagreed, but when Serge Bouchard took the time to listen, to let ideas take their course, to prove him right, sometimes.

Quebec had erected him as a sage, but by his attitude, he persisted in pointing himself towards his own deconstruction. “The idea of ​​the great sage is a Quebec ideal that has shaped us as a people, whether we think of René Lévesque or Jean Lesage, for example. Serge Bouchard embodied it, and he was the first to recognize its dangers. He knew that his face was comforting, but he was against single thought, and rejoiced in the growing diversity of thinkers and thinkers. His greatest legacy is to have shown us that it is worth taking the adventure of one’s own thought”, concludes the philosopher.

The words of Serge Bouchard will come to life as part of the Cabaret de la mémoire vivant, a tribute show to outstanding Quebec literary voices who have recently left us, presented at the Salon du livre de Montréal. Wednesday, November 23, at 7:15 p.m., at the Palais des congrès de Montréal.


An earlier version of this text named Catherine Voyer-Léger as Catherine Cormier-Larose.

The Black Spruce Prayer

Serge Bouchard, Boreal, Montreal, 2022, 224 pages

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