[Série Sortir du cadre] “The language debate”: the parliamentary tower of Babel

The duty goes beyond the framework of the National Assembly in this series which revisits the highlights of our political history. Today, The language debate by Charles Huot.

The Green Room of the Quebec Parliament Building is cluttered with scaffolding at the beginning of April 1913. Perched in the heights of the Lower House, the painter Charles Huot brings the final touches to the canvas on which he has been working for nearly three years. The monumental work still overlooks the political contest a century later, but we no longer notice it, like all the paintings that have remained a little too long on our walls.

The language debate by Charles Huot illustrates one of the first sittings of the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada, elected in 1792. In this 32e year of the reign of George III, the dress code depicted by the artist seems rather rigid, the deputies in frock coats still wearing the white wig which is about to go out of fashion.

The Lower House brought together the colonial elite of the time, made up of lords and merchants. There are about ten slave owners (identified in red on the image). Starting with the representative of Montreal West, James McGill (1), who would found the eponymous university at the beginning of the next century. This influential minority had no trouble defeating the bill to abolish slavery in Lower Canada in April 1793.

Anglophones represent one-third of elected officials in a colony that is nearly 90% Francophone. Their omnipresence in political discussions has forced Canadians to take a stand on questions that have been dormant since the British Conquest of 1759. historian Gaston Deschênes in an interview with The duty. This is the case during the session of January 21, 1793, where the deputies vote on the language of use in the debates and the texts of law.

The exchanges are rather stormy that day if we trust the chair overturned on the floor (2), to the left of Charles Huot’s canvas. Deschênes smiles at the mention of this detail. “This chair has caused a lot of talk, while the rest of the painting shows people well seated talking. The accounts that we have of these debates do not allude to the fact that there would have been unrest,” he said.

parliamentary chapel

The first parliament of Lower Canada was established in the chapel of the episcopal palace of Quebec, at the top of the Côte de la Montagne which linked the lower town to the upper. Erected at the very end of the XVIIe century, this majestic building was severely damaged by the British bombardments of General Wolfe in 1759. Restored at great expense in the years following the Conquest, it opened its doors to elected officials in December 1792.

Huot has faithfully reconstructed the 2,340 square foot chapel, the equivalent of two-thirds of the Blue Room of the National Assembly. However, he reversed his windows, which would normally have overlooked the gardens of the Séminaire de Québec. Instead, we see the snow-capped cliffs of Cap Diamant overlooked by the Château Saint-Louis (3), the official residence of the British governors, the remains of which can be found today under the Dufferin terrace.

According to Gaston Deschênes, this austere silhouette recalls the domination of the executive over the legislature. « It’s the governor’s eye on the Chamber, » observes the historian who worked for nearly 30 years in the National Assembly. The armed wing of the British authorities is also represented by one of the bastions of the citadel of Quebec, which can be seen through the panes of the central window of the chapel (4). This is a mistake since the fortress will not be erected until the early 1820s.

The rood screen (5) acts as a gallery for the curious. Seeing it for the first time in April 1913, the parliamentary correspondent of The Press will be surprised by the presence of female spectators in this gallery. “Were there suffragettes back then? asks the incredulous journalist, who does not seem to know that Lower Canadians could vote in certain circumstances until 1849.

Domesticated parliamentarianism

Charles Huot retraced the family portraits of 9 of the 50 elected officials of 1792 in order to personalize the anonymous silhouettes of his first sketches. This quest for authenticity explains the fixed attitude of certain deputies, as demonstrated by the art historian Robert Derome. This is the case of Pierre-Amable de Bonne (6), whose gaze fixes the spectator as if he were posing in front of an easel.

Huot’s painting has everything to please the Liberal Minister of Public Works, Louis-Alexandre Taschereau, whose speeches at the Salon Vert will now take place under the benevolent gaze of his great-grandfather, Gabriel-Elzéar (7), who died in 1809. There is also the notary Joseph Papineau (8), the father of the future tribune whose quest for democracy will lead to the suspension of Parliament in the wake of the patriot rebellions of 1837.

However, the hero of the canvas is Michel-Eustache Chartier de Lotbinière (9), who can be seen gesticulating at the foot of the speaker’s throne. His speech of January 21, 1793 contributed to the establishment of bilingualism in the House and in official documents. The British government, however, reversed the decision of the French-speaking majority of Lower Canada by making English the sole official language of Parliament. Despite this diktat, bilingualism will remain in place in discussions between elected officials.

For Gaston Deschênes, Charles Huot’s canvas bears witness to a structural problem in our political system, from the debate on languages ​​in 1793 to the Charter of the French language in 1977. « Parliament decides something, and there is an authority outside who decides that it will not happen like that. It describes well the limits of the power of the Parliament of Quebec, we are not far from the same point, ”he argues.

Artist in Parliamentary Residence

To see in video

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