Monday, April 16, 2007

I am a lumberjack and I'm okay

I don't know if most of us look around and ponder what's in a name. Buildings, streets, bridges, the mundane stuff, you know...One of the large institutional buildings in the Portage complex in Gatineau is named 'edifice Luc Montferrand'. I must confess that upon discovering who Luc Montferrand was, I immediately thought about a Jack Granatstein lecture (sometime in the late 90s) that bore the theme "Who Killed Canadian history"?

The Americans have their Paul Bunyan and almost all the kids in Canada have heard about this mythical logger-cum giant creature, whether anyone with that name and occupation had actually existed or not. It's one of those pop culture references, the benign strongman, a Disneyfied character that nevertheless come out of a tangible, not-so removed past when many of the settlers on the continent would have to have been loggers, clearing patches of land, wresting a living from a homestead...the whole heroic, hardscrabble, "when men were men" period of time. Okay, I take it that the American media machine has been really, really successful at colonizing the terrain of public imagination. But still, Canada can do better with these stories. I (being a history buff and all) had never heard of Luc Montferrand in my home province of Alberta or anywhere else in the country, never read about him in history books, seen stories of him, not until I'd moved to the nation's capital.

Luc Montferrand was not only Bunyan-like, not only Canadian, but he bore the distinction of being a real, documented person. He's never had a cartoon modelled after him or a comic-book. This guy was a giant among the relatively small-statured population of the early 19th century. He stood at 6' 4'' and was so strong that he would entertain people by lifting objects that were not meant to be lifted and bending objects that were not meant to be bent. Today, he's be on TV, playing in the NFL, or in the world's strongest man competition.

In the 1830s and 40s, Luc was simply a very efficient logger. And a sort of pre-union advocate for workplace equality. That meant knocking heads, earning respect by being very good at knocking heads, and knocking more heads. So much so that Luc's most famous episode - for which he is celebrated in Quebec till this day - consisted of him single-handedly fighting and holding back a "mob" of mostly Irish lumberjacks, on a bridge. See, the French-Canadian and Irish forestry workers in the Ottawa valley did not get along back then....the French-Canadian contigent felt threatened by the then-recently arrived Irish 'taking their jobs'. Things would get predictably violent, one might almost want to draw a comparison to the feuding between rival mafia clans or between soccer hooligans. The times were rough beyond our belief, with Bytown having one of the highest assault and murder rates on the continent. In this harsh corner of the Empire, Luc was a highly respected guy, partially because he used his natural advantages sparingly (beat up ten people instead of twenty, etc) and never went overboard by actually killing anyone.

So, there you have it, a genuine frontier hero, a larger-than life but real life character. He gets a few honorable mentions here and there, but, no textbook space, no TV show, no statue, not even a good spoof on Rick Mercer. It almost doesn't matter today what the causes are; the fact the guy was French and fell victim to the 'two solitudes' schizoid cultural personna, or whether he's been drowned out by the tide of Ottawa beige, the relentless drive to sanitize and render our own region's history as boring as possible.

Whatever the giant lumberjack character stands for, for you (you can laugh at the hick past of Bytown, if you want), the story actually makes me little bit sad. It makes me sad because we, as a city and as a culture, are so weak and spotty in acknowledging our past, so slow to celebrate the bits of history that were entertaining, noteworthy, and so inept at preserving a good story for future generations. If Seinfeldt was successful by being a show about nothing, is Ottawa's story a story of multi-generational Seinfelds?


joncormier said...

I think he is one of the foundations of the Bunyon mythos. At least there is a basis of French Canadian lumberjacks in the creation of Paul Bunyon.

Anonymous said...

I've never heard of Luc Montferrand but Joseph Montferrand is the Ottawa valley lumberjack character known as "Mufferaw Joe" (anglicised) in Stomping Tom Connor's song.