Monday, May 21, 2012

Victoria Day by Any Other Name, or Why Are French-Canadian Heroes Such Losers?

For most of the Commonwealth, today is Victoria Day, a paid holiday set aside to celebrate the monarch who gave us Sherlock Holmes, werewolf-killing diamonds and GURPS Steampunk (hey, you celebrate your way, and I'll celebrate mine). Of course, for French-Canadian members of the Commonwealth, it's kind of a sore point to pay tribute to an English icon. Not that I personally care, but as an Acadian, that means bowing down to the crown that ordered the Great Deportation of 1755 (obviously, that's not Vicky's fault, but still). And for Quebeckers, well, they dislike anything English as a matter of course. Result: In Quebec - and by extension the rest of French Canada - have replaced Victoria Day with the Feast of Dollard des Ormeaux, named after a great patriot and French Canadian hero. Who is he?
Revisionist history claims he was actually a pirate, but they're just trying to make him cooler. The story goes that this 17th-century settler/soldier took part in New France's own Alamo, the Battle of Long Sault, where fewer than 20 patriots holed up in a stockade held off some 700 Iroquois warriors for several days before being quite massacred indeed. The Iroquois for "reasons unknown" chose not to advance to the next outpost. I think I know the reason: They were laughing their asses off. Because here's the twist:

Apparently, or so the legend goes, as they held off the "savages", Dollard had a brilliant idea. He crafted a dirty bomb with a powder keg and threw it outside the walls of the stockade, hoping to kill and disperse the Iroquois. However, the damn thing bounced off the branches of a tree and fell back into the camp, killing everyone. Slow clap. Even if it didn't really happen that way, it hardly matters, because that's how it is recounted and that's why he got a holiday (and towns, and streets) named after him. Thus Dullard joins the ranks of absurdly-celebrated French Canadian Failure Figures, along with Manitoba's Louis Riel (hanged for being a half-breed!), Acadian hero Beausoleil Broussard (domestic terrorist!), and all the deported martyrs of the 18th century which the world knows mostly through Longfellow's Evangeline (they didn't fight back!). Stories of loss and failure. At least Davy Crockett didn't die by his own hand.

My theory is that it's because we're from Catholic stock, raised to think of sacrifice (death on the cross) as the ultimate heroic act. Different Christian faiths focus on different aspects of the story, but Catholicism, with its suffering saints and martyrs, which you can somehow pray to in a distorted kind of polytheism, hammer home the lesson about sacrifice. Who was responsible for making Dollard des Ormeaux a star? Who told his story after his death? Catholic nuns, that's who.

Queen Vic or martyred patriots? You be the judge. It's too lazy a day for me to do so.


SallyP said...

Gosh, I love history!

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm Catalan, and our National Day remembers not our greatest victory, but our greatest military defeat! We fought to the bitter end just to be forgotten by the outside world. Just like in the Spanish Civil War. Nuff said.

I thought Canadians had a better opinion of Luis Riel. He fought for the Metis rights,no?

For another French-Canadian peculiar "hero" read Hugo Pratt "Jesuit Joe". Where the protagonists shots a bird just becouse "There is too much happiness in this wood".

Happy Feast of Dollard des Ormeaux


Siskoid said...

Interesting leads Roger, thanks!

Yes, of course Riel fought for Metis rights, but he still ends on the wrong side of a mob. I didn't mean to imply he deserved to win a Darwin Award like Dollard (he's more of a Martin Luther King figure). Bad things just seem to happen to Canadian heroes.

Anonymous said...

Well, Catalan heroes had a knack for being shot: Rafael Casanova? gun shot. Lluis Companys? Fusilated. Even Guifré el Pilós was killed by a lance (well, I don't know if it was thrown or simply stacked in, but...).