A writer’s voice: Glendon celebrates the legacy of Jacques Ferron

The Glendon Gallery was the second stop of an itinerant multimedia show from Montreal, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the death of Jacques Ferron: medical doctor, humorist, author, playwright, inveterate letter-writer and originator of the satirical Rhinoceros Party of Canada.

Right: Jacques Ferron

The exhibition, which has been in the works for over a year, was the result of a collaboration of members of the Society of Friends of Jacques Ferron, coordinated by Luc Gauvreau, secretary and Webmaster of the society. In addition to Gauvreau, who has written about and edited some of Ferron’s work, other participants included literary translator Ray Ellenwood, a retired faculty member of the School of Arts & Letters at York’s Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, and Prof. Betty Bednarski, who teaches French at Dalhousie University. Ellenwood and Bednarski are Ferron’s most noted translators into English and are recognized authorities on Ferron’s life and work.

The show brought a host of artifacts and multimedia events to the Glendon Gallery from Jan. 17 to 27. It bore a typically Ferronesque moniker: Ouhanderfoule dé avec Jacques Ferron (Ferron often made humorous use of English words by transliterating them with French spelling, thus wonderful day = ouhanderfoule dé…). The gallery was filled with letters, art objects, documents and books, all attesting to Ferron’s tireless activities both as medical doctor and as political and intellectual gadfly.

At the gallery, a huge origami rhinoceros took centre stage, opposite a surrealistic painting by Milton Jewell, with the title Jacques the Rhino : Portrait of Jacques Ferron. Sporting fluffy animal ears and a prominent horn in place of a nose, the painting was both funny and loving in its portrayal of this charismatic figure. A railway map of Canada covered one wall, pre-dating the coast-to-coast railway connection which united this country. Conceived by Luc Gauvreau and studded with photos and comments, the map represents a comic history of Canada along the lines of Ferron’s works. A thick red line was added where the railway was eventually built, showing a trail of rhinos rolling along where the railroad was going to be, displaying “Rhinoceros territory” from sea to shining sea. The entire graphic concept and design of the exhibition, including the map and the origami rhino, are the work of graphic artist Irène Ellenberger. Audio-visual installations offered film clips and various recordings featuring Ferron and his work

Left: The Rhino Party of Canada’s symbol

A two-day conference on the legacy of Ferron took place on Jan. 19 and 20. It offered numerous presentations and workshops by recognized academics from York, as well as from universities across the country. Among them were Prof. Georges Bérubé of Glendon’s French Studies Department, Prof. Yves Frenette of Glendon’s History Department, Annette Hayward and Susan Murphy from Queen’s University, Barbara Godard, English professor in York’s Faculty of Arts, Alexis Lachaine, teaching assistant in the History Department, Faculty of Arts, and Ellenwood and Bednarski.

 Running in tandem to the exhibit was Theatre Glendon’s student production of Ferron’s play, Le dodu. Under the direction of Glendon drama student Esther Wolf, this Molière-like social comedy displayed the participants’ skills in slapstick, puppetry, commedia dell’arte and other art forms. Students, professors and others in the audience joined in a lively discussion with the actors, following the play’s three showings.

One of the highlights of the conference was the participation of Jean-Daniel Lafond, spouse of Canada’s governor general, Michaëlle Jean, and director of the 2003 film, Le cabinet du Docteur Ferron (Doctor Ferron’s Office), which was screened on Jan. 20. The movie was followed by a presentation by Lafond, and a highly responsive discussion from the floor. The audience included members of the York community, as well as external visitors.

The Ferron exhibition’s next stop is Dalhousie University in Halifax. But anyone who missed the events can still find a wealth of information, video-clips and other media pieces about Ferron, by searching the Radio Canada archives, www.radio-canada.ca, as well as www.ecrivain.net/ferron

“Ferron was a man of immense humanity and enormous erudition,” says Ellenwood. “He was one of Quebec’s most important humanist thinkers, who directed his humour against powerful people who abused that power. These are some of the reasons why we want to remember him and celebrate his work.”

More about Jacques Ferron

Born in 1921 in Louiseville (Maskinongé), Québec, Ferron graduated from Laval University with a medical degree and practiced family medicine most of his life.  He also wrote novels, plays, poetry, political pamphlets, medical texts and numerous letters to newspapers.

A socialist who believed that Quebec needed to separate for its survival as a distinct culture, Ferron also founded the Rhinoceros Party in 1963, a bona fide registered political party, whose credo was promising to keep none of its promises. The rhino was taken as an apt political symbol, representing politicians as thick-skinned, slow-moving, dim-witted creatures who can move fast when in danger, and have large, hairy horns growing out of the middle of their faces. Intended as heavy political satire, the Rhino Party aimed to amuse and entertain the voting public, while ridiculing those in power. In 1969, Ferron joined the Parti québecois and wrote extensively for various journals and magazines.

Ferron was the recipient of numerous prizes and honours. He received the Governor General’s Award for French Fiction in 1962, for his book Contes du pays incertain (Tales of the Uncertain Country), a collection of short stories. The Quebec government awarded him the Prix Athanase-David in 1977, an annual literary award honouring a Quebec writer’s body of work. In 1981, he was also declared an honorary member of the Union des écrivains québécois (the Quebec Writers’ Union).

This article was submitted to YFile by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny .