01 June 2011

Global Warming as Nationalist Dream

Erres boréales
Florent Laurin [pseud. Armand Grenier]
[Montreal]: [Ducharme], 1944

Graced with a cover that looks every bit the sorry result of an elementary school geography assignment, this is one peculiar looking book. The interior is nicely laid out, quite professional in appearance – but then we hit the drawings. Twenty-seven in number, nearly one per chapter, they're the work of author, journalist and sometime civil servant Armand Grenier. It's no great compliment to describe Grenier as a much better writer than illustrator; Erres boréales is a pretty poor novel, but it is interesting.

Set in the year 1968, the book presents global warming in the most positive light, a great achievement made possible through a network of gigantic radiators installed beneath the Labrador Sea. This project is part of a nation-building exercise. In Grenier's post-war world, Quebec has left Canada taking with it not only the territory granted in 1898 and 1912, but the eastern islands of the Arctic Archepelago. The old Dominion of Newfoundland seems to have ceded Labrador. That Grenier is vague here is odd because, Erres boréales isn't so much a novel as travelogue, taking the reader through the wondrous land created by those humongous heaters. Lest we become lost, the book features a tipped in map (cliquer pour agrandir).

Our journey begins in Quebec City; Montreal, which does appear on Grenier's map, is neither seen nor mentioned. Never mind, the ultimate destination lies in the islands of the Arctic; this new New France reaches north, not south. Amongst our eager travelling companions is Louis Gamache, a man who last visited these lands when they were still covered by snow and ice.

The ten years since the "reseau d'appareils electoniques" where switched on have seen sudden, very dramatic changes. There has been no downside. Sea levels pose no danger, weather patterns have only improved and the gulf stream continues to warm Europe. The Arctic, however, has melted, revealing fertile soil and so very many sources of rich minerals. Palm trees now grow on the shores of what was once known as Baffin Island.

As is typically the case with utopian literature, Grenier focusses very little attention on the people in the land he describes. That said, every journey is touched by romance. In Erres boréales this comes when Louis Gamache encounters Toutillia Kamagniak. An "Esquimaux" cutie-pie, she is as two-dimensional and poorly realized as her portrait.

Toutillia lives with her family in one of the stone structures refered to as the "anciens iglous". No, not pools of water. Stone structures they owe much more to California's Huntington Mausoleum than anything in the Canadian north.

Ultmately, Erres boréales is a throwback to the Victorians. In Grenier's mid-20th-century world, the environment is something to be conquered for economic gain. This view is stated quite clearly in reference to the Northwest Passage: "la disparition des glaces a rendu au rôle économique qui lui revenait." The melted north is a territory to be colonized – its people, like Toutillia, are to be converted into good God-fearing Catholics. Take away Grenier's naiveté concerning climate change and we see something rather insidious. The Esquimaux remain, absorbed and forever altered by this New France. They seem happy enough, but where are the Cree, the Huron, the Montagnais and the Abenaki? Like the Anglo Quebecers, who are also absent, their place names and history have been replaced on that tipped-in map.

Trivia: In 1953, as Guy René de Plour, Grenier self-published a second novel, Défricheur de hammada. Set in the future, it tells the story of pious Catholic colonists from Quebec who live under great domes in the Sahara desert. The Future Laid Out in the Unknown, a third novel – presumably written (or to be written) in English – was announced, but never appeared.

Object: A paperback, similar in size to today's mass markets. My copy, a discard from Montreal's public library, has been bound in red cloth. If the library card is to be believed, it was checked out only once.

Access: Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec has a copy, as does the Toronto Public Library. Canadians without access to those fine institutions might try their local university – thirteen hold the book in their collections. Britons, look to the British Library. Americans, you'll find a copy at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. There are no copies listed for sale online.

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