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“Alex Colville’s “French Cross,” and Canadian Unity!,” Alan Reynolds, Richmond, BC

Alex Colville’s “French Cross,” And Canadian Unity!

Colville’s paintings are always an invitation to reflection, thought and mediation. They usually pose both threat and hope, the real and the ideal, the ordinary and the mystery of the ordinary.”French Cross” is a sombre reminder of past animosity between French and English in Canada, and of the sufferings of ordinary people who happen to be caught in national or international power plays. (Note J.R.C. Perkin, ORDINARY MAGIC, p. 127)

The scene is the dyke-lands of Grand Pre, Nova Scotia, at a cross erected in 1924 to mark the spot where the French people of the area (known now as Acadians) were brought together to be deported (the Acadians call it le Derangement, “the Upheaval”) to the New England colonies. In October of 1755, the soldiers of King George II of England herded the Acadian people of the area (now the Annapolis or Cornwallis Valley of Nova Scotia) to the spot where this cross stands, burned their houses and barns so there would be no returning, and placed them on ships taking them for the most part to New England where the English population was more firmly established and the French would not be a threat.

The cross of course is the Christian symbol of injustice and death on the one hand and of life and hope on the other. It is a remembrance of the crucifixion of Jesus and also of His resurrection.

The role of the Christian churches in Canadian history is ambiguous. “The good influences of Christianity on the West are among the most positive cultural factors in history,” claims Ken Myers (CHRISTIANITY, CULTURE, AND COMMON GRACE, p. 19). But the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church in French Canadian culture and its alliance with Anglo entrepreneurial power managed to subjugate the French people, both Acadian and Quebecois, for generations. The Protestant churches were acquiescing to this injustice, supplying “Chaplains” to the English mill-owners.

Picture the typical community along the banks of the St. Lawrence River or the “North Shore” or New Brunswick – its farmlands and forests, the big mill owned by the English and worked by the French. The French labourers lived in small, poor houses down by the river and near the mill, with the magnificent Catholic Church in the middle of the community, possibly with “the Bishop’s palace” by its side. Above, on the hillside, stands the opulent houses of the English mill-owners and the small Protestant Church or Chapel representing their religious faith. I have heard that, in one New Brunswick community, the local mill owner owned not only the mill and the houses of the workers, but also paid his workers in his own “script” so they had to buy all their supplies and goods at the store which he also owned. He not only built the church (Protestant) but also paid the minister. He sat in the front pew, and if the minister’s preaching was not to his liking, he thumped the floor with his cane until the minister changed his tone.

Colville’s painting shows the spreading, flat grasslands of the “Big Prairie” (Grand Pre), protected from the 15 meter tides of the Minas Basin by the marvelous dyking system built by the Acadian settlers earlier in the 17th century. The scene is peaceful, but anyone who knows the area knows there is the threat that hundreds of square miles of farms and farmlands could be covered by up to 15 meters of salt water if the dykes failed.

The cross is the symbol of the sufferings of the Acadian people. It is also the symbol of hope. The Acadian people have survived, and have preserved their identity as les Acadiens. They have been absorbed neither by the Anglo Canadians nor by the French Quebecois. Further, in spite of their struggles (sometimes against strong prejudice and great injustice by the English Canadians), they are not “separatist.” They have thrived and prospered, and their culture has made a significant and valuable addition to the culture of the Maritime provinces and of Canada. In fact, Romeo Leblanc, the recent Governor General of Canada, is Acadian. Les Acadiens represent a hope that our country, Canada, can maintain its unity with mutual respect for the various “nations” and traditions which make Canada a “nation.”

Colville has included a young woman riding on a horse and looking back at the cross. Maybe we could say that she is looking back to the past as she rides into the future, whatever lies ahead – which is of course where we who look at the picture are standing.

Will the horsepower of the inevitable movement of time bring further oppression, injustice and suffering to the Acadian people, the Quebecois, the aboriginal peoples of Canada, or to the others of us who call ourselves “Canadians?” Or will the cross portend hope of a new day of mutual understanding and appreciation, of reconciliation of past differences, and of justice, a stable peace and developing prosperity?

Is it accidental that she (the horse-back rider) is the daughter of a Chinese immigrant to Canada who teaches mathematics at Acadia University? Is there added irony in the fact that the anglophone institution is known by the name the settlers used for their land – l’Acadie?” (Perkin, p. 127)

Alan Reynolds
Richmond, B. C.