Bill Hulet Editor

Here's the thing. A lot of important Guelph issues are really complex. And to understand them we need more than "sound bites" and knee-jerk ideology. The Guelph Back-Grounder is a place where people can read the background information that explains why things are the way they are, and, the complex issues that people have to negotiate if they want to make Guelph a better city. No anger, just the facts.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Book Review: Nikki Everts "Evidence of Uncertain Origin"

As part of my second career as a journalist, I've become something of a collector of business cards. One day while at the Farmer's Market I bumped into someone I'd never met before and we had a brief conversation about Saint Louis Missouri (she'd noticed I was using a shopping bag promoting that city's excellent library). She mentioned that she'd published a novel and I asked for and received a card. Eventually I emailed her and got a review copy of Evidence of Uncertain Origin---which turned out to be an engaging "whodunit" set in Montreal during the October Crisis of 1970.

For those of you who are too young to remember what this was, it was one of the key points in the transition of Quebec society from being a "second class" part of Canada to being an "equal partner". This was a long process that involved elements like the quiet revolution, bilingualism, the rise of the Parti Québécois, and, two referendums on independence: one in 1980 and the other in 1995.

The October Crisis was about the rise and fall of the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ). In a nutshell, this was a group of nationalist radicals who sought to "accelerate" already existing divisions between working class Francophones in Quebec and the Anglo elite who controlled the province. They did this by trying to goad the authorities into over-reaction through a series of relative minor bombings (a lot of mailboxes blew up). The authorities generally "refused to take the bait", which led to an eventual escalation into kidnapping. This cost them the support of most of the population when the authorities started to play rough. The Trudeau (Pierre Elliott) government imposed the War Measures act (precursor of the Emergencies Act recently used by the Justin Trudeau) yet still managed to show a light hand in that it negotiated with the kidnappers for the release of one of their hostages and allowed key members to escape to Cuba. 

Soldier guarding buildings in Montreal, 1970. Image from Royal Montreal Regiment website, originally from the Toronto Star (used under Fair Dealing). 

The result of the affair was a collective decision by both Anglos and Francophones that there are better mechanisms for dealing with the legitimate grievances of the population---which led to the election of leaders like Rene Levesque and the introduction of various regulations aimed at both allowing French Canadians to be "masters of their own home" and at the same time, more welcome in the rest of Canada. 

I'll let Trudeau himself explain one key part of this. (If he seems a bit heated, it's because this was a very controversial project at the time, and fought against by many small "c" conservatives.)

People of good will sometimes say that Trudeau over-reacted when he brought in the War Measures Act, but I suspect that they don't understand the mood of the country at the time. Leading up to this event, radical Quebec separatists had been raiding militia armouries and construction sites to steal weapons and explosives. (If memory serves, when I was researching another story in the Mercury archives I read that Guelph's militia unit had some of it's inventory sent to Camp Borden where it could be better guarded.) I can only imagine what would happen today if some organization---the Proud Boys or Black Lives Matter maybe---started raiding militia armouries to steal weapons!    

Having said that, there does seem to have been something of a paranoid reaction by the police in some ways. For example, the Ontarion (the University of Guelph student newspaper) attempted to publish the FLQ manifesto, but local police prevented it on suspicion that this constituted "sedition" under the War Measures Act. But while people will no doubt take refuge in the "slippery slope" fallacy, the salient points to remember are that the federal and Quebec provincial governments didn't really know how big a problem they were facing and in the long term no one ended-up in a Canadian version of the Gulag. 


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Evidence of Uncertain Origins brings all this context to bear on the lives of two Anglo Quebec sisters---Sondra and Kit---who are dealing with the death of their grandfather. Nikki Everts brings in the political background, but it is closely entwined with the family issues. In this book the "personal is the political" and the "political gets personal". 

Nikki Everts in a photo series that look suspiciously like a mug shot---. Images provided by the author.

Sondra is happily married with two children, but she has a history of being somewhat mentally fragile. She's much more "in tune" with her instincts and believes that she's had a visitation by grand-dad in a dream which points to his having been murdered. Kit is much more scientifically-inclined and is concerned that Sondra is sliding back into depression and worse. She's left Montreal and now lives in Hamilton where her husband, Paul, is studying medicine at McMaster. Kit is toiling away at a job she loathes to support him and is afraid she's following in her mother's foot-steps, who eventually became so unhappy from playing second-fiddle to Kit's father's career (he too is a doctor) that she descended into alcoholism, leaving Gramps and Grandma to raise them instead of her. As the mystery gets solved and Quebec politics becomes more intrusive in their lives, her commitment to the marriage unravels. 

In conversation, Everts freely admits that she sees a parallel between Kit's marital problems and the issues threatening the break-up of Canada. As well, the story also brings in other issues that were "in the air" at the time. For example, two of the minor characters turn out to be gay lovers who were upset about Gramps' self-righteous homophobia. (It was so early in that issue's progress that Sondra and Kit both are startled to realize that their grandfather's prejudice was a real "issue".) 


I can't get too much more into the plot for fear of giving it all away (it is a mystery, after all), but I can offer a few further general points. 

Several people with more insight than me have pointed out that human beings seem to be hard-wired to learn from stories rather than catalogues of facts. Everts has written a book that explains to younger people what it felt like to be living in Quebec at this time. To cite two examples, it points out how central CBC radio was to a certain segment of the population. It also has Kit describe the chemical composition of cat pee that makes it so pungent---which gives us a glimpse into her scientific mind and also a "whiff" of life in a run-down apartment in the urban core.       

In an interview, Everts told me that during the time of the novel she had just emigrated to Quebec from California. She lived on a farm in the countryside not far from Montreal, but I suspect that as a university graduate (microbiology) she was interested in finding out all she could about the exotic new country she found herself in. And at the time, Quebec nationalism would have absolutely dominated both print media and the CBC. 

As just an ordinary person without any connection to the "movers and shakers", Everts probably lacked any "inside dope". But this was probably more than sufficiently compensated by the new immigrants hyper-sensitivity to the differences she found around her. (For example, she told me that she was surprised---in a good way---that the Canadian establishment was willing to negotiate with the FLQ cell, allow some members to escape to Cuba, and, then years later allowed them to return to Quebec. Would this ever be allowed in the USA?) Future historians will no doubt want to read cabinet documents, academic dissertations, and, newspaper articles from the time. But they will also need to read first-hand accounts and fiction written by people who lived through the events in order to get a feel for how ordinary people experienced them. I think that Evidence of Uncertain Origins is a useful addition to this literature.


I've taken on writing these book reviews because I think it's important for a functioning community---like Guelph---to have a localized artistic scene. It's not just enough to have a few "rock star" authors, like Margaret Atwood. We also need to have local "word artisans". That's because culture thrives on conversations, instead of lectures. Lectures are where one person does all the talking and everyone else just listens. Real conversations involve a back-and-forth. That's what's happening when a local author writes a story about things that you experience---like cooking in the kitchen, listening to CBC radio, and, wondering if and when the Prime Minister is going to "drop the hammer" against a small group of people causing chaos in society. (Will some future author write a mystery set in Ottawa during the "Freedom Convoy"?)

A lot of people take it "as a given" that there is a value in having local musicians instead of just listening to recorded music. I think that people should also appreciate local writers who bring their own local and regional viewpoint to the page. The promise of the World Wide Web is that more and more people can get involved in the "community conversation". That's what I suspect Marshall McLuhan was fumbling towards with his statements "the medium is the message" and "we increasingly live in a global village". 

Right now what has often happened instead is that capitalism has tried to change the conversation into a competition. The tech lord's algorithms seek to sift out a very small number of big name "influencers" who can then build a giant base that can be monetized to sell advertising. But the real promise of the Web is to create functioning communities---both geographic and of interests---that will be able to knit together an increasingly complex and resilient human ecosystem. 

We've been told that it helps the planet to "eat local" and some hard-cores have even suggested we restrict ourselves to the "100 mile diet". That's maybe too much. But I do think it is important to learn to appreciate the local. And I think that music and literature is much the same. I think it would help Guelph and area if everyone decided to listen to local music and read local writers at least part of the time. If you'd like to make the effort to do this, you might want to attend the Wellington County Writer's Festival on April 23. (To be totally honest, I won't be going---COVID's sixth wave is here and I'd like to avoid getting the bug as long as possible. But there will be other ones in the future.)   

If I've tweaked your interest, you can find Evidence of Uncertain Origin at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the Bookshelf Bookstore in downtown Guelph, and, other places listed by the publisher: Arboretum Press.  


Arboretum Press Logo


Moreover I say unto you, the Climate Emergency must be dealt with!

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