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May 22, 2012 6:14 AM   Subscribe

RCMP eyed philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre during tense Quebec political upheaval. [theglobeandmail.com] Canadian spies closely eyed existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, tracking his planned trip to Quebec in support of people arrested during a crackdown on separatist threats, newly released documents show. The declassified Royal Canadian Mounted Police dossier on Mr. Sartre also reveals that Mountie intelligence officers pored over translations of the French writer’s pronouncements, monitored his links to the peace movement and noted the academic rebel’s brushes with the law.
posted by Fizz (55 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
On the one hand, Sartre should mind his own business. On the other, I would love to have seen Sartre and Trudeau go mano a mano over this.
posted by Capt. Renault at 6:33 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm guessing that they tried to read some of his communications with the radicals and then got really bored, like existentially bored.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 6:36 AM on May 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Sartre"

"eyed"

Heh.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:37 AM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thank you, Mounties desperately trying to figure out what the hell is Satre saying here? is a delightful mental image.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:38 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Full-blown Marxist philosopher by 1964, I think.
posted by thelonius at 6:39 AM on May 22, 2012


In the end, though, the gist of the story seems to be "it all blew over, and nothing of note was done". It's almost as if anything the RCMP or Sartre said or did would, ultimately, be rendered meaningless, without any real causal effect on the universe, underlining their insignificance within the context of the world around them.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:47 AM on May 22, 2012 [16 favorites]


You're really nobody in this world if some police agency somewhere doesn't have a dossier on you.

At least that's my excuse whenever my past is brought up in a job interview.
posted by three blind mice at 7:09 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wasn't Sartre considered to be a Stalinist (and would therefore deserve some sort of surveillance when traveling abroad)? Of course, some say he was, some say he wasn't, but such fine details would have meant little to the police.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:18 AM on May 22, 2012


I spent way more time than I should have trying to figure out what an "RCMP-eyed philosopher" would look like. Big white beard and flat cowboy hat? Red robe with gold buttons?
posted by DU at 7:21 AM on May 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


would therefore deserve some sort of surveillance

I'm not sure I would put "considered to be a Stalinist" in the category of "deserves surveillance." Call me a civil liberties nut, but unless you are actively toting an underwear bomb you can wax philosophic anytime you like from the right of Gengis Khan to the left of the Jacobins without deserving surveillance.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 7:29 AM on May 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


The only part of this story that seems to suggest militancy as far as Sartre was concerned regarding the Québec independence movement is this:
Though Mr. Sartre was unable to come to Quebec, he took part in a videotaped interview in Paris for a group allied with the province’s Movement for the Defence of Political Prisoners.

In the interview, Mr. Sartre painted Quebeckers as colonized people under the thumb of the anglophone minority, adding that socialist independence could be achieved only through violence.

“There are no other solutions: unless we make war, they will.”
But, you know, "war" doesn't necessarily mean violence; rather it can refer to any kind of hard struggle. And like a lot of leftist intellectuals at the time, he seemed to verbally support armed struggle when it involved an underclass fighting their oppressors (as was the case with Algeria, and his support of Che Guevara) but opposed armed struggle when it came to general imperialism (his opposition to the Vietnam War, for example).

So who knows? It seems he was pretty nebulous about where he stood with regards to the Québcois using violence to achieve their aims, but at the same time had shown support for militant uprisings elsewhere in the world, which is probably what prompted this investigation.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 7:41 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Concern really began stirring in early 1971 with word that Mr. Sartre, Irish politician Bernadette Devlin and outspoken actress Jane Fonda would come to Montreal to help protest the trials of people arrested under the War Measures Act.

Well, by this time there was already an organized separatist movement in Quebec, the FLQ, committed to using violence to achieve their goals, so it makes total sense to decide to observe this guy should he come to Quebec. It was also the middle of the Cold War, so once again it makes sense to put an avowed Communist and Stalinist under surveillance.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:49 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]




Well, by this time there was already an organized separatist movement in Quebec, the FLQ, committed to using violence to achieve their goals, so it makes total sense to decide to observe this guy should he come to Quebec. It was also the middle of the Cold War, so once again it makes sense to put an avowed Communist and Stalinist under surveillance.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:49 AM on May 22 [+] [!]


Us prime minster had already suspended democracy and parked tanks on the front lawns of Canadian citizens, so I guess in that context it was easy to justify spying on civilians for having political beliefs that didn't fit into the Canadian government's very narrow definition of acceptable.

But let's not pretend that this was unique to periods of suspended democracy, the cold war, or Sarte. We had a post not long ago on their treatment of Tommy Douglas, this is pretty bread and butter for the RCMP; they are paramilitary internal police after all.
posted by Stagger Lee at 8:05 AM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


That should read "our prime minister."
posted by Stagger Lee at 8:06 AM on May 22, 2012


We had a post not long ago on their treatment of Tommy Douglas, this is pretty bread and butter for the RCMP; they are paramilitary internal police after all.

This is true.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:10 AM on May 22, 2012


Hell is other people, hoser!
posted by Renoroc at 8:42 AM on May 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


On the one hand, Sartre should mind his own business.

Capt. Renault, why isn't caring about the world's problems any of Sartre's business?

tl/dr version: State security was made anxious by the arrival of a foreign national who openly seemed to advocate violence, as they should be. In the end, neither side acted foolishly.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:48 AM on May 22, 2012


"Mountie intelligence officers pored over translations of the French writer’s pronouncements"

This line struck me. Were there no francophone intelligence officers in the RCMP at the time?
posted by beau jackson at 8:49 AM on May 22, 2012


Were there no francophone intelligence officers in the RCMP at the time?

Yeah, that strikes me as odd as well, here you are facing a potential francophone revolt or at least terrorist action, and nobody reads French?!?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:55 AM on May 22, 2012


>Were there no francophone intelligence officers in the RCMP at the time?

Yeah, that strikes me as odd as well, here you are facing a potential francophone revolt or at least terrorist action, and nobody reads French?!?


Well, this is one of the issues that led to armed insurrection and the War Measures Act in the first place.

Until Trudeau and bilingualism, there was no acknowledgement of Quebec's status as a partner in Confederation. Federal civil servants, including the RCMP, did not have to learn French. In fact, Quebeckers were actively discriminated against.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:59 AM on May 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


See also: the clusterfuck that is Loi 101.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 9:03 AM on May 22, 2012


No Exit? More like no entrance, amirite?
posted by mosk at 9:10 AM on May 22, 2012


Not to derail, but...

Capt. Renault, why isn't caring about the world's problems any of Sartre's business?

Absolutely, we should care about the world's problems.

In the interview, Mr. Sartre painted Quebeckers as colonized people under the thumb of the anglophone minority, adding that socialist independence could be achieved only through violence.

This is a bit different than caring -- advocating, if not actual violence, then at least an overthrow of the public order in place? By an outsider?

To vastly oversimplify the historical record -- granted, there was linguistic and cultural oppression in place in Quebec. Absolutely. To liken that oppression to what was going on in Algeria, to go to a noted cause of Sartre's for which he advocated the same response, may be a bit of a stretch. In the 60s, Quebeckers were already changing their lot within the existing political structure through the Quiet Revolution, starting a process which may be thought of as still continuing today. Overthrow did not prove necessary at all, 'merely' redirecting the existing political structure to acknowledge and eliminate the oppression. (Again, speaking very broadly here.)

For someone on the outside to start making prescriptions on how to solve the problem, when that person may or may not really know the situation at hand -- probably does not serve the situation well. De Gaulle's speech being the obvious example of such declarations.

Personally, I would follow Pearson's response to De Gaulle, and say that Canadians don't need to be liberated from anyone, thank you very much, particularly when so much Canadian blood was shed liberating France.

Caring about the world's problems? Sure. Absolutely. Advocating revolution in a society not your own, which you may or may not be versed in the realities of? Bit different.

posted by Capt. Renault at 9:32 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was thinking the same thing - Quebeckers changed things via the democratic process. They never had to resort to violence.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:36 AM on May 22, 2012


Well, the French do have that historical tie to Québec, and Sartre was himself politically or at least rhetorically involved with movements he considered transcending borders; human rights, class struggle, anti-colonialism and the like. Just seems a little weird to say the guy should "mind his own business" over what he saw as a human rights issue.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 9:39 AM on May 22, 2012


Sartre and Jane Fonda having existential discourse on the way to Angela Davis' trial. Yeah, this guy needs close supervision. Tweak the establishment and it turns its running dogs loose on you.

Lordy, but I do so love rhetorical baggage.

Still, if you look back at the times, quite a few folks were forming groups aimed at challenging the status quo with various flavors of enthusiasm. Remember the Indians near the Canadian-American border? Also, the US took issue with the words of such dangerous radicals as Lennon, and his followers were being monitored by the US at that time, so surveillance was not completely inappropriate. (No, not that Lenin, the one with the guitar.) Some of those frisky Irish folks were, um, obtrusive with their politics.

Independent thinkers are few, and all those shades of grey often bind them to inaction, but it's a goddam minefield if you draw a line and follow a cause--you have to get in line with lemmings of your particular stripe, lie down with dogs and try to ignore the fleas. Survival clashes with integrity. Those were times of raging polemics. Your comrade tells you to bomb the establishment and your uncle tells you to shoot the hippies. Moderates were thrown centripetally to the extremes, both roads led to hell. But, please, do remember that many folks really believed. This is our history, but it's my memories.

I survived here in the US only moderately damaged, but, wearing the uniform of the army that lost the war, somewhat derailed. I consider myself lucky to have gotten into the 1980's with all my fingers and toes. I am disappointed that "they" didn't give peace a chance, but more worried that they keep trying to reestablish the status quo ante.

It never ends.
posted by mule98J at 9:42 AM on May 22, 2012


Well, maybe not "mind his own business", but perhaps he should be a little more informed before getting involved?
posted by KokuRyu at 9:43 AM on May 22, 2012


I was thinking the same thing - Quebeckers changed things via the democratic process. They never had to resort to violence.

What? I mean, they also used the democratic process, and maybe they didn't *have* to resort to violence, but I'm not sure what the bombing of the Montreal Stock Exchange and the death of Pierre Laporte count as, if not violence. (Not that the entire population of the province supported those actions, whether or not they supported the general aims of the group.)
posted by jeather at 10:11 AM on May 22, 2012


The RCMP quickly arrived to the conclusion that, while there is no god and man is alone in the universe, his day to day actions are essentially meaningless.

Then they retired to cafe for a smoke.
posted by clvrmnky at 10:12 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


this is pretty bread and butter for the RCMP; they are paramilitary internal police after all.

Indeed, during the Cold War, the RCMP maintained a "list of approximately 16,000 suspected communists and 50,000 communist sympathizers to be observed and potentially interned in a national security state of emergency." I would've been surprised if they didn't spy on Sartre.
posted by twirlip at 10:14 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure I get the defensiveness about letting an aging French intellectual come to Québec to talk about independence and separatism. His POV on the matter was very similar to that of many Québecois. And it's not like he was coming to lead a bombmaking instruction seminar. What's the BFD?
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:15 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I do like the image of a Mountie in full red coat and jodhpurs sipping a Pernod at a Left Bank cafe. I know it didn't happen, but I like the image.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:22 AM on May 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


What's the BFD?

FLQ, murder of Pierre Laporte the previous, War Measures Act, Cold War, Stalinist...
posted by KokuRyu at 10:27 AM on May 22, 2012


Well, maybe not "mind his own business", but perhaps he should be a little more informed before getting involved?

A different kettle of fish entirely, KokuRyu, and much better phrased.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:30 AM on May 22, 2012


See also: the clusterfuck that is Loi 101.

If by clusterfuck you mean a piece of legislation that peacefully satisfied the desire of the francophone majority in Quebec to protect their language, fatally undercutting the appeal and draw of violent groups like the FLQ, then yes. (See also the collateral damage of generations of Montreal schoolchildren able to speak both la langue du Moliere and the language of Shakespeare.)

The real question is what is the RCMP is doing against the student protestors on the streets of Montreal right now.
posted by docgonzo at 10:42 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well said, although wouldn't you say it's the Sûreté du Québec that is taking the lead against the students?
posted by KokuRyu at 10:47 AM on May 22, 2012


FLQ, murder of Pierre Laporte the previous, War Measures Act, Cold War, Stalinist...

Those first two have nothing to do with Sartre, and it's not the sort of brush you want to tar all separatists with. To the last three: are we still using Cold War standards to judge what foreigners are allowed to "get involved" in human rights issues in other countries?

If you're talking about "these are the things that happened in the context of the times and therefore it's understandable that people would be wary of Sartre", alright. But the demands that he mind his own business or be "better informed" (by whose standards, exactly?) sound more like a justification for the policy rather than providing context.

If by clusterfuck you mean ...

By clusterfuck I mean the fact that this is a matter a lot of English Canadians get upset about to this day. Bear in mind I support Loi 101, but it's undeniable that it caused its share of rage back in the day.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:51 AM on May 22, 2012


What's the BFD?

The difference is, as I see it, that it is one thing to be concerned about a situation, but quite another to say "this is how you guys need to fix it."

By analogy, I may be quite concerned about human rights generally, and human rights in, say, Northern Ireland, China/Tibet or Israel/Palestine. I would not, however, presume to tell everyone involved in those situations what the solution is to their problems, particularly as an uninvolved outsider, or not some kind of specialist.

I know enough to know that I really don't know anything at all about those situations, and certainly am in no position to be telling anyone involved what they should be doing. I can care greatly about them, and act towards them in a general sense, but ultimately the solutions should come from those people directly involved.

Acknowledgment of one's own ignorance and one's own limitations is the Socratic start of the search for wisdom, and a pretty good place to act from generally.

(All that said, huge fan of Jean-Paul's, but that doesn't mean I buy everything he's ever said.)

posted by Capt. Renault at 10:56 AM on May 22, 2012


The difference is, as I see it, that it is one thing to be concerned about a situation, but quite another to say "this is how you guys need to fix it."

Seems his attitudes about Québecois separatism were very similar to those of people already living there. But that aside, I really don't see the harm in a foreigner - of all people! - offering ideas and possible solutions to problems folks are contending with. I mean that's part of why we have this whole international community thing going on here. No one's forced to act on Sartre's whims, and people are free to disagree with his ideas about what would be good for Québec. It's a dialogue, and it seems awfully strict to shut out anyone outside of a particular country - regardless of cultural ties - from offering solutions to problems people within those countries contend with.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 11:02 AM on May 22, 2012


Those first two have nothing to do with Sartre, and it's not the sort of brush you want to tar all separatists with. To the last three: are we still using Cold War standards to judge what foreigners are allowed to "get involved" in human rights issues in other countries?

Well, it was the social and political context of the times - a provincial cabinet minister had been abducted and assassinated the year before by the FLQ, and the Trudeau government felt so strongly about the risk to public safety that in effect war was declared.

Trying to understand the mindset of the RCMP is not the same as agreeing with it. On the other hand, I'll take a stand: Sartre was a Stalinist and was an undesirable element in Canada. By observing the guy, maybe you could root out more Stalinists operating within Canada and kick them out.

On the other hand, the language laws are kind of complex as an issue. It was really big in English Canada in the 90s when the PQ was in power in the lead-up to the referendum, but it's not an issue any more.

I find the entire idea of trying to legislate a culture as somewhat backward, chauvinistic and even totalitarian, but on the other hand, if there was no Bill 101 we would never see any Quebec cultural products on tv in English Canada.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:03 AM on May 22, 2012


There are even francophones who dislike some aspects of Bill 101.

On the other hand, the language laws are kind of complex as an issue. It was really big in English Canada in the 90s when the PQ was in power in the lead-up to the referendum, but it's not an issue any more.

That's so far from true it's really, really sad. (It's less of an issue than in the 90s. But language issues are having a weird sort of resurgence.)
posted by jeather at 11:06 AM on May 22, 2012


Well, it was the social and political context of the times

OK, that was where my confuse was - didn't know if you were supporting these actions within a modern context or rather providing context for the actions at the time.

Re: Loi 101 - My grandparents, who have French names and are bilingual, lived in Montreal at the time that ball got rolling. They told me stories about shops getting windows smashed - for adding French to their signs and for failing to do so. And given the way the language and culture of Québec was slowly widdled away through legislation, it seems that preservation of said language and culture through legislation is anything but backwards and totalitarian.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 11:10 AM on May 22, 2012


"Where my confuse was"? Wow, I've turned into a LOLcat.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 11:11 AM on May 22, 2012


Yeah, how would I know? I'm located waaaay out on the Left Coast, in Victoria. I guess my point is that Anglo Canadians in the West were up in arms (well, to a certain extent - everything is relative, right?) about language laws in the late 80s and early 90s, at a time when Reform was surging.

You hardly hear anyone slagging Quebec these days, likely because the entire referendum issue has gone away for now. It also helps that Tim Horton is the prime minister of Canada.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:11 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sorry, my response above was to jeather's comment.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:11 AM on May 22, 2012


it seems that preservation of said language and culture through legislation is anything but backwards and totalitarian.

But doesn't it seem even somewhat chauvinistic and totalitarian to allow a government to decide what is Quebec culture and what is not? What is acceptable language and what is not? It's the very definition of conservatism.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:13 AM on May 22, 2012


Yeah, how would I know? I'm located waaaay out on the Left Coast, in Victoria.

Well, you could know if you read Quebec news. (Not that I read BC news, but then I also don't talk about BC politics.)

I mean, it's by far not the same kind of issue it was in the 90s, and the reaction of people outside Quebec is different, too, but it's still a sort of issue -- there are lawsuits about francophones wanting access to English schools, fights about signage in hospitals etc.

But doesn't it seem even somewhat chauvinistic and totalitarian to allow a government to decide what is Quebec culture and what is not? What is acceptable language and what is not? It's the very definition of conservatism.

There are good and bad parts of it. On the one hand, there is a traditional culture, and French as a language of power in Quebec was in decline, and it's undeniable that laws helped keep that culture and language alive and gave them power. On the other hand, it has led to a restrictive definition of Quebecois culture (and people) which I think is hugely problematic.
posted by jeather at 11:17 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, I responding to Marisa comment "By clusterfuck I mean the fact that this is a matter a lot of English Canadians get upset about to this day."

So I think I can comment about that without having to read Le Devoir or whatever, and you might also note that I added a caveat to my comments that I don't know much about Quebec politics.

Then don't comment, you say? I guess that would mean that Sartre should have also refrained from commenting as well.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:23 AM on May 22, 2012


But doesn't it seem even somewhat chauvinistic and totalitarian to allow a government to decide what is Quebec culture and what is not? What is acceptable language and what is not? It's the very definition of conservatism.

Kind of a mixed bag, I'd say. Preservation of a language and culture that was previously being legislated away in an official capacity is, I think, a sensible move to make. It's not like everything was hunky-dory between Anglophones and Francophones and Québec just up and decided to pass this law. On the other hand, there's what jeather's pointed out - the legislation of cultural identity can open the door for all kinds of bad behavior, but maybe for cultural reasons or a growing federalist attitude in Québec, the worst of it I've encountered in the past 30 years has consisted of obnoxious, boorish "we're #1!" loudmouths I've run into in bars the world over.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 11:25 AM on May 22, 2012


Then don't comment, you say?

No? By all means, comment. It's how we have a dialogue. Why would I say "don't comment"?
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 11:26 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


So I think I can comment about that without having to read Le Devoir or whatever, and you might also note that I added a caveat to my comments that I don't know much about Quebec politics.

I dunno. I mean, first you talked about how the language issues were changed without violence -- untrue -- and then about how language is no longer a political issue for anglophones -- also not true (just ask anglos in Ottawa who want to work for the federal government). It's just weird to hear someone with strong opinions about Quebec politics (current and recentish) who insists that they don't know much about them.

You also said "Well, maybe not "mind his own business", but perhaps he should be a little more informed before getting involved?" -- and I have less than zero opinion about how informed Sartre was or should have been, but it's also odd to say "well he should be informed but I don't need to be".

And this is all weird, because my impression from this and earlier threads is that overall we agree on these issues.
posted by jeather at 11:32 AM on May 22, 2012


Well, a different poster seemed to suggest that since I don't follow Quebec politics, I shouldn't comment (which I agree with, by the way), although I was really commenting about perceptions of Quebec in the West - I have no idea how the language laws are perceived in cotemporary Quebec. Still, freedom of speech is universal, so I can comment from that perspective on language laws in general.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:34 AM on May 22, 2012


I dunno. I mean, first you talked about how the language issues were changed without violence -- untrue

But, once again, in the context of the times, the violence that accompanied that accompanied change in Quebec was nothing like Algeria, or Angola, or Mozambique...
posted by KokuRyu at 11:36 AM on May 22, 2012


But, once again, in the context of the times, the violence that accompanied that accompanied change in Quebec was nothing like Algeria, or Angola, or Mozambique...

The need for change in Quebec was nothing like the need in those countries, either.
posted by jeather at 11:38 AM on May 22, 2012


[a bale of detritus blows across the living room]

Pretty sure that was a tumbleweed.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:43 PM on May 22, 2012


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