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A Writer's Voices - A Celebration of Jacques Ferron at Glendon


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

The show, which has been in the works for over a year, was the result of an enthusiastic 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 and York faculty member Ray Ellenwood, and professor Betty Bednarski, currently teaching French at Dalhousie University. Ellenwood and Bednarski are Ferron’s most noted translators into English; they are recognized authorities on Ferron’s life and work, who continue to express their greatest admiration for this colourful figure as author and as human being. Ellenwood had been one of a dozen or so devoted correspondents of Ferron, exchanging over 400 letters – some of which are displayed in this exhibition - over a period of many years.

Born in 1921 in Louiseville (Maskinongé), Québec, Ferron graduated from Laval University with a medical degree and practiced family medicine most of his life. But this was only one part of the amazingly multifaceted career of this truly Renaissance man who wrote novels, plays, poetry, political pamphlets, medical texts, letters to newspapers, the list goes on… Sometimes compared to Rabelais and Chekhov, Ferron has also been called the “Voltaire of Quebec”, a man of encyclopedic knowledge on a myriad subjects, a man of strong opinions who was not afraid to speak out about them and act on them.

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 as hell 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; the party promised outlandishly impossible schemes it had no intention of keeping. In 1969, Ferron joined the Parti québecois and wrote extensively for various journals and magazines.

Jacques 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 which populated his beloved Quebec countryside with colourful characters and curious beasts. 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).

Jacques Ferron at the microphone

The current show brought a host of artifacts and multimedia events to the Glendon Gallery from January 17th to the 27th , with 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 of these attested to Ferron’s tireless activities both as medical doctor, taking responsibility for the people in his care, and as political and intellectual gadfly: spurring on his friends, colleagues and correspondents, as well as the people of Quebec at large, to intellectual activity, and to getting involved in matters that concerned them and the province.

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 is 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 or rhinos rolling along where the railroad was going to be, displaying “Rhinoceros territory” from sea to shining sea… It is important to note that the entire graphic concept and design of the exhibition, including the map and the origami rhino, are the work of graphic artist Irène Ellenberger.

Glendon Cultural Affairs director Martine Rheault, secretary of
the "Society of Friends of Jacques Ferron" Luc Gauvreau and
York professor Ray Ellenwood and at the show

A two-day conference on January 19th and 20th offered numerous presentations and workshops by recognized academics from Glendon and York, as well as from universities across the country. Georges Bérubé and Yves Frenette (of Glendon’s French and History Departments), Annette Hayward and Susan Murphy (from Queen’s University), Barbara Godard and Alexis Lachaine (of York’s Keele campus) and, of course, translators Ray Ellenwood (of York University) and Betty Bednarski (of Dalhousie) were among the participants discussing Ferron’s work and the significance of his contribution.

Audience members expressed their amazement at the sheer depth of information; they praised the visual interest of the variety of objects and the audio-visual installations. The audio-visual sites offered film clips and various recordings featuring Ferron and his work. It became clear that even a superficial viewing of the exhibition would require at least an hour.

Theatre Glendon’s student production of Ferron’s play, Le dodu played to enthusiastic audiences on its three showings. Under the excellent direction of Glendon drama student Esther Wolf, this delightful, frothy, 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.

The origami emblem of the Rhinoceros Party

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. 20th. The movie was followed by an admirably articulate presentation by Lafond, and a well-informed and highly responsive discussion from the floor. The audience included members of the Glendon and York community, as well as external visitors.

The Ferron exhibition’s next stop is Dalhousie University in Halifax. But anyone who has missed these events can still find a wealth of information, video-clips and other media pieces about Ferron, by searching the Radio Canada archives,, as well as and numerous other sites.

“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.”

This article was submitted by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny

Published on January 26, 2006