Les Rose: My Father’s Violence

I concluded a recent blog post arguing that “Canadian culture and politics need more Canadian political documentary.” An immediate example of what I am looking for is Felix Rose’s documentary Les Rose (The Rose Family). Supported by the National Film Board of Canada, it represents Rose’s attempt to come to terms with his family legacy, especially that of his terrorist father Paul Rose. The film is available in its entirety for personal use on the NFB website.

Felix examines his family’s roots in working-class francophone Montreal and its heritage of poverty and exploitation, epitomized by the Redpath Sugar Refinery, a dark satanic mill that was the neighbourhood’s main employer. Felix’s father Paul and uncle Jacques were radicalized by family experience and what they perceived as the slow pace of change in the Sixties. They joined the Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ) and were members of the Chenier cell that kidnapped and murdered Quebec Deputy Premier Pierre Laporte. Felix was born in 1987, five years after his father emerged from prison. After his father’s death in 2013, Felix urgently needed to reconcile the gentle social activist father he knew with the terrorist he didn’t recognize.

Exoneration or Condemnation?

The film has gotten considerable attention in Quebec among both anglophones and francophones. Unfortunately, it has attracted little attention outside Quebec. (Eric Andrew-Gee’s article in The Globe and Mail and Dan Bilefsky’s in The New York Times are notable exceptions). The major point of contention about the film is whether or not Felix romanticizes and exculpates his father. In my view, Felix Rose presents enough of the sordid story of the October crisis that there is no whitewash. He makes clear that after his father and uncle renounced peaceful activism, they learned from terrorist groups like Black September, brought a dumpster that would serve as a “people’s prison” for kidnappees to their farm, and robbed banks to fund their projects.

The FLQ established two cells. The Liberation Cell kidnapped British trade commissioner James Cross. In his interview with Felix, Jacques Rose recounts how the Chenier Cell members saw Deputy Premier Laporte on television and impulsively decided to kidnap him, thus outdoing the Liberation Cell. Laporte was soon murdered and the Chenier Cell announced that they had executed him. The members of the cell, aware of the prisoner’s dilemma they faced, took collective responsibility for the murder and no one member ever provided any details about his own role or that of any other members. These components of the film persuade me that Felix was not exculpating his father. Some reviewers wanted more detail, but I found what I saw sufficient to make the point.

The film also presents Paul’s mother Rose Rose’s attempts to persuade the government to release him from prison. A compelling vignette is a recording of a radio hotline program in which a caller confronts her, arguing – in French – that “freeing Quebec doesn’t justify murder!”

Ultimately, Jacques Rose served six years in prison as an accomplice and Paul Rose served twelve for the kidnapping and murder. From the viewpoint of Paul, Jacques, and the Rose women, the film discusses the hardship and perceived injustice of incarceration. It does not mention that in other countries the members of the Chenier Cell would likely have been shot when apprehended, tried and executed, or at least have served many more years.

My assessment

In addition to interviews with his relatives, Felix used numerous home movies and videos that give the film cinema-verite authenticity. Those were blended with archival footage from many sources, including media interviews with Paul Rose. As an outsider watching the subtitles I found the rapidly-changing visuals confusing, and would have appreciated more background about what I was seeing.

Les Rose left me with decidedly mixed emotions. I respect Felix Rose’s quest to understand his complicated heritage and make sense of it emotionally and intellectually. I feel sympathy for Rose family, facing obstacles of both language and class that prevented them from taking advantage of The Quiet Revolution and left them angry and bitter. But I strongly condemn the turn to violence taken by Paul and Jacques Rose and the other members of the FLQ.

I regret that this film isn’t getting more attention outside Quebec. That said, I’m aware of the view held by some Canadians that institutions like Radio-Canada and the NFB are hotbeds of separatist sentiment. These people would likely conclude that the NFB should not have supported Felix Rose’s project. I disagree with that view, and believe Felix Rose has done all Canadians a great service in providing his family’s perspective on those dramatic events of half a century ago.

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