BORN: Natashquan, Quebec • 27 October 1928
MON PAYS, CE AfEST PAS UN PAYS, C’EST L’HIVER [My country, it’s not a country, it’s the winter],” Gilles Vigneault sang in his most famous song, the chanson that is the virtual national anthem of Quebec. But it is more than that—it is also a popular hymn to winter in all of Canada, a fact that explains the popular outrage when Patsy Gallant took Vigneault’s tune in 1976 and crassly de-Canadianized it.
The Americanized “From New York to L.A.,” with its disco beat, damaged her career near fatally, so revered was “Mon Pays.” Born in an isolated North Shore fishing village, 1300 kilometres from Montreal, Vigneault received a good education at the Rimouski seminary and at Universite Laval.
His first instincts were towards poetry, and throughout the 1950s he produced poems, stories, and what he called monologues with indif¬ ferent success. Married, with a growing family, he supported himself as an algebra teacher, publicist, and clerk while simultaneously becoming involved in theatre.
In 1959 he founded a literary magazine, published a collection of his poetry, and saw the first of his songs recorded. The next year, in L’Arlequin, the coffee house he founded in Quebec City, he was pressed by friends to sing his own work, and a star was born. After some successful concerts, his first recording appeared in 1962.
Vigneault was no conventional balladeer. His voice was hard, rough, “a voice that hurts,” one critic said. But after a few minutes, the force of the personality grabbed the audi¬ ence tightly and listeners forgot about his gangling, awkward body to become wholly absorbed by the mood he created.
His work was distinctively Quebecois, nurtured in and shaped by the rhythms of the old folk songs. “I lived in a world where they still sang drinking songs and where they still liked to square dance,” he recalled.
He achieved the status of a Quebec icon when “Mon Pays,” sung by Monique Leyrac, won the International Song Festival in 1965. Quickly adopted by separatists, “Mon Pays,” in fact, was not written to be nationalist or even patriotic, but simply as a lament for the coldness of so many who were unable to share their love.
From the 1970s onwards, however, Vigneault became an active supporter of the Parti Quebecois, one who regularly appeared at huge concerts on Saint-Jean Baptiste Day (one in Montreal drew 300,000 people) and sang on every nation¬ alist TV spectacle.
His 1976 song “Gens du Pays” quickly became the PQ’s own anthem, sung with pride and many tears after referendum defeats in 1980 and 1995. In his person, Vigneault seemed to link the cultural past and the nationalist present.
Best known as a balladeer in Canada and abroad, Vigneault was also prominent in Quebec as a poet. One of his collections won the Governor General’s Literary Award in 1965, and his poetry focused on his North Shore home¬ land, the characters who inhabited it, and the travails of love, solitude, and the inexorable passage of time.
Like his songs, Vigneault’s writings drew on the folk culture of Quebec, and Louis Dudek called him “the most gifted poet in Canada since Emile Nelligan, whether in English or French.” That might even be true, but Vigneault’s most significant contribution was his popularizing of traditional values that could still guide and shape the future in Quebec.
His “sense of country and values,” one literary critic noted, “helps explain the emotional appeal of Vigneault’s songs [and] poems,” an appeal “that goes beyond even their tech¬ nical skill and which gives his contemporary and traditional roles…such social force.”
Now close to seventy, Vigneault is still hugely popular, still a devoted independantiste. He can attack English Canada for its approach to Quebec, he can sneer at Jean Chretien as “Trudeau coming back, minus the intelligence and culture,” but he will sing in English because he supports himself on his concert and record sales.
His second marriage produced three children to go along with the four of his first, and he has bills to pay.And, as with so many Quebecois, there is in him yet a sense of yearning towards Canada. “It would be so exciting to make Canada,” he said during the Meech Lake debacle, an agreement that he opposed. “But this is not interesting.
I don’t want to marry someone who has a revolver to her head.” He added, “I am sorry for Anglo Canadians who believe that the problem will be solved” by Meech Lake. There were few enough of those, in truth, and the relations of Quebecois and Canadians may yet turn out to be insoluble. Still, every Canadian can enjoy Vigneault’s songs and be moved by “Mon Pays/My Country.”