'What would Napoleon do?'

Why Quebec’s leaders, from Trudeau down, love the losing emperor

Bernard Gagnon

In the early 1800s, the French people of the province of Quebec were vanquished in their own land. France, the mother country, had shown how much regard it had for the vast, often frozen colony by trading it away for Guadeloupe in 1763. The British, flush with a sense of entitlement befitting a conqueror, held most of the positions of power, and the Catholic Church dominated virtually every facet of Québécois life. Les Canadiens were in desperate need of a hero to lift the collective ennui of the times.

That hero, a forthcoming book by Sen. Serge Joyal suggests, was Napoleon Bonaparte. Though he died in 1821 without once visiting his orphaned flock across the ocean—and though Napoleon himself suffered his own crippling defeat at the hands of the British, at Waterloo—the diminutive French emperor nonetheless became a symbol of power to the French in Quebec. For many, he remains an enduring obsession to this day.

“Napoleon is in the cultural DNA of French Canadians,” says Joyal, whose work on Napoleon’s influence on Quebec will be published this fall. “When the British defeated Napoleonic France, French Canadians were put in a situation where commerce, international relations, leadership were in British hands. So in order for them to maintain their language, culture and institutions, they had to constantly affirm their identity. The person who best personified this resistance was Napoleon. Very quickly, they took up Napoleon as a hero in their battle against the English.”

As a former MP under Pierre Trudeau, Joyal remembers how the ruthlessly stubborn prime minister would invoke Napoleon’s name when under particular strain. “During caucus meetings Trudeau would say to us, ‘What would Napoleon do?’ ” Joyal recalls. Joyal’s own fascination with Napoleon dates back to 1970, when he began collecting silverware from the Napoleonic period, some of which was once owned by the emperor himself. Today, Joyal’s large cache of salt shakers, soap dishes, soup tureens and the like are part of a permanent exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art—itself the fruit of another lifelong Napoleonic obsession on the part of another noted Quebecer.

Ben Weider is perhaps best known for the fitness equipment that bears his name, and the myriad gleaming, muscle-headed bodybuilders who emulated his athletic style to the extreme. Yet Weider was once just a skinny Jewish kid from the sticks who was fascinated by Louis Cyr, Victor Delamarre, Hector Lengevin and other famed Quebec strongmen. “His brother was beaten one day, and his father said, ‘If you want to counter that, you have to train.’ His father told him, fight like Napoleon,” Joyal says.

The advice stuck. With the Little Emperor as muse and the benefit of his brother’s business acumen, Weider went on to found one of the largest fitness companies in the world. He also spent much of his time and resulting fortune on all things Napoleonic, writing 10 books on the man, as well as amassing one of the largest private collections of Napoleon memorabilia in the world, most of which is on display today at the Montreal museum. Among the many items: a lock of Napoleon’s hair.

Nor is this a recent trend. For an abiding example of Quebec’s Napoleon mania, consider this: Boucherville native Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, technically the country’s first prime minister and early resister against British might, fashioned himself after Napoleon, even tucking his hand inside his coat while promenading on the streets of Montreal, London and Paris—where he was often mistaken for Napoleon. Portrait artists, says historian Desmond Morton, knew to draw LaFontaine with Napoleon in mind, if only to ensure their patron’s favour. And LaFontaine’s Napoleonic affliction continued even after he broke with Quebec’s nationalist ranks and made peace with the British.

Quebec premier Honoré Mercier, meanwhile, wrote a 60-page treatise on how Napoleon was a victim of the British. His frequent, fiery speeches on the subject—he was premier between 1886 and 1892—would become an enduring strain of Quebec nationalist thought. (There is a certain irony in this: as emperor, Napoleon was opposed to the nationalist movement in his native Corsica.)

In the years immediately following the emperor’s death, “Napoleon” became the most popular given name for boys in Quebec. (Josephine, Napoleon’s first wife, was the nom du jour for young girls.) There were no Napoleons serving in Quebec’s legislative assembly in 1821; by 1867 nearly two dozen had passed through. Quebec City had two mayors named Napoleon, while journalist Napoléon Bourassa served in the Quebec legislature, Canada’s House of Commons and Montreal’s nationalist Société St Jean Baptiste. “We all had Uncle Napoleons and Aunt Josephines in our family,” says Joyal.

“It wasn’t the military might that impressed people here,” Joyal says. “It was his symbol of resistance, the fact that he was imprisoned on an island, and he became a martyr. The French also saw themselves as prisoners and martyrs of the English. They don’t see the side of defeat.”
They certainly didn’t. Napoleon’s legacy took on mythical proportions following his death, so much so that a not insignificant faction of Napoleonic historians believe the emperor couldn’t possibly have been felled by something so pedestrian as stomach cancer. Weider’s latter years—he died in 2008—were devoted to proving that Napoleon was poisoned. “He didn’t like it that Napoleon died like everyone,” Joyal says. “Napoleon couldn’t have died humbly, like falling down the stairs. Superman doesn’t die.”

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