O douce Providence – Première performance, excerpt from "Trois" / 3rd movement | for demonstration purposes only
(subtitles/captions: please select the "CC" button on the bottom RHS of the video)
O douce Providence features the live French-language first-person account (with English surtitles) of Hervé Bertrand, one of the surviving “Duplessis Orphans.” Performed as six connected movements, this innovative 40-minute new work by composer Alyssa Ryvers is scored for witness (Hervé Bertrand – testimony, harmonica, foot music), piano quintet and claquette,* with video and electroacoustics. The piece integrates video, theatre and oral history with classical music composition.
Hervé Bertrand, 74, is a prominent and lifelong activist who has drawn attention to the experiences of the Duplessis Orphans as a great human tragedy of modern Quebec. He recalls making a commitment to himself at age 15, “que ça soit réglé pour l’an 2000” (“that this will be set right by the year 2000”). With other remaining survivors, Mr. Bertrand continues in his quest for justice to this day.
Duplessis Orphans were not orphans in the truest sense. Rather, these were children born to young, single mothers in Quebec during Maurice Duplessis’ premiership (1936–59), an era that has come to be known as “La Grande Noirceur” (“The Great Darkness”). Under the pressure of social mores espoused by Quebec's Catholic Church, young women were compelled to relinquish their children to Church-run orphanages. This social pressure, combined with Duplessis’ policies, created circumstances in which some 20,000 children were made vulnerable to conditions of extreme neglect, physical and / or sexual abuse, medical malpractice, as well as being subject to forced labour.
Having grown up under the public guardianship of Quebec, Hervé Bertrand recalls learning two traditional French songs per month – a total of 600 to 700 songs. A proficient singer and harmonica player, having learned the instrument in hiding while living at the Mount Providence orphanage, Mr. Bertrand can still play and sing many of these songs. “Hymne à la Providence,” from which the title of O douce Providence is derived and which features prominently in the work, was sung by the children at the Mount Providence orphanage every morning before classes.
As part of a larger program that would institutionalize orphans in psychiatric hospitals across Quebec, the province signed a contract with the federal government in 1954 to reclassify the orphanage as a psychiatric institution:
By declaring the orphans mentally deficient, Quebec and the church had found a way to line their coffers: the province obtained big subsidies from Ottawa for building hospitals and it in turn paid the church more than twice as much for caring for psychiatric patients as it did for orphans.2
Schooling at Mount Providence ceased. The children worked long days, and the singing of “Hymne à la Providence” was forbidden.
As a form of protest, in 1955 the children from the St. Georges classroom marched through the halls of Mount Providence to the Sister Superior’s office while singing the hymn; it made the children feel good, and reminded them of easier times. The three children who instigated the march were subsequently transferred to the St-Jean-de-Dieu psychiatric hospital, and the children at Mount Providence never sang “Hymne à la Providence” again.
O douce Providence pays tribute to this early act of activism by the Duplessis Orphans, while challenging the traditional roles of performer and audience through staged action that removes theatre’s fourth wall.
O douce Providence was premièred by the Chamber Players of Canada on July 13, 2016, at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, as part of the 2016 Music and Beyond Festival.
The work is available for performances in Quebec, across Canada and internationally, with surtitles or closed captions available in several different languages. Its presentation is appropriate for high school audiences, and can be scaled to fit venues of various sizes and stage configurations.
* A finger percussion instrument made of wood used in the classroom to obtain order and silence.
1 Jean-Denis Daulé, Nouveau recueil de cantiques à l'usage du diocèse de Québec, Québec, Nouvelle imprimerie, 1819, p. 121.
2 Clyde H. Farnsworth, “Orphans of the 1950's, Telling of Abuse, Sue Quebec”, The New York Times, May 21, 1993, p. A3.
Video still image:Alyssa Ryvers and Hervé Bertrand at Karisma Studios, 2014. (photo: Van Royko)
Background image 1: Duplessis Orphans in front of Mount Providence, 1953(?). (photo: Unknown) [L-R: Mr. Bertrand is the second to last child in the front row]
Background image 2: Duplessis Orphans protesting in front of the Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal, 2011. (photo: Unknown)