The discreet charm of Roch Carrier 

By Barbara Black

When a person’s words are on the $5 bill, you know they’re worth something. That’s the case with Roch Carrier, who gave a Concordia audience a taste of his puckish wisdom on Oct. 19.

Roch Carrier addressed Concordia on Oct. 19. Magnifying glass

Roch Carrier addressed Concordia on Oct. 19.

Carrier’s CV is remarkable by any standards. He’s an Officer of the Order of Canada. He’s a writer of stories, plays, essays and an iconic children’s book that captured the comic side of the Canada-Quebec dilemma. He’s a bureaucrat skilled in cruising the highest altitudes of Ottawa, having headed the Canada Council for the Arts and the National Library of Canada. He has a doctorate in literature from the Sorbonne and he’s a former principal of the Collège militaire royal de Saint-Jean. He even ran (unsuccessfully) for Parliament, an episode he is the first to caricature.

Perhaps his most important achievement is his ability to connect with an audience. He has travelled widely in Canada and the world, and when he does, he listens as well as talks.

When he was national librarian, he visited schools as part of a literacy tour. “How many books do you think we have?” he would ask the children. “Twelve!” “More.” “A hundred!” “More.” When he got them up to the actual number, 20 million, the kids were amazed.

They also listen when he tells them his own story. “All across this country, there are children with low self-esteem,” he said. “I tell them I came from zero.”

Not exactly zero, but from a small Quebec town with few books and only one station on the radio. His grandfather was a blacksmith, his father was a lumberjack, but he loved school. His grandmother told him she had gone to school for only one day, because she was needed at home. “I was impressed that she knew so much after being in school only one day!”

Carrier illustrated the wonder of learning and the arts with little vignettes. Nanotechnology reminds him of a comic book hero of his childhood who was able to see battles on the surface of a penny. He finds poetry in aboriginal legends and in a haunting metaphor for life that was written by the seventh-century scholar known as the Venerable Bede.

His awareness of these deceptively simple links to the past enable him to find common ground with others. He described watching his grandfather, the blacksmith, as he carefully placed the hot iron rim on a giant cartwheel. It was always an occasion for celebration in the village. The sparks flew, the people chatted and sang, and the little boy marvelled.

Many years later, as a bureaucrat, he was in France, talking with an important man who was proving difficult. He started to tell the story about his grandfather, and his adversary simply melted. “But my grandfather also was a blacksmith,” he exclaimed, and from then on, they got along.

The words on the $5 bill? There’s a scene on the back of children playing hockey, and in very tiny type — you will need a magnifying glass — is a passage, in French and English, from The Hockey Sweater:

“The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons. We lived in three places — the church, the school, and the skating-rink — but our real life was on the skating-rink.”

Roch Carrier’s appearance at Concordia was part of the Governor-General’s Lecture Series, sponsored by the Royal Society of Canada.


Concordia University