Herménégilde Chiasson

Herménégilde ChiassonPhoto: WritersFestival.org
Herménégilde Chiasson
Photo: WritersFestival.org

Herménégilde Chiasson, poet, playwright, artist, documentary filmmaker, Officer of the Order of Canada, and the twenty-ninth Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick was born on 7 April 1946 in Saint-Simon, New Brunswick. He was raised and educated in his birthplace on the Acadian Peninsula, a primarily Francophone area of the province. Chiasson pursued higher education with vigour: within sixteen years he amassed five degrees. He first received a Bachelor of Arts from the Université de Moncton before going to Mount Allison University to complete a Bachelor of Fine Arts. He also has an MA in Aesthetics from the Université de Paris (Sorbonne), an MFA from the State University of New York, and a PhD from the Université de Paris (Sorbonne). Chiasson is married to Marcia Babineau, a theatre director and comedienne; the couple has one daughter, Sarah-Jane (Snyder n.pag.). Chiasson was essential to the Acadian Renaissance; his creative work, devoted to exploring Acadian identity and communicating this exploration to both Anglophones and Francophones in New Brunswick, makes Chiasson tantamount to Acadian culture itself (Tremblay 102).

Chiasson has been a prolific artist and an influential figure in New Brunswick. He has published numerous books of poetry, written plays, exhibited his paintings and photography, directed films, and even composed songs (Snyder). He has many artistic talents and is thus characteristic of the multi-generic nature of Francophone artists in the province. His most notable books of poetry include Mourir à Scoudouc (1974), Rapport sur l’état de mes illusions (1976), Climats (1996), and Conversations (1998). Many of Chiasson’s works have been translated into English, extending his audience to Anglophone readers. New Brunswickers Fred Cogswell and Jo-Anne Elder are the most frequent translators of his work; together they translated Climats in 1999 and Conversations in 2001, while Elder alone translated Béatitudes in 2007, though in close partnership with Chiasson himself (Tremblay 103).

Chiasson has also received many literary awards and honours for his work. He was named as a Chevalier de l’Ordre de France des Arts et des Lettres in 1990, and he was named to the Ordre des francophones d’Amérique in 1993. He was given the Prix France-Acadie for his book of poetry Vous in 1992, and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry for Conversations in 1999. That same year he was also awarded the Grand Prix de la francophonie canadienne. In 2003 he received the Prix Littéraire Antonine-Maillet-Acadie Vie (Snyder). Chiasson also received the Gascon-Thomas Award by the National Theatre School of Canada in 2006, the same year he was a recipient of the Order of New Brunswick (Gauvin A9; Staff A5). Lastly, he received an Honorary Doctorate in Literature from the Université de Moncton in 2009. Many of these awards were given to Chiasson for his extraordinary promotion of Acadian culture and language, and for his efforts on behalf of Acadian artists and writers. As one of the pioneers of the Acadian Renaissance, his work has inspired and mentored whole generations of Acadian artists.

In line with his many literary awards and honours, Chiasson has been largely well received by critics. Devin Crawley, in a review of the English translation of Climats by Fred Cogswell and Jo-Anne Elder, calls Chiasson a “sensitive, obsessive, and petulant Romantic in unromantic times,” concluding that “Climates is a compelling work by an artist who brings old-world nuance to a culture still struggling on the frontier” (41). Chiasson’s poetry is post-modern in style (which some critics have responded to negatively – see Pettigrew) and often takes as its subject the importance of Acadian culture and language in an increasingly English world. “Achilles Before Besieged Shediac” from the collection Climates is illustrative of this tension:

our car is caught in this schizophrenic village
it travels through signs as if on a mined trench
in the midst of a sleepy Acadian village
English on the outside secretly French
we speak of acts that should be strong and zealous
to oppose the constant submissionist label
that wants us to stay put in order to sell us
for the best price as if language were saleable. (Trans. Cogswell and Elder 43)

Halting the erasure of Acadian culture is fundamental to understanding Acadian artists and New Brunswick identity, and is central to Chiasson’s literary preoccupations. As David Lonergan points out, Chiasson’s work “puts forward a reflection sometimes anguished, but never desperate, of life” (107). In the process of doing so, he employs a very distinctive, humanist voice. The collection Beatitudes clearly reveals that voice, describing the blessed as

those who need to engrave the chronicle of their exploits on the walls of washroom cubicles,
those who, wary of unforecast rain and early frost, brake at every turn and fret over the nerve-wracking and unforeseen condition of the road,
those who tear up traffic tickets and watch this confetti fall to the ground through the murky, fog-laden air of intractable anger
those who, inadvertently or mistakenly, without checking their contents, toss out papers they will search for their entire lives… (Trans. Elder 35)

Despite being translated from the original French, these lines still carry the passion of Chiasson’s concern. He uses the quotidian and relatable experiences of everyday life to nuance an “overriding moral authority in the universe,” and does so with imagery that is vivid and arresting in its simplicity (Tremblay 105).

Chiasson has been heavily involved in the arts in New Brunswick throughout his professional and academic career, and he is a benefactor and founder of many organizations. As the Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick from 2003 to 2009, he supported the arts in multiple ways, from promoting art exhibits to supporting galleries to contributing to the growth of theatre in the province (Brown B4; Gauvin A9). He also taught in the Fine Arts department at the Université de Moncton for many years, and was an artist-in-residence at both Mount Allison University and Université de Moncton. Over the years, he also held the posts of Director of the Galerie d’art de l’Université de Moncton, President of the Galerie Sans Nom, Curator of the Marion McCain exhibit at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, and President of the Association acadienne des artistes professionelles du Nouveau-Brunswick. Chiasson was also a principal in important Acadian art institutions like the publishing house Éditions Perce-Neige, the Aberdeen Co-operative, the Imago workshop, and Productions du Phare-Est (Snyder). In both his own creative work and in his support for other Acadian artists, Chiasson has promoted the growth of and appreciation for Acadian culture in New Brunswick, a culture that is often pushed to the margins by Anglophone interests (Tremblay 98). In his work, Chiasson attempts to find “a way beyond the impasse of biculturalism” to a more inclusive climate “where history, ethnicity, language, and heritage are dominant features of the public conversation” (Tremblay 107).

Cassie MacPhail, Winter 2017
St. Thomas University

For more information on Herménégilde Chiasson, please visit his entry at the New Brunswick Literature Curriculum in English.

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Chiasson, Herménégilde. Actions. Montréal, QC: Trait d’union, 2000.

---. Aliénor [théâtre]. Moncton, NB: Editions d’Acadie, 1998.

---. Available Light. Trans. and Ed. Wayne Grady. Vancouver, BC: Douglas & McIntyre, 2002.

---. Béatitudes. Sudbury, ON: Prise de parole, 2007.

---. Beatitudes. Trans. Jo-Anne Elder. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 2007.

---. Brunante [récits]. Montréal, QC: XYZ éditeur, 2000.

---. Climates. Trans. Jo-Anne Elder and Fred Cogswell. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 1999.

---. Climats. Moncton, NB: Éditions d’Acadie, 1996.

---. Conversations. Sudbury, ON: Prise de parole, 2001.

---. Conversations. Trans. Jo-Anne Elder and Fred Cogswell. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 2006.

---. Enigmes. Sudbury, ON: Prise de parole, 2014.

---. Espaces. Sudbury, ON: Prise de parole, 2014.

---. Existences. Ottawa, ON: Écrits des forges, 1991.

---. Gestes. Sudbury, ON: Prise de parole, 2014.

---. Histoires. Sudbury, ON: Prise de parole, 2014.

---. Identités. Sudbury, ON: Prise de parole, 2014.

---. Jack Kerouac’s Road – A Franco-American Odyssey. Dir. Herménégilde Chiasson. Montreal, QC: National Film Board of Canada, 1989.

---. Laurie, ou, La vie de galerie [comédie-théâtre]. Tracadie-Sheila, NB: La Grande Marée, 2002.

---. Le Christ est apparu au Gun Club [théâtre]. Sudbury, ON: Prise de parole, 2005.

---. Le coeur de la tempête. Sudbury, ON: Prise de parole, 2010.

---. Le grand Jack. Dir. Herménégilde Chiasson. Montreal, QC: National Film Board of Canada, 1987.

---. Les années noires. Dir. Herménégilde Chiasson. Montreal, QC: National Film Board of Canada, 1994.

---. Mots. Sudbury, ON: Prise de parole, 2014.

---. Mourir à Scoudouc. Moncton, NB: Éditions d’Acadie, 1974.

---. Nostalgies. Sudbury, ON: Prise de parole, 2014.

---. Parcours. Moncton, NB: Éditions Perce-Neige, 2005.

---. Pierre, Helene & Michael: suivi de Cap Enragé [théâtre]. Sudbury, ON: Prise de parole, 2012.

---. Rapport sur l’état de mes illusions. Moncton, NB: Éditions d’Acadie, 1976.

---. Refrains. Sudbury, ON: Prise de parole, 2014.

---. Répertoire. Trois-Rivières, QC: Écrits des Forges, 2003.

---. Robichaud. Dir. Herménégilde Chiasson. Montreal, QC: National Film Board of Canada, 1990.

---. Solstices. Sudbury, On: Prise de parole, 2009.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Brown, Chuck. “Lt.-Gov. Opens Kids’ Art Exhibit.” Telegraph-Journal [Saint John, NB] 7 Apr. 2006: B4.

Campbell, Wanda. “Seeing Red: Passion in Acadian Poetry.” Journal of Canadian Studies 48.3 (2014): 162-80.

Crawley, Devin. Rev. of Climates, by Herménégilde Chiasson. Quill & Quire 65.7 (1999): 41.

Cumby, Meghan. “Our Renaissance Man Returns to the Stage; Lt. Gov. Herménégilde Chiasson’s ‘Lifedream’ Will Finally be Presented in English…” Telegraph-Journal [Saint John, NB] 14 July 2007: H2.

Gauvin, Yvon. “Lieu.-Gov. Receives Prestigious Theatre Award; Herménégilde Chiasson, Actor Gordon Pinsent Share National Theatre School of Canada Honour.” Times & Transcript [Moncton] 27 Oct. 2006: A9.

Gouchie, Jennifer. “Home Province Inspires Acadian Playwright Herménégilde Chiasson.” Times & Transcript [Moncton] 23 Jan. 2017: C1.

Lonergan, David. “L’espace dans la poésie d’Herménégilde Chiasson.” Literary Atlas of Atlantic Canada / Atlas littéraire du Canada atlantique (2014): n.pag. Web.

---. Paroles d’Acadie: Anthologie de la littérature acadienne (1958-2009). Sudbury, ON: Prise de parole, 2000.

Pettigrew, Todd. Rev. of Conversations, by Herménégilde Chiasson. The Pottersfield Portfolio 22.2 (2002): 10.

Snyder, Lorraine. “Herménégilde Chiasson.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. 6 June 2010. Historica Canada. 2015

Staff. “Herménégilde Chiasson.” Telegraph-Journal [Saint John, NB] 15 Aug. 2015: F2.

---. “Order of New Brunswick Recipients Honoured.” Telegraph-Journal [Saint John, NB] 25 Nov. 2006: A5.

Tremblay, Tony. “Strategy and Vision for an Intercultural New Brunswick in the Recent Poetry of Herménégilde Chiasson and the Translation of Jo-Anne Elder.” Quebec Studies 50 (2010): 97-111.