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The Case of "The Kid Who Couldn't Miss"
Jean Le Moyne

At the time this article was written Jean Le Moyne was a Senator and member of the Subcommittee on Veterans' Affairs.

On September 18, 1985, Senator Hartland Molson proposed a motion that the Committee on Social Affairs and Technology be authorised to undertake a study and report on the activities of the National Film Board in relation to production and distribution of a documentary film entitled "The Kid Who Couldn't Miss." The motion was referred to a subcommittee on Veterans' Affairs, chaired by Senator Jack Marshall. In its report the subcommittee recommended a disclaimer be added or attached to the film identifying it as a docudrama, combining reality and fiction. The report was tabled in the Senate in April 1986. On April 22 Senator Le Moyne spoke to this report. A slightly revised version of his remarks follows.

I do not intend to review the hearings held by the subcommittee on Veterans' Affairs, chaired by Senator Jack Marshall concerning "The Kid Who Couldn't Miss", a film of the National Film Board on Billy Bishop, the great Canadian ace of the first world war. Neither do I wish to revert to the discussions which led to the currently debated report on said film of the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, chaired by Senator Arthur Tremblay. My distinguished colleagues, Senator Everett and Senator Marshall, covered the whole matter in a most thorough, convincing and moving manner . My sharing of their feelings and of their reasoning is accompanied by such a surge of adrenaline that it is extremely hard for me not to follow them all the way and embrace their conclusions. This implies more than a little sober second thought. Indeed, I had to have recourse again and again to some highly sobering and imperative reminders.

It should be clear that I am not hinting at a defence of the film in question or of the National Film Board itself as collective producer of "The Kid Who Couldn't Miss". The body of the Report is strongly and justifiably critical, and I endorse it without any qualms. The single recommendation I make equally mine, adding in my mind, as a personal footnote, that it goes as far as it can. So, I will just try to deal with a principle, a principle which is, in my view, an insuperable obstacle to the recommendations advocated by Senators Everett and Marshall, but set aside by the report, and wisely so, I dare say.

My two colleagues have expressed what my feelings have been every since I attended the screening of "The Kid Who Couldn't Miss". The less than flattering report submitted by the committee, on which I had the honour to sit, accurately reflects my thoughts on the film. Honourable Senators, I am torn. However, I will not bore you with the details of my mental anguish, and I will let you know my conclusions without further ado. And they are that we must respect and safeguard the independence of the National Film Board, however disagreeable that may be to us, in the circumstances. We cannot censure the board by ordering it to withdraw or modify or remake a film we dislike so heartily. We cannot censure the board by trying to make it adhere to our standards and ideals, however constricting they may seem and no matter how outraged we may be to see those standards and ideals ignored.

Canada did something bold and original when it established a number of cultural agencies that were given mandates that were as clear cut as they could be, considering the need for tremendous flexibility in dealing with that vast and diverse area we call culture. By the way, the definition of literature given by that great French critic, Charles du Bos, could also apply to culture: "Life becoming aware of itself within the bounds of formal expression." A tall order, but that is what the State has asked these agencies to do, each in its own way.

The agencies in question: the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Canada Council, the National Film Board and others, have been given, through their constitutions or charters, a high degree of autonomy, while remaining accountable to Parliament or to a responsible minister. They are supposed to serve the national interest, but they have a very broad field of action where they are entirely free to take the initiative and exercise their jurisdiction, each according to its mission and mandate.

There are two factors that should be considered here. First of all, these agencies cannot be treated as being other than mature. In other words, they are responsible and are expected to act accordingly. However, we also expect them to be inventive and unpredictable and even disconcerting. After all, they do have a mandate for creativity.

Second, these agencies were established some years ago, at a given time and phase in the attitudes of our society, but time goes on, and they are operating in our community as it is today. They are working within the present context, a context that is new and almost totally different from the environment that saw their birth. They are immersed in an ambience saturated with new concepts. By their very nature, our agencies are always in the extreme avant-garde.

This position in literature, the visual arts, and information, is generally not one that is familiar to political and military authorities or to the average parliamentarian. We must therefore be careful. With due respect, and without wishing to denigrate our prerogatives, we are far from being experts, especially in this day and age, which, although it has preserved many age-old and ancient values, has also managed to transform them in some way or another and create new ones, which may often shock the older generation to which we belong. We must be careful, because within our cultural agencies we have writers, playwrights, painters, filmmakers and journalists, the peers of their avant-garde counterparts in the private sector, who manage to scandalise a lot of old fogies. In fact, the guilty parties in these situations are very often interchangeable!

We must be careful, because in view of the role they have to play, our agencies cannot help but hire people who work autonomously and freely in the disciplines they have chosen. Freedom is capable of respect, but its inclination to irreverence does not necessarily mean it should be censured. We cannot seriously expect the public servants and freelance workers in our agencies to behave like good little girls and boys. We cannot order them to avoid offending the susceptibilities of old age, capital, the masses, religion, finance, the army, or unions. In fact, we expect them to demonstrate their vitality by challenging that status quo. One does not need the tools of a burglar or the instruments of a surgeon: all one needs is a fresh perspective.

In establishing its cultural agencies the government was taking quite a risk, the very risk inherent to the freedom of those institutions. Of course a line had to be drawn between what was to be held as acceptable and what had to be deemed inadmissible; but, as I have already hinted, it could never be a neat and fixed line. Reality always fluctuates and is partly every man's representation at any moment of history. Again, let us beware, for the line never stands very long in relation to given co-ordinates.

Allow me a fantasy in analogy: the Senate Committee on Social Affairs is travelling in France a hundred and twenty years ago; incensed by a canvas of a bursary of the Canada Council of Arts named Paul Cézanne, its members manage to bar him from the salon officiel. In 1896, the same committee tries to stop the play Ubu Roi, by the surrealist Alfred Jarry, because of its outrageous vulgarity. Then it will wait until 1960 to lift the ban on Lady Chatterley's Lover, a dirty novel written in kinky ink by one D.H. Lawrence, meanwhile fulminating against Picasso, Schönberg, Webern, and Mondrian. The committee would not feel very good, considering the subsequent and quick judgements of history on these enemies of decency.

I do not mean by this little flight of fancy that our cultural agencies are bursting with geniuses whom we are too dumb to discern. No, but I mean that one should not be too quick to condemn and censure. On sober second examination, our imaginary committee could have discovered much more than met at first the sincere eye or the most sensitive ear – much more that is a lot of masterpieces. In the domain of ordinary artistic, literary and cinematographic fare, the real committee very wisely contented itself with criticism without censure. And, during the Péquiste episode, the government held its peace in the case of Radio-Canada despite almost unbearable itchings. Indeed the idea of a sort of lockout was in the air. Patience according to the British gospel happily prevailed, and so did Canada.

The Kid Who Couldn't Miss was not made by a solid old geezer, but by a high-strung young man whose philosophy of war is rather short, whose perception of heroes and their function in the stuff of society is negative, and whose debunking propensities are, so to speak, unchecked. It happens, that the mentality thus expressed is prevalent among the young generations with many, many other outlooks and trends of the most deplorable kind, according to more than a few orthodoxies. Mr. Cowan is part of that context of modernity which can often be so unsettling, and so is the National Film Board. Such debunking as that so rashly attempted in The Kid Who Couldn't Miss is peanuts compared to what one can witness in any serious contemporary work of exegesis. Nevertheless, debunking, which is a form or a result of criticism, is one of the main characteristics of the age and one of its most valuable contributions to the evolution of humanity. I rejoice in criticism, because of the resulting advancement of science; because of the deepening of psychological awareness, and above all because of the ongoing purification of theologal faith, so long encumbered by layer upon layer of anthropomorphism.

However painful justified or unjustified debunking might be, it can not be limited or stopped by order of Parliament or of the judiciary, nor by established censure. In instances similar and analogous to the one deferred to us, censorship is just like slashing air. I would rather fight windmills like Don Quixote: it's a lot more fun! But unjustified and self-serving debunking might be corrected and compensated by real criticism, of which the report of our Social Affairs Committee on the Bishop film is a worthy example. I find it devastating and, inasmuch as it does not go beyond the single recommendation, I rejoice in it. But one could ask with understandable irritation: when is the state allowed to impose its will on its cultural agencies? In money matters of course, but those are barely relevant here. Aside from high treason, manifest criminal activities, and violation of the Charter of Rights, I see nothing to warrant intervention.

Whether we like it or not there is a hole in Bishop's story as an air force ace. In the admirable succession of the established details of his service over there one encounters a solution of continuity. None of the witnesses we heard could deny it: the famous solo raid which gained him the Victoria Cross cannot be substantiated, historically proved, scientifically established. Great was my dismay when finally I had to admit the damned and damning hole could not be plugged with any concrete fact, with any fact hard as concrete. All tangible evidence has disappeared with different archives.

I was not dismayed because of any doubt concerning the integrity of Bishop the fighter giving account of himself, for I hold the presumptions in his favour to be overwhelming. They are enough for me and for many others to preserve intact, unblemished, the memory of Bishop as the greatest Canadian ace, as a real hero for his time, for our time and for ever. But such presumptions are not enough to constitute an airtight case. Without that unfortunate hole in Bishop's life, the N.F.B. would have never produced The Kid Who Couldn't Miss, but it was there, gaping, unavoidable, undeniable, and it was maliciously, in our opinion, made to act like geyser sprouting fore and aft in time doubt and suspicion. Our favourable use of presumptions founded on Bishop's career and character is subjectively correct, but it is not compelling from an historical point of view, and the possibility of doubt remains. Of doubt, though, and nothing more. Allow me to insist: the possibility remains, but of a doubt such that in all honesty it should never have been allowed any reverberation.

The case of Mr. Cowan cannot be better than that of Bishop's friends and admirers. And it is far from as good, and it is a bad case, for it lies against the grain of a long pattern of limpid valour and heroism.

All things said and considered, what the recommendation of our committee asks is for us the maximum and for the N.F.B. the minimum: designate properly as "Docu-drama" what cannot be held to be a "documentary," confess fiction and hop along your own way. Real formal censorship must not be attempted in the present case and in the present circumstances – it would violate a principle dear to the Canadian sense of freedom and democracy notwithstanding the risks entailed; it would create a precedent upon which all the reactionary forces would pounce and feast, and it would expose the Senate to a damning identification with those same elements of reaction.

Let us suppose that we decide for censorship: we would gain nothing. We would be laughed at, because there is more at stake than Bishop's fame, that is the whole cultural dynamism of our time: because the government would certainly not dare to intervene in fear of the wrath of the whole literary college, of the whole artistic community, even of the whole cité savante and because the N.F.B. would never give a damn.

Our strong criticism was all that could be done and we acted honourably. The rest belongs to freedom. I feel sure that The Kid Who Couldn't Miss will be forgotten long, long before the memory of Billy Bishop starts to fade

Editor's note: In December 1987 the National Film Board announced it would produce a new film on Billy Bishop and add a disclaimer to "The Kid Who Couldn't Miss" identifying it as a docu-drama.


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Vol 10 no 4

Last Updated: 2020-09-14