If you’ve never heard of Paul Chartier, it’s with good reason. History doesn’t usually remember what might have been.
“If he had succeeded in what he set out to do, his name would be taught in every classroom in the nation,” said Doug Rutherford, local playwright. “But he failed, which has made him a very famous Canadian that no one has ever heard of.”
Chartier is the protagonist of Rutherford’s new one-man production, The Last President of Canada. The play lifts Chartier from the status of Canadian history footnote and places him centre stage for a story that examines mental illness and terrorism.
Paul Joseph Chartier was 44 on Wednesday, May 18, 1966, when he lit the fuse on the pipe bomb in a stall of the men’s bathroom in Centre Block of Canada’s Parliament Buildings. He intended to throw his homemade explosive from the public gallery into Question Period to “exterminate” as many members of Parliament as possible. In particular, he was after Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson and Progressive Conservative party leader, John Diefenbaker. In the end, the only person he was able to kill was himself. Thwarted by his own ineptitude, Chartier made his fuse length too short and didn’t even manage to leave the bathroom stall before the bomb went off.
“It was really par for the course,” said Rutherford reflecting on the day. “Chartier had failed at everything he had tried to do for his entire adult life. It makes perfect sense that he would fail at this act of terrorism as well.”
Rutherford has been looking deeply into Chartier’s life for the last two-and-a-half years. During that time, he crafted the play’s script, a process that was complicated by the fact that even 53 years later, many details are still not publicly available. “The lack of available details creates a whole set of challenges,” said Rutherford. “Especially since you’re dealing with an historical figure. You don’t have the leeway you do in fiction. You’re really tied to the individual. It ends up taking a lot of mental capacity.”
What he does know doesn’t paint a very rosy picture though. Chartier showed signs of mental illness from his teenage years onward. Later, he was diagnosed with anxiety and borderline psychosis. The majority of his life was characterized by weird and erratic decisions. He would quit a job at any perceived slight, he ran a number of businesses into bankruptcy, he abused his wife and he had a series of run-ins with the law.
“His head is not somewhere I’d like to live in for any length of time,” said Rutherford of trying to embody the character for the performance. “My wife, Clara, says she will be very happy when that individual in the basement goes away.”
Rutherford was in elementary school in 1966, but remembers Chartier’s attempted attack on Parliament from the news. He has always found Chartier interesting, but in recent years, as the number of lone-actor terrorists motivated by mental illness instead of ideology has continued to rise, he realised just how relevant his story is to our world today.
The challenge Rutherford faced in trying to tell that story was how to do it justice without a cast of thousands. The solution came to him as he considered Chartier’s goals for the attack. Chartier believed that the Government of Canada was responsible for everything that had gone wrong in his life. To right this wrong he intended to deliver a 15-page speech to whomever survived his attack in the House of Commons before declaring himself the President of Canada. Rutherford realised that he could tell the story he wanted to tell with a small cast (a cast of one, in fact) if the play focussed on the powers that be giving Chartier’s ghost what he’s been waiting 53 years for–the opportunity to address the House.
Rutherford will embody Chartier’s ghost on the stage. He will explore, through monologue and dialogue with sound clips, the events that led up to Chartier’s untimely demise, his motivations and his commentary on terrorism today, derived from his half-a-century of ethereal observations.
The Last President of Canada will premiere at the Old Fire Hall on May 23 and will continue through May 26. It will travel to Atlin’s Globe Theatre on June 1, and then on to the Ottawa Fringe Festival later in June, where it will show at least six times.
Rutherford classifies the production as a development play. This means there will be opportunities for audience feedback both online and in-person after the performance. He also cautions that some of the language his character uses when speaking about mental illness is dated and would not be acceptable by today’s standards.