Part 1 — What happened to the drum corps activity in Quebec?

by Daniel Buteau, DCW staff

This article originally appeared in the April 2007 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 36, Number 1), mailed to subscribers on March 15, 2007.

For the first time in 30 years, no drum and bugle corps from the province of Québec competed at the DCI World Championships in 2006. In fact, for the first time in more than 40 years, no competitive junior drum and bugle corps was in existence in the province this past season.

Les Stentors of Sherbrooke made a valiant attempt at building a corps until the month of June, but gave up after being able to recruit only 13 members. In typical Québec drum corps spunk, the corps was ready to embark on the division III tour with such a small unit, but was prevented to do so by DCI minimum membership rules.

The complete absence of Québec units may have surprised many American drum corps fans. In 1996, the province boasted 19 units and was home to more competitive junior drum and bugle corps than any other state or Canadian province.

Corps from Québec acquired the reputation of appearing out of nowhere to make huge splashes on the DCI scene throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Following the demise of the last two Québec corps to compete in    division I, Académie Musicale in 1997 and Les Étoiles following the 1999 season, many fans were just expecting that new units would take their place.

These groups from Québec tended to be very popular, providing the unique brand of creativity they had been famous for ever since Les Diplomates dazzled DCA crowds in the late 1960s.

We must, instead, contemplate the highly probable extinction of the competitive junior drum corps activity in the province. Despite the remote possibility that new forms of marching music units may emerge in the future, there is not much hope that corps from Québec will ever again compete on the DCI scene, in any division. There is far too wide a disconnect between the current brand of North American junior drum corps and the type of units that could emerge in Québec, given current resources.

The disappearance of the drum corps activity in the province of Québec provides a good snapshot of the state of youth activities in the province. It also clearly illustrates the profound transformations the drum corps activity has undergone throughout the DCI era.

The existence of what was arguably the most active regional competitive drum corps scene in North America was based on three factors — an overly active regional competitive circuit; a vision driven by the competitive successes of a few elite units; as well as a 20-year long alignment with the North American drum corps activity that lasted from 1976 to 1996.

These three pillars of the Québec drum corps movement have all collapsed in the last few years, in a rather spectacular manner. Many would nevertheless concur with FAMQ Director General Manon Giroux, who believes that “the decline was very predictable.”

A healthy regional drum corps scene

I have attended numerous drum corps contests since getting involved in the drum corps activity in the fall of 1976, at age 13. One that remains most vivid in my memory is an FAMQ contest held in L’Ancienne-Lorette on July 24, 1993, that featured a mere six corps.

Out of those, only Académie Musicale attended DCI in Jackson, MS, that year. They probably were the least memorable of all.

Class A-60 at that contest featured three corps, the host Sénateurs, Dimension of Lévis and Mousquetaires from La Baie. All three had less than 60 members. Had Dimension attended DCI that year, nobody would have recognized their music. They presented a highly creative production featuring music from an obscure Québécois musical, based on an even more obscure traditional inuit novel.

Most noticeable was a set with seal-shaped props used by the guard for a good chunk of the production.

Sénateurs played one of the most unique arrangements of music by Pat Methany ever to grace a drum corps field. That one was not arranged from an old top-12 show.

Mousquetaires also presented a highly original show that packaged music from the “Robin Hood” soundtrack, with a unique visual flair and creative storyline.

The three corps only competed in Québec that summer. They exchanged positions all season long, in a battle that was only resolved at Provincials.

These corps, composed of highly dedicated and talented young members, did not need to travel to DCI in Jackson to have a rewarding season. They had a homegrown competitive circuit to nurture their ambitions, as well as a local fan base that witnessed the amazing growth they achieved during the summer. Such was the recipe that worked for nearly 40 years in Québec.

The drum corps activity appeared in 1958 in the province, when Ontario’s Preston Scout House dazzled the crowd at a local festival in Shawinigan with a brand of marching music nobody there had previously been exposed to. While there was an active marching music scene in the province at the time, it was mostly composed of Gardes paroissiales, marching units sponsored by Roman Catholic parishes that roughly attempted to emulate the style of the Vatican’s Swiss Guards.

Also emerging were majorettes units — all-girl twirling groups backed by a drum and trumpet marching ensemble.

Those units were community-based and relied on the local parish and community clubs for their support. Scout House made such a sensation in Shawinigan that a few groups vowed they would become genuine North American drum and bugle corps.

Throughout the 1960s, gardes paroissiales, marojette groups, drum and trumpet corps, as well as drum and bugle corps, continued to appear in parades and community festivals. Three local competitive scenes also emerged, under the leadership of three separate organizations — the Québec chapter of the Canadian Drum Corps Association, the Association des majorettes du Québec and the Association des corps de trompettes du Québec.

While senior units such as Les Diplomates of Quebec-City and Les Métropolitains of Verdun actively participated in DCA contests and Canadian National Championship events, only a few adventurous junior units competed outside the province.

Les Majorettes de Shawinigan appeared at the 1964 World Open, but their last-place finish with a score of 40.916 may have indicated that twirling majorette units were not really suited for the high-level North American drum corps scene.

A few junior corps also appeared at late 1960s Canadian National Championships. Most prominent were all-girl corps like Les Chatelaines de Laval, Les Marquises d’Auteuil and Les Souveraines de Chambly. This is not really surprising, as most Quebec corps in that era were the offspring of all-girl majorette corps.

There was, nevertheless, enough interest in the drum corps activity for a group of fans to start a Québec magazine called Marche et Manoeuvres. According to André Thériault, founder of the Amis du drum corps québécois, an organization of Québec drum corps alumni, the magazine was published monthly from October 1964 to December 1968. Funding was limited to subscription revenue, which made its continued operation very challenging.

It was not until the mid-1970s that the drum and bugle corps activity truly took hold in the province. The all-girl majorettes gradually became out-of-fashion, which allowed for the activity to become more open to male participants as groups attempted to make a transition to drum corps. Many trumpet units were also keen to switch to bugles.

The emergence of the FAMQ in 1972 provided the leadership needed to steer the three branches of the Québec marching music activity toward a common vision. Interestingly, the organization accomplished such a task at the same time as DCI attempted to grab control of the American drum corps scene away from the VFW and American Legion.

Key to the strengthening of the activity was the vision of the Québec provincial government for the support of cultural youth activity. The FAMQ was one of numerous provincial organizations to receive financial and material support from Québec taxpayers.

According to André Thériault, the three associations in existence in the 1960s only received limited funding from member organizations. Such financial circumstances seriously limited their capabilities.

With the emergence of the FAMQ, the Provincial government provided free office space, as well as base funding that allowed for the hiring of permanent employees. The government also provided extra funding to the FAMQ, based on the number of participants in member organizations.

The flip side of the coin was that the provincial government forced the three existing associations to merge, which increased pressures on majorette and trumpet units to switch to bugles.

The very structure of the FAMQ, while allowing for incredible opportunities, also had inherent pitfalls. The permanent employees worked under the leadership of a board composed of representatives of member organizations. With an active and healthy base, the organization would benefit from an incredible pool of energy, creativity and unlimited volunteer manpower.

If the base was ever to shrink, though, the FAMQ’s decline could quickly become exponential. Financial health also depended on member organizations maintaining high membership rosters.

The first few years following the emergence of the FAMQ witnessed spectacular growth. There were competitive circuits for both trumpet and bugle units, with contests held all over the province throughout the summer. These competitive seasons would culminate with the annual Provincial Championships, a three-day event that featured competitive parade contests, a regular field show contest, as well as a standstill event.

Provincials changed locations every year, often becoming the main event in a medium-size city for a full weekend, which provided outstanding exposure for the activity.

One key reason for the amazing growth experienced by drum corps in the Québec of the 1970s was that it filled a major gap in music education. The provincial school curriculum only provided for minimal musical education. One key difference between Québec and the United States is also that the marching band activity has never existed in the province.

Demographics were also positive for the activity throughout the 1970s, a result of a baby-boom phenomenon that was particularly strong in Québec. The province had one of the highest birth rates in the Western world in the late 1950s to the early 1960s.

The drum and bugle corps of the 1970s were local units, managed by parents and supported by community organizations. The most successful had the backing of local Optimist, Kiwanis or Lions Clubs, Knights of Columbus chapters, as well as municipal governments.

Drum corps was then a year-round activity with weekly rehearsals throughout the year. Groups tended to view participation in local parades and community festivals as of equal importance to competitive events, as they provided not only funding, but also increased visibility.

By 1977, the activity had become so strong in the province that Québec units stopped participating in the Canadian National Championships held in the Toronto area. In 1975, Les Marionnettes de Montmagny, a corps sponsored by a social club for local lumberjacks, had shocked the country by edging the mighty St. John’s Girls by a razor-thin margin of 0.05 points for the Canadian National all-girl title.

Two years later, the Canadian National Championships presented corps from only one out of 10 provinces, Ontario.

The event had grown to appear foreign to French-speaking corps from Québec. It also required long-distance travel that could consume resources better spent reinforcing the corps’ position on the local circuit.

The strongest corps in the province preferred competing at the “World Open” contest in Boston , which was closer geographically than the southern Ontario drum corps hotbed and maintained a high profile on the North American drum corps scene throughout the 1970s and early 1980s.

The summer of 1977 remains a most memorable season and could arguably be viewed as the all-time peak for the Québec drum corps activity. Thirty-one corps participated at Provincials that year, with three more active competitive units electing not to participate. Three corps dominated the competitive scene.

Offensive Lions of Jonquière seemed destined for a DCI top-12 finish somewhere in the near future. Les Chatelaines de Laval had shocked the North American all-girl scene by defeating most contenders on a limited U.S. Midwestern tour, even coming dangerously close to the mighty St. Ignatius Girls, yet to be defeated as perennial DCI all-girl champions.

Les Ambassadeurs d’Arvida, a senior corps with an average age of 17, was two weeks short of cracking the top seven and achieving a perfect guard score at the DCA Championships.

Nobody who had the privilege of seeing this two-time DCA Finalist will ever forget the spirited “Can-Can” dancing performed by the guard to the strains of Gaieté Parisienne.

Also lurking behind the leaders were a set of healthy class A and B contenders with membership way above the 80 mark, including Les Troubadours de Victoriaville, a corps that had 128 members for three years in a row and became the first Québec unit to make class B finals at the “World Open” in 1978. Their spirited female drum major, Lucie Roy, did not fail to be noticed at the corps’ few U.S. appearances.

By the late 1970s, the Québec activity faced a relative decline after years of continuously climbing more impressive peaks. Many corps did not survive the financial burden of a quest for a switch to the new two-valve bugles adopted by DCI in 1976.

Trumpet units were decimated by the push toward closer alignment with North American standards. Out of the 14 trumpet units competing at the 1977 Provincials, only three, including future DCI division I competitor Les Étoiles of Dorion-Vaudreuil, successfully achieved the transition. Community organizations were simply unable to find the required financial resources. Eleven groups folded as a result.

Another reason behind the relative decline was generational. Many members aged out of their units, also taking key parent volunteers with them.

What then seemed to be a decline of catastrophic proportions would appear a little puzzling when compared to later standards. According to Bruno Lavoie, former drum major of Les Métropolitains of Chicoutimi, the corps folded in the fall of 1979 when they could not recruit more than 40 brass players. Such a number was believed to be insufficient for fielding a decent unit.

The decline was short-lived though. If only seven corps competed in class A and B at the 1981 Québec Provincial Championships, 20 competed in class C. That class’ huge line-up was a mix of late-coming majorettes-turned-drum corps, new corps started from scratch, as well as reincarnations of folded late 1970s units.

Interestingly, only one trumpet unit was still in existence, Les Étoiles de Granby. Despite finishing tenth in class C overall, they were crowned as the 1981 Provincial Trumpet champion and folded a few months after.

Class C corps were also growing in quality. The 1982 Troubadours of Victoriaville were the only active class B corps in the province that year. They were soundly defeated by three Québec class C corps at the DCI Class A Championship prelims in Montréal. A new generation of corps would ensure a healthy line-up of 25 units at the 1984 Provincials.

The leadership provided by the FAMQ was instrumental to the activity regaining its strength in the early 1980s. Yvan Dufour, the organization’s full-time development agent, led the implementation of plans that would ensure increased visibility for the activity in most regions that had recently lost their corps to changing demographics.

The FAMQ also held annual provincial conventions that regrouped volunteers from all of its member organizations. These were extensive weekend affairs featuring seminars on drum corps management and active discussions on a whole set of issues facing the activity.

The provincial conference was complemented with a series of regional events that planned for the competitive season in each region of the province. The organization also resurrected the Marche et Manoeuvres magazine, which kept drum corps participants and fans informed and created a sense of community.

Also key to the activity regaining strength was the high visibility achieved throughout the province for a few years. In 1980, the Canada Dry soft drink corporation widely broadcast a television ad featuring Les Étoiles of Dorion-Vaudreuil. The whole province had daily exposure to the drum corps activity.

Also in 1980, FAMQ members elected Claude Bolduc, a prominent Quebec-City radio broadcaster and soprano soloist for DCA finalist La Clique Alouette, as their provincial president. The drum corps activity, therefore, benefited from a credible voice, with accompanying free broadcast time.

Most effective in establishing a strong visibility for the activity was the staging of the DCI World Championships in Montreal in 1981 and 1982. Even though this provided the highest point for the alignment of the provincial grassroots drum corps scene with more elitist North American standards, the event’s smashing success clearly relied on one of the strongest local drum corps machines to ever be assembled anywhere.

As strange as it may appear today, in a decade that witnessed adamant refusal from DCI to allow for even one weekday division I contest a year to take place in Canada, the organization actively sought Les Chatelaines de Laval for organizing the only two DCI World Championships to be held outside the United States.

The corps, under the leadership of the highly-connected Maurice Corey, established   partnerships with the City of Laval, the City of Montreal, the Québec provincial government, as well as the Canadian federal government.

The organizing committee left no details uncovered, even collaborating with Canada Customs to ensure a smooth crossing of the border for all participating units. Corps also were invited to participate in a local parade in Laval that was broadcast by the TVA network throughout the province the morning of the DCI Finals.

Attendance numbers at the 1981 DCI Finals were estimated at 36,000 by DCI, but anybody involved with Les Chatelaines swears still today that there actually were 40,000 people at Olympic Stadium that night.

Such provincial visibility was key to the re-emergence of the drum corps activity after a few years of relative decline. Also instrumental were the efforts of recent age-outs, still hooked on the activity and keen to restart many organizations that were forced to take years off due to declining membership.

They formed the backbone of many emerging corps, offering a pool of staff and volunteers only eager to devote countless hours to keep the drum corps activity alive in their home regions.

The Québec drum corps activity was able to regain its healthy footing by 1983. It would face other valleys, especially with another steep decline yet to come by the end of the 1980s.
The local activity nevertheless remained particularly strong until 1986, even landing two corps, the near-finalist Les Éclipses de Longueil and Connexion-Quebec of Laval, the co-ed version of Les Chatelaines, in the DCI top-25 in both 1985 and 1986. A marked generational transformation had nevertheless become obvious.

The membership of the corps of the 1970s had fierce loyalty to their local organizations. It would have been unthinkable for most to switch to a rival organization.

By the early 1980s, even though the activity remained a pastime in the eyes of many members, others began to see drum corps as an art form into which they hoped to grow as a performer, which allowed for switching to more competitive organizations. Ambitious corps were only too keen to oblige by staging rapacious recruiting schemes.

This is where the close alignment of the Quebec drum corps activity with the DCI scene would have its most profound impact. Members’ expectations toward their local units were now on the upswing. Active competition at the Provincial level would no longer be enough for members who had realized that they could indeed be very competitive on the North American scene at the 1981 and 1982 DCI Championships.