Loyalties (Double allégeance) Commentary

Anne Wheeler’s film, Loyalties (Double allégeance), has garnered praise from all over the world. It won AMPIA awards for best film, best director, best actress, best script, and best drama, as well as a Genie for best achievement in costume design. In 1987, it won the Grand Prix at the Créteil International Women’s Film Festival.

Although this was Wheeler’s first full-length feature, it was not her first film. Like many Canadian filmmakers, she had a previously successful career in documentary, primarily with a film collective in Calgary called Filmwest. Wheeler says that this group of filmmakers essentially invented the film business in Alberta. They had a strong sense of purpose: telling western Canadian stories with a western perspective. Filmwest was small enough that its nine filmmakers learned the business from the bottom up: directing on one film, editing or doing the sound on the next. Their concern was for an honest treatment of social issues.

Coming from documentary, it was a fairly logical step for Wheeler to take on the issues addressed by Loyalties. This 1986 psychological thriller examines how sexual secrets can destroy families and friendships and how honesty and forgiveness can help to repair the damage. This theme is especially poignant, given the racial overtones of the plot.

Sharon Riis’ powerful script situates the power inequities of colonialism behind the human drama of Loyalties. The class- and culture-consciousness of a British family who move to Lac la Biche, a working class community in northeastern Alberta, is obvious. The representative Canadian couple who welcome Lily Sutton (Susan Wooldridge), the doctor’s wife, to town have all the cultural attainments of white trailer trash. Lily is lonely and miserable: her husband works long hours at the clinic; she is confused by the frontier, self-help ethic; and she has no friends. Her eldest son, Robert (Christopher Barrington-Leigh), is away in an English private school, but she is willing to accept a second-rate Canadian education for him if she can bring him to their new “home.” Partly out of loneliness, Lily befriends their Métis housekeeper, Rosanne (Tantoo Cardinal), but then accuses her of over-stepping her “place,” when she begins to advise Lily about family matters.

Ironically, Lily has married David Sutton (Kenneth Walsh) against the wishes of her family. David has challenged the class structure in England by becoming a prominent physician and marrying “above himself”. She has remained loyal to him, following him stoically to the Canadian wilderness, determined to make the best of things. The Suttons’ may have family jokes about the third-rate cultural context of Lac la Biche, but they have come here because they have a secret that they will go to great lengths to protect. When Lily meets Pakistani émigrés from Britain who know someone practising medicine in the same city where the Suttons used to live, David tells Lily to avoid them entirely. So, although financially and professionally secure, the Suttons are a family that is morally and spiritually damaged.

Set against the somewhat toothless, though still present, colonial dynamic of Britain and Canada is the all too powerful, internal colonial dynamic of aboriginal and settler peoples. Loyalties was the first Canadian feature film to give contemporary Métis culture a dignified voice, which is why Tantoo Cardinal chose to be a part of it. Her character, Rosanne, is the daughter of Beatrice Ladouceur (Vera Martin), a Métis elder, who owns a farm near the Suttons’ new home. Beatrice provides a firm moral foundation for her family.

Rosanne is bright but has never had a chance to go to college. She sustains her children by waitressing at a local bar. When her happy-go-lucky boyfriend, Eddy (Tom Jackson), picks a fight with her one night, Rosanne is fired. Proud and not willing to be involved with a man who beats her, she kicks Eddy out and returns to her mother’s house for a while. Beatrice may not have much money, but she can always find room and food for her family. Spiritually rich, if materially poor, the Ladouceur women find joy in their lives and their land.

These, then, are the two broad cultural oppositions that inform the plot, although Wheeler invests many gradients along the range of cultural power politics. Rosanne’s sister, for example, is an alcoholic who arrives one day to take her son back from his grandmother. She clearly has not found the same balance in her life that her sister and mother have. As she drives away with the boy, his aunt gives him money to come home on the bus if things get bad. Robert Sutton, once arrived from his English private school, overcomes his initial cultural diffidence to become friends with one of Beatrice’s grandsons.

However, the chief meeting of cultural dichotomies is the friendship between Lily and Rosanne. Each must stop judging the other. Their mutual acceptance as two women, despite race or class, culminates at Lily’s birthday party in the bar and in the events of the new few hours. Lily literally has the best night of her life, singing, dancing and clowning around. Their new-found trust is severely tested that night when they arrive at Lily’s home to find that her husband, who has returned early from a fishing trip, has just attacked and raped the babysitter, Rosanne’s young daughter.

This episode provides a focus for the central question of the film: Where do your loyalties lie when they are severely tested? Livid with rage at the injustice, Rosanne takes her daughter to Beatrice; but she resigns herself to the likelihood that no one in power will avenge this outrage against an aboriginal girl. For her part, Lily is horrified enough to shift her loyalties away from race, class and kinship to gender. Loyalties makes a powerful statement about women standing up for one another in the face of a huge and rarely discussed problem in rural and aboriginal communities: sexual assault. Under law, Lily cannot testify against her husband, but Rosanne can; so, Lily reports the rape to the police and guides them to Beatrice’s farm, where she asks Rosanne to press charges.

Evelyn Ellerman