At 9 p.m. Tuesday, about 2 million Quebeckers turned on their TVs and tuned in to Radio-Canada for the last chapter of Les Lavigueur, la vraie histoire — The Lavigueurs, the real story. The miniseries chronicles a family who won $7.6 million on April 1st, 1986, which proved to be the ticket for an instant — and unwanted – celebrity. It was the hit of the season on French television.
Since it first advertised the serial drama, Radio-Canada claimed many times its goal was to set the record straight and to repair injustices committed by reporters during the months and years following their win. “They were a united, simple family, who loved each other,” said Mario Clément, director of programming, when he launched the series. “They went through an incredible human drama. As a public broadcaster, we wanted to rehabilitate their name.”
As Clément points out, more than twenty years after the events, the story of the Lavigueurs is still a relevant tale of the interaction between citizens and the media.
The lottery winning on April 1st, 1986, was reported as a fairy tale for the Lavigueurs, representing the promise of better days. The audience discovers the close-knit family when Loto-Québec introduces them at a press conference as the recipients of the largest amount of money ever won in Quebec history.
Jean-Guy Lavigueur, his children Sylvie, Yve and Michel, their uncle Jean-Marie and a man who found the winning ticket after Jean-Guy lost his wallet and brought it back knowing what it was worth, all made the front page of the Journal de Montréal, Montreal’s tabloid, the next day.
The matriarch of the family, Marie Daudelin, died in 1983 from a heart condition. Two other children also died at early ages. When Jean-Guy Lavigueur purchases his winning ticket he is unemployed, after losing his 34-year-long job at the United Bedding Company. He is analphabet, an illiterate who doesn’t know the alphabet, and relies on his oldest daughter, Sylvie, to take care of the family.
Despite their seemingly good fortune, their winning proved to be the beginning of a Greek tragedy for the Lavigueurs. Making colorful statements to the media, the Lavigueurs made the headlines several times, and the spin was rarely positive.
The youngest daughter, Louise, eventually sued her family to get her share of the prize. She had been excluded because she was not living with the rest of the family at the time of the winning. The process, followed by the media became an easy source for dirty stories – among them rumors that Jean-Guy was abusing his daughter. Then, the family bought a 22-room mansion worth $850 000.
For many years, the Lavigueur have been the subject of many jokes, spoofs and mockeries in the public sphere. During the same period, a Dutch comedy showing a family on social assistance was dubbed in Québec and translated under the title “Les Lavigueurs déménagent”.
Twenty-two years later, only two of the eight Lavigueur are still alive. The others are dead, one of them by suicide. Most of their fortune is now gone. After Yve’s struggles to solve his problems with drug addiction, he wrote a book about his experience, in an attempt to restore his family name.
That’s the insider story the miniseries is telling, and, to the credit of the artisans, with not only commercial success – they received amazing reviews –even from reporters. But ironically, the “truth” the series is trying to show is subject to controversy. In trying to shed new light on this family, Jacques Savoie, the screenwriter, decided to portray the story from the inside. Even though he claims to tell a story, a greater truth, he changed some of the facts and of the chronology in the story for dramatization purposes.
Individuals surrounding the Lavigueur – reporters, lawyers, Louise’s lover, and even the real estate agent who sold them their house - are depicted as reptiles who’d do anything to make money.
Herein lies the main problem. The reporters and lawyers the story shows never existed. They’re composite characters. It ‘s not even confirmed that Louise’s lover had any influence on her suing her family.
Le Journal de Montréal wrote several pieces to correct the “mistakes” made in telling the true story of the Lavigueurs. The mean reporters were complete fabrications. The lawyer for one of the family members issued statements saying he was unhappy with his depiction, and even the realtor who sold the family its mansion complained that her depiction was unfair.
By trying to repair an injustice, the miniseries itself is creating another flow of injustices.
Despite the controversy, there’s much to learn from a reporter’s perspective about the consequences of our reporting. Throughout the 80’s the Lavigueurs were an easy target for radio talk shows, news reporters and even satirists. Depicted as welfare bums who were dilapidating their fortune, the Lavigueurs weren’t allowed any sympathy. The news stories, however, hid a darker story. A drama the media failed to represent accurately, even though their reporting was mostly accurate and based on facts.
What is the public interest in following a family who won the lottery? What are the ethical implications surrounding the coverage of stories with people who make news not because they want to, like politicians, but because of a particular fate?
Small details, mistakes we make have a bigger impact on those we report on. Jean-Guy Lavigueur, whom the media depicted as a “BS”, someone on welfare, a title attached to many prejudices in Québec. He was not a “BS”. No doubt the mistake had an impact of the perception of the man. After he won, his former status as a “BS” made it acceptable to laugh at him without consideration for his suffering.
There’s also hope that a story like the Lavigueur’s wouldn’t happen today. The Lavigueurs were unprepared to face the media circus inherent with such a situation. Loto-Québec has since improved its support to winners. And reporters are more and more aware of their impact.
When the sixth – and last – episode aired Tuesday, I was there to watch the conclusion of their story. And by doing so, I thought about the responsibility of reporters when chasing stories about public figures who happened to become the news without being prepared.
Yet, I wonder if artists too, when they claim to tell the “real story” shouldn’t also follow a strict media ethic. They too, in claiming to tell the real story, have a duty to provide a fair and balanced account of the events they are reporting on.
As for the Lavigueurs, we may never know the real story. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle -- between the depiction the media, who witnessed the story from the outside, gave of them and the recounting of Yve Lavigueur, who lived the story from the inside.
FRANCIS PLOURDE is a graduate student at the UBC School of Journalism. He works part-time at Radio-Canada in Vancouver, where he often asks people if they speak French. The accomplishment he is the most proud of so far is snagging a phone interview with a French-speaking cab driver in Whitehorse. His writing has also appeared on The Tyee and in magazines in Montreal.