HOW LESAGE UNSETTLED THE WEST
BLAIR FRASER REPORTS
The mission: to project Quebec's new image and to test the climate of Confederation beyond the Great Lakes. Some saw him as Canada's next prime minister, others found him dull, and most were puzzled by talk of the French Fact. But here is
LONG BEFORE the end of Quebec Prime Minister Jean Lesage's two-and-a-half week tour of western Canada, it became obvious that he had at least three motives for making it.
First was the ostensible one, to tell Quebec's story and project Quebec's new image to Canada west of the Great Lakes.
Second, and perhaps equally important to him personally, was the wish to have some basis for judgment from his own experience, when the federal Liberals renew their attempt to coax him back to Ottawa. They intend to do this once Quebec's provincial election is over, probably a year from now.
Third, and this may prove most important of all for Canada, he wanted a basis for judgment whether Confederation can be made to work. Among his close advisers are men whom it would be grossly unfair to call separatists, but who are skeptics about Canada. They
have grave doubt that Confederation is workable on any attainable terms. Lesage doesn't share this pessimistic view, but he wants to be able to answer it (or perhaps, in the end, reluctantly accept it) from hisown experience.
Whether he achieved these objectives, there is no way of telling for sure. Lesage seemed reasonably satisfied that he had, on balance, but he had no special grounds for this opinion. His chief informants on public reaction were the fourteen press and radio reporters who traveled with him —and of course we didn't know either. We differed not only among ourselves, but also from day to day.
We were an odd group. Three spoke no French, one spoke very little English. An intermediate trio, one English and two French, spoke the other language with difficulty but could understand it fairly well. Of the true bilinguals one was French Canadian, three
had English or Irish names but had grown up in Quebec and spoken French from infancy, and three had learned it in university or after.
Naturally, our reactions varied a lot. The English-speaking sons of Quebec City seemed to be more emotionally involved than the rest of us. They, not the French Canadians, were the most upset whenever Lesage met hostility or indifference or (most often of all) incomprehension. But we all, before the trip was three days old, had turned from a troop of detached, dispassionate reporters into a band of brothers, convinced that the tour was of great importance to Canada, anxious tfiat it should succeed, sometimes fairly sure it was succeeding but also, from time to time, gloomily persuaded that it wasn't.
On one point almost all agreed, almost all the time: Jean Lesage made a good impression personally. He is/continued on page 56
continued from page 17
a handsome man in excellent physical shape, who looks ten years younger than the fifty-three he is (and whose youthful appearance is confirmed by a pretty wife). He has a ready smile and a quick wit and his English, stiff and formal in public speeches, is easy and voluble in private. After his address to the Winnipeg Canadian Club, the woman who thanked him apologized for the enthusiasm of her opening words which implied that he had conquered them “merely by his charm.” Not at all. she went on— “Quebec could not have sent us a more eloquent spokesman, or had its message more clearly put before us.”
After the Regina speech, one man turned to us and said, “We have been listening to the next prime minister of Canada.” But in Vancouver, after a private dinner given for Lesage by his old friend and ex-colleague James Sinclair, a Liberal candidate said, “I’m disappointed; 1 thought 1 might be coming to hear our next prime minister, but 1 don’t think he’ll make it." At the Canadian Club in Victoria, admittedly his worst performance and the only total failure of the tour, one listener asked. “Is Lesage always as dull as this?" And a woman who has known him for years, after hearing him more than once during the five-
day stop in Vancouver, said, “I must admit Jean's message hasn’t yet got through to me.”
This last remark, in our unanimous opinion, was the commonest reaction among the fifteen thousand people who came to his eighteen public meetings. They proved their interest by turning out in overflow numbers (at almost every meeting dozens were turned away, and at two even the press couldn't get in). They listened attentively and applauded politely. But they went away still puzzled, and they said so to anyone who asked.
Part of the blame for this goes to Lesage and his staff. The tour was carefully planned (preparations began in March) and they all gave careful thought to what Lesage might say. They gave less thought to the best way of saying it in English.
Claude Morin, Lesage’s deputy minister, spent his summer holidays (to his wife’s indignation) writing five completely new speeches. The plan was that these five should be the bedrock material for all the speeches, most of which would be given without text. But as the moment drew near, Lesage began to worry about being misquoted if he spoke ad lib so often, and asked for more manuscripts. In the week before they left Quebec, Morin put together six or seven, made up of chunks out of previous speeches.
All these, the new and the refur-
bished, were done in French. Lesage and Morin polished them with the utmost care, making sure that each sentence said precisely what they wanted to say — in French. The texts were then turned over to the regular translator in the premier’s office, a competent and experienced woman but no speech writer. The English versions she produced were exact renditions of the French original, grammatically correct, but the prose was flat and lifeless and studded with phrases that nobody would ever use. (One speech described some aspect of the new Quebec as “enthusiasm-provoking.”) Lesage offset this in part by inserting passages ad lib, anecdotes and examples, but not often enough; also, he usually insisted on reading the entire text as well, which made the whole speech too long.
But the real blockage of communication lay not with the speaker but with the audience. Nobody, however eloquent or lucid, could have dispelled the dense fog of unawareness that met Lesage west of the Great Lakes (except, of course, among western French Canadians). It was in Calgary
— but it might have been anyvyhere
— that a man at our table asked “What problem?”
We got our first inkling of apathy at our very first stop, Saskatoon. Five
English-language newspapers of Toronto and Montreal, plus the eightpaper Southam chain, two English broadcasting networks, and two magazines thought the Lesage tour important enough to warrant the considerable expense of sending staff writers along. The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix didn’t think it worthwhile to cover either his arrival (at an airport packed with Saskatchewan French Canadians, some of whom had driven five hundred miles to meet him) or his meeting with a French-speaking association the same night. It would be no use sending a reporter, the sponsoring group was told, since “everything would be in French”; besides, it was a Sunday evening.
Actual hostility didn’t show itself often, at least to Lesage’s face. The two schoolteachers who picketed the Calgary hotel where he spoke, with signs saying “Quebec Treason” and “Lesage Go Home,” had nobody to take over from them when their lunch hour ran out; to get their pictures taken, they had to come back at 4 p.m., when Lesage wouldn't be there but press photographers would be. The Vancouver man who called Jack Webster’s hot-line radio interview with Lesage to ask, “Why don't you go back to France?” merely gave Lesage one of his better anecdotes for later speeches: “If I did go back to France, I wouldn't know where to go. I’m a tenth-generation Canadian.
My first cousin is living on the same farm that our ancestor Jean Lesage cleared in 1680."
But the hostility was there all right, everywhere we went. In Winnipeg. Lesage devoted his speech to explaining why there is no short answer to the question, "What does Quebec want?" and why Quebec couldn't and wouldn't present a shopping list of demands to English Canada “as one might submit a list of grievances to a powerful monarch.” At the end of it. an elderly woman, who had evidently understood him all right, snapped, "What he's telling us is, ‘First, do what we say, and then we'll tell you what we want.’ ”
Almost everywhere we met somebody who would say, with the air of one producing an original but conclusive argument, "After all, we did beat them on the Plains of Abraham, didn't we?” To this oldest of all Francophobe clichés Lesage had two answers which he used partly, but only partly, in joke. One went all the wav back to the other Conquest in 1066:
"You know, there was a man of my name, Lesage — perhaps one of my ancestors — on William the Conqueror's staff at the Battle of Hastings. If a nation's language were determined by one battle, the British would he speaking French today.”
His other answer was a reminder of “what really happened" on the Plains of Abraham in 1759: “It was a battle between two regiments of regular soldiers from overseas. The French regiment lost the battle, and
went back to France. The British won, and stayed, and were assimilated by the French Canadians. I know lots of their descendants living in Quebec today who can’t speak a word of English."
But it would take more than a couple of historical jokes, and more than one series of Canadian Club speeches, to remove the mistrust with which westerners view FrenchCanadian claims for equality of language rights. Even sophisticated people still think this means that “they want us all to speak French out here.” They're astonished to be told that French Canadians don't care what language other people speak, but want to educate their own children in French just as the English-speaking minority in Quebec can educate their children in English.
Lesage told a story in Vancouver which he repeated several times thereafter. the story of the two engineers. One is an English Canadian in Vancouver (or Regina, or wherever), the other a French Canadian in Montreal. Both work for a national company. Each is offered a promotion to the other city.
“For the English Canadian promoted to Montreal, it’s just an ordinary move. He can accept without hesitation. His children will go to school as usual, their lives will not be changed. But for the French Canadian promoted to Vancouver it’s a terrible choice. If he accepts, his children must give up their language.”
Not only from watching audiences but from our own talks outside, we
knew1 that this concrete example struck home. Corporation men could understand the moral dilemma of a man who had to choose between his own career and his children's identity. More than Lesage's elaborate thesis of the “two majorities" and the “horizontal" as opposed to “vertical" view of Canada, it made them realize what French Canadians mean when they say they have not now got equal rights within their own country.
Demands aren’t extreme
On his side Lesage may have learned. if he didn't know already, that western French-Canadians' demands are not as extreme in this field as their own extremists pretend. A school official in St. Boniface, Man., said, “We now have an hour of French a day, and we teach religion in French. If we could use French as the teaching language in one more subject, social studies (history and geography), that would be enough. Our people wouldn't want an allFrench course. They don't want their children to lose French, true, but they don’t w'ant them to lose their English either."
The tangible achievement of the Lesage tour on the language question was his agreement, in Winnipeg, with spokesmen of the Ukrainian-Canadian community. Ukrainians more than any other ethnic group have been suspicious of French-Canadian claims in western schools, so it was a notable step forward when their leaders agreed with Lesage that French should
be used as a teaching language for French-speaking children, and he agreed with them that any other minority language should be a subject of instruction wherever the community was large enough to warrant it.
All in all, it looked as if the Lesage tour achieved some progress toward mutual understanding on the language-and-school question. With his other major theme he did less well — the demand for recognition of Quebec’s “particular status” as “the mainstay of French Canada.”
(“Mainstay" was the best translation they could find for point d'appui — literally “point of support, fulcrum or hase," according to the dictionary, hut conveying some of the sense of "stronghold” as well.)
Much of what Lesage said was mere commonsense. It is absurd that Prince Edward Island, with the same population as Regina, should be legally the equal of Quebec with its five and a half million people. The other bigger provinces don’t mind, because on the really important issues PEI agrees with them, but to Quebec it’s more than a mere annoyance to be told that anything permitted to or done by Quebec must he equally available to Prince Edward Island. Whatever difficulty Lesage might have had explaining this point in Charlottetown, he got it across easily enough in the big and booming west. Where he got into trouble was in talking of present-day Quebec as only "one voice out of eleven” — eleven, not ten.
This implies not only that PEI is
equal to Quebec, hut also that Quebec is equal to Ottawa. The part is equal to the whole. There is no recognition that every Canadian parliament is more than one quarter, and most parliamentary majorities more than one third, made up of French Canadians from Quebec. Only the government in Quebec City speaks for French Canada, the federal members don't count. Lesage didn’t quite say this explicitly, but in several speeches he came close.
It went down bad'v, even with sympathetic listeners. At the University of Victoria, he addressed two thousand students to the warmest applause; he looked back on this (rightly, I think) as one of his very best meetings. 1 drove back to town with a girl just starting her first year in honors English and history. I asked her what she thought of Lesage and his speech.
"He’s very charming,” she said, “but he talks about Quebec as if it
were a country instead of a province.”
Apart from disquiet about what Lesage seemed to mean by autonomy, there was — and still is — honest bewilderment as to what he wants English Canadians to do. He treated the question “What does Quebec want?” as if it were an insult, or at best an impertinence. It wasn’t. People really didn't know, and wanted to know, but Lesage made a vague job of telling them.
For us who traveled with him.
pondered his speeches all day and talked of little else all evening, it wasn't hard to understand why. We could see at least three reasons w'hy he couldn't be more explicit. One was that he didn't quite know himself, except in general terms.
In his Vancouver speech he outlined the four possible courses open to Quebec; First, the status quo; second, complete separation; third, such changes in the federal government as might win it Quebec’s primary loyalty (which now, he said, goes to the provincial government); fourth, a new constitutional status for Quebec that would recognize its role as the "mainstay of French Canada.”
The first two, status quo and separation, are both ruled out by the vast majority of French Canadians, he said. The other two are not mutually exclusive; they complement each other. The goal should be a new Confederation comprising hath a stronger Quebec and a more palatable federal authority. It’s obvious that these goals could not be attained by mere tinkering with the British North America Act; a new constitution would have to be written from scratch, and Lesage is not ready to say just what ought to be in it.
Moreover (and this is the second reason for vagueness) if he did make a definite proposal it would immediately become a political target from both sides. Back home in Quebec, the Union Nationale would say it didn't go far enough, while in the rest of Canada other parties (and some Liberals, too) would say it went much too far. This would happen no matter what the proposal might be.
Finally, Lesage was obviously reluctant to lay down anything that could be taken as a formal basis for discussion, or a first bargaining position. He is, after all, a provincial premier (or prime minister, as the premiers of Quebec have always called themselves, ostensibly because the word “premier” does not translate as a French noun, but simply means “first”). Anything that is said by the head of a government is taken to be government policy. Lesage cannot announce policy yet on a matter as vital as this one.
Also, he is a lawyer who reads the fine print of any agreement and expects others to do the same. If they don’t, so much the worse for them.
In one of his several golf outings in Vancouver, an opponent got to the green ahead of the other three and took his putt without waiting for them. As they were noting scores for the hole, the opponent put his down as five.
“Did you take out the pin before you made your putt?” Lesage asked, knowing he hadn’t.
“No,” said the other man, “why?”
Jovially, but not joking, Lesage said, “Old boy, you've got a seven. According to the rules there's a twostroke penalty if your putt hits the pin.”
As he rubbed out the five and replaced it with a seven, the opponent remarked, also jovially, “I begin to see why Mike Pearson has so much trouble with you.”
As things turned out, it was those two strokes that won the round for Lesage and his partner. ★