Closeup/Quebec

Doctor of languages

Camille Laurin's ‘radical treatment’

Graham Fraser May 30 1977
Closeup/Quebec

Doctor of languages

Camille Laurin's ‘radical treatment’

Graham Fraser May 30 1977

Doctor of languages

Closeup/Quebec

Camille Laurin's ‘radical treatment’

Graham Fraser

Camille Laurin was standing in a corner of a church hall in east-end Montreal. It was the end of a long day, a day of speeches, reporters, endless questions. It was a month since he had unveiled his dramatic white paper on language and less than a week since Bill One had been tabled in the National Assembly. Although he had had only three hours sleep the night before, he looked no wearier than usual and much fresher than his exhausted aides. His press secretary. Michael McAndrew, doing his best to get the day over with, began to move Laurin out to the waiting limousine and commented “You know, they say that K-Tel is coming out with a new record.” And, mimicking the raucous ads, “Now, 20 great speeches by Docteur Laurin.” Laurin cracked up. For several seconds, he howled with laughter and actually slapped his thigh: an outburst almost as incongruous as the idea of the record.

Since the explosive white paper came out April 1, Dr. Camille Laurin, the Minister of State for Cultural Development in the Parti Québécois government and the man responsible for the policy and the bill, has been a study in serenity and calm: explaining. listening, squintingslightlv either from myopia or from the smoke from the constant cigarette, answering and describing—the words all coming in an almost hypnotic monotone with the eerie composure of a Zen master explaining his teaching. To nationalist groups. Greek parents. English businessmen, radio hot-line audiences, Ukrainians. Chinese, PQ riding associations and French business groups he brought occasional differences in emphasis, but always the same message.

It is a message that comes from an old tradition of Quebec nationalism and is at the root of the Parti Québécois: French Canada is a nation and its territory is Que-

bec. Like other nations it has a national language: French. For generations, he maintains, the French have been excluded from positions of power in the Quebec business community, and English has been not only the language of work but the language of signs, advertisements and business. Immigrants have quickly grasped this reality and have learned English instead of French. Laurin vows this will change. Henceforth. Quebec will become as French as Ontario is English. At the same time, like any mature nation, he says, Quebec will be generous, fair and open to its minorities. It will guarantee for the English the preservation of schools, hospitals and the right to address the government, the courts and the National Assembly in English, and will encourage the other groups to maintain their own culture.

In soothing, velvety tones covering a granite-like determination, the 55-year-

old psychiatrist has repeated this basic explanation again and again. The reaction he has received says a great deal about the chasm of mutual incomprehension that divides French and English in Quebec. With some exceptions, the French have seen the policy as a necessary protection of their language rights and generous in its treatment of the English and ethnic minorities. After almost every speech Laurin has made in French, someone has shaken his hand, marveled at the fact he hadn’t lost his temper, and urged him to carry on his mission. The English, on the other hand (although reacting more moderately than they did to Bill 22), have seen the policy as discriminatory, intolerant, authoritarian, petty, inward-looking, vengeful and unnecessary. Laurin’s fabled serenity seems to them to be, in a word, creepy.

One of his aides inadvertently put his finger on what unnerves many of Laurin’s non-French-Canadian listeners when he described how Laurin's psychiatric training leads him to explain the reason behind an emotional reaction. “He doesn't get emotionally involved; it’s a way of dominating people intellectually.” His composure slipped only once. W. Earle McLaughlin, president of the Royal Bank, had told a Québécois businessmen’s group—in English—that if the bank’s head

office was not allowed to function in English it would move. If this happened, McLaughlin argued, Quebec would lose the $250 million in economic activity that is generated directly or indirectly by the head office.

It was not a politic speech. After 32 years in Montreal, McLaughlin was unable even to read a speech in French and the record of his bank in placing francophones in decision-making positions was, to say the least, anemic. When, with fanfare, the Royal Bank announced in February that it was transferring 100 head officejobs to Toronto, it turned out that only four of the 100 jobs were held by francophones. As Laurin admitted later, he was stung—the tone grated him. Although his tone of voice did not change, his words were harsh. He found McLaughlin’s position “a bit humiliating, a little contemptuous, as if we were inferior specimens of humanity.”

People who know Laurin were not surprised. Guy Rocher, a sociologist who worked on the white paper and has known Laurin since childhood, commented: “You know, Camille Laurin comes from a very modest family—there is that in common between him and Lévesque. They both have a great respect for ordinary people, regardless of their ethnic background. They will do everything to make sure they’re not pushed around.” He paused. “But the big rich bankers, using their money to try to put the government in its place—they are going to get it. It won't be the likes of them that gets this government to change its mind.”

While Laurin shares that populist reflex with Lévesque, it has become clear that their perceptions of the language issue— and, in some ways, their vision of Quebec—

are very different. As one party strategist who knows both men put it, “Lévesque is a contemporary nationalist and Laurin is a traditional nationalist. Laurin often refers to history—Lévesque never does that; he looks to Scandinavia or the United States for his examples.”

Thus, speaking to the traditionally nationalist Société Saint-Jean Baptiste right after Bill One was tabled, Laurin sounded and looked almost like a parish priestsombre and soft-spoken in his dark suit, with his jet-black hair, his face creased and lined, saying that he was not offended by the charge that the bill was ethnocentric. “Far from feeling that to be a reproach, or blame, I say yes, ethnocentrism. For all nations are based on ethnocentrism: the Greek nation, the German nation, the Italian nation.” If Laurin agrees with the dictionary, then little wonder that some English Quebeckers are concerned. Webster’s defines ethnocentric as “having race as a central interest; characterized by or based on the attitude that one’s own group is superior.”

Laurin was once called “the most reassuring” of the Parti Québécois members in the National Assembly when he was House Leader of the opposition PQ members during the early 1970s. But it was also Laurin who years ago wrote that “it’s a question of retaking lost ground. Our population has its natural leaders here in the province. Let these understand the needs, take the initiative of social reforms, sometimes draconian, which are needed, and they will be followed. Our French and Catholic character will be safeguarded much more surely by these than by the great proclaiming of principles, warnings and useless complaints.” That was in 1947 when Laurin was director of Le Quartier Latin, the student newspaper at the University of Montreal. Now 30 years later, he is the man responsible for a white paper that spoke of a “reconquest” rather than of “taking lost ground,” declared that “coercive rules are necessary” (although the translation of the word in the English text was “compulsory”) and laid out measures that many non-francophones would not hesitate to call “draconian.”

Despite the stern public image his language proposals have given him in some quarters, those who know Laurin speak of his subtle and self-deprecating sense of humor. Married since 1950 to a talented professional pianist, Rolande Lefebvre, and the father of two daughters, he himself is a lover of music and opera and sings classical songs.

Among party members and, since the PQ’S November election victory, among civil servants, Laurin has also acquired a reputation for being a minister who does his homework. “He is one minister—and I can tell you this is not true of everyone— who has read ail of every document his staff has given him,” said a senior official. “Hereally knows the language question.”

That is probably one reason Lévesque gave him the job. Two other factors may have been just as important. Laurin is known as a minister in whom Lévesque puts great trust and he is a man with no enemies in the party. Known in the PQ as “Le Doc,” he is treated with a respect verging on reverence.

Camille Laurin grew up in a village east of Montreal, the son of a businessman, and attended a classical college where school friends still remember his outstanding voice as a boy soprano. He then went on to the University of Montreal to study medicine. As a medical student, Laurin was known for his tendency to take life seriously. Wrote a fellow student in the campus newspaper. “Sometimes, coming into the newsroom, I find Camille Laurin deep in meditation. It is the moment when projects for the future grow in this great mind, where plans are laid out for the ideal community, whose potentate would be one Camille Laurin, experienced, venerated, dispenser of social reforms and generous largesse.”

In 1948, Laurin went to Geneva to succeed Gérard Pelletier (later Pierre Trudeau’s Secretary of State) as administrative secretary of international university Interaid, then studied psychiatry in Paris and Boston before returning to Montreal in 1958. From then until his first election as a PQ MNA in 1970, he worked at Montreal’s Albert-Prévost Psychiatric Institute and taught at the U of M while campaigning for reform in Quebec’s mental health care system. In the early 1960s, for example, Laurin wrote a postscript to a report entitled Les Fous Crient au Secours (The Madmen Scream For Help), an exposé that sparked a royal commission inquiry into Montreal’s east-end mental hospital, St. Jean de Dieu.

Laurin turned to nationalist Quebec politics during the late 1960s, when he joined le Mouvement Souverainté Association, the group René Lévesque formed after leaving the Quebec Liberal Party and that later merged with another party to form the Parti Québécois. His reasoning as a psychiatrist, he wrote, was that Quebeckers suffered from a chronic sense of insecurity. The typical Québécois, he declared, felt “incapable of defeating his fears, of confronting the unknown with its risks and perils, assuming fully his liberty, his history and his existence.”

Elected in 1970, and named parliamentary leader when Lévesque failed to secure a National Assembly seat, Laurin became known as a mediator and a calming force in an often stormy party. But he took the question of the French language seriously. In 1972, when the Liberal government of Robert Bourassa was slow to act, he presented a private member’s bill on language in the same style as a cabinet minister—depositing it with a flourish on the clerk’s table.

After the PQ victory on November 15, Laurin was given the task of drawing up a

language policy to replace the Liberals’ hugely unpopular Bill 22. Laurin made his intentions clear: “We want French to be the only official language of Quebec,” he declared. “We want French to become the -language of work and communication. We want the milieu to be French. We want everyone to know that French is ... necessary, useful, profitable and that, in particular, immigrants realize that Quebec is French.”

It was not the first attempt by a Quebec government to legislate the primacy of French; various administrations in Quebec City had been wrestling with the issue ever since the Union Nationale passed Bill 63, giving parents freedom of choice in the language of education, in 1969. The ensuing angry storm among francophones helped pave the way for the defeat of the Union Nationale in 1970 and the election of Bourassa’s Liberals. Yet Bourassa delayed introducing language legislation because a special commission, under JeanDenis Gendron, on the status of French in Quebec was still deliberating. But during 1970, the General Motors plant at Ste. Thérèse had a three-month strike over language, and Bourassa backed the strikers’ demands that French be the language of work. His humiliating failure to sway the company from its insistence that conversion to French would lead to unnecessary paper work and translation increased the pressure for language legislation. Since then French has become the language of work at G M.

Then in 1973, the Gendron commission reported, recommending that French become the language of work, and the Bourassa government subsequently introduced Bill 22, which declared French to be the official language of Quebec, set up procedures for Francization in the business world and restricted access to English schools to children who could pass a language test. The bill pleased practically no one. The English were horrified at the prospect of any restrictions on the English school system; French nationalists were appalled that any immigrant or FrenchCanadian child who could be coached to pass a test could enter the English rather than the French school system.

By the time his turn came, Camille Laurin had learned from the Liberals’ mistakes; he would not. he decided, wind up like the Liberals being vilified by both sides. His first step was to assemble a team of five that included the former chairmen of the sociology departments of both Laval University and the University of Montreal—Fernand Dumont and Guy Rocher. The other three were executive assistant Henri Laberge, press attaché and former journalist Michael McAndrew (a francophone despite his name) and the one anglophone in the group. David Payne, an English-born humanities teacher at a community college.

The team decided to avoid the pitfalls of Bill 22, as one member explained, by “de-

fining very clearly what the objectives of the legislation are.” Four principles emerged from which the subsequent white paper flowed. The first principle: “In Quebec, the French language is not merely a means for expression, but a medium for living as well. Second principle: there must be respect for the minorities, their language and their culture. Third principle: it is important to learn languages other than French. Fourth principle: the status of the French language in Quebec is a question of social justice.”

The most difficult part came in working out criteria for access to English schools. Altogether, 14 drafts of that section passed

between cabinet, a special cabinet committee, and the staff group. As a cabinet minister put it later with a grin: “The problem was that everyone had something—not a few suggestions, but a whole policy he had worked out.” In the end, the white paper proved satisfying indeed to Quebec nationalists. On the day after the policy was released, Laurin received a standing ovation from the PQ’S national council and a unanimous vote of approval.

Predictably, the non-francophone reaction was pessimistic, despite the fact that the existing English community will still have more rights than French Canadians in any other province—the right to deal

with their government and its agencies in their own language, the right to send their children to school in English and the right to address the courts and the National Assembly in that language. What was alarming to non-francophones was the white paper’s strongly nationalist tone and Laurin’s own declaration that its purpose was to make “Quebec as French as Ontario is English.” The overall effect was to make the English and Quebec’s other ethnic groups wonder if they still had a place in Quebec.

This mood was much in evidence when Laurin spoke at McGill University to Participation Quebec, an anglophone group attempting a moderate response to the white paper. Nancy Warner, a black anglophone, asked: “If French is a way of being and not just a means of communication, how is it enough to learn French? Is there really a place for us? Or does one now have to be a French Canadian, or try to become one?” Laurin pointed out that the white paper never spoke of assimilation, and that there was no definition of a francophone and would not be. All cultural groups, he insisted, would be able to have their own culture.

The men who wrote the white paper are convinced that Quebec will only be a truly tolerant society when the French culture no longer seems to be under attack. “The white paper,” says Guy Rocher, “would make a kind of transition from the minor-

ity attitude to the most rational possible attitude of a majority.” The authors of Quebec’s new language rules also feel there is more than a hint of bias in the apparent concern of anglophones for the right of immigrants to choose English. One interviewer, asking about the courts, wanted to know “about a small Greek shopkeeper, who is incorporated, and goes to court. Shouldn’t he have the right to speak English in court?” To which Laurin replied: “Why not Greek?” The men around Laurin point out that the Italian community flourishes in Toronto without Italian

schools—why not in Montreal, learning French instead of English?

Laurin is gambling that he can persuade minorities to accept what he believes: that Quebec nationalism can be open and tolerant and not, as Prime Minister Trudeau argues, backward and tribal. It is a big gamble, and in terms of hatred and unrest the stakes are high. If he is right, the language law may be what one Parti Québécois member called “a dry run for the referendum”—a campaign that will reassure the majority without alienating the minority. If he is wrong, the Parti Québécois could eventually become the third government in succession to be defeated over its language policy.^-