The Marcotte family: After the fears of 1980, calm, unafraid and hoping that the No side wins again
Quebec City correspondent Mark Cardwell, 36, is a native of Midland, Ont., who moved to Quebec in 1984, where he met and married Nicole Marcotte. His new family traces its roots back to the first colonists who settled near Quebec City in the mid-17th century. The Marcottes have always been strong federalists and were profoundly shaken by the passions surrounding the first sovereignty referendum in 1980. This time, Cardwell found, the debate is much calmer:
Nothing matters more to Charles and Jeannine Marcotte than family. That’s why they still grimace when they recall a Christmas party in 1979, just five months before the first Quebec referendum on independence. As in many previous years, they made the 2-1/2 -hour drive from their home in suburban Quebec City to Montreal to join Jeannine’s 11 brothers and sisters and their spouses for an evening of reminiscing, storytelling and carolling. Soon after their arrival, however, the Marcottes realized that the mood was less than festive that year. “My family was deeply divided over independence,” remembers Jeannine, who is now 62. “You could feel the aggressive tension in the air.” Things went well at first, but when the subject of the referendum finally surfaced at the dinner table, it sparked a spirited debate that quickly deteriorated into a heated exchange of hard words. “Everyone eventually calmed down and agreed not to talk about politics,” says Jeannine, “but the fun was gone out of the evening and most people left early.”
The incident still reminds the Marcottes and their four adult children—Richard, Michel, France and Nicole, my wife—of the powerful emotions that painfully divided French-speaking Quebecers in 1980. "The referendum debate raised primal fears and passions on both sides,” 40-year-old Richard explains. “Federalists were predicting economic disaster if Quebec separated while the nationalists were convinced that, without independence, Quebec’s French language and culture were doomed.” Passions were strongest among young Quebecers who, with the active support of teachers, turned many French-language schools into virtual pro-sovereignty camps. “It was almost embarrassing to say you were a federalist,” recalls 38-year-old France, who, like Nicole, was a student at a small college on the province’s Gaspé Peninsula. Nicole, 35, remembers a class in which the teacher asked those students who intended to vote No to raise their hands; only she and one other student in a class of 30 did so. The many emotional rallies and acts of vandalism made Jeannine apprehensive about the possibility of violence. “I was honestly afraid there was going to be civil war,” she says during a family gathering at their home in Beauport, a quiet residential suburb of Quebec City.
Fifteen years later, however, the Marcottes, like most French-Quebecers, are remarkably calm on the eve of a second referendum. The family is fiercely federalist: it may be the only one in the overwhelmingly francophone neighborhood to hold an annual Canada Day barbecue complete with flags and party hats. Most, if not all, members of the family are hoping—even praying—that the No side wins again. But the fear and uncertainty they felt in 1980 are conspicuously absent. That may be because most believe that, as Nicole said, “a solid majority of Quebecers want to remain Canadian, and they’ll use their common sense and vote No on Oct. 30.” But it may also be due to a feeling that, as Charles, 67, suggests, “the issues just aren’t the same this time around.”
That is certainly true with the issue of French language and culture. Like most Quebecers, the Marcottes were deeply concerned by a perceived decline in the status of French in the 1960s. “Everything in the stores and streets in Montreal was in English,” says Jeannine, who speaks little English. “And almost all correspondence from the federal government was in English. It used to make me mad to receive a letter or a cheque and not know what it was for.” The Marcottes supported the Parti Québécois government’s Charter of the French Language in 1977—“the only thing,” said the ever-partisan Charles, “they did right.” But they did not share the sovereigntists’ view that independence was the best way to protect French. They were satisfied that, by 1980, the federal Official Languages Act of 1969 and the PQ’s own sweeping language law had already made French more secure. Charles now dismisses the language issue as “a Montreal problem,” due to the high concentration of anglophones and immigrants there. In the Quebec City region, which is 96-per-cent francophone, “the only English you hear is from tourists.”
One issue that is, however, still very much the same in 1995 is the debate over the economic consequences of separation. And, as in 1980, the Marcottes are deeply concerned about the impact that separation would have on the family business. In 1960, Charles and Jeannine bought a hotel-restaurant near St. Anne’s Basilica, a Roman Catholic pilgrimage site on the Côte-de-Beaupré just east of Quebec City that attracts more than a million visitors a year. After building up the enterprise—where they lived together with the children in a small room behind the kitchen during the busy summer months—they sold it and bought a large souvenir store down the street in the early 1970s. In 1980, they feared that separation would cut Quebec off from the world, destroying both the economy and the tourist trade that was the store’s lifeblood.
In 1995, that concern has not changed. While they believe that a new economic partnership with Canada would, as the Yes side maintains, eventually be possible in the event of separation—“it’d be rough for a while but the anger of Canadians would subside,” says Jeannine—they feel that separation would be a big economic step backwards for Quebec. “I don’t buy the PQ’s poetic belief that everything is going to be better after separation,” says France’s 34-year-old husband, Alain Plante, who voted Yes in 1980 but plans to vote No on Oct. 30 for economic reasons. “The world has opened up tremendously in the past 15 years, the language of business is English, and Quebecers are succeeding. Why would we paint ourselves into a corner now?”
The issue of citizenship is also vital for the Marcottes. Most of them fervently opposed independence in 1980 because of their strong emotional attachment to Canada and their identity as French-Canadians. They developed those feelings at an early age, growing up in strong federalist Liberal households, and reinforced them in the 1970s during frequent family trips abroad. One notable trip came in September, 1972, when Charles and Jeannine joined the approximately 2,000 Canadians who travelled to Moscow to attend the final four games of the Canada-Soviet hockey series. Contrary to Premier Jacques Parizeau’s 1968 train trip from Montreal to Calgary, during which he claims he became a convinced separatist, the Marcottes’ voyage to Russia was a defining moment in their Canadian patriotism. “It was unbelievable,” says Charles. “There was a party back at the hotel after the last game where French and English were singing O Canada and hugging each other. I’ll never forget it.” Those emotional ties remain very strong in 1995. “Canada is my country,” says Nicole, who is expecting her first child in November. “I don’t want to change it for a new, smaller one.”
At the same time, however, the past 15 years have convinced the Marcottes of the need for fundamental change in the federal system. ‘We have a dream country, but there’s way too much debt,” says Alain Plante. ‘We have to decentralize and get rid of the needless waste from the overlap of services between governments.” The Marcottes have also developed a stronger sense of their identity as Québécois— a word that was once identified with sovereigntists. Charles says he is happy to see the No forces using the Quebec flag prominently in their advertisements in this campaign. ‘That shows people,” said Charles, “that they can be Quebecers and Canadians.”
The growth in their Québécois identity is partly a result of the feelings of solidarity and the “us-against-them” mentality that grew among French-Quebecers in the wake of the repatriation of the Constitution without Quebec’s signature in 1982—“a treacherous act,” says Charles—followed by the failure of the Meech Lake accord in 1990 and the defeat of the Charlottetown agreement in 1992. At the same time, the Marcottes, like most Canadians, including Quebecers, are weary of seemingly endless constitutional battles. And while they would be distraught if the country split, they are skeptical of both federalist and separatist politicians. All those factors have made them fatalistic about the possibility of a Yes victory on Oct. 30. “There have to be changes to ensure the future will be bright for coming generations,” said Jeannine, who now has a four-year-old granddaughter, Catherine. “Whatever the outcome, the sun is going to rise on Oct. 31.”
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