books

The smartest man on Quebec

Reed Scowen makes the most rational case this columnist’s ever heard for separation

MARK STEYN March 26 2007
books

The smartest man on Quebec

Reed Scowen makes the most rational case this columnist’s ever heard for separation

MARK STEYN March 26 2007

The smartest man on Quebec

Reed Scowen makes the most rational case this columnist’s ever heard for separation

books

BY MARK STEYN

Been following the Quebec election campaign? Me neither. A decade ago, it was epic stuff: Jean Charest had been prevailed upon to don his Captain Canada underwear and sally forth from Ottawa to slay the separatist dragon of Lucien Bouchard, or “Monsieur le Président,” as a few wags began calling him in the waning days of the 1995 referendum. It’s not epic anymore: whoever wins this time round, life in Quebec will lurch on much as before. The Péquistes never lose big enough for the separatist question to be laid to rest, and the other guys never win big enough to make a difference to the province’s failed statism, moribund economy, demographic decline and appetite for federal “booty” (in M. Parizeau’s phrase).

And, to be honest, it wasn’t really epic back then, either. Charest and Bouchard were Conservative cabinet colleagues under Mulroney so portable in their political affiliations they were bound one day to wind up running against each other under some flag of convenience. Charest could never be Captain Canada, because no such heroic figure is required by Quebecers. And Bouchard must have known he would never be “M. le Président,” and not just because Quebec’s revolutionaries are so faint-hearted they’re the only secession movement to propose with straight face that their new “head of state” will travel on a passport issued in the name of Sa Majesté la Reine.

If Quebec is (as Mr. Harper insists) a nation, then it could use a nationalist movement. It’s a poor reflection on the eternally non-separating separatists that the best case for a Québécois nation is that made by Reed Scowen in his book Time to Say Goodbye, a new edition of which has just been released to coincide with the election. Mr. Scowen is not a “Westmount Rhodesian” or an angryphone, but a genial bilingual public official who’s served his province at home and abroad. Back when he was Quebec’s agent general in London, I happened to find myself seated next to him at an expatriates’ luncheon. Scowen was a very relaxed and affable fellow, which is a sadly rare quality among Canadian and Québécois diplomatic figures, who often seem somewhat twitchy and oddly insecure. Between the soup and entree, he delivered a lovely evocative paean to his backyard and the lie of its land—the Townships and the Beauce and the old bootlegging country of the North-East Kingdom of Vermont and New Hampshire’s Indian Stream Republic. And sometime between the entree and dessert, he casually mentioned that he thought it would be better for all concerned if Quebec and Canada went their separate ways.

I remember it because it was the most rational case I’ve ever heard for Quebec independence. I saw M. Duceppe speak at Dartmouth College, and the Ivy League students frankly thought he was a bit of a nut as he attempted to explain why he wanted to leave Canada to set up a country just like Canada—same bloated social programs, same confiscatory taxation, etc. Then there’s Bernard Landry holding cabinet meetings to divvy up who gets what federal building in Quebec City after independence, like some absurd operetta grand duke whose priority in government is better uniforms for his hussars.

By contrast, Scowen just lays it out, very calmly and logically. Mr. Scowen’s point is that it’s not enough to win the big nail-biting showdowns like the once-a-generation referenda when remorselessly, day by day, you’re losing everything in between. In 30 years, the anglophone population of Quebec has fallen by a third, from 10 per cent of the population to seven per cent. Where will it be by, say, 2020? Smaller still, and older. I once asked Mordecai Richler about the scene in his final novel Barneys Version in which an older Duddy Kravitz makes a belated reappearance. Would he, I asked, really still be in Montreal in the late nineties? “Oh, Duddy would,” said Richler. “He’s got a house he’ll have trouble selling and for which he couldn’t buy anything nearly as good elsewhere. And his friends are still here. But their children have all moved away.” By that stage, Mordecai’s brood were all in Toronto or London. Likewise, Reed Scowen has his burial plot picked out in his ancestral corner of the Eastern Townships, but his daughters are living south of the border and his son is in Toronto.

What would reverse this trend? Nothing.

Or nothing either party is prepared to do. The Quebec Liberals’ position is that you’re entitled to attend an English school only if you have a parent who was educated at an English school in Canada. The Péquistes’ position is that you should be entitled to attend an English school only if you have a parent who was educated at an English school in Quebec. Either way, it’s no good to a New Yorker or Dubliner contemplating a job in Montreal. So the English school rolls fall, and fall, until, as Scowen points out, today there are proportionately fewer anglophone students in Quebec education than francophone students in Ontario. The overnight exodus after the PQ victory in 1976 was perhaps unintended, but the slow death since is not: as a matter of policy, the anglophone club is

THE ANGLOPHONE CLUB IS PREVENTED, BY LAW, FROM ACCEPTING NEW MEMBERS. YOU CAN LEAVE, OR DIE, BUT YOU CANNOT JOIN.

prevented, by law, from accepting any new members. You can leave, you can die, but you cannot join.

I used to read books on Quebec because I was interested in Quebec, a weird, goofy backwater of no general application. But these days I’ve become Mister Demography Bore and I found Scowen’s portrait of a conscious ongoing low-key ethnic cleansing absolutely fascinating precisely because it offers such a useful model to others. It’s easy to imagine other local majorities—say, the emerging Muslim majorities in British and European cities—adopting similar strategies in education and employment to accelerate their advantage. Quebecers have not yet formed their new nation but they’ve psychologically seceded from the old one: the Maple Leaf is flown less in the province than the Red Ensign was, 0 Canada is sung with less gusto than Dieu Sauve La Reine, and, if you want more demotic symbols of identity, the “My name is Joe and I am Canadian” beer commercial

didn’t even run in Quebec because Molson Canadian isn’t sold in the province.

What most offends Scowen’s critics is his argument that a reinvigorated nine-province Canada would be an improvement over a 10province federation for whom ineffectual appeasement of Quebec has become the raison d’être. Scowen, says Henry Aubin in the Gazette, “ignores non-economic contributions Quebec nationalism brings the rest of the country—albeit often inadvertently. To accommodate Quebec, the rest of Canada has become more open to cultural diversity than most Western countries. The need to appeal to Quebec’s progressive streak has also helped Ottawa abolish capital punishment, for example, and stay out of Iraq.” Well, that’s one way of putting it. Trans-

lated into English, “the need to appeal Quebec’s progressive streak” has resulted in the imposition upon the ROC of policies it would not otherwise

have embraced. This is the particular genius of Quebec’s pseudo-separatists. Even as anglo culture withers in La Belle Province, the rest of Canada has become artificially Frenchified. Ceremonial offices, from the governor generalship down, are split 50/50 with Quebec, and executive offices are all but monopolized by them. That’s M. Dion’s big problem: I sense enough Canadians are not yet ready to go back to another decade of Quebec rule after the usual 10-minute Kim Campbell/John Turner intermission. And they’re right: four prime ministers from Quebec have run Canada for 36 of the past 39 years. You can rationalize this—just as you can explain why, for roughly the same period, the Sunni minority controlled all the levers of power in Iraq over the Shiite majority. But in neither case does it seem particularly healthy, and at least Iraq’s Shiites had the excuse that they were living in a dictatorship as opposed to a democratic confederation ground down by eternal prostration before

an empty bluff. Reed Scowen’s book is a marvellous read. After independence, he would make a fine first Canadian high commissioner to Quebec City. M