General Articles

A Quebecker Speaks Out

And prescribes some pride-swallowing by both French and English for the sake of a better Canada

RENEE VAUTELET January 15 1948
General Articles

A Quebecker Speaks Out

And prescribes some pride-swallowing by both French and English for the sake of a better Canada

RENEE VAUTELET January 15 1948

A Quebecker Speaks Out

And prescribes some pride-swallowing by both French and English for the sake of a better Canada


AS A bilingual French Canadian, I frequently find myself being asked to explain Quebec to sinerely interested English Canadians. Occasionally I meet one who knows something about my province and can discuss it with me, but I find I can count their numbers on the fingers of two hands.

What would one think, I wonder, of a businessman who, after 80 years of partnership, still needed to have his partner “explained” to him? At (he very least, that his request was rather overdue! Today I believe that this continuing ignorance of French Canada on the part of English Canada lies like a major weakness at the base of all our Canadian building.

Quebec, and what we French Canadians call the “French Fact in America,” represents, in the midst of Canada, a powerful and entrenched reality. Dealing with her, the rest of Canada is dealing not merely with a province that is different but with th:; province where Canada was born, in which the type of nation we must build was decided for us some 189 years ago, and from which 31% of t he human and psychological material used in that building must be drawn.

How the Race Grew

r rHHS material is rich in special attributes,

A as unique or nearly unique in history as Quebec’s own role of a nation within a nation is unique. One small but interesting fact is that we are the oidy racial group, perhaps in the world, whose every member can trace his family tree back to t he very village in France from which it first put forth New World shoots. Half a dozen slim hooks enclose the genealogy of French Canada. In them I and my butcher and baker can look up the known, unbroken chain of our forebears, their marriages, residences, births and deaths and even the condition of their first corning to Canada.

To be able to enclose the past of a whole people within one genealogical work required specialized conditions that have existed, 1 think, only here in Quebec. It gives a close-knit texture to our racial fabric not easily understood by other groups.

In this particular corner of Canada that is Quebec you will also find the second largest white birth rate of the world. This represents a decline from earlier achievements for, in the decade following the conquest, French Canada attained the largest white birth rate ever known. The conditions under which this all-time high in fertility was established disprove also, to a great extent, I think, the general belief among Anglo-Canadians that Quebec’s amazing natural growth is chiefly due to the influence and teachings of our clergy.

At the time of the conquest the inhabitants of New France were a mere handful of some 60,000 simple, agrarian folk, exhausted by seven years of conflict with the million and

a half English colonists to (lie south. Abandoned in the most, economically and morally depressing circumstances on the wilderness-girdled shores of the St. Lawrence, they belonged to a race whose birth rate was not among the high racial rates of E u rope.

For the four years following defeat this handful of Frenchmen were wit hout a bishop to consecrate the new priests desperately needed to replace those war and age had taken from them. Their religious leaders were at an all-time low in numbers. Moreover, every condition that usually encourages human fertility—security, peace of mind, faith in the future, a sufficiency of food and elementary

comforts—was markedly wanting. I think that the extraordinary increase in our birth rate at that time can have only one explanation, one more fundamental than religious leadership— an unknown factor which, independent of the conscious will of races, balances the scales of fertility to the needs of survival of human groups.

Out of French Canada’s unconscious response to this need for survival has sprung today one of the greatest, most exhilarating challenges ever flung by history at any nation— the challenge to construct, for the first time in history, a harmonious nation out of two sovereign and unabsorbable races and cultures.

I believe this challenge to all Canadians can be successfully met. If we are to do it, however, we must accept, throughout all Canada, the fact that we have no longer any choice as to the materials we construct with. To ignore or protest any part of this material is an immature gesture, that of a child railing against the setting of the sun.

Unfortunately, it is the gesture of many of us. It might certainly be more convenient for me, if less challenging, if all Canada were French and for you if it were all English— though with the vision of what our country may yet become in front of me I would personally regret either alternative. The first dream died, however, on the Plains of Abraham, and all chance for a purely English Canada disappeared in the four years that followed the Conquest. Today, all we may decide is the harmony or disharmony of the common whole, and the amount of friction or co-operation with which we build it.

We’re a Lot Alike

ON THIS subject I have two firm convictions. Cne, that French and English Canadians fundamentally like each other when they really meet—mentally, that is, not merely physically. Remember that ethnically we are almost blood brothers, for the early Briton was an offshoot of the Brittany tribes whose later seamen followed Cartier, and we share in equal measure our Norman blood. This, which we do not feature frequently enough in our thinking, may explain why an alliance that had to be built on the unfavorable foundations of bitter battlefields, and across the barriers of early religious antagonisms, has actually worked so smoothly. Secondly, I believe that, particularly in Canada, the root of human antagonism is ignorance and its smug self-justification, intolerance, and that plain and simple knowledge is the cure for both.

English Canada, because of the double barrier of its ignorance of French and the unconscious sense of majority security that is part of the root of this ignorance, has made less progress toward such knowledge than has French Canada. We in French Canada, to a greater degree than we even realize, enrich ourselves constantly at the great sea of Anglo-Saxon cultural wealth around us— through adaptations of your welfare and social systems,

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through knowledge of your literature and arts, above all through the greater psychological familiarity with your minds such knowledge brings. You fall signally short, at all points mentioned, of garnering any like values from us.

How many of you know of our poets and our literature? Our list is longer than yours, yet in an Ontario public school textbook a list is given of prominent Canadian poets, historians, artists, etc., and no single French name is on it. What do you know of Louis Fréchette, our greatest poet, and his saga of New France, “La Légende d'un Peuple” (“The Legend of a People”), that deeply moving epic of a deserted race mourning the loyalties reft from it?

Do you know of that collection of parish records, from pre-Champlain days to ours, called “A Travers les Registres'' (“Through the Registers”)? Here Quebec’s early history is chronicled through the tapestry of small events, from the first Canadian wedding and christening and death, recorded by the parish priests of the infant colony, through Indian raids and bitter reprisals, to brief entries that represent humble yet vivid epilogues of chapters of the Acadian deportations as touching as “Evangeline.”

Why not Share?

Have you read the letters Montcalm and his officers wrote to their families during the Seven Years War, with (heir pictures of everyday events and larger happenings? Is there anywhere in the average Canadian library a text of the document that first launched Canada as we know her—the treaty of surrender signed on a September day, on St. Helen’s Island, while the smoke of De Lévis’ burned flags still lingered in the air and the clouds glowed red with the reflected campfires of four English armies camped around Montreal?

Have you heard of—or read (it is not in our histories)—the log of De Lévis’ young aide-de-camp who drifted through dead General Wolfe’s fleet, clinging to a floating tree, to reach Quebec with Lévis’ orders countermanding Vaudreuil’s instructions to yield the city; orders that, if heeded, might have changed the course of North American history? Our chronicles are rich in such incidents!

How much do you know of our theatre and musicians, already attracting attention from our neighbors to the south? Of our radio artists and historians and their interpretation of our common history? Of the special and different traditions of this one third of Canada? Traditions that stretch, remember, twice as far back behind each of our families as behind the oldest of yours.

These things are part and parcel of our joint heritage. They are the key,

moreover, to your understanding of your Canadian partner.

Should Quebec be Isolated in the feeling that its wealth of memories belong to her alone? This is inevitable if its more iniimate tales and legends form no popular part of your lore. Quebec’s richness of tradition, her cultural heritage, past and present, could he yours, hut only if you learn to think of it as if it were.

How We Differ

The time, I think, has come when our schools should direct their teachings toward a clearer, more practical concept of Canadian citizenship, a citizenship that should not be an imitation of any formula imported from our lands of origin but one freshtailored, out of local materials, for the land we receive it from. Since this citizenship is biracial, it should be equipped with a far more objective analysis of the dual nature of Canada and our resulting and undodgeable biracial psychology. This psychology is well-defined and easily charted. A knowledge of its points of variance would seem to be almost a primer subject in any Canadian education, since those points of variance are usually also those points of irritation at which emotion, on both sides, takes the reins.

One of the elements dividing us today is the small fact that we, in Quebec, know history too well, while you, in English Canada, hardly know it at all. We remember too much of what is now ancient history, but often we are spurred to such excessive remembrance by the repercussions of your own deep ignorance.

When, as has happened to me, a Quebec farmer can ci(e me the deeds of Sir James Craig in 1815 as a reason for not voting for an English candidate, you have, 1 think, an illustration of the first extreme. When French Canadians see frequent letters to the editors of English-Canadian dailies deploring undue generosity toward a conquered race (a generosity the French Canadian reader too often can disprove, with chapter and verse from history), you have an equal illustration of the other error.

Moreover, in whatever way we get our history, whether in overdoses or underdoses, we more often than not get it adulterated, or at least watered down to our respective, racial tastes. Whether we go to school in Ontario or Quebec, we find the common facts of our past either deleted, minimized or viewed from unconsciously different angles in each place.

For example, in certain French elementary, intermediate and superior school textbooks, the deportation of the Acadians is dealt with at length, with sharp criticism, with no mention, in one case, of the tactical reasons motivating this deed. The cruel and heinous act of the English is impressed on the mind of the young Quebecker,

while in two parallel English textbooks no mention is even made of the deportation, one of the dramatic incidents of our history. In another English school history the Acadian affair is dismissed with the casual remark that “The New Englanders felt the Frenchmen were too close neighbors.”

In one French textbook, Cabot is barely mentioned, Frobisher, Davis and Hudson are totally ignored. On the other hand, in a book used in English Protestant public schools, Dollard, the leading hero of New France, is dismissed as a cashiered French officer; the battle of Montmorency is completely omitted as is also the other French victory of Ste. Foye. In the same book no reference is made to the attempts of British authorities to anglicize French Canada nor to the struggle of the latter to retain its tongue, laws and religion. The battle of Chateauguay, French Canada’s personal, unaided victory over the Americans in the war of 1812-1815, is also omitted. On the other hand, interesting details of the establishment of the Loyalists in Canada are given, details not to be found in any French textbook.

These are only a few examples out of many. In no case do we find the truth tampered with; these books were written by sincere and honorable authors, hut in nearly every case what is given our children as building material for their biracial construction quite involuntarily falls short of what the court calls “The truth, the whole truth,” even if it adheres to the final requirement of, “Nothing but the truth.”

Though one finds in comparing school textbooks that the “sin of omission” is markedly more frequent in English texts than in French, we French Canadians have our own sin —a too-frequent harping on those grievances of the past. While no fact should be eliminated from an honest history, 1 should like, here, to remind some of my own fellow nationals that the repetitious stressing of ills doneabove all when unaccompanied by their human context of causes and excuses —is destructive, not constructive history. It is doubly destructive when offered the unformed mind of a child.

Strength of a Minority

Today, if only on a practical basis of self-interest, the eight English provinces possess some Very cogent reasons for knowing Quebec far, far better than they do. One is the actual power of a minority over a majority when that minority is unabsorbabie and has been welded into a solidity beyond its own normal attainments by outside pressures and incomprehensions.

Remember, we French are not, racially, an easily welded people. Our breed is individualistic and undisciplined. Quebec has pulled down far more of her great sons than English Canada. Today, despite ourselves, French Canada’s political solidity is, 1 think, as much at least a result of outside pressure holding and binding her together as an achievement in her own right of Quebec, and if we should ever want to erect a statue to the preserver of our racial entity it should perhaps be, as 1 have occasionally suggested in my less well-behaved moments, the statue of an Orangeman.

Another reason for a practical interest in us, on your part , is our growing industrial power with its mounting influx of wealth, unknown, till lately, to Canada’s Cinderella province. English Canada usually fails to realize that, up to comparatively recent days, the French Canadian was through the inevitable effects of conquest the only Canadian who had no access to any

capital save that of his own creating. While England, quite humanly, poured generously of her moneys, educators and industrialists into the business ventures of her own sons, French Canada found itself completely cut off, for close to 120 years, from this great priming of the pump, so vital to colonial vigor and expansion and on which your higher standards of living and earlier industrial initiative were entirely built.

Today “industrial” Ontario has more farmers than “agrarian” Quebec. French Canada’s markets are becoming more and more vital to the economic health and growth of Canada. Inevitably the sales talk that opens them in full to the other eight provinces’ wares will more and more need to be mentally as well as linguistically couched in French.

Should there he further need of arguments in favor of greater knowledge on your part of our psychology and culture, remember that the French Canadian is now only to a very slight degree a minority in Canada. There is scarcely more than 18% difference today between the number of Canadians of French and British descent and our numbers are still growing while yours are at a standstill. In your own interests we must grow with you, not apart or occasionally against you. To ensure this is impossible unless your minds move at least as far into our territory as ours move into yours. This is a hard-boiled fact, but it does not seem to have become wholly visible as yet even to the educated English Canadian, whose frequent sincere question, “Why can’t we all be simply Canadians?” usually means, quite unconsciously, “Why can’t the other fellow come all the way over to me?” He can’t for three reasons: First, because his roots are deeper than yours; second, because he is human and as cussed as you are; and third, because he is strong enough not to have to.

Sometimes I think that the words “conquered” and “minority” have done a lot to lull and deceive English Canada. Many generations ago they should perhaps have been taken out of storage and re-examined. There is a faint chance that, in the manner of Greece with Rome, history and the phenomenal will to survive of French Canada may reverse their meaning in some remote tomorrow—though immigration will probably step in to prevent that.

This will to survive would lose some of its intensity, however, the moment constant understanding and integrated partnership, predicated on Canadian, not racial issues and prejudicial to neither culture, became the norm, not the exception.

Know French and Prosper

To reach such understanding on your side without acquiring our language to the same extent in which we acquire yourswill notbeeasy. I think itisvital to Canada (though a pretty hopeless dream, I admit) that the barriers of language on both sides be consistently attacked till they are permanently broken down. This is more particularly English Canada’s problem than ours, for though we could do much better, especially in view of our greater linguistic suppleness, we can still claim 36% of our people who speak both languages as against only four per cent of yours. If we could learn to think of the possession of two languages purely as a valuable gift we offer ourselves, instead of as a concession we’ll be hanged if we’ll make to the other fellow, then bilingualism would become merely a question of revamping our school system.

From the immediate and practical point of view, if English Canada continues her tacit repudiation of bilingualism, we in Quebec and in our growth outside Quebec will have a constant, increasing economic and business advantage over you which will prove costly for you when our education system catches up with yours in technical and commercial fields. Soon English Canada may find it can no longer afford to let a French Canadian be the only Canadian who can speak in both languages to both sides of Canada.

Again human nature inevitably resents a diet of eo-operation, linguistic or other, that is all one-sided. This resentment can take many forms (even social or political ones like an objection to conscription). As an example today in Quebec many large social or charitable organizations make frequent attempts to achieve joint action in questions of mutual interest. These usually either fail or attain merely a token collaboration. One of the unrealized underlying causes of such failures is the constant obligation under which the larger French - speaking groups find themselves of conducting all joint meetings exclusively in the language of the smaller number. This creates subconscious irritation which undermines all efforts at united action.

What Can Be Done?

I realize that this language question is probably a pipe dream. Too many primitive vanities and egotisms stand arrayed against it. Despite this sad fact there are still one or two things we could immediately do, I think, to help us integrate ourselves more closely.

One is a common school history, or at least, since religious issues may make that difficult, two closely related and factually similar histories, where no special race is idealized and where the errors of both are fully set forth. The young are helpless in our hands and when we teach them racial arrogance we commit a grievous sin against them and against Canada’s future.

Secondly, it seems to me that the


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understanding between provinces and races here is more immediately important to all of us than any understanding we strive for with other countries, since it is only from a house in order that order can go forth. If we have, as we do have, organizations to promote this external understanding, why in the name of common sense shouldn’t we have something of the sort to work for and promote understanding within Canada—a committee for interprovincial comprehension, a kind of clearing house for our disputes and rancors, a sort of unofficial, voluntary censor of our interprovincial bad manners?

Such a committee (with a rotating

membership drawn from our broadestminded, leading citizens of each province), might tackle for you and explain such problems as our “Laurencistes” and ultranationalists, who exist because of a reason, whether good or bad.

It might explain our reactions to imperialism, and the many things you dislike about our attitude toward conscription, one of the best examples I know of tactical mismanagement of a race that happens to like fighting for fighting’s sake.

For us French Canadians, it might tackle our uncertainties over English Canada’s still unresolved division of loyalties and prevent such attacks (whose wording would be indictable in law if used against an individual) as those you allow your various religious extremists to direct at the faith of nearly 50% of Canada, and sell in the open streets.

It might explain our difference of

status as citizens outside as against j inside Quebec, the only province in Canada where full language and eduj cational equality is granted both races, j

It might solve the Manitoba and, to a lesser degree, the Ontario school j questions and explain the origin of I Quebec nationalism, etc.

Such a committee might be a godsend. But even without it Canadianism, as against narrow racialism, will still keep gaining ground. It represents the true builder’s instinct, deeply ingrained in both our races, and it is slowly winning despite all we do to hinder it. I am afraid, however, that in our expanding and tumultuous tomorrow only those can belong to its guild who can speak both languages, or, at the very least, understand the history and psychology of both races. This understanding cannot be achieved by remaining locked within one racial world. -fr