THE UNCONQUERABLE FRENCH CANADIANS
Visiting Quebec on the 200th anniversary of the "conquest,” an illustrious interpreter of the national scene reports on the"furious ferment”that is"the most important fact in our country today
Two centuries ago, on September 13, 1759, Britain conquered the French-Canadian race on the Plains of Abraham. Such is our sovereign national myth. What is the reality?
As the English-speaking visitor soon finds, the reality is an unconquered and unconquerable race, a Quebec changing faster than any other part of the nation, thinking more deeply and questioning more urgently all the old fixed assumptions of its life. This furious ferment
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"The real victor was a third party-, the dual nation of the future”
represents, I think, the most important fact in our country today.
When I began my search for reality the old battlefield was deep in snow above the frozen river. Champlain’s town, his wooden habitation long buried by stone towers and swarming streets, shivered under a north wind as in his first winter of starvation. Some school kids were throwing snowballs and shouting in French on the spot where Wolfe died with his illusion of conquest — the latest progeny of those sixtyfive thousand who, in two centuries, have become a quarter of the nation. Spruce trees had been piled nearby in a little green mountain for a ceremonial bonfire. Quebec City, crowded with English-speaking tourists and gay with comic effigies, was celebrating its yearly carnival.
It has much more to celebrate, for nothing has turned out as Wolfe, or anyone else, expected after the mythical conquest. Nothing is turning out now as most Canadians suppose.
In this anniversary year it seemed to me, as I looked across the plains and the city beside them, that the victors of 1759 were not the British, as the vanquished certainly were not the French Canadians. The victor was a third party, then unborn and unimaginable. No one but the dual nation of the future had won the battle. And in its unconquerable but still imperfect duality the nation must now reassess, from top to bottom, the marriage of the two races.
What, in short, have our two hundred years of labor, friction, reconciliation and uneasy partnership actually produced? What have we to show for them besides myth and money? In Quebec the Englishspeaking visitor receives the French half, the most unlikely half, of the answer to those questions.
Before attempting to pursue them seriously I pursued an old love of mine, on foot. Through nearly forty years I had been paying regular court to the ageless queen of Canadian cities but I realized now that, if not aging, Quebec had changed.
To be sure, the familiar nostalgia still dripped, almost palpably,
from the naked cliffs, the living stone and their crowded, man-made
superstructure of dome, pinnacle, palace, house and walled garden. The
smell of history poured out of crooked streets, narrow passageways and
dark, mysterious doors. Three centuries of a unique life echoed in the
original French tongue.
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"No antagonism toward the other provinces, but a culture of its own”
"One used to find the women dowdy. Now their costumes are of the latest mode, their faces made up according to Hollywood's regulations, their legs sleekly nyloned"
”Today French Canadians dri expensive cars and worship at the continental shrines of Coke, coffee, juke box, television, movies and speed.
Their quaintness is gone...”
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“Quebec, I found, still has that old Norman thrift and that strain of Norman cynicism”
At first glance Quebec looked more ageless and more authentically French than any city in France — at first glance only. A second showed me the sprawling new subdivisions of mass-produced bungalows and uniform apartment blocks authentic North American and nothing else -— the shops crammed with modern goods exactly like those of Fifth Avenue or any Main Street on the continent, the traffic snarled and noisy as everywhere, the old patina surviving somehow but rubbed pretty thin.
The great change, though, as 1 glanced back, was in the people. They don’t look French Canadian any more; they look
Canadian and indistinguishable (until you hear their voices) from any others in the nation.
Also, they have a striking new look of prosperity, are better dressed than they used to be even a few years ago. drive expensive new cars and worship at the sacred continental shrines of Coke, coffee, juke box, television, movies and speed. The quaintness beloved (and often imagined) by the tourist has gone completely and forever.
One used to find the women somewhat dowdily clothed in home-made or cheap, mail-order dresses, drab hats and ugly black stockings. Now their costumes are
of the latest mode, their hair expertly waved, their faces made up and eyes blackly outlined according to Hollywood's regulations, their legs sleekly nyloned.
Why is it. I wondered, as 1 had wondered so often before, that the plainest French-Canadian girl always manages to look pretty in spite of nature? Because, I suppose, she has a racial vitality, a feminine instinct, stronger than ours.
Anyway, the French-Canadian speech, male or female, is a little shriller than ours, the laugh a little louder, the eyes a little more candid, the faces more animated. the gestures more excited, the
affections and the quarrels more open. Returning to this Gallic atmosphere, an Anglo-Saxon knows himself for a very dull fellow.
As I reached the splendid square beside the Chateau Frontenac, the calèches, with their shaggy horses and garrulous drivers, were assembling for the day’s work. Their quaintness was strictly for the tourists. But slithering down the hill to Lower Town. I found at least one genuine survival. A winded horse, his sleighbells jingling, struggled to pull a real bobsled up that icy slope and had stalled a full block of traffic while the driver cursed with Gallic eloquence.
There are other survivals. The tiny church of Victories, which Phips' cannons had vainly wounded long ago, was dark except for the fitful light of candles. A withered woman of some eighty years, in antique bonnet and dingy black coat, knelt silently in prayer before the altar and a man of the same age. bearded like a saint, hobbled on his crutches to kneel painfully beside her.
Just outside the door some giggling schoolgirls of the new generation played with hula hoops and a pair of schoolboys, like schoolboys everywhere, tested their gum boots in the pools of melting snow (the best gum boots that money could buy).
Canned music, another portent, blared from the Levis ferry station. A radio blues singer assaulted the air, in French, from a shop which might have been lifted bodily from the left bank of the Seine.
From bare feet to Cadillacs
That shop of itself was a humble record of Quebec's change. Though equipped with an electrical voice, it was filled with fresh-caught fish, eels, sausages, vegetables and groceries but also with hideous statuettes, pictures and a jumble of gimcracks for the tourist trade. Its proprietress, one of those red, beefy women who manage every such shop in France, wrangled stridently with a customer of the same build over the price of half a cod.
Quebec, 1 thought, had become more prosperous but hadn't yet lost all its Norman thrift — nor that old strain of Norman cynicism either.
“I've seen the politicians come here from the country year after year," an idle taxi driver told me at a coffee counter. “and they came with one shoe and no seat in their pants. Now they're driving Cadillacs.” His companion added, with a lengthy discourse on economics, that the “big bosses” couldn't cure unemployment and therefore must soon arrange another world war.
After my morning’s aimless stroll it was time to peer through the pleasant surface, if 1 could, and see what was happening below it. So 1 repaired to the legislative buildings and took a good, hard look at that prodigious phenomenon which has disguised, behind a glittering façade, the real state of Quebec and deceived the rest of Canada.
Maurice Duplessis—contemporary version of the grand seigneur in a brown, well-tailored business suit—was busy that day. A superb maestro, he conducted his legislature as if it were an obedient orchestra. The handsome, chiseled face and famous sickle nose, the delicate white hands in elegant gesture, the quiet, tired
voice and the sublime air of mastery, all proclaimed the old and distorted the new facts of his province and race.
Perhaps Duplessis knows the new facts, perhaps not. In his public posture he ignores them and may continue to ignore them so long as they can achieve no con certed political expression. Since it is impossible for any stranger to penetrate the magnificent Duplessis posture or discern the man behind the actor (anyway, my job was not to write of politics). 1 called on his right-hand man and probable successor.
Paul Sauvé is. in outward look, the very antithesis of his leader — a distinguished soldier, athlete, horseman, angler and man of wealth who, in middle age, has begun to put on weight but still shows, in his round, ruddy face with brisk military mustache, an obvious vigor of mind and body.
What. I asked this attractive personage, was the social philosophy, as distinct from the outer politics, of the regnant Union Nationale? Mr. Sauvé did not give me the usual lecture provided by his chief. He said quite simply that the
Duplessis Government sought to build the greatness of Canada as a whole. To this end its best contribution was a greater Quebec, nourishing no antagonism toward the other provinces but maintaining a culture of its own.
Yes, it was philosophically a conservative government, a defender of private enterprise but by no means a subservient organ of big business. The Union was a movement of all classes based on the autonomy of the French-Canadian race.
I didn’t doubt Sauvé's sincerity nor that of Duplessis, behind all his machine
politics, as the chosen interpreter, father image and embattled guardian of his people, but I wanted more than the party line. So I sought out a very different sort of man and, driving down Grande Allée, encountered a certain historic exhibit, not without its lesson and its tinge of personal tragedy.
An energetic pedestrian was striding rapidly along that ancient street. I recognized the terrier face of Louis St. Laurent, the statesman replaced by Duplessis as the father image and reduced to his old profession of law but actually undefeated in essentials. One might pause to consider the human struggle between these two men as the latest of countless struggles between the nationalist and the moderate, but time pressed and, at the Chateau Frontenac, L’Abbé Dion awaited me with some of the new facts.
This extraordinary priest, who lectures to the faculty of social sciences at Laval University, is the most interesting French Canadian I have ever met and possibly the most important. For it is mainly out of Laval, a Catholic institution once radically conservative, that the radically liberal currents of Quebec’s future are flowing.
They began to flow from the lectures of the more celebrated Father Levesque, a cherubic little man of mild manner, whom Duplessis regarded as a dangerous left-wing socialist, almost a revolutionary, though he is, in fact, a very moderate reformer. Levesque has retired, of all places, to the former home of Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, and his mistress, Julie St. Laurent, near Montmorency Falls, now the retreat of a religious order.
Father Dion, a grizzled man of square, powerful face deeply cut with lines of thought and suffering, remains at Laval and this in itself is a highly significant fact. How, 1 asked him over a bottle of good French wine, did he survive his memorable pamphlet attacking the political morals of the Duplessis machine?
The priest shrugged. No one, he said, had questioned his right to speak out as he pleased on any secular question. His superiors in the church had never mentioned the subject to him while the government writhed in anger.
To me, a stranger and a Protestant, this incident was an amazing revelation of the ceaseless debate and turmoil within the church on all problems outside the faith. To Father Dion the incident was of small importance and the secular disagreements of the church a commonplace.
What interested the devout Catholic and iconoclast of politics was something larger. He was watching from his cloister an organic and pervasive transformation in the society of his people, but not of the sort that the visitor expects and not radicalism as we understand that word in English.
Father Dion and the young men trained by him stand for a rather vague ideal of social planning, about which they are frankly pragmatic. As historians and passionate advocates of human freedom, they believe that society must learn by trial and error as it goes along.
Already, said Dion, our Canadian society was being planned in a fashion as. under modern conditions, it must be planned. The only question was how it should be planned, by whom and for what objectives. He was too wise and educated to answer that question in detail. The thing could not be blueprinted in advance but it was growing, from many roots, before our eyes.
I would do better, he added, if I looked at the first fact of Quebec myself. It is, of course, that Quebec has undergone
an economic revolution in the course of a single generation. From that the other real facts follow, in economics, politics and the whole French-Canadian way of life.
We all know, as a statistical fact, that Quebec is now predominantly urban and industrialized, the nation’s second industrial area, producing a third of its manufactures, but the fact looks quite different and suddenly comes to life when you fly from the fertile St. Lawrence valley over the sterile rocks, black forests and innumerable lakes of the Canadian Shield into Cartier’s fabled Kingdom of Saguenay and there discover a vast complex of towns and industries that seem to have been dropped from the sky upon a white emptiness.
It was this leap from the river, the discovery of the shield’s timber, minerals and, above all, waterpower that revealed Quebec as one of our richest regions and assured its industrialization. You cannot understand French Canada without seeing the Saguenay.
The Arvida aluminum industry, like a square fortress with countless chimneys belching smoke into a steel-blue sky, the dams and power plants, the bustling business centre of Chicoutimi, the buses full of industrial workers the new class of sleek, flashily dressed businessmen and commercial travelers in expensive cars, the mad taxi drivers speeding on the fine new highways, the jet planes of the RCAF soaring out of Bagotville — all these signs of modern industry were familiar to me in Montreal. Three Rivers, Sherbrooke, Drummondville, Rimouski and a dozen other towns but they dumbfound any stranger in this wilderness.
Labor’s fervent missionaries
Something even more important than industry — but a product of it — is under way here.
In an office of clerks and pretty stenographers I found an organizer of the Catholic Confederation of Labor Syndicates, which speak for the workers of the whole Saguenay region. A cheerful, intelligent little man, he had begun life as a humble laborer in the aluminum industry and now bargained, on equal terms, with the executive giants of a business empire. He said he got on fine with them. Their personal relations were excellent.
For practical bargaining purposes this man represented the grass roots of the aggressive syndicates, but the social forces stirring below the grass roots were represented by his expert adviser, a graduate in social sciences from Laval.
Such young intellectuals, in growing numbers, have left the classroom to spread the doctrine of a better-planned society throughout Quebec. 1 hey are the products of teachers like Levesque and Dion, the potent yeast working beneath the surface so skillfully maintained by the Duplessis hierarchy.
Wherever you go in urban Quebec you will come upon such a missionary. I heir mission is social but they pursue it with the fervor of the original Jesuits. Faithful to their church, they preach a new kind of economic salvation, far from clear in their minds. More than any other force, they leaven the solid loaf of North America's most conservative society.
Possibly the largest question in Quebec today, endlessly debated by the tycoons of Montreal, the politicians of Ottawa, the university professors and the labor leaders themselves, is how powerful organized labor, as brain-trusted by the intellectual missionaries, has become and where it is going.
No one can say. But many businessmen cannot believe that the movement of reform amounts to much more than the babbling of a few agitators and the daydreams of a few precious intellectuals who never have to meet a payroll.
‘‘Don’t be fooled,” said one of the tycoons. “Quebec hasn’t changed. Only the appearances have changed. It’s the same old thing.”
Much less typical, maybe a minority of one. was a relatively small businessman and department-store owner in a provincial town who told me earnestly
that some kind of socialism was under way everywhere. He didn't care since the government, on nationalizing his business. would hire him as manager.
So far, the Catholic syndicates and the more conservative international unions control less than twenty-five percent of Quebec’s labor force. Their strength, however, exceeds their numbers. They can paralyze great industries like aluminum. as they proved last year. Outwardly they appear to be the most intransigent labor organization in all Canada but this appearance is misleading.
What does Quebec labor really want? Does it stand to the left of labor elsewhere and. if so, how far?
To ask these questions I decided to see the top man of the syndicates at headquarters, but before going to Montreal in quest of the ubiquitous labor boss, I paused to converse with some farmers from the niggard little farms of the shield.
These were poor men. on a poor soil, discontented with their lot and envious of their more vigorous neighbors who. everywhere in Quebec, have poured into
the industrial towns as a peasantry gives way to a proletariat. Yet they had something to tell me of the real facts—the old ones intimated by the farmer’s big piles of firewood, his little house and big barn, the new ones by his poverty.
The movements of society were far beyond the peasants’ grasp, they seemed to want no part of them, they voted for Duplessis to a man and they formed— because the legislature is elcctorally loaded in their favor—the political base of the Union Nationale, the deep forces of the past.
It is this poor agrarian minority, more than the rich industrialists, that stands in the way of the reformers. One of the surviving peasants, a lean old man gnarled by toil, pul the thing in a few words: “Duplessis est un hon homme.” For the peasants that said everything.
No one knows so well as Duplessis how to keep the friendship of such a man by crumbs of local patronage, a new road, an addition to (he school or hospital. Le hon homme spreads his favors all over rural Quebec and they are repaid in votes.
The arch enemy of Duplessis and all he stands for was not easy to waylay. Jean Marchand, secretary-general of the syndicates, had been commuting feverishly between Quebec City, Montreal and Ottawa to settle a CBC strike which blacked out the French radio and television network and threatened to revive old racial conflicts. When I caught up with him at Montreal he was installed in the Mount Royal Hotel — a far cry from his days as a poor worker's son.
It was surprising to find a Quebec labor boss living like a business executive
but more surprising to see in Marchand the exact opposite of his prototype. Without doubt he is one of the most powerful French Canadians of these times but looks rather like a mild-mannered man of small business, just over forty years old, and speaks like a professor.
Though he had been working on the strike until daybreak and had left his morning conference at two o’clock in the afternoon, he showed no trace of tension, except his refusal to take a drink.
“1 never touch it,” he said in immaculate English, “while I’m negotiating. Afterwards—perhaps.”
He attacked a slab of English roast beef and I an exquisite French creation, as we discussed the meaning and objectives of the left-wing movement centred in the universities and their pupils, the labor unions.
Marchand didn't like the word “left” and I realized that I had been misusing it in Quebec terms. The next fact then began to dawn on me: What is commonly called a radical, socialistic, intransigent movement in Quebec, and is feared as such by many capitalists, appears so mainly because it is in Quebec and has made a sudden, drastic break with French Canada’s past. The view of a man like Marchand would hardly alarm anybody in Ontario or British Columbia, the other great industrial provinces. They stand, I would guess, well to the right of the CCF’s official doctrine.
Did Marchand wish to nationalize all or most of private enterprise? Certainly not. The idea seemed to startle him. Educated at Laval, a scholar turned labor leader and missionary of reform, he obviously recognized the slow timetable of history, expected no miracles and planned no Utopia.
He simply wanted the highest wages he could get for the workers, an expanding system of social security, higher living standards and a better-planned economy, but a few public utilities and natural monopolies, already state-owned in many provinces, were all he proposed to nationalize.
Nevertheless, in the old context of Quebec society and its long time lag behind the other provinces, even an elementary reformist movement is a formidable and discouraging task to men like Marchand.
How to unite all the elements of reform, the liberals as distinguished from the conservatives of that label, the impotent CCF (now calling itself the Social Democratic Party), the fractured labor movement, the left-wing intellectuals? How to organize for political action against the Duplessis machine?
How, in short, to bring Quebec socially abreast of English-speaking Canada? These are the practical questions agitating the diverse and quarrelsome elements of reform, and until they are resolved any reform will be stifled. The regime will continue to divide and conquer.
To judge the machine's prospects one would have to know how deeply the intellectual Young Turks have penetrated the labor movement and the masses generally. Marchand didn't know. No one knows. The thing is fluid and intangible, cannot be measured and will not be tested until some definite social issue is faced in politics.
Everyone seems to agree, however, that the penetration is not very deep yet. that most local labor leaders have little influence, that the intellectuals—because they alone understand what it is about— are the narrow focus of power on the left. Penetration is slow but constantly accelerating.
“Remember one thing,” said Marchand as we parted. “If Quebec occasionally
“The present ferment of Quebec, as it struggles into a new age, will help unify the nation”
looks alarming don't take our manners too seriously. We're Latins, you know, and we often speak with passion."
He didn’t speak with any passion but there was plenty of it in the voice of Huguette Plamondon, a woman of thirtythree, who has managed somehow to make herself the peer of any male labor organizer in Quebec.
Having been informed that she was ihe leader of the United Packinghouse Workers, I awaited, in the lobby of the swank Ritz Carlton Hotel, a beefy, muscular, Amazonian figure.
When the revolving doors projected a lovely slip of a girl, clad in costly furs and decked out more lavishly than any guest at the Ritz, she caught my eye, as she would catch any male eye anywhere, but I didn't recognize her. This was the legendary Mademoiselle Plamondon, suns-culotte of many picket lines, the heroine of many strikes.
As she talked, the grievances of the workers, their lack of adequate social security, their relatively long working hours, the gap between their wages and those of workers in other provinces all poured out of Mademoiselle's scarlet lips in a torrent. 1 was listening to a classic case history of the new Quebec.
Socialism shocks her
One point in particular interested me as an outsider. The industries owned by English-speaking Canadian or American interests (eighty-five percent of Quebec’s total industry) were, she said, much more favorable to labor and easier to deal with than the French-Canadian industries, whose owners lagged far behind the times.
But as soon as I pinned down Mademoiselle's ideological beliefs, two things immediately emerged and they are common to every so-called radical I met in Quebec.
First, while wringing every dollar she can out of industry, Plamondon has no thought of socializing it. except for a few' public utilities. Anything more than that seemed to shock her.
Second, neither she nor anyone else I encountered has begun to think a reform program through in terms of basic economics. How is it to be financed? Who is to pay the taxes? How can highcost Canadian products be sold in the world market? What will happen to the value of money?
This was an unknown world to the beautiful young meat packer. So it is to most or all of the other reformers who, obsessed with Quebec’s backwardness, have yet to study the economic anatomy of the nation: indeed, have hardly suspected its existence. As reformers they are ardent, as planners they arc naive.
Mostly the reformers want little more at the moment than honest politics, are infuriated by the present corruption and, as many of them assured me, are convinced that real parliamentary democracy doesn't exist in Quebec.
Jean Drapeau, for instance, a nervous, courageous little man of owlish face, w'ho briefly tried as mayor to clean up the sexual morals of Montreal, protested that these were relatively small matters. Certainly no left-winger by any definition, and very confused in his political thought, Drapeau said he only wished to establish common decency in public life. It is no small job when Quebec inherited its easy political morals from the grafters of New France and takes for granted, with a shrug, methods that
would scandalize the averag; AngloSaxon.
From all the theorists a practical and brilliant reformer has lately emerged and the nation should watch him. Jean Louis Gagnon has become editor of La Presse.
The largest French-Canadian newspaper has held no controversial opinions up to now but will have them in abundance henceforth. They will be the opinions
of Quebec's most accomplished journalist, his face already known on television to everyone in the province. The man whom Duplessis once called a communist (though he is not even a socialist) now has his chance to thunder in print from an unequalled pulpit. The bold pioneer reformers of Le Devoir might be ignored by the regime. Gagnon and La Presse cannot be ignored or hushed.
What does all this complica'ed, mysterious movement of men and events mean to the nation at large? 1 asked that question of numerous learned and unlearned men and they all gave me the same answer: The present ferment of Quebec, as it struggles painfully into a new age, will tend to unify, not to divide, the nation. The answer. I think, is valid, and extremely important.
Every French Canadian, from Sauvé down to the poorest worker, declared that he had no antagonism to Englishspeaking Canada as such and probably believed it. The ferment differs from all past experience because it is not racialist —not yet, anyway.
Quebec, it seemed to me, as I tried to assess its present, has passed through three distinct stages during its three and a half centuries and is now in its fourth.
Before the so-called conquest it was a peasant and strictly authoritarian society, ruled by crooked French function-
aries, ignorant native seigneurs and stern priests.
The end of New France drove the brave, pitiable little band of French Canadians into total isolation. As Abbé R. H. Casgrain has written, “they saw only one way of salvation: make themselves forgotten, bend back upon themselves, live apart and. in a sense, ask pardon for existing."
The third stage, inevitable reaction from the second, was an upsurge of pride and racial anger called nationalism. It disrupted national politics and threaten-
ed to disrupt the nation up to quite recent times.
The fourth current stage is not aimed at the English-speaking partners of Confederation. It is aimed primarily at Quebec itself. Yet, by an odd paradox, it operates to reverse the old isolationism.
One of Quebec’s leading historians and social thinkers explained this process to me with Gallic bravura.
“Look,” he said, “at the map! Regard the St. Lawrence! It cuts straight through Quebec and it brings in all the intellectual tides of the world. How could any-
one suppose that a race so situated on this wide current of ideas could forever remain an isolated folk society, that quaint, absurd picture on your tourist advertising? Impossible. If the current took so long to reach us that was because our natural evolution was retarded, artificially, by the conquest. Ah yes, but only for a time. Now we live in a world-wide period of historic acceleration. Quebec accelerates.”
Then this eminent authority ticked off on his well-manicured fingers the specific influences that are driving the two races of Canada together despite their antagonisms.
First, a common foreign enemy, atheistic communism, has convinced French Canada that its exterior peril is no longer the imperial wars of Britain.
Second, an industrial society cannot be isolated because business recognizes no provincial boundaries. The Quebec economy is inseparable from the national economy.
Third, Quebec shares with the other provinces a common fear of American penetration. The imminent danger no longer seems to come from Englishspeaking Canada but from the United States. To resist it, the nation must be united and strong.
Fourth. Quebec is becoming educated in secular fields far beyond the old, narrow, classical and religious teachings of the school and university system. It sees all Canada with a new clarity.
“Did you know,” the professor demanded, “that Quebec has more university students per capita than any province but Ontario, far more than the Maritimes? They are learning everything. Our universities will soon have to be doubled or tripled in size to keep up with the enrollment. It's frightening in one way, when we lack money, but it means a new and better Quebec."
Fifth, the attitude of English-speaking Canada has changed, has become much more tolerant of Quebec and begins at last, very slowly, to understand it.
Sixth, and possibly most decisive, is Quebec’s rapid rise in living standards. While a gap of wages still stands between it and the richer provinces, the gap is narrowing rapidly despite the impatience of the Plamondons. A prosperous Quebec—by historic measurement almost unbelievably prosperous even in a business recession—feels, like any wellfed man. less resentment against its wealthy neighbors. The old racial tension is greatly eased by that fact alone.
Finally, the labor movement is a new bridge between the races, since workers throughout the nation are seeking the same objectives and must combine to achieve them.
This last point struck me so forcibly that I questioned several labor leaders about it. Their experiences were illuminating. All of them had attended labor conferences in English-speaking Canada as far west as Vancouver. They knew their opposite numbers from coast to coast and worked with them.
As a striking illustration, one labor organizer in the aluminum industry of the Saguenay told me he had recently visited the British Columbia aluminum centre of Kitimat and, as a result, some of the union leaders there had started to learn French so that they could deal better with their Quebec colleagues.
All this, expressed with French-Canadian eloquence, sounds convincing and. within limits, must be true. There are limits, though, and dangers. Perhaps the most brilliant mind in Quebec put the matter to me in terms which no politician is likely to use:
“The wave of our future—the radical-
ism, reform or whatever you care to call it—is all calculated to unify the races. Yes, but this involves risks and you'd better watch out for them. If the reformers w'in control of Quebec a few years hence, as I’m certain they will sooner or later, why then there may be trouble. Reform could turn sour if it was frustrated by bad luck or bad management. Idealism could become nationalism again in a new guise. It might seek a whipping boy in English-speaking Canada. That will all depend on economic conditions, since hard times breed hate, on the personalities of the new rulers, on the wisdom or blunders of the national government and, as so often before, on sheer accident.”
Such is a learned intellectual’s assessment. For myself, having first toured Quebec thirty-four years ago, I could hardly credit, on my recent travels, the change in the ordinary French Canadian’s attitude toward an English-speaking Canadian.
Over and over again I asked men, high and low, to name the points of friction still remaining between the races. Invariably they were surprised at the question, evidently had seldom thought of it and were at a complete loss to answer it.
The financial quarrel between the federal and Quebec governments, the row about university grants (inwardly a complicated contest between Duplessis and the church for influence in the universities), the French Canadians' demand for their fair share of federal - government jobs—these are points of friction. I suppose, but tiny pin pricks compared to the tragic racial collisions of the past. The old frictions are withering away under the sun of a broader, wealthier Canadianism.
Is the church changing?
Still, the gulf between the races remains, not in anger but in unbridgeable separateness not so much of the mind as of the spirit. No visitor can fail to feel it. Here he enters a foreign land. So does the French Canadian in other provinces.
“Why is it,” a labor leader asked me, “that 1 go to Ottawa or Vancouver year after year, do business with your people, get along fine officially but not once in all this time has a single one of them taken me to his home or introduced me to his wife and family, as we do here? Business relations but no personal relations. Is there something wrong with us French? Or is it, maybe, that you are now the nationalists?”
A profound question which I could not answer. But wherever I went I asked another question, inseparable from French-Canadian society, ancient and modern: where does the Roman Catholic Church, historically the inner power and intellectual governor of Quebec, stand in the present period of transition? The answers, from churchmen and laymen alike, were not what a Protestant would expect.
“You think of the church as all one thing, invariable and unchanging,” said a thoughtful priest, whose face showed the attrition of his labors, whose shiny, torn and neatly mended cassock showed his poverty. “It is, of course, nothing of the kind. Apart from its theology, the church is as free as the wind. In secular affairs it is forever disputing and forever changing with the change of society.
“Today,” he added, “what do we see in Quebec? We see a part of the church, a few' old-fashioned bishops, trying to resist social change, sweeping back the tide w'ith a broom, and another part, the
larger part, adjusting itself to the new day. Have you been watching the cardinal?”
Who in Quebec, native or visitor, could fail to watch Cardinal Léger, of Montreal, who by his office must be a primary focus of power and, by his own talents, an outstanding man in any profession?
Few things of more significance have lately happened in Quebec than the cardinal's preachments in favor of the workers’ right to organize and his collection of funds for the unemployed. An ascetic scholar trained in Rome and concerned up to now only with his religious duties, he has suddenly begun to take a deep interest in secular affairs and by blunt methods that must be pretty disagreeable to Duplessis.
I was less interested, however, in the cardinal's developing secular views, not yet clear to the public (if, in fact, they arc to him), than in the attitude of his llock. While 1 had supposed that he would be above discussion, I found everybody, even the priests, discussing his recent pronouncements almost as if they had come from an elected politician.
A priest informed me that the cardinal was a man of splendid character and high ideals but knew little of economics and had hardly begun to comprehend the present movements of society. A labor leader and good Catholic said the cardinal was really a conservative making sounds like a liberal merely to assure the labor movement's devotion to the church. On one fact both politicians and labor leaders appear to agree: the church is doing nothing to restrain the labor movement and nothing to influence elections.
A few priests in isolated villages, said one of the chief labor men, might try now and then to advise unions against aggressive tactics but not once in his experience had the church interfered with him or even talked to him about his business. The Catholic chaplains who once dominated the syndicates, being their only educated spokesmen, had been replaced by the newly educated laymen.
This, he thought, was not only right but also wise for the church, since it had inherited its own special problems from the industrial revolution. They form one of the real and vital facts.
Once the peasant leaves the country, goes to town as an industrial worker and is no longer under the eye of the village curé, his faith often tends to weaken. The church, said the labor man. could not afford to quarrel with the unions that protect the worker lest it fhrther weaken his faith. It must get along with organized labor.
A churchman told me the same thing but insisted that while the faith undoubtedly had weakened many newly urban Catholics and might be losing somewhat in numbers, it was winning new spiritual strength.
In Quebec, as everywhere, he said, religion was no longer a strict social compulsion, "a mere fashion that a man must follow whether he believes or not. but a matter of free decision. Those who followed it did so out of conviction. Hence the church was stronger in essentials if perhaps weaker in appearances. However that may be. the church is caught in the very middle of the ferment, and is powerless to escape it and must learn to live with it.
As to the church in politics, T questioned one of Quebec’s most practical politicians, a Catholic, who as much as anyone organized the Diefenbaker government's election sweep a year ago.
“Not once in the campaign," he replied, “did I hear from any churchman.
If I had, I would have told him to mind his own business. No bishop or parish priest ever talked politics to me, suggested anything or objected to anything.”
The truth • may be, as a scholarly churchman assured me, that the church was never as deep in politics as Englishspeaking Canada imagines.
“The legend,” said this historian, “is that the church always dominated elections in the old days. It may. have, here and there, in the first days of the franchise. But look at history. Repeatedly the bishops advocated one policy or one party and the people chose another. Who won the struggle between the bishops and Laurier? The legend is dead and should be buried.”
A regime of social anachronism based on the oldest, strongest but declining social forces of Quebec life: a new force stemming out of the intellectuals at the top but penetrating through the labor unions slowly to the bottom; a church balanced between these conflicts—these. I take it, are among the real facts of contemporary French Canada, but there is a final and still larger fact to consider.
What about the strength of Quebec’s basic culture under all this shaking impact? Can a little island of French speech. Catholic religion and distinct way of life survive permanently in the sea of English-speaking North America? Or will that precious thing established by Champlain and unconquerable in the
conquest be slowly eroded by the rising tide of North Americanism, the cultural waves beating in, day and night, through radio, television, printed words and business?
That, as every thoughtful French Canadian will admit, is no longer an unrealistic question. It is the supreme and practical question raised for Quebec by two centuries of experience. Nor do all French Canadians agree on the answer.
Some intellectuals argue that in the long run, a century or two, Quebec’s unique possession will disappear under the seepage of an alien culture. One of Quebec’s leading lawyers holds that view. An artist who probably has traveled his province as widely as anyone entertained me all evening with his theory that the race, as a separate entity, is doomed because its esprit is dying already by cultural suffocation. The French Canadian is becoming emotionally only another North American, as he already is in physical and economic life.
That is a small minority’s view, a heresy of pessimism. The view of the vast majority, 1 take it, was expressed by three eminent social scientists who conducted for my benefit a three-hour debate, the most fascinating 1 have ever heard.
One of the professors, plump, short and jovial, fairly shook with excitement and his voice rose to a shout as he denied the heresy. The second, a lean, chilly, literal man. kept interrupting with hard, statistical facts and sociological lingo that was Greek to me. The third, an austere, moody introvert, tried occasionally to get a quiet word in edgeways but usually failed and sat brooding darkly in a corner.
Like the mediaeval schoolmen’s angels, this remarkable trio danced all night on the point of a needle, speaking purest English but thinking in purest French. Their kindness, learning and candor overwhelmed me.
The lifework of all three had been the scientific study of their people. They had reduced French Canada to a science beyond any layman's understanding and. I dare say, beyond the comparable study of any professor in the English-speaking provinces. Though they disagreed on a thousand obscure details, and argued them with Latin gusto, they agreed that
the race, the culture and the religion were safe forever.
“No race or culture,” said the man of hard facts, “has ever been destroyed by kindness, the kindness that the English applied to us. And now it’s toó late for anything else. We are too many.”
“Observe,” said the plump one, “that Quebec has four million people and will have about seven at the end of the century. It will always hold its proportion of the Canadian population. But we won’t be, and are not now, the sort of people you imagine. The French Canadian is no peasant or curio for tourists but a twentieth-century North American —ah, but with a difference. What a difference! Therefore, the collectivity will survive.”
“There’s another thing you must remember,” said the man of facts. “We have a big and growing investment in the collectivity. We are turning out engineers, scientists, sociologists, economists and business executives from our universities in droves. For their own selfish advantage, if nothing else, they will preserve the collectivity to prosper in it. They will soon become a new elite, replacing the old elite of lawyers and churchmen. They will re-orient, are already re-orienting, our whole society in ways no one can foresee. It’ll be a revolution but it'll be French Canadian what-
ever else it is. The culture is changing. But it’s safe.”
“Ah, the culture!” the brooding man muttered with a bleak look, and shook his head, as if the culture disappointed him, but he was given no chance to explain.
“You’ll recall,” the plump professor interrupted, with an excessive estimate of my learning, “that letter written by John A. Macdonald in 1856. The English, he said, must worry along with a French-Canadian problem for a century, no more. Now it is 1959 and we are still here, eh? And so long as we’re here, a separate collectivity, there’ll be tensions of one sort or another between you and us. That’s history.”
He laughed heartily. History appealed to him as a good joke.
Completely bewildered by the angels' pin-dance, I ventured to inquire what the collectivity was trying to preserve. At that the professors retreated into expertese, more statistics and mystery which, 1 suspected, were a disguise for their own doubts.
The language, the religion, the FrenchCanadian arts (now in yeasty renaissance) must be preserved, they said, but the most important thing could not be defined as more than separateness. Defined or not, it remains the vital thing. What alone matters is that Quebec feels this separateness in its heart and refuses to abandon it. Quebec is there—the overall national fact needs no better definition.
1 reeled from that glorious dinner party confused about many things but thoroughly convinced of the separateness. for I could not have spent such an evening outside Quebec. No Englishspeaking Canadian professor would speak, think or act like those professors of Montreal.
Lemelin speaks for Quebec
A few days later I received an easier, layman's lesson in separateness from Roger Lemelin, the writer who has made so much money in literature and his big lumber business that it sometimes disturbs his social conscience. This volcano of a man, in endless eruption, took me, near the Plains of Abraham, to “the finest restaurant in America” (he can speak only in hyperbole) and, over snails from France, favored me with a special eruption.
An undoubted genius with his pen. Lemelin is vague in his ideology and tortured in his economics. Yet, with a writer’s sixth sense, he feels the general sense of his people and articulates it magnificently. The French Canadians, he believes, are evolving into a better people, a more mature society. Nothing else matters much to him.
The CBC strike then under way, and the incidental blackout of his Ploufle Family, Lemelin regarded as one more evidence of the movement leftwards, pushed this time not by laborers but by artists.
All this delighted the genius (though it might threaten the man of wealth) but not for the usual reasons. Lemelin was not concerned with political theories or the fortunes of businessmen like himself. He was concerned solely with the “social milieu.”
In his youth, he said, the milieu of Quebec had been so dull, stagnant and frustrating to an artist that he could not have endured it in middle age. He would have been forced to live in France or iose his inspiration. Now he finds here such a milieu of action, such a convulsion of ideas, such an atmosphere of :hange and excitement that he can hard-
ly keep up with it by writing from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. every day.
Living in this milieu, Quebec could not be eroded or destroyed, said Lemelin. Its danger point had been passed. The real danger, I gathered, was the cultural erosion of English-speaking Canada; it was spiritually less safe than Quebec, less sure of itself, more open to American penetration and more afraid.
“Don’t worry about us,” said the volcano as he bade me farewell. “Worry about yourselves.”
From the Chateau’s towers that night
I looked across the other towers and crowded street of Champlain’s town, the unchanging river, and, in imagination, the changing but indestructible race. Lemelin, I thought, was right. Our partners of the two centuries knew how to look after themselves.
Without them Canada would be a duller nation, and perhaps it could not have survived as a nation at all against the continental conformity. At any rate, without them we would have missed our chance of unique achievement, our only great contribution to the world—a
workable duality of two distinct peoples, both Canadian, a demonstration of biracial living in a race-torn age.
Apart from anything else, that achievement has justified our history since the conquest not of a race, region or nationality but of ourselves jointly. And its product, emerging only in our time, is a new and true nationality.
So I took a last look at the plains next morning and wondered again at the unforeseen prodigy conceived there and slowly born through two hundred years of labor. ^