An open letter to the french Canadian nationalists

Peter Gzowski October 17 1964

An open letter to the french Canadian nationalists

Peter Gzowski October 17 1964

An open letter to the french Canadian nationalists

“In many senses you have already won your revolution... yet you grow more strident. The things you now need to do are the ones to do on your own, to your own society.' Some blunt observations from a friendly onlooker who has grown impatient with talking for talking's sake

A JOKE going the rounds in Montreal these days may be historically inaccurate as well as in questionable taste, but I think it reflects a feeling in English Canada that is growing too quickly to be ignored. It concerns a Canadian parliamentarian who is chatting with an American congressman. “Well, you have your Negro problem and we have our Frcnch-Canadian problem,” says the Canadian. “Yes,” says the American, “we had first choice.”

The man who told this to me is someone I happen to know to be in sympathy with — if you will accept this generalization for a moment — the causes and ambitions of French Canadians. 1 don't imagine he likes comparing your position with that of the American Negro any more than you like having him do it. But one of the points about what is happening in English Canada today concerns precisely this uncomfortable parallel.

I think it’s fair to say that most of us here see the current revolution by Negroes as an inspired and inspiring series of events. Which is not to say you don't see it in the same way. But can you imagine, in the light of the Negroes’ grievances and the ways they have let those grievances be known, how petty your complaints are beginning to sound to us — even to those of us who were once in complete agreement with virtually all the things we understood you were trying to do?

I had meant, in fact, to write this open letter in anger. As a reporter,

I have followed events in your province closely since early in 1961. In more than a dozen articles in Maclean's and on many occasions elsewhere I have set out your case as faithfully as 1 could. Essentially, I

think your cause is just, and 1 think you would be surprised to learn how many English Canadians hold similar views. To us, the answer to the question, "What does Quebec want?”, seems — or at least seemed once — to be only too clear: you want a sense of equality in the country we inhabit in common. We agree you haven't had it, and we agree you ought to get it as quickly as possible.

What is making us angry now, though, is that you don't seem to care how we have been responding to your demands. In our own way, we are growing as frustrated at your apparent inability — or refusal — to notice what we arc now doing and saying as, until very recently, you must have been frustrated by our refusal to listen to you.

The point is, we are now listening. You are winning your revolution. In many senses, you have already won it. And yet — as though the battle had become more important to you than victory — you grow even more strident. Those of us who have listened to your demands from the outset, and have agreed with your principles, wonder if it isn’t time you listened to what we have to say, and whether you might want to entertain some principles of ours, such as the one that nationalism isn’t the most important issue in the world of 1964.

Let me take just one area where your position strikes us as . . . let’s say, unreasonable. You have complained that English Canadians haven’t tried to understand your part of the country. Fair enough; for years we came nowhere near what we might have done. But, as in so many ways, we have made a pretty fair attempt to change in the very recent past.

Today, the most important newspaper in English Canada, the Toronto Globe and Mail, maintains one staff man in Quebec City and another in Montreal. The CBC (that hotbed, ironically enough, of separatism) spends more than twice as much on French-Canadian talent as on English, and displays easily twice as much Frcnch-Canadian material on its English network as vice versa. French plays, in translation, tour English Canada. Most of the important books written in French, from Les insolences du Frère Untel to Pourquoi je suis séparatiste, are available in English editions. English-Canadian universities from the University of British Columbia to Mount Allison sponsor study weekends on French Canada. Toronto art galleries hold exhibitions of specifically French-Canadian paintings. French-Canadian entertainers play Toronto night clubs. Admittedly, this is still a long way from what it might be. But it is also a long way from even five or ten years ago.

Now, I’d like to ask some questions from the other side. How many reporters does any Frcnch-Canadian newspaper maintain in Toronto? The West? The Maritimes? Answer: none. The most important newspaper in French Canada, Le Devoir, carries roughly as much general Canadian and international news as the Daily Racing Form. How many English-Canadian plays are shown on French-Canadian television? None. How many recent English-Canadian books have been published in French? The only one I can think of is The New Party by Stanley Knowles, and that was in 1961. Mordecai Richlcr, who is principally a Montreal writer, is read in Paris in French editions that are unavailable in Montreal. Yet which is more important in trying to understand the country we share — Peter C. Newman’s Renegade In Power, which has not been published in French, or Yves Theriault’s Agaguh, which has been published in English? How many French-Canadian universities have held symposiums on English Canada? I’ve never heard of any. How much English-Canadian art is available in Quebec City? How many English-Canadian singers? Are the facts of our one-way translation system all attributable to the fact that French Canadians can all devour as much of our culture as they want — in English? I doubt it. Le Magazine Maclean, launched in 1961, has managed to find a hundred and sixty thousand subscribers and newsstand buyers who wanted to read a magazine like this one but wanted it in French.

I'd suggest instead that, while English Canadians have at least been trying to learn something about your world and your culture, you have dismissed ours as not worth investigating. (It may not be, at that, but oughtn't you to find out for yourselves?)

Well. I hadn't meant to get that angry, and I realize that even if we English Canadians were so noninsular that we read translations of every one of Robert Rumilly’s thirty-six volumes of Quebec history, there’d still be a separatist movement. To try to convince you that 1 am not writing as a complete orangiste, let me say that if I had been a young French Canadian in, say, 1962, I'm sure I would have been a separatist myself.

I would have realized that in Canada as it was then I had a very limited future. If I had no call to holy orders, my choice would have been between working as a second-class employee, going into politics, or spending most of the rest of my professional life in a language that was not my own. No matter how fluent 1 had become in English, I would wish for an opportunity to work in the same language I prayed in and had been brought up with. I would have taken deep pride in my province's new government, which had thrown off the shackles of corruption and of a sort of moral servitude to the monied English classes.

And yet I would have found that, even with my new pride, if I wanted a job with anything from a big law firm to a small tool-and-die company, 1 would have to give up my own language from nine to five. If after all our progress toward self-respect we still had to concede in such an important area, I would have reasoned, there was no way for me to achieve dignity in Canada, and I would have wanted out. I would, I hope, have made my protests as loudly and firmly as I could.

But I also hope I would have changed my mind by 1964. Not because I had grown older and wiser, but because the facts of the situation had changed.

Several weeks ago I wrote to the presidents of sixty-seven large companies with non-French-Canadian ownership that do business in Quebec. Since so many of the most nearly valid arguments for separatism seem to me to be economic, I thought 1 would go to the best sources of facts. I asked the presidents to talk as generally as they liked — but frankly — about their companies’ attitudes toward French Canadians. Then I went to interview the authors of some of the more interesting letters. In all cases, I guaranteed anonymity, to get the bluntest answers possible.

If 1 were to say that the replies — there were more than fifty — showed an overnight change of heart from bigotry to understanding, 1 would be doing justice to no one. Perhaps a third of the letters were tired recitals of all the clichés and bigotry that you might expect in every case: the plight of the French Canadian is the direct result of the failure of French-Canadian education . ., . etc. Another sizable group of presidents insisted that in their companies the French Canadian had always had equal opportunity, so there was no necessity for change. (In the case of many of those companies. I'm sure you wouldn't agree.) Furthermore, many of the presidents were able to point with pride only to such measures as French-language courses for English-speaking executives. One public relations man I talked to even announced proudly that his company, which has a large number of French-Canadian employees, had begun announcing job-advancement opportunities for its own people in both languages this year.

But — and this is a very important but — a great many of the presidents did offer concrete evidence that they and their companies were changing their minds.

They spoke of new efforts to recruit technical personnel from FrenchCanadian universities. They spoke of new senior appointments for French Canadians in their own firms. They spoke of the advantages a bilingual salesman or public-relations officer brought to his job, and they obviously realized that most bilingual Canadians are French Canadians. As one president wrote: “In the increasingly international world of the future, the ability to speak more than one language will be an important qualification. When the graduates of the French educational institutions have preparation for work in industry comparable to that of the graduates of the English institutions, and because they have the advantage of a second language, they will be better qualified than the graduates of the English-speaking universities, unless these

latter institutions not only give courses in the French language but also provide opportunities for listening to French lectures in other subjects."

Another executive went even further, pointing out one aspect of the changes in French Canada that has swung the balance of advantage to your side. “A very real practical problem that we are encountering now," he wrote, “is that it is becoming difficult to promote unilingual people out of our Ontario division into our head office because we always have in the back of our mind that they should be bilingual, so that they can be fully utilized anywhere in the company.”

Things have changed so much, in other words, that there is at least one company — and 1 would suggest there are scores more — where it is better, in an economic sense, to be a young French-Canadian employee than to be an English one. 1 realize this is a long way from a world where you can speak nothing but French at your office, but it is a vastly improved world, from your point of view, over the one you faced only five or ten years ago. And, 1 think, it is a big step toward a practical solution to the problems that beset French Canada today — a much more practical solution than separatism could ever be.

There is one more thought I would like to leave with you about the business leaders I have been quoting. As I said, the “enlightened" ones (in your terms and, believe it or not, mine) are still far short of a majority. But, you must remember, these are men in very senior positions, men who have been dealing with a French Canada that does not now exist. Whether it ever existed — the French Canada that businessmen thought they were dealing with — is another argument; today it lives only in their imagination. Behind them, just as there are young men behind René Lévesque who make Lévesque look like a moderate, there is a new generation of English Canadians that looks on French Canada in a wholly different light. This is not a result of their sudden maturity of outlook. It is a result of changes you, the French Canadians, have already wrought in your own society. They have, I am firmly convinced, changed our society, too, and for the better.

What we'll all have to remember, though, is that the kind of progress you have started is a very slow sort of action. No one — certainly not, I believe, you — expects sixty-year-old corporation executives suddenly to become bilingual statesmen. It will take years for people with new attitudes to assume positions of deep influence.

No one — again I don't think you — would expect young FrenchCanadian engineers to be rocketed into vice-presidencies just because they are French. If English Canadians are willing to assume some of the blame, even most of it, for the way French Canadians have been treated in the world of economics, why can't the French Canadians admit that at least some of the claims about lack of technical education have been correct? Certainly there have been a few French-Canadian engineers for decades. But there haven't been enough, and one of the reasons for the shortage is that French-Canadian society, as a whole, decided it didn't want to produce a lot of engineers.

Right now, within the framework of reality, I can't sec many more victories in English Canada that arc left for you to win. Certainly the major battles here arc now behind you. Virtually anything you do in Quebec, short of killing people, can be done with the sympathy of at least a sizable body of English-Canadian opinion.

But the things that you now need to do are ones to do on your own, and to your own society. I, for one, hope you do them all. And I, for one, can’t see how I can take the blame if you don’t.

Peter Gzowski