MY FAREWELL TO QUEBEC
No hard feelings
Ihave just returned from a 10-day swing through Quebec. It was the most relaxed — indeed, it was the only relaxed — such tour I have made in 15 years of travel into and through the province. For once, I didn’t worry about my crude but serviceable French; for once, I read the accounts of current outrages — from murder to political corruption to the continuing language squabble — with something like detachment; for once, I didn’t feel called upon to excuse and explain every aberration of French-Canadian behavior to my wife, or to point out that exactly the same kinds of behavior are common in
English Canada. Not that my wife didn’t understand this perfectly well, but I’ve always felt a compulsion to say aloud what we both know, that bigotry and rudeness know no boundaries. In those days it was as if I were responsible, somehow, for everything that happened while we were in Quebec. I spoke French, and Joan didn’t; I said nice things about Parti Québécois leader René Lévesque. Ergo, when someone honked at us for the crime of having an Ontario license, or made fun of my accent, I felt compelled to defend these idiots and to tell, for the eightieth time, the story of the two Montrealers who
were instructed to “speak White” on a Toronto streetcar 20 years ago.
No more. This time, I made a pact with myself before we ever left Toronto that I would behave in Quebec as if we had landed in another country. I would speak my own language, except on those rare occasions when it was obvious that my French was better than someone else’s English; I would stop trying to find excuses for Quebec’s political inanities (after all, I don’t feel responsible for Ontario’s); I would stop trying to
Walter Stewart is an associate editor and a senior writer for Maclean’s.
pretend that this province is just like the rest of Canada, only French. In short, I said farewell to Quebec as part of my own nation, and I found the experience marvelously relaxing.
One day, strolling on the terrace just below the Château Frontenac in Quebec City, I struck up a conversation with a militant student from Laval University. As always, we got onto the language question, and he told me that the time would come when the French would sweep the English back into the St. Lawrence, right below us, where they came from. Time was when I would have struggled painfully to indicate that I understood how he felt, but regretted our historic estrangement. This time, I told him in cheerful English to get stuffed. He looked blank, and we parted, each full of that sense of superiority that makes social congress worthwhile.
In a small store in Château Bois, I held a long conversation with a farmer who spoke a thick jouai; he spoke French, and I English; I think we were discussing the crops, or perhaps skiing — something that goes up and down a lot, anyway — and we agreed that it’s a shame the way things are. As we drove through Trois-Rivières, a young bearded patriot saluted us with a rude gesture; I saluted back, just as rudely. These liberated gestures were not my way of defying Quebec, they were my way of giving up; I am willing to accept that Quebec is now, or soon will be to all intents and purposes, a separate state, I am ready to make a separate peace.
I think I began my own personal peace negotiations about 11 years ago, outside the Citadel in Quebec City. It was during the Queen’s visit in 1964, when I watched police hammer the hell out of some kids who had had the gall to shout “Vive le Québec, à bas Ottawa” as the royal procession rolled by. The cops were demonstrating with their nightsticks that Quebeckers stood foursquare with the rest of Canada in loyalty to the Queen; the thought flickered through my mind that if this was the way we were shoring up national unity, perhaps it wasn’t worth it.
But I put such counter-productive thinking behind me until four years ago, when I received another abrupt check. I was having lunch with a French-Canadian friend and colleague in Montreal, and we got talking about the application of the War Measures Act during Quebec’s October Crisis of 1970. We were both strongly against the act, but for different reasons; I saw it as an attack on civil liberties, Jean saw it as another putdown of the French. He said the federal government would never dare use the act elsewhere in Canada. I said the point was that it had been used elsewhere — against the Japanese Canadians in BC. Jean said that only proved it was a Wasp weapon; in any event, he said, the issue was not one that should concern me, because “This is not your place.” I replied, “What the hell do you mean? This is my country.” Jean shrugged.
You could argue all night over the difference between “place” and “country”
— just as Tories with no access to a French-English dictionary were able to argue that “nation” means different things in the two tongues when they passed their famous “deux nations” resolution in 1967. It doesn’t matter; the fact is that Jean was right. Quebec is not my place. In the four years since we quarreled, the province’s gradual disengagement from Canada has become obvious. Whether that break is ever formalized is less important than the fact that it has taken place. Indeed, this process has probably reduced the likelihood of a formal declaration of independence, and the long, bitter sorting-out that would entail. The more likely way
— the Canadian way — is simply to allow the present drift to continue, until Quebec has gathered in the last crumbs of self-determination.
Consider, for a moment, what René Lévesque set down in 1968 as the “basic institutional equipment” for Quebec’s “national-cultural coming of age.” What was needed, said Lévesque, was “control over immigration and citizenship, over mass media and manpower policies, over internal economic development and all cultural (and related) external affairs. Plus enough fiscal power to tackle that on top of what’s already needed for education and research, health and urban affairs.”
Quebec hasn’t yet picked up all of Levesque’s shopping list, but it has succeeded in establishing itself as a separate presence abroad (the process began when Quebec was invited to an inter-
national education conference in Gabon in 1968 as a separate nation and accepted; it continued through a series of cultural agreements negotiated with France; it continues today through the province’s separate accreditation of diplomats working in Quebec. Ottawa has protested in every case in which Quebec has sought to act like a nation, but in most instances has simply given the action a federal patina by asserting that Quebec was acting with Ottawa’s permission), in assuming major control in cultural and manpower areas, in wresting most of the fiscal power it needs away from Ottawa. Any Canadian can set his own litmus test of Quebec’s long reach. A Vancouver lawyer once told me his: “In law, there isn’t one damn thing we want and that Quebec opposes that we can get.” I doubt if that’s true, but it is widely believed, just as most Quebeckers still believe they are blocked at every turn by the rest of us.
Robert Bourassa obviously has his own litmus test of power. When the prime minister — never premier — went to France last December bearing greetings of the National — never provincial — Assembly, he was treated as a national leader, in a greeting far warmer than that earlier accorded Prime Minister Trudeau. This heady reception led Bourassa to suggest later that the only challenge remaining for him was the challenge of independence.
My test of how far Quebec has moved toward statehood is to look at what the political parties are up to, and what
Quebec’s governing Liberals and opposition PQ are doing is moving closer together on the sovereignty issue - though not in social or economic policy. As two young students at Collège du Vieux Montréal told me, “The question is not whether Quebec will be independent — that is settled — what we are quarreling about is whether a separate Quebec will be socialist or capitalist.”
Bourassa, who used to work the “profitable federalism” line, has progressed through “cultural sovereignty” and now proclaims Quebec’s role as “a French-speaking state within a Canadian common market.” Even the phraseology is Lévesque’s.
The PQ leader has stopped talking about an abrupt break from Canada; if his party is elected, there will be a referendum on independence, with lots of time for discussion and compromise.
In brief, the move toward “particular status,” as we used to call it, is complete. There is no question that Quebec will ever again be treated as a province like the others. The only question is how wide the gap will be. In my view, it will be quite wide, for the simple reason that on the crucial issues that face this province her needs and those of the rest of Canada are opposed.
Take, for example, the joined issues of language, education and immigration. When Quebec passed Bill 22 — its new language law — I confess to having been in something of a tizzy. The law is clearly discriminatory, intentionally discriminatory, and it turns its back on the
long history of tolerance and equality that has marked Quebec’s policy. The bill makes Quebec, in Bourassa's words, “an officially francophone state.” It wipes out the old guarantees of educational equality, forces anglophones to communicate with their government in French, requires all major industries to conduct their business in French and. if strictly applied, could make McGill University, for instance, communicate with English newspapers in French. All of this is deplorable, if you want to regard Quebec as part of Canada - a bilingual nation under the Official Languages Act; but if you are willing, as I am, to say farewell to Quebec, it makes perfect sense. Quebec’s population is more than 80% francophone, but it may not be so for long. The French-Canadian birthrate is Canada’s lowest, and the province’s growth is now attributable entirely to immigration. But most immigrants opt for the English school system; if Quebec stands on the ceremony of the Official Languages Act. or the old guarantees of Bill 63 (Bill 22’s predecessor; it guaranteed a choice of language in education), French Canadians will soon be strangers in their own homes. Bill 22 will make it increasingly difficult for immigrants to enter any but French schools, and that esteemed constitutional lawyer, F. R. Scott, has therefore denounced the law as “unconstitutional,” because “it makes the French language dominant and the English language a language of exception.” So it does, just as, everywhere else in
Canada, French is a language of exception, no matter what the law says. Bill 22 is wicked only if you are willing to believe that French Canadians in Regina have equal opportunities for education.
Here is where my private peace with Quebec comes in; I accept that state’s right to protect itself. There is nothing remarkable in Englishmen directing their immigrants into English schools, or Swedes refusing to set up a separate school system in German; and there would be nothing remarkable in a francophone state in North America promoting its own language exclusively.
The joined problem of immigration solves itself the same way. Most Canadians, rightly or wrongly, want to block any massive inflow of immigrants. Quebec, on the other hand, wants all the immigrants it can get, for a number of reasons. On the political side, if present trends continue, Quebec’s share of Canada’s population will drop, by 1986, from 28% to 24%, weakening its federal presence. In addition, Quebeckers are still caught in the growth mania that most of Canada left behind in the 1960s, but there will be a severe shortage of workers in the province because of the falling birthrate.
So, Quebec needs one kind of language policy, and Canada another; Quebec needs one kind of immigration policy, and Canada another; Quebec has an approach to resource development that the rest of us simply cannot afford —Bourassa has achieved a new high in daffiness with his proposal to
tack a uranium enrichment plant onto his James Bay development (the proposal is to build, for six billion dollars, a facility that will turn ordinary uranium into enriched uranium. Canada has no use for this product, which can only be used in nuclear reactors built by other nations, such as France. Our CAN DU uses ordinary uranium. So, said Bourassa, Canada should adapt the CANDU to use enriched uranium; that would then justify his six-billion-dollar program), and his determination to push it through has already led to an open split with Ottawa.
We really can’t — as they say in Family Court — go on this way. After all, we have been struggling with this issue since 1759; we haven’t resolved it. Our great triumph is that we have not yet torn each other limb from limb. There has to be something better to do than to go on pretending we are the world’s model of tolerance, when we spend most of our energy trying to put each other down. We are no more a single country than we were when the Act of Union tried to cement us together in 1841; the only difference is that keeping up the pretense costs more today; it’s just as obviously futile. The Fathers of Confederation worked their way out of that earlier impasse by calling in the other provinces in 1867, in hopes of drowning the French in a wider union. It didn’t take; we are back at the old stand; the only way out is to give Quebec the right, in fact if not in law, to go her own way.
This is not the same issue as the feisti-
ness of, say, Alberta. The western province is pushing for more control over its own affairs for clearly defined economic reasons; give Alberta what it wants and you will have a purring partner to Confederation. For Quebec, the issue is not economics but survival; the economic and cultural questions are inseparable, so we have the familiar phenomenon that the more Quebec wins, the more it wants; it cannot be satisfied short of de facto independence.
That is why I made my separate peace with Quebec, and the benefits have been enormous, particularly on the crucial language issue. I lived in Montreal as a boy, but learned little French, except a few expletives useful for hurling at Jerome Choquette, now Quebec’s Minister of Justice, then a neighbor on Wilson Avenue. In that simple world, it didn’t matter much to be English in Quebec; the province was not important, our community was the English community of Canada. When I grew up, provincial .governments had come into bloom and language was an issue for the English as well as the French, for all of Canada as well as Quebec. It became my duty to learn French and to work in French in Quebec — a small price to pay for national unity.
So I laid out a lot of money and a lot of time, and a fat lot of good it did me. Long hours of conducting interviews in a foreign tongue, while little drops of blood stood out on my forehead. (I once interviewed then education minister Marcel Masse for two hours in French;
later, I asked his press aide where Masse had obtained his MA. “Oxford,” he replied.) Long rehearsals of prepared questions, tedious apologies for lack of fluency (“Veuillez répéter, s’il vous plait”; “plus lentement, s’il vous plait”).
I shattered tenses and tortured meanings up and down the province, and the more bad French I talked, the more resentment I ran into.
The French are, let’s face it, brutally rude about their language, particularly in Montreal (in Quebec City, where the English population is minuscule, there is no apparent threat, and much less rudeness). I was told abruptly by a senior civil servant that “I have no time to teach you my tongue — speak English.” I was instructed by a fellow journalist that “vous parlez français comme une vache espagnole” — “you speak French the way a cow speaks Spanish.” I was enraged when French-Canadian journalists giggled and hissed as Saskatchewan’s attorney general began his speech to a federal-provincial conference in Ottawa with a few staggering lines of French. (No one boos Jean Chrétien’s bum English, but then English is not under attack.) I covered the 1970 Quebec election entirely in French, went to bed every night with a blazing headache, and then discovered that everything I wrote was dismissed out of hand by my French colleagues because I couldn’t possibly understand, being English.
It finally dawned on me that much of what I had heard about the goodwill that flows from bilingualism is just hot
air; indeed, the only French Canadians who appeared to receive my halting efforts with politeness were the militant separatists. They regard bilingualism as anathema, another shove on the slippery slope to assimilation, so they are willing to speak English, if they can, or to respond to any mixture of hand signals, grunts and franglais. They didn’t feel insulted when I murdered their language; they only got upset when anyone pretended, after three months of a federal government immersion course, to be bilingual and to pass as an acknowledged expert on the language question.
Montreal writer Don Bell, a bilingual anglophone who has run into a lot of flak, recently noted, “I suspect that I am living in a racist society. Can this be so?” It not only can be, it is; but then, it always was. The only difference now is that the bias is on a different slant; it is an advantage, not a disadvantage, to be francophone in Quebec.
Much of the province’s vaunted tolerance in the past came not from nobility of soul but from the fact that the English held most of the power. Now the political power has gone to the French majority and the economic power is flowing to Americans, who couldn’t care less about how Quebec sorts out its language problems. The anglophones, and the group Jim Stewart of the Montreal Star calls the “allophones,” are still a force here, but they are on the wane, and anyone who thinks that the French, once in control, will behave more tolerantly than, say, the English of West Vancouver,
hasn’t been readihg the papers lately.
My separate peace covers all this. History shows that when a people has decided that it is a people — a separate state — only force of arms can reverse the decision. Quebec has made such a declaration, to itself, and we are not about to take up arms. So we simply have to accommodate ourselves to what the separatist paper Le Jour calls “the legitimate aspirations of the people.”
Frankly, I don’t know how governments go about this, although I suspect we have to build some kind of buffer to protect our economy from such dizzy Quebec schemes as the Olympics, James Bay and Bourassa’s two new superports (they would cost one billion dollars each, be built along the St. Lawrence and compete with Maritime ports), with their massive repercussions for us all. The phrase that leaps to the questing mind is “a francophone state in a Canadian common market.” But that, as I say, is an issue for governments to work out in the fullness of time; for myself, I have declared peace on Quebec. I will go on speaking French, but I am damned if I'll go on feeling guilty about speaking it badly. It’s not my language; it’s not my country; I'm just a wayfaring stranger. And, as a tourist, I can report that Quebec is a marvelous place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. Lp
Claude Ryan, editor of the influential Montreal newspaper Le Devoir, will give a Quebecker’s rebuttal to Walter Stewart’s article in a future Maclean's.