Quebec: a report on the state of a nation

In the wake of Ottawa’s ruling in the air traffic dispute, the uneasy coexistence with the rest of Canada has grown markedly uneasier, and the option for self-determination increasingly attractive

Mark Nichols September 6 1976

Quebec: a report on the state of a nation

In the wake of Ottawa’s ruling in the air traffic dispute, the uneasy coexistence with the rest of Canada has grown markedly uneasier, and the option for self-determination increasingly attractive

Mark Nichols September 6 1976

Quebec: a report on the state of a nation

In the wake of Ottawa’s ruling in the air traffic dispute, the uneasy coexistence with the rest of Canada has grown markedly uneasier, and the option for self-determination increasingly attractive

Mark Nichols

“You know how it is in Quebec,” mused the dark-haired young man while thoughtfully surveying the late-afternoon crowds that hurried past the sidewalk café on Montreal’s Peel Street. “You feel euphoric for a while, then suddenly”—he paused to sip his Pernod—“very, very down.” Clearly, this moment near the midpoint of Montreal’s vibrantly successful Summer Olympics was the occasion for a decidedly buoyant phase in the oscillations of the Quebec psyche. Every day, complained the cabbies, the early morning streets were jammed with cars pouring in from the province’s outlying regions as Quebeckers arrived, not to see the games but to see the world seeing their city. And everywhere, Montreal’s special élan was more than usually in evidence—the girls exuding their bold sense of style and utter self-possession, white-gloved traffic cops as poised and aloof as matadors, performing amidst the lethal stop-go of rush-hour traffic.

Yet the Olympic glow and the accompanying happy clamor served only briefly to distract attention from seismic social and political rumblings in the Quebec soil. For one thing, there is widespread and deep-seated disenchantment with Premier Robert Bourassa’s Liberal government over its seeming lack of direction and its apparent inability to cope with Quebec’s fractious public servants; school teachers and nurses had to be ordered back to work in recent months after bringing prolonged chaos to schools and hospitals. At the same time, linguistic issues generated from inside Quebec and from without have engendered a mood of tense unrest. This summer’s unedifying row with Ottawa over the use of French by air traffic controllers at Quebec airports and by francophone Air Canada crews in the air, and the blatantly anti-French backlash generated in some parts of the country, left many Quebeckers

both shocked and disgusted—to a degree that may not be fully understood in the rest of Canada. Warns Jérôme Choquette, a former cabinet minister under Bourassa: “If French-speaking people can’t gain satisfaction as to the use of their own language in their own province, it could be very serious for the future of this country.” In francophone Quebec, says a Liberal member of the National Assembly, the air controllers dispute has “united all parties, all people. There is no question that it has strengthened the hand of nationalists in Quebec”—meaning mostly that of René Lévesque’s separatist Parti Québécois.

On another level, the Bourassa government’s Bill 22—the law intended to promote a wider use of French in Quebec—has spawned its own set of tensions. While francophone nationalists regard the law as hopelessly inadequate, many of Quebec’s 1.2 million anglophones—whose once dominant role in Quebec society has endured a steady erosion over the past decade—are experiencing a growing sense of isolation, fear and ang.er. And the support that Quebec anglophones in the past more or less automatically gave the provincial Liberals is fast withering away. “People are mad,” says John Ciaccia, an anglo-

phone member of the National Assembly. “They’re seething. It’s Thoreau’s quiet desperation.”

Despite the restive mood, there was a possibility that Bourassa, whose government won reelection by a massive majority* only three years ago, just might be tempted to try to capitalize on lingering Olympic euphoria by calling a fall election. A ready-made election issue could emerge if Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau ever attempted to bring the British North America Act home from Westminster before Quebec wins constitutional assurances for preservation of the French Fact in Quebec. “Patriation is Quebec’s last card,” says Bourassa, “an historic gesture. There won’t be many more like that.”

Going before the electorate just now would be a dangerous gamble for Bourassa, though not necessarily a fatal one. The guessing was that, if an election were held this year, the Liberals might lose anywhere from 20-40 ridings. The spoils most likely would be divided between the once mighty Union Nationale, which currently is planning one of its periodic comeback attempts—probably disguised as a brand new right-of-centre party—with the rest going to the Parti Québécois. The PQ’S own expectations were more optimistic. A poll conducted for Radio-Canada last spring showed 32% of the respondents favoring the PQ compared with 22% for the Liberals. If an election were held now, predicted a PQ official, the péquistes—who won 30% of the vote but only six seats in the last election—might-take 40 seats or so, and, “if the tide is with us,” could conceivably

*Current standings in the 110-seat National Assembly: Liberals 99; Parti Québécois 6; Union Nationale 1; Créditiste 1; Independents 3.

form the next Quebec government.

While that seemed unlikely, there was no gainsaying that the Liberals are in trouble. On the plus side, the government can point to a period of respectable economic growth in the province—though part of the inevitable Olympic hangover will include paying off a large chunk of the estimated $900 million games’ deficit. As well, the Liberals have chalked up solid accomplishments in social affairs, justice and civil law: medicare, child denticare, a highly

successful small claims court system, expanded legal aid and a badly needed landlord and tenants act. Against that, Bourassa’s Liberals have been buffeted by an almost uninterrupted succession of miniscandals which have been deftly exploited by the hardworking PQ opposition, ranging from suggestions that government officials sold civil service jobs for hard cash to allegations recently of electoral fraud and kickbacks to the Liberals from provincial lottery operators.

On the defensive, the Liberals have reacted by following a trend that some observers find worryingly evident across much of the Quebec political spectrum—a strong shift to the right. At last spring’s Liberal party convention, delegates vetoed several progressive policy proposals but evinced enthusiasm over the prospect of outlawing public sector strikes, a proposal Bourassa is mulling over. As further evidence of Quebec City’s authoritarian mood, a draft bill currently before a legislative committee would broaden the provincial crime commission’s powers of search and seizure to probe “terrorism and subversion.”

Further to stage right, protracted manoeuvrings involving three splinter groups finally produced a tentative agreement to meet next month for the formation of a right-of-centre “Third Force” aimed at capturing the allegiance of Quebeckers who support neither the Liberals nor the PQ. The union, if it comes off, would link the Union Nationale, all but moribund since it was hurled from office by the 1970 Liberal sweep, with Jérôme Choquette’s fledgling Parti National Populaire. The UN has been trying to reactivate its rusty electoral machinery under Rodrigue Bi-

ron, a handsome but politically unknown sewer pipe manufacturer. Choquette, whose PNP includes elements of the enfeebled, rurally based provincial Créditistes, will more than likely emerge as leader of the new groupings. Jut-jawed and patently sincere, Choquette is alarmed over “the spreading of Marxist-Communist ideas” in Quebec and senses a deeply felt need for a return to the province’s traditional values—“authority, responsibility, belief in the common good.”

In its own fashion, the Parti Québécois has responded to the prevailing political winds—and to the dictates of its own strategy requirements—with a gradual rightward shift which has brought it close to the province’s political centre. Twice, in the elections of 1970 and 1973, the party has been the victim of a polarization that seemed to pit the forces of moderation and good sense—the Liberals—against a pack of wild-eyed separatist radicals. To prevent that happening again, the PQ increasingly of late has cultivated a subdued, middle-class image while preserving its social democratic philosophy; in power, the PQ would, for example, extend public ownership in key economic sectors, including financial institutions. In its most important act of image-changing, the PQ has pledged—against the wishes of many péquistes—that a separatist government would submit the question of independence to a referendum before attempting to lead Quebec out of Confederation.

If Quebec today is increasingly in a conservative frame of mind, that may be an only natural reaction to the breakneck pace of change that has characterized the past decade and a half. Back in the 1940s, a Quebec nationalist could, in all serious-

ness, assert that “we are a people of peasants. Everything that takes us away from the land . .. encourages crossbreeding, duplicity and treason.” Then, with the death of the Union Nationale’s dictatorial Maurice Duplessis in 1959 and the heralding of a révolution tranquille by Jean Lesage’s Liberals, a newly vital Quebec seemed to rise suddenly from the ashes of its somnolent, almost feudal past, reaching for the levers of political, economic and cultural power. In the course of an incredibly swift social transformation, the claustrophobic embrace of the Roman Catholic Church

was shaken off, to the point that today only an estimated 30% of Quebeckers are practising Catholics, and an almost wholly secular and materially ambitious society explosively emerged.

Inevitably, the heady sense of liberation brought a rapidly industrializing and politically awakened society constantly into collision with itself—and with the rest of the country. It forged a new pride in the French language, new forms of nationalism—and separatism—and led Quebec into the crucible of October 1970 and the assassination of Pierre Laporte at the hands of the Front de Libération du Quebec. A network of junior colleges, created by the stroke of a pen in 1967, plunged avidly into advanced forms of education that, to disapproving elders, seemed only a step short of anarchy. For organized labor, the newfound freedom led to ever-increasing demands for parity with the rest of North America, to the front commun’s massive 1972 general strike that frankly challenged the authority of the Bourassa government—and to labor strife that has continued ever since. “It has all been,” reflects Roger Lemelin, chronicler of La Famille Plouffe and now president and publisher of Montreal newspaper La Presse, “one hell of a picnic.”

One result of the tumult has been the emergence of a Quebec society in which the French Fact is increasingly predominant—to the consternation of many members of the anglophone minority. Traditionally better educated, and financially better off, Quebec’s English-speaking community long regarded itself—even if no one would ever dare admit it—as the province’s ruling class. Now in the stately homes of Westmount and in the prosperous, verdant sprawl of Pointe-Claire, anglophones in recent years have seen

Quebec City steadily impose its authority on once virtually autonomous anglophone institutions—schools, hospitals, municipal governments—and have seen French increasingly become the language of business and government. For some anglophones, the changes taking place have about them a grim inevitability that conjures up an apocalyptic, and somewhat disordered, vision of the future. “We have a beautiful map at home,” confides a PointeClaire resident. “It shows all the Englishspeaking counties in Quebec outlined in black. The day that Quebec separates from Canada, those counties will secede from Quebec.” More level-headed anglophones, on the other hand, acknowledge that the French language is entitled to primacy in Quebec, though they abhor the methods being used to bring that about.

At the moment, some 80% of Quebec’s francophones are able to work in their own language. Now the Régie de la Langue Française, established by Quebec City to

implement Bill 22’s provisions, wants French to become the language of work at management levels and in boardrooms— where English still predominates. Firms that comply will earn certificates of “francization”; firms without certificates will be ineligible for government contracts—and, presumably, will encounter a degree of opprobrium on the part of the Québécois public. So far, officials note, U.S.-controlled multinational firms operating in Quebec have shown a greater willingness to cooperate than have companies controlled by Anglo-Canadian interests. What most alarms anglophones, though, are Bill 22’s educational provisions, under which the growth of the English school system can be controlled, and the children of non-

anglophone immigrants are required to attend French-language schools unless they can pass tests proving that they already have proficiency in English. Snaps George Springate, a Liberal MNA who fiercely opposes Bill 22: “Examining little kids— Christ!”

What anglophones are experiencing, says John Ciaccia, who represents the largely English-speaking riding of Mount Royal, “is the feeling of waking up in the morning and realizing that you no longer have political clout—that you are no longer listened to by the government.” Anglophones argue that many of Bill 22’s provisions are unnecessary: since the mid1960s, more and more of them have been hurrying off to French classes and doing their best to function in French, though they often find it heavy going with bilingual francophones for whom it is easier to speak English. Perhaps what hurts most is Quebec City’s authoritarian manner, which tends to give anglophones the feeling that they are being shoved around. Says a Liberal MNA who is deeply disturbed over Quebec’s language legislation: “The Premier is surrounded by a little group of advisers. The 102 seats [won in 1973] went to their heads. The government will not act on the basis of what is right and sensible in the long term. Everything is a short-term political decision, often misgauged.”

“The problem is not solely Bourassa, but

the atmosphere he creates,” says Jim Robb, the anglophone vice-president of the Quebec Liberal Party, who has taken freely to criticizing the government. “It is essentially a government of senior technocrats, and technocrats make poor politicians.” Now the Liberals hope to build

bridges back to the anglophone community by encouraging more of its members to get involved in the Quebec civil service and government—areas Quebec’s anglos have, by and large, traditionally ignored. It may be too late. Many anglophones—who are in the majority in eight Montreal rid-

ings and can tip the electoral balance in upward of 20 across the province—are considering switching to the UN, though they might back off if Jérôme Choquette emerged as leader of the UN-PNP merger. Though he claims to have recanted, Choquette quit the Liberal cabinet last year because he wanted Bill 22’s educational provisions made even more stringent.

If Quebec’s anglophones are alarmed that “francization” is being forced upon them, there is, on the French side of the language divide, little feeling that there has been any great leap forward in making French the universal language of Quebec. “The frustrations are the same as ever,” says a francophone Montreal businessman who still finds that he has to know which teller to go to if he wants to conduct his transactions in French at a downtown bank. “Nothing ever changes,” says Alice

Pelletier, an attractive, 47-year-old Montreal editor who is a fervent péquiste. Her nationalist beliefs have visceral roots going back to childhood in the aluminum-refining town of Arvida, Que. Every July 1, she recalls, the Aluminum Co. of Canada would sponsor games for children—conducted strictly in English. She would dutifully trot off with the lines that her father had written down for her in English: “My name is Alice Pelletier. I wish to compete in ...” As recently as 1972, says Mme Pelletier, she experienced a similar sense of humiliation when she went to work for Canadian National in Montreal. Fluently bilingual, she was hired as a stenographer but put to work as a translator at the same pay. When she protested in a letter to the vice-president of CN, she was summoned before a supervisor who spoke no French.

She refused to speak English until the frustrated supervisor offered to call in another bilingual French Canadian to translate for them. “It’s so silly,” says Mme Pelletier. “But that’s the way its been all my life.”

In the view of the Parti Québécois, only independent status for Quebec would ensure the end of that kind of incident. “The PQ is called separatist, which it is not,” insists Marcel Léger, the PQ’S chief whip in the National Assembly and member for Lafontaine riding, a working-class district that sprawls under the sulphurous miasma generated by Montreal’s east-end oil refineries. “The real reason for the existence of the PQ is that we realize only one government can represent the Quebec nation— the government in Quebec City—and it must have full powers to deal with cultural, social and economic affairs.” An independent Quebec would seek Common Market arrangements with Canada. “But we would finally be able to stop the squabbling between Ottawa and Quebec City, the waste of time and energy that goes into jurisdictional arguments.”

The dispute over the use of French in the air, says Léger, has only served to show that “we are a boulet—a ball and chain—for English Canada, as they are for us.” How close is the PQ to taking power? This close, says Léger: “The Liberals in Quebec City used to patronize the PQ members. Now when the PQ talks of its plans, they say: ‘Wait till you’re in government, you’ll find out how it is to run Quebec.’ ”

Despite that, Quebec politicians of federalist persuasion believe, or hope, that Lévesque’s separatists have already peaked in popularity—“the PQ is dead,” declares a Bourassa aide flatly—and that its

basic support will not grow beyond the 20% to 30% of educated, professional Quebeckers who historically have always been nationalists. For the PQ, which lost 20 seats by fewer than 3,000 votes in 1973, the crucial question is whether, armed with its referendum plank, it can win over the waverers who like the PQ but fear the wrenching upheaval that separation from Canada would inevitably entail. In the wake of the air controllers’ dispute says a 25-year-old secretary who used to vote Liberal, “I feel for the first time that my

liberty is threatened. Now I’m going to think long and hard about voting PQ.” Among older Quebeckers drawn to the PQ cause, there is the nagging fear of the economic consequences of separation. “I would vote péquiste,” says a middle-aged francophone clerk, “but, truthfully, I’m scared. I don’t want to be like a Cuban working in the sugar fields.”

Bourassa’s Liberals are staking their future on a strategy that over the past decade or so has become an almost automatic reflex for Quebec governments—that of taking a conspicuously nationalist stance in the hope of keeping the separatists at bay. Yet there was passion as well as political calculation behind Quebec’s demands for constitutional guarantees to ensure preservation of the French Fact in Quebec. Ottawa’s decision to impose at least temporary limits on the use of French at Quebec airports, says François Cloutier, Quebec’s Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, “has affected Quebeckers to a tremendous extent. Trudeau is a French Canadian,” continues Cloutier, his voice shaking with emotion, “and so are many of his ministers—but still you see what happens.” Similarly, Robert Bourassa finds Ottawa’s actions over the air controllers issue intolerable. “It is impossible to admit that someone in Quebec can’t speak French— for whatever reasons. French Canadians have their pride. I am not,” says Bourassa, “in politics for the sake of nationalistic achievements. But I am a man responsible for the future of a French-speaking people in North America. A generation ago, they were protected by a closed society. Now they are exposed to the open, to the currents of the world. When a people makes up only one-fortieth of the population of a continent, it is only by fighting that you stay alive.” ^