The Referendum Debate

What does the French Quebecker want? Nothing more than is due him

Meyer Nurenberger June 13 1977
The Referendum Debate

What does the French Quebecker want? Nothing more than is due him

Meyer Nurenberger June 13 1977

What does the French Quebecker want? Nothing more than is due him

The Referendum Debate

Meyer Nurenberger

I think it was Franz Kafka who once made the wittiest—and most contemporary—observation about an economically strong minority imposing its culture upon an economically weak majority. In a situation similar to that now prevailing in Quebec, when the Hapsburg monarchy tried to eradicate the Czech culture in Prague by supporting the linguistic German minority, Franz Kafka (who belonged culturally to the German-speaking minority) told a schoolmate; “I went to the German National Theatre. None of the producers, actors or even the audience were German.”

His remark reminds me of certain ethnic groups such as the Italians, Greeks and anglophone Jews who have joined the WASPS in the defense of “English culture” in Quebec. Whose fault is it that immigrants or sons of immigrants do not understand that the language of Quebec is not English but French? Who is to blame for the fact that for generations those who came to Canada and remained in Montreal looked upon the French as natives and upon the WASP establishment as the power whose culture was that of the new country? Who is responsible for the situation that the average Canadian—whether of English origin or of ethnic descent—does not realize that a francophone Quebecker wants to feel at home in his province as much as an English-speaking Canadian feels at home in Toronto?

Many of the very same anglophones who so loudly proclaim the need for a bilingual Quebec simultaneously reject real bilingualism in the other nine provinces. By now we know that most francophones outside Quebec do not and would not send their children to French language schools. To do so would prevent their integration within the larger anglophone community.

On the other hand, francophone Quebeckers are not really very interested in bilingualism outside their province. It’s a beautiful dream, but only a dream. They believe in unilingualism in their own backyard.

The threat of economic chaos has never worked in similar situations. The most striking example of the ineffectiveness of such blackmail is that of Belgium. Forty years ago Flanders was poor and bilingual. Today it is unilingual Dutch; the Flemings rejected the “universal” French language in favor of their own. There are no longer French schools in Flemish Belgium which, paradoxically, has become the most prosperous area of the country and the only part where Americans and Germans want to invest. The French Quebecker is not impressed by the promise of the messianic era when every Canadian was on his way to becoming bilingual. Sometimes when I watch television and listen to the “French” of such a brilliant leader as Joe Clark. I wonder whether this is the ideal of linguistic equality which should be presented to francophones in this country. Is this enough, as Prime Minister Trudeau believes, to make French Canadians feel at home in every province of Canada? Is it really possible to induce the rest of the country to study French as diligently as

Quebeckers will continue to study English whether French Canadians continue to live within Canada or in an independent state of their own? Six million Quebeckers, surrounded by 250 million North Americans who claim English as their language, need to know English. In a Quebec more independent than it is now, English will be studied as intently as arithmetic.

There was a time when the church kept alive the language of Quebec and its culture. This was the era before Quebeckers became attuned to the 20th century, to its philosophy, and its business requirements. Today it is not true that a Quebecker educated in French can ever feel as much at home in a business concern in his native city or town as does an English-speaking Canadian in any other province. The young Quebecker now faces two alternatives: either to assimilate and forget his background and adjust to the culture of the majority of Canadians, or to fight for the supremacy of his language and his way of life in the province in which he still is a member of the majority.

I do not believe that the majority of Quebeckers ever will give up their determination to feel as much at home in Quebec in French as a Torontonian feels in Toronto in English. No nonsense will convince the Quebecker to give up his inalienable right to his own culture. He is no longer the uninformed, unsophisticated laborer of fin-de-siècle Quebec who looked up to the anglophone employer as the man with the God-given right to be boss. He will not desist from his determination to impose the rule of French in Quebec in order to please some anglophone. This French Canadian knows that America does business with many nations where English is not the language of the majority. American investment decisions are not measured by the language spoken by the population. Thus the economic threat to the Québécois is not only unrealistic and untrue, but immoral.

It seems to me that when Quebec nationalists speak of sovereignty plus association with Canada they are opening a door for an accommodation within Confederation. First, those who ignore the realities of Quebec must cease talking of 10 provinces among which Quebec is regarded as any other. There are two nations forming this Confederation—Quebec and English Canada. The two peoples could remain federated if recognized as two separate nations within Confederation. Second, only the Swiss example of cantonizing the country could save Canada from dismemberment.

I have never heard a Swiss say: I am a French Swiss, a German Swiss, an Italian Swiss. Why? Because the French Swiss feels as much at home in Geneva as the German Swiss in Zurich or the Italian Swiss in Lugano. It would never occur to a German Swiss settling in Geneva to demand a German school in that city. He knows that the language of Geneva is French. The same applies to the French Swiss settling in Zurich. Establishing minority schools for English-speaking Canadians or those aspiring to teach their children English in Quebec means weakening the position of French in Montreal, which within a generation or two might turn into an anglophone centre. The young generation realizes that it needs a law to defend French against the assault of English. This is the reason behind the present determination of French Canadians to back the cultural stand of Réné Lévesque. They simply do not relish the prospect of becoming another Louisiana, with an exotic French quarter in New Orleans.

Polish-born Meyer Joshua Nurenberger is editor and publisher of Thé Jewish Times in Toronto.