Closeup/The Nation

The winning of the world

Quebec may not be a country, but it's acting like one

David Thomas May 15 1978
Closeup/The Nation

The winning of the world

Quebec may not be a country, but it's acting like one

David Thomas May 15 1978

The winning of the world

Closeup/The Nation

Quebec may not be a country, but it's acting like one

David Thomas

Stepping his way around a crouched carpet fitter laying a lush, grey spread of broadloom, Marcel Bergeron inspects the physical conversion of what was once a repository for the more elegant of Quebec’s political hacks. Quebec’s new delegate-general in New York, Bergeron is renovating more than the offices and halls of his $200,000 diplomatic suite looking down on the mid-Manhattan skating rink of Rockefeller Centre. Gone are the hacks. In their place is a team of urbane foreign service officers determined to expand direct connections between Quebec and the financial powers of Wall Street and to open paths to the United Nations where, as defeated Premier Robert Bourassa liked to

sneer, Quebec nationalists aspire to “a seat between Qatar and Romania.”

The refurbished New York legation is a purposefully visible detail of a Quebec which Bourassa and his predecessors helped make essentially sovereign in most areas that count. Emerging steadily but almost imperceptibly in northeastern North America is a nation increasingly unilingual, where the state is the motor of the economy and where a unique Euro-American hybrid culture pervades the arts, business and government. Quebec’s own income tax, its own pension plan, provincial police and new controls on immigration are some of the obvious trappings of autonomy. Its plans for a referendum on in-

dependence lay claim to a more imposing liberty: the right to self-determination.

For a government determined to push autonomy to the ultimate symbol of independence, its international image is crucial. Election of the Parti Québécois has meant an aggressive foreign policy administered by Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Claude Morin and his 410 employees and the priority has shifted from France to the United States. “This,” says Bergeron after a tour of his New York offices, “is the most important legation Quebec has.”

The new carpet and Bergeron’s mandate to turn the Quebec Government House into a consulate in all but name are part of the War of the Flags. Its start can be traced

back 30 years to the winter day when Premier Maurice Duplessis struck the Union Jack from the tower of Quebec’s legislature. In its place, Duplessis raised the fleurdelisé, puissant standard of a Quebec straining even then to emerge as a modern, French nation under a strong state.

The azure and white banner spread across the globe, proclaiming the province’s burgeoning autonomy at 15 diplomatic posts in Europe, Asia, the Caribbean and the United States. Other provinces have overseas offices but none compare to Quebec’s network of legations in Paris, Brussels, London, Milan, Dusseldorf, Port-au-Prince, Tokyo and eight cities in the United States. More than symbols is at

stake. Canada’s refusal in February to permit the opening of a Quebec legation in Senegal was a blunt move to frustrate direct relations between Quebec’s secessionist government and Africa’s score of French-speaking countries. Success of any unilateral declaration of independence depends on its international recognition and the African states are a formidable bloc whose loyalty Ottawa is, somewhat clumsily, trying to win away by proposing a summit meeting of French nations which would exclude Quebec. The province has the same full-member status as Canada in the association of former French colonies, the Agence de coopération culturelle et technique. (Ottawa’s successful sponsor-

ship of New Brunswick’s entry to the agency was a victory mitigated by connivance between France and Quebec. France demanded a vote and Quebec cast its first international ballot, equal in status to Canada’s.) Quebec also participates, with Ottawa’s consent, at United Nations conferences touching provincial jurisdictions.

But this is clearly the year of Quebec’s diplomatic offensive in the United States. Trade and diplomatic offices in New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas and Lafayette were added to this year by a new post in Atlanta and a bridgehead in Washington itself, inoffensively opened as a tourism office.

Quebeckers tend to be unashamed Americanophiles and. managing a dig at English-Canadian nationalists, Morin claims: “We are naturally different from Americans and there is no need for us to manifest anti-American attitudes to prove our existence as a distinct people.”

Inevitably, Canada’s domestic antagonisms spread outside the country, exported first by the politicians who bare their enmities before tuxedoed crowds of business leaders. Flashes of rancor have marred contacts between lower-ranking Canadian and Quebec officials in New York and, though Bergeron emphasizes his friendly personal relations with Canada’s ConsulGeneral Barry Steers, tactful phrasing does not conceal his wariness about the image of Quebec projected by the federal representatives: “It is our duty to keep the Canadian consulate fully informed on what is happening in Quebec so that it can properly inform the New York financial milieu.” Consular officers, complains Bergeron, have misrepresented Quebec’s language law to U.S. businessmen. At the commercial level, he says, Quebec can do a better job of promoting trade and investment than a consulate geared to the markets of English Canada. That, he says, is in part why Quebec needs a staff of 31 in New York when Ontario gets by with six: “Ontario doesn’t need as many because its work is being done for it by the Canadian consulate. I don’t blame them; it’s natural that they sell what they know best.”

The same faith in self-reliance is con-

veyed by Bergeron’s first counsellor, Jean« Marc Blondeau, a former federal external o affairs officer whose role now includes □ keeping an ear open to happenings at the 1 United Nations. Quebec, says Blondeau, wants a bigger share of jobs in the UN bureaucracy, more contracts for foreign projects sponsored by the UN and greater participation in international conferences that touch on provincialjurisdictions. Canada’s representatives at the UN do not, he says, pass on news and documentation as quickly as Quebec can get them itself. So Blondeau has become the province’s unofficial listening post at the UN.

From both sides, distrust oozes through discussions of Quebec-Canada relations in New York but both protest they want to avoid political collisions. “It’s not a cloak and dagger operation,” Blondeau insists. “I don’t run around the UN wearing dark glasses. Quebec’s foreign presence is an international extension of its domestic jurisdictions. nothing more. We are never better served than by ourselves.”

Consul-General Steers indignantly maintains his staff waves the Maple Leaf as vigorously for Quebec and its economy as it does for the rest of the country: “There’s no bad-mouthing of Quebec around here and, if there was, I’d be pretty bloody mad.”

The new concentration on relations with the United States has not distracted Quebec entirely from the original thrust of its

foreign policy: Reconstruction of ties with France. Though suspicions that France provoked and nourished the Quebec independence movement are unsupported. French influence on Quebec’s modern development is undeniably profound. Inside Quebec City’s neo-French Renaissance parliament buildings, changes in style mark the return to the cultural breast of Quebec’s mother country. In 1968, the provincial legislature became the National Assembly, a name imported directly from the French government, and the speaker was retitled president. More fundamentally, the design of laws has become increasingly French, with emphasis on lois cadres setting out general, often vague, principles to be filled in later by regulations written by bureaucrats. Another copy is the formation of a technocratic elite by Quebec’s Ecole nationale d’administration publique, a replica of France’s Ecole nationale d’administration. Technical vocabulary is imported to Quebec like wine—by the government—so that words never dreamed of when Quebec was separated from France by war two centuries ago are fortifying Quebec French to replace English in science and technology.

A set of wall posters aimed at garage mechanics has been prepared to filter Quebec French of its direct transfers from automotive English: le distributeur becomes l’allumeur, le starteur is now le démarreur and engine overheating is due henceforth to a loose courroie, not because la strappe de fanne est slaque. Ironically, Quebec’s vernacular is losing some of its purely French expressions as English words à la mode in Paris return home with Québécois sophisticates: the perfectly correct la fin de semaine is losing out to le week-end, a word first imported to France and now pretentiously pushing its way into Quebec.

Since the first exchange in 1964, more than 40,000 French and Quebec citizens have traded government-sponsored study visits to deepen their resemblance. Exchanges exist for farmers, business executives, journalists, poverty groups and, an innovation of the Quebec government, this year there is a special group for homosexuals who want to learn how French gays assert their legal rights. The bureaucracies of France and Quebec have organically united through the “binational” Commission permanente de coopération francoquébécoise and the Office franco-québécoise pour la jeunesse. Concludes Morin: “Ten years of intense exchange with the French-speaking world has been a determinant factor in our evolution.” The new ties with France “promoted our selfaffirmation and realization of our own identity.” Ottawa is worried and sent France a note of displeasure over a France-Quebec pact for annual prime ministerial visits, without Canadian government sanction. Ironically for a government proud to call itself social democratic, Quebec was relieved by the recent victory of the coalition of right-wing parties in

French legislative elections. French socialists and Communists have shown little sympathy for the pro-Quebec policy set by late president Charles de Gaulle.

French influence also reflects from Quebec’s broad definition of the role of the state and France provided the models for some of the province’s 17 government corporations. With 35,000 employees and combined assets of $10 billion, the state firms are a mighty lever of industrial development but, more than that, powerful means of raising a francophone managerial class and insulating Quebec against the jolts of outside financial forces. Quebec taxpayers own gas wells in Alberta, a wire mill in Toronto and, at home, through the state’s own conglomerate, the Société générale de financement, railway car plants, a shipyard and a new paper mill. The government’s Sidbec-Dosco runs iron mines and steel mills, while other state firms diversify into cheese, cakes and meat curing. Then comes state auto insurance and, next, nationalization of a major asbestos producer.

Economic and financial self-reliance makes Quebec’s state increasingly immune to pressures of business and foreign banks. The Caisse de dépôt et financement is the state investment fund nourished by taxpayer contributions to the Quebec Pension Plan. Its $6.5 billion worth has reduced dependence on outside lenders. The Caisse intervened to shore up Quebec bonds spurned by private investors scared off by the election of independence-leaning Daniel Johnson in 1966, the October Crisis of 1970 and the election of the Parti Québécois. But strong state corporations imply their own dangers for the public— and for the government. Lévesque’s own baby, Hydro-Québec, has become an open adversary. Coldly ignoring pleas of public and government, the power utility disfigures the landscape by ignoring all but cost in tracing its power lines. Historic stone houses were bulldozed to dust and Quebec’s tourism jewel, the Ile d’Orléans, was mutilated by transmission lines to maintain Hydro-Québec’s reputation for financial performance. More recently, it has publicly flouted the anti-nuclear policies of Liberal and PQ governments through newspaper ads and speeches of its president, Robert Boyd. Hydro-Québec has grown into a rebellious adult but, as one of the biggest and best managed of all the utilities on the continent, it has accelerated Quebec’s metamorphosis from dependent province to a society fundamentally self-sufficient.

Some nationalists fear a lost referendum would call Quebec’s bluff and leave it at the mercy of a vengeful English Canada. In fact, the foundations of Quebec’s autonomy are probably too securely established to be severely shaken and its divergent evolution will likely continue without a seat at the UN or a change in Marcel Bergeron’s title. He already has the carpet and, in a way. that’s what counts.1^