The Referendum Debate

For pressure to be exerted effectively, the first step is to define the points

W. Gunther Plaut July 10 1978
The Referendum Debate

For pressure to be exerted effectively, the first step is to define the points

W. Gunther Plaut July 10 1978

For pressure to be exerted effectively, the first step is to define the points

The Referendum Debate

W. Gunther Plaut

It is always a good idea to know something about the person with whom you are having an argument. Otherwise we continue to speak past each other, which is what Canadians are doing presently, or most of the time when it comes to Quebec. Most Canadians treat the inhabitants of the province as if they constituted one single, identifiable block of humanity. They do not, and the more clearly we understand to whom we are talking the better a chance we will have to make our points.

For the purpose of the Great Debate, Quebeckers may be seen to constitute five distinct groups:

(1) Francophones who are committed to separation;

(2) Francophones who are opposed to separation;

(3) Francophones who are still uncommitted;

(4) Anglophones who are overwhelmingly opposed to separation;

(5) “Ethnics,” whose mother tongue is neither French nor English (and in this context, though this may sound condescending, this includes immigrants along with native people who are trying to preserve their own culture).

Group 1. Someone once said that the Québécois are “the white niggers of America.” The person drawing the analogy had in mind the economic and often exploitative role which an anglophone minority played in the history of the province. But in another context it might be equally valid to say that the Québécois are the Zionists of Canada—a comparison which the francophones may politely reject and which will leave anglophones with possibly another reason for negative feelings (and which will probably cause Jewish readers to respond with a firm “Thank you, but no!”). The analogy is in fact valid on the emotional plane. The followers of René Lévesque draw their primary strength from the universities and other intellectual or semi-intellectual circles. They are nationalists who have a deep-rooted passion for French culture and tradition and for whom separation has a messianic or salvational dimension. It appears as a necessary condition for their cultural survival, living as they do, in the French Diaspora. Zionism has the same qualities of conviction. Diaspora Jews had no future, so the ideology proclaimed, and only in their own land.

where they could determine their own fate, would they be able to guarantee their physical and cultural survival. It is fair to say that in 1947-48 when Israel’s independence was in the making, no argument which would have forecast future economic and military difficulties would have persuaded the Jews that having their own state was unwise. Unwise or not, they were driven toward it because they believed that it meant salvation for their most cherished ideals, which were not material in nature.

This same frame of mind is not amenable to economic or other pragmatic arguments, and it characterizes the Quebec separatists as well. Therefore, telling them that Quebec won't make it is either offensive or useless, or both. In their vision, an independent Quebec will secure French culture and tradition, and that counts most as far as they are concerned. Conclusion: Don’t argue with them at all, except to make sure that civil rights in Quebec are maintained for all citizens while the debate is raging.

Group 2. Francophones who are opposed to separation need encouragement and—cries of “colonialism” notwithstanding—material support. They will also need assurances that the rest of Canada will bend every effort to give francophones their due—everywhere.

Group 3. This should be the main target of the anti-separatist campaign. In this group are probably the majority of the French working class, many of whom voted PQ for negative reasons: they wanted the Liberals out of power. It is likely that

members of this group are interested less in ideology and more in economics or, to put it more bluntly, less in the survival of culture than in the survival of their families. They will be open to the argument that separation will reduce their earnings, will further erode their dollars, and will likely increase unemployment.

Group 4. Anglophones who oppose separation are in the same boat. They too need reassurances which will make it easier for them to stay and brave it out. Their financial assistance is needed as is their voting presence. They need also the continued and expressed concern of the rest of Canadians who will let them know that they care and will give them active and tangible support.

Group 5. Members of this group have one thing in common: they have a culture and tradition which is neither French nor English, and they are eager to preserve it in the confines of Quebec. They must be given to understand that a monolithic nation, which a French Quebec would doubtlessly be, rarely gives room to diversity. They would be better off in a province which, by being part of Canada, would continue to guarantee their culture. That it would also be economically more prosperous, is of course an additional argument. A significant effort in this respect should be undertaken in Canada at once.

What it comes down to is simply this: Groups 3 and 5 are the target groups for a sustained anti-separatist drive, that is, the uncommitted francophones and the native and other “ethnics.”

As for Group l, the ardent supporters of Lévesque, they will not be won over by arguments or concessions. They will continue to exist even after three unsuccessful referendums, for no defeat will move them from their belief in the rightness of their case. What they will in the end contribute to all of us is a greater attention to the needs of French identity in the midst of a sea of North American anglophones, a reworking of the Canadian constitution, and, probably, a status for Quebec which will reflect the uniqueness of the province.

Rabbi Plaut is senior scholar at Toronto's Holy Blossom Temple and author of Hanging Threads.