Column

When future archeologists study the digs, cereal boxes will reveal deep divisions

Allan Fotheringham December 10 1979
Column

When future archeologists study the digs, cereal boxes will reveal deep divisions

Allan Fotheringham December 10 1979

When future archeologists study the digs, cereal boxes will reveal deep divisions

Column

Allan Fotheringham

There’ll come a time, one supposes, when it will be acknowledged, when it will be discussed and admitted and analysed. But for the moment it remains in the closet, something that nice people don’t think about. “It” is the nasty thing referred to when Pierre Trudeau, in a post-retirement interview, made a sardonic reference to the fact that he realized it would have to be someone else who could rebuild the Liberal party out there “where they still think of me as Frenchie or a Commie.”

With that statement, the man who lost the prime minister’s chair because he did not seem to comprehend a large chunk of the country indicated that he knew the problem only too well. No one will confess it and no one wants to bring it up, but there was a most unpleasant streak of bigotry beneath the surface of the Canadian mentality on May 22. After 11 years of being ruled by a man from Quebec who came to Ottawa in an attempt to unite the two cultures, a lot of Canadians decided to get even. Trudeau’s sin? He was from Quebec.

Early in the campaign, I was in a small Saskatchewan town, attempting around a dinner table to explain some of my reservations about the intellectual capacity of Joe Clark. “Don’t tell me,” said the man of the house, holding up his hand in warning. “I don’t want to hear. At least we won’t have to put up with that.” He jerked his head in derision at a container on the table that carried that dreadful translation in French. He didn’t care a whit about the credentials of Joe Clark—he had made up his mind long before the campaign began and he was going to get his revenge. He had a lot of company.

The phenomenon of the cornflakes box, as a factor in Canadian politics, is something that historians or sociologists will have to ponder to their astonishment some decades hence. On the November night in 1976 when the Parti Allan Fotheringham is a columnist for the FP News Service.

Québécois won power the total response of Bill Vander Zalm, a British Columbia cabinet minister of high popularity in the beer parlors, was that his cornflakes box wouldn’t be corrupted anymore if Quebec separated. Mr. Vander Zalm is an immigrant from one of the most tolerant countries on earth, Holland. (I like Trudeau’s weary rejoinder to the cornflakes dilemma: “If it offends them, why don’t they just turn the box around?”)

Liberal underlings, admittedly not famous for their understanding of the

Prairies, were astounded during the campaign to find that the metric system, the flipping metric system, was an underlying issue in the election. There was a lurking resentment, a hint that it was a European, if not Gallic, intrusion brought about because of the prominence of Quebec figures in the cabinet.

There is the factor of jokedom, always a measure of a nation’s sanity. When a nice lady included a stanza in French in her singing of the national anthem at a Toronto Blue Jays baseball game, she was booed by more than the Bunkers in the bleachers, by the tightassed toffs and professional Toronto WASPs in the good seats too. In the Pacific Coliseum where the Vancouver Canucks play their NHL games, a richvoiced high-school teacher by name of Richard Loney sings the anthem. When the visiting team is the beautiful Montreal Canadiens, who play the game the way she is meant to be played, he swings into one or two verses in French.

A strange thing happened this fall. When he started in on the French, the boos cascaded down. Loney was so shaken that he garbled the remainder of the anthem. It was 1979 that gave the reptiles in the rafters the courage to vent their spleen. Good clean Canadian bigotry, “anti-Frenchie,” was timidly creeping out of the closet.

Early in the year, before the election was even called, a quiet York University professor, sniffing the Toronto mood, confessed over a scotch that he found something most sad. “After 11 years, Torontonians have discovered to their surprise that Pierre Elliott Trudeau is a French Canadian.” They discovered it and decided to do something about it. The situation manifested itself in the dinner-party stories familiar to any journalist in 1968, about Trudeau’s supposed early links with communism, his visit to a world youth congress in Moscow, the innuendos about his personal life. It was 1968 recycled. The petty little hate-mail factory in Flesherton, Ontario, resurfaced with the loathsome clandestine mailings on the man.

It was Trudeau’s strange lassitude in recruiting, not any devious plotting, that reinforced the prejudice. Because he let the Turners and the Macdonalds and Kierans and Mackaseys and the rest go and refused any responsibility for their replacement, the news began to be dominated by the Chrétiens and Lalondes and Bégins. The man who at last gave Quebec some pride and place in senior cabinet posts was in the end punished for it.

The sad spectacle, in the past few weeks, of a deliberate Liberal caucus decision to mute the voices of the senior Québécois MPs on the Liberal front bench—so as not to irritate Western Canada further—was one of the prime factors in Trudeau reluctantly concluding that he had to go.

He goes, at least a partial victim of what’s now being manifested in affluent as well as beer-parlor Canada: genteel bigotry.