SPECIAL REPORT

AN INSECURE IDENTITY

QUEBECERS’ FEARS OF ASSIMILATION

LISA VAN DUSEN March 20 1989
SPECIAL REPORT

AN INSECURE IDENTITY

QUEBECERS’ FEARS OF ASSIMILATION

LISA VAN DUSEN March 20 1989

AN INSECURE IDENTITY

SPECIAL REPORT

QUEBECERS’ FEARS OF ASSIMILATION

From a distance, the view of St-Josephde-Beauce is a traditional Christmascard image, its gleaming church steeple rising above a cluster of small homes nestled in a snow-covered valley. But that impression is deceptive. The town lies in the heart of Quebec’s Beauce region, 210 km east of Montreal, which over the past three decades has undergone a transformation. As modern Quebec has emerged from the political upheavals of the Quiet Revolution and independence movement, the Beauce, whose economy was once dependent on scattered lumber mills, has developed a thriving, diversified industrial base. That success, which local residents proudly refer to as the “Beauce miracle,” has reinforced the proud tendency among the people, who call themselves Beaucerons, to view the world from a distinctly regional perspective. “I think of myself first as a Beauceronne, and after that I am a Quebecer,” said St-Joseph schoolteacher Yvette Sevigny. “Canadian is a distant third. The only time I would ever say I was Canadian would be if I was lost halfway around the world and had to get home.” But recent developments in language legislation, constitutional negotiations and Quebec demographics have heightened concerns among Beaucerons and other Quebecers about their continued existence in North America as a distinct culture.

Extinction: Many Beaucerons say that they are worried about the province’s dwindling birthrate, which according to many recent academic studies is too low to ensure the longterm survival of Quebec’s French character. Now, coupled with fears that the province is doing a poor job of assimilating immigrants into francophone culture, there is a deepening concern in Quebec that the threat of extinction is more imminent. Indeed, some Beaucerons suggest that only with independence can Quebec counter those threats and survive as a distinct culture. Said Réal Audet, 50, a social worker in St-Joseph: “As an independent state, we would have more power to encourage large families and control immigration.”

Those fears were focused in the Feb. 12 broadcast of a controversial National Film Board documentary entitled To Disappear. The Inevitable Fate of the French Culture in North America? Although many of the program’s assertions—particularly its speculation that Quebec’s francophone character is in danger of disappearing—drew criticism from both Englishand French-speaking commentators, the documentary was only the most recent in a series of studies and reports on the phenomenal drop in the birthrate among Quebec’s French-speaking population.

In a culture in which, only a generation or two ago, families of 10 children or more were commonplace, there is now a birthrate of 12.7 per 1,000 people—the lowest in Canada, compared to 14.4 per 1,000 for the country as a whole. And Jean-Marie Labbé, 44, a St-Joseph schoolteacher who comes from a family of 12 children, has concluded, like many Beaucerons, that if people do not start having large families again, Quebec will lose its culture. “If the birthrate falls in British Columbia, it isn’t dangerous because they are surrounded by other anglophones,” said Labbé. “If our population drops, we are all threatened. Without protection, we will assimilate and disappear.”

Fear: In recent years, the Beauce has not attracted many immigrants. A Haitian family that moved to St-Joseph two years ago is the only non white family in the town. Still, many residents said they are concerned that Quebec’s francophone culture is being threatened by recent arrivals who opt for the English language, culture and customs—a fear also raised in To Disappear. In fact, some argue that if current trends continue, francophones will eventually become a minority in their own province. Guy Poulin, 62, a men’s-clothingstore owner, said that the English-speaking settlers who arrived in the Beauce eventually assimilated “and now you can’t find a Carter or a McDowall who speaks English. That could happen to the French in Canada.”

Soul: As a result, there appears to be strong support among Beaucerons for Bill 178, the language legislation passed by the Quebec legislature last December which bans languages other than French on outdoor commercial signs in the province. “Our language is our identity,” said Auguste Bisson, 52, a dry cleaner who comes from a family of 15 children. “It is our heart and soul. Why wouldn’t we want to protect it?” Added Labbé: “The French language has to be protected here in ways unnecessary in other places. The French in France can afford to adopt English words like ‘bus’ and ‘weekend.’ They are not a minority.”

Ironically, that language law has threatened the Meech Lake accord—the first-ministers’ agreement that would return Quebec to full participation in the Constitution while protecting its culture. All 10 provinces must ratify the accord, but last December, Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon withdrew his support in response to Bill 178, making his province and New Brunswick the only two that have not passed Meech Lake.

Strive: Now, many Beaucerons say that if the accord is not ratified, Quebecers will give up on the rest of Canada and again strive for independence. “If Meech falls apart,” said Bisson, “no matter which party is in power in Quebec City, we will move toward independence. Quebecers will give up. They will say, ‘We just cannot work it out with them.’ ” Added Poulin: “If Meech is rejected, it will give ammunition to the nationalists, and they will come back stronger than ever.”

Still, that is not a prospect that appears to trouble many people in the Beauce. During the 1980 referendum, when the Parti Québécois government asked Quebecers whether they wanted the province to negotiate sovereigntyassociation with Ottawa, St-Joseph voted “no” by only a narrow 52 per cent—compared to 60 per cent in the province as a whole. And many Beaucerons now exhibit a widespread ambivalence toward the rest of Canada. Said Poulin: “When we were young, our dream was of a big Canada where you could speak your language and be understood. Now, I see more of a fractured entity, almost the way that countries belong to the European Community but are separate in every other way.”

Crisis: At the same time, though, some Beaucerons say that, as in the past, the country will weather the current crisis—and that Quebec will remain a member of Confederation. Said Labbé: “If we have not separated yet, with the tensions of the past half-century, I think we will still be here in another 50 years.” Added Audet, who said that he voted for sovereigntyassociation in 1980: “When I was a kid, I sang O Canada from the heart—that was my country. But as I grew up, I evolved. I still think of myself as a Canadian, and that makes me proud. But as someone who speaks French on an island surrounded by an English sea, I can tell you that as long as there is something to defend, Quebecers will be defensive.”

Among Beaucerons, the overwhelming message seems to be that Quebecers will fight first for their survival as a distinct culture—no matter what the consequences.

LISA VAN DUSEN in St-Joseph-de-Beauce