CANADA

Quebec’s two faces

INSIDE QUEBEC

BENOIT AUBIN August 8 1994
CANADA

Quebec’s two faces

INSIDE QUEBEC

BENOIT AUBIN August 8 1994

Quebec’s two faces

INSIDE QUEBEC

BENOIT AUBIN

Quebecers have more fun. Most market studies indicate that whether they are shopping, eating, driving, loafing or rioting, Quebecers tend to do it with more dedication, more flair than other Canadians. Ditto with politics. But this summer, other Canadians should pity Quebecers, rather than secretly envy them, for Quebecers will be forced to make a frightfully difficult choice on Sept 12: they will have to choose which facet of their collective split personality will survive.

Look at the kind of people who were attracted here at the beginning of the colony 350 years ago. The majority were of the regimented, stable kind, who found comfort and security in a well-organized, authoritarian society: priests, soldiers, farmers. Then there were the others: dreamers, footloose individualists, convicts or rebels who took to the woods as soon as they hit the ground. Their genes can now be found in the bloodstream of the Métis, and their names are all over the map of this continent. Many other people with different motives, skills and heritages followed, of course, but even today the politics of modern Quebec are defined by the fact that this society has had two fathers: one a settler, the other an explorer.

Somehow, the Liberals are the inheritors of the voyageur tradition. For them, individual rights and freedoms come first. They are suspicious of government. Free enterprise, market forces, economic growth are their preferred solutions to most problems. They seldom have fits of existential anguish over being in a minority position within a federation. The Péquistes, of course, were bred by the settlers. Their highest, dearest values are

those which define them collectively: territory, language, culture, government. Quebec nationalists are the ones who introduced the notion of “collective rights” into the constitutional debate, much to the bafflement of English-speaking Canadians.

The Péquistes cannot trust the federal government, only because it is in the hands of the English-speaking majority. But they trust the Quebec government can do just about everything better. For many Quebecers, Big Brother is the good guy: he nationalized the hated utility companies, passed laws to impose and protect their language, manages their pension funds and is always prepared to pick a good fight with les anglais in Ottawa.

As soon as the curtain was raised on the election campaign last week, both major party leaders scampered to adopt radically different positions. Premier Daniel Johnson said it is not the government’s job to run zoos, ski resorts or booze outlets. He said the way to create jobs is not to hire more people in the public sector. And he said ways will have to be found to provide better health care with less money. Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau took the opposite tack. He stressed the responsibilities of the government, promised full-employment policies, a greater sense of solidarity with the neediest citizens, and more government action to ease the economic problems of the province’s outlying regions.

The political ambiguity of Quebec voters is proverbial and well documented. An overwhelming majority have told pollsters that they love or like Canada, but only four years ago more than 60 per cent said they were prepared to vote for separation. There is in Quebec a sense of charity, or solidarity, that runs deep and expresses itself very strongly when disasters occur at home or abroad. On the other hand, Montrealers drive their cars like ruthless individualists. Quebecers, who have been described as intolerant and xenophobic on the issue of language, also live in the most permissive, tolerant society this side of Vancouver.

There is a bit of the settler and a bit of the voyageur in every Quebecer; a bit of the Canadian patriot and of the Quebec nationalist; a bit of the collectivist and a bit of the individualist. Now, they are being asked to choose. Either federalist, “small-1” liberal and a minority within Canada, or “full-fledged Quebecer” living in a separate country run by a strong, “enlightened” government.