Columns

Life in the old Quebec

Outside multicultural Montreal, rural Quebec is quite different. And crucial to Bernard Landry’s vision

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 12 2001
Columns

Life in the old Quebec

Outside multicultural Montreal, rural Quebec is quite different. And crucial to Bernard Landry’s vision

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 12 2001

Life in the old Quebec

Columns

Anthony Wilson-Smith

Outside multicultural Montreal, rural Quebec is quite different. And crucial to Bernard Landry’s vision

Some years ago, an Anglo-Canadian reporter was sent on assignment to Quebec’s remote Gaspé region. When his plane landed at Mont-Joli Airport, he learned his connecting flight farther into the region had been cancelled because of a snowstorm. With appointments scheduled the next day, he hired a taxi to take him to his destination, 150 km away. About an hour into the drive, the cab, buffeted by high winds and heavy snow, hit black ice near the town of Amqui, partway through the Matapédia Valley, and slid deep into a snowbank— from which, it became clear, there would be no immediate escape. Driver and passenger, unhurt, sighed and tmdged off to the light of a farmhouse several hundred metres away. The occupants, a man and woman in their 40s, were starded, but calmed by the familiar local accent of the driver. Of course, they said, they could find a couple of beds for the night. But when the passenger began expressing thanks in English-accented French, the husband’s mouth dropped and he stepped back as though stricken, before regaining his composure. Later, after a terrific dinner, the explanation came out. “Excuse me,” the man said. “It must be 10 years since I last met an anglophone.”

Everyone then went happily back to their drinks.

That memory came to mind last week with the confirmation that Bernard Landry, Quebec’s deputy premier and deeply committed sovereigntist, is about to be acclaimed as Parti Québécois leader and the province’s new premier. There’s been a lot of talk lately to the effect that the conditions and resentments that fed Landry’s generation of sovereigntists no longer exist. In large measure, that’s true. The law that makes French Quebec’s only official language means young Francos don’t carry the feeling of repression of older people. The tiresome, apocryphal story of the fat-Anglo-Eaton’ssaleslady-who-wouldn t-speak-French is as outdated as... well, the Eaton stores were before Sears took them over. Walk Montreal’s legendary St. Lawrence Street—known as St. Laurent now—on a weekend night, and you see hip twentysomethings of different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds switching easily between English, French and often a third language.

The only thing is, that’s not Quebec—or, at least, not all of it. Anyone who travels away from Montreal and the traditional cottage getaway spots of the Eastern Townships and the Laurentians discovers parts of Quebec that haven’t changed in decades. In the Matapédia Valley, locals trace roots back hundreds of years—sometimes to Norman or Breton forefathers who came here from France. The men there bear classic names like Damase and Athanase. You don’t have to travel more than 45 minutes out of Montreal to reach places where English is

seldom spoken—not because of language laws, but because there simply aren’t many Anglos around. That’s true of relatively big places like Trois-Rivières—once home to Maurice Duplessis—and Shawinigan, home of another well-known politician. Even Quebec City, one of the most historic cities in North America, remains, outside of tourism-related industries, largely unilingual. Back in the 1980s, when language was a very contentious issue, people used to say the difference between Montreal and Quebec City was this: in Montreal, you presumed that an educated francophone could speak English— even if he or she didn’t want to—but in Quebec City, even the most well-meaning, well-educated people could often barely ask directions in a second language.

Sometimes, in the most nationalist areas of Quebec, you discover reverse assimilation that should assuage francophone fears, but doesn’t. The Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean region, where Lucien Bouchard comes from, is dotted with unilingual French Blackburns—descendants of Scottish soldiers centuries ago who accepted land grants. Quebec City has scores of O’Connors, O’Rileys and others who can’t speak English: their Irish Catholic forefathers thought it better to keep their religion and lose their language than do the reverse by attending English Protestant schools. Nationalism often thrives most in areas where language and culture seem least threatened. The pro-sovereignty Yes side won a majority off the island of Montreal in the 1995 referendum: only the massive No vote in and around Montreal saved the day for federalists. At election time, federal and provincial federalist parties generally fare best in Montreal, or in areas of the province that border other provinces or states—places with more intermingling of languages and cultures.

But in many ways, the Great Divide in Canada isn’t between Quebec and everyone else: it’s between rural and urban Canadians. Get beyond the big-city limits of Montreal, Toronto, Calgary or Vancouver, and local life isn’t the great multilingual, multicultural melting pot the media and politicians always talk about. Rural life is a more homogenous, intimate existence in which families trace roots over centuries, and everyone has known everyone else for decades. A francophone showing up at a farmer’s door in, say, Kelowna, B.C., would seem as much an oddity as that Anglo in Amqui—but likely, in similar circumstances, be just as warmly received. The key for Landry is to make people in rural Quebec feel different and dispossessed from counterparts elsewhere in Canada. The key for federalists is to make them realize just how much, in the end, they really are alike.