Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country 
by Mordecai Richler.
Chatto, 277 pp., £13.99, June 1992, 0 7011 4673 7
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The population of Québec is about seven million, all of them minorities. The Jews, for whom Mordecai Richler makes his complaint (though not only for them), are outnumbered by 11 to one in the English-speaking community. The English are outnumbered five to one by the French, but the French are outnumbered by three to one in Canada as a whole. In North America, finally, the Americans have Canadians outnumbered by a factor of ten.

Québec is thus a place where everyone can feel that they have a legitimate grievance, and even the same grievance as their opponents; and this is an endlessly irritable, though often amusing book that serves up every ethnic squabble of the past thirty years in Québec, in no particular order and with minimum energy wasted on possible solutions. Richler seems entirely comfortable with his own grumpiness, and the occasion it gives him to berate his French-speaking fellow citizens. At the end of his tirade, he vows that he loves Québec in spite of all, and intends to stay where he is and let his discontent ripen further. Meanwhile, his book has stirred up a howl of nationalist denunciation, a good deal of it proposing that Richler isn’t a ‘real’ Quebecer and should get out Of the province. Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! pokes and stabs at the body politic of Québec, and especially at the pettiness, malice and farce often evident in its language policies. But in the tragic context of the ‘ethnic states’ now emerging to the east and south of the European Community, the case for Québec nationalism needs to be answered more seriously and scrupulously than Richler cares to do.

Richler’s subtitle, ‘Requiem for a Divided Country’, gets the quarrel off to an early start. Outside Québec, in what is now called the ROC (Rest of Canada), it is widely assumed that there should be a unitary Canadian identity, co-extensive with the whole territory north of the forty-ninth parallel, and reconciling ten diverse provinces. Québec, in this vision, would simply be a province equal to the other nine. The desire of most Quebecers to speak French can be accommodated by making the Federal Government officially bilingual, and by conceding that Québec should have a generous share of political power and Federal spending. Francophone Quebecers, on the other hand, don’t think in terms of ‘one country’, but rather of two ‘founding nations’ that happen to share a common territory. Until now, a plurality of Francophones have been willing to accept nationhood within Canada: the constitutional formula now being debated is called ‘distinct society’ status for Québec. But since the late Sixties a formidable separatist movement, the ‘Parti Québécois’, has argued that the Francophone nation should not settle for less than having its own state.

Compared to other subordinated nations, Québec already possesses large powers of self-determination, as well as great influence within the Canadian federation. First, it has been conceded by the ROC that if Québec declares unequivocally for independence it will be allowed to leave: no one can conceive of a US-style civil war, and many in the ROC would actually welcome an orderly departure of their fractious cousins. Meanwhile – unlike, say, Scots, Basques or Palestinians – Québec has its own parliament (l’Assemblée Nationale) which controls a budget of some £19 billion and has broad powers over taxation, medical care, education, culture, language, the economy, and even foreign relations. At the Federal level Québec has 75 MPs (out of 295) who typically form a strategic bloc to defend Québec’s interests. Of post-war prime ministers, three of the five significant ones have been Quebecers (St Laurent, Trudeau, Mulroney), and there has been a Québec prime minister for 23 of the past 24 years. Brian Mulroney can be thought of as an ‘English’ leader, of course; but he is completely bilingual and can legitimately be seen as a hard-nosed Québec politician who happens to speak English some of the time.

Since the emergence of separatism. Francophone Quebecers have disagreed as to whether they should pursue their national destiny within Canada or outside it. The case for ‘within’ tends to be narrowly economic and therefore irritating to the ROC: using the popular marital analogy, Québec doesn’t love her mate but can’t afford to leave (jokers add that the marriage was never consummated). In Richler’s jaundiced view, this situation is close to blackmail: the louder Québec complains about its position in the Confederation, the more ‘booty’ – political spending on defence contracts etc – will be sent its way by an appeasing Federal Government. Separatists argue that it is humiliating to bargain for Federal largesse, and that Québec should control its own booty – even if there will be less of it after the divorce.

The separatists believe that the very survival of their culture and language is at stake. Since Francophones are being assimilated everywhere else in the continent, the only chance of survival for those who remain – 2 per cent of the North American population – is to defend their bastion in Québec. Because the birthrate in Québec is now below replacement level, the bastion must be reinforced by attracting immigrants and making sure they assimilate to the Francophone rather than the Anglophone community.

Québec’s language laws are the main target of Richler’s book (though he does admit that he has led a satisfying life there without ever learning to speak French). Camille Laurin, a minister in the Parti Québécois administration of 1976-85, argued the case for language restrictions in this way. Immigrants to Québec whose first language is neither English nor French (‘allophones’) have tended to join the English community. This is not because Francophones are unwelcoming to them, but because ‘the assimilative power of the dominating group is always stronger than that of the dominated group.’ The solution must be a ‘global francisation’ of Québec society. Once the immigrants see that the government is serious about making French dominant, they will opt for the winning side voluntarily. When the Parti Québécois came to power they passed Bill 101 to entrench the supremacy of French, and made it compulsory for immigrants to send their children to French schools. It could be said that the PQ picked up the stick before even offering the carrot; but they argued that only shock treatment would change the mentality of non-Francophone groups. Later on, perhaps, the government could afford to be more conciliatory. The current Liberal regime of Robert Bourassa has toyed with proposals to soften the language laws, but has left them essentially unchanged in the interest of ‘social peace’ – fear of nationalist wrath if, for example, commercial signs in English were to be allowed.

In recent years the percentage of Francophones in Québec has held firm and even crept up a bit, to 83 per cent. But this stabilisation is not the result of the mass conversion of Anglo or allophones to French. The weakness in Laurin’s theory is that non-Francophones are free to move on to another province, or perhaps to the US, rather than turn themselves into vrais Québécois. Of the three million immigrants received by Québec since 1945, two million have chosen to leave. They sense that it’s not just a question of ‘speak French and you will be accepted.’ Immigrants feel that they are also being asked to identify with the historic grievances of the Francophone nation in North America and to see themselves as a dominated minority. This is simply not an attractive proposition for anyone with a different historical memory.

The departure of non-Francophones from Québec slows down the economy and, perversely, promotes Francophone emigration as well. Between 1860 and 1920, nearly a million Francophones left Québec to find work in New England: their descendants are now completely assimilated Anglophones. A more linguistically neutral Québec society would have a higher proportion of Anglophones, but also, in the long run, a higher absolute number of Francophones. There are also some half a million Francophones in the ROC; if Québec left and Canada ceased to be officially bilingual, its Francophone communities would probably disappear in two or three generations. Some nationalists, such as Daniel Latouche and even the leader of the Parti Québécois, Jacques Parizeau, recognise the arguments for a less aggressive language policy. But, they say, this could only happen after separation when, having become maîtres chez nous, they could afford to be more generous.

To some extent, the battle is over a city, Montréal, rather than a nation. The rest of the province has become largely unilingual, and the capital, Québec City, is well over 90 per cent French. But Québec, as a government town, doesn’t suffer from being unilingual, whereas Montréal, trying to maintain its position as a regional metropolis, must keep its doors open to trade and immigration. As with other pairs of cities – Beijing and Hong Kong, for example – the ideological capital looks at its mercantile rival with suspicion. Yet Montréal has nearly half the province’s population, and must be the engine of its future prosperity.

It is perhaps an even bet that Canada will go the way of Czechoslovakia within twenty years. The ROC would then be split in two, like Pakistan was from 1947 to 1971, and would face an uncertain future. Québec would be more cohesive, and still one of the world’s larger and wealthier nations. Richler indulges in much schadenfreude about the troubles Québec might encounter on its own, such as being excluded from the North American Free Trade Agreement, suffering from a massive national debt, or losing parts of its present territory to the ROC. The last is unlikely to happen, and the first two are risks that Francophones must assess for themselves. Inside and outside Québec, a majority may come to feel that separation would clear the air and allow each of the ‘founding peoples’ to pursue their destiny unhindered.

Once on its own, Québec might have to reconsider its linguistic ideals. Anglophones and allophones would be nervous about staying, and might have to be appeased with concessions on language. Francophones might be more willing to accept that they must know English in order to succeed in the North American economic space. Independence would clarify the issue of whether this has been a battle about language, or about sovereignty. Many Irish nationalists argued that they needed independence to preserve the Irish language. Today, Irish is dying but the independence and identity of the Irish people are still secure. In Québec, similarly, language tensions might gradually resolve as a more comprehensive national consciousness was established.

Events might not unfold so harmioniously, of course. Richler returns obsessively to the claim that Québécois nationalism is inherently and dangerously anti-Semitic. Before 1945, anti-semitism was indeed a widespread prejudice in Québec (and elsewhere in Canada). Québec intellectuals, inspired by the blood-and-soil nationalism of Frenchmen like Charles Maurras, reviled Jews as cosmopolitan merchants who threatened the rural and religions virtues of the Québécois. It may even be true, as Richler claims, that anti-semitism is still a more common prejudice in Québec than in the rest of Canada. But Canada has laws against overt anti-semitism (if David Irving lived in Canada he would probably be convicted of promoting racial hatred); and all the significant convictions under these laws have been in provinces other than Québec. To prove his point, Richler would have to show that anti-semitism is inherent in the ideology of the Parti Québécois, that it is more common among nationalists, that Jews are treated the same whether their first language is English or French, and that an independent Québec would single out Jews for discrimination. On all four points, Richler fails to make a case.

Richler is at least consistent: he has angered plenty of people in the Jewish community by criticising Israeli nationalism. And there is a serious point behind his grousing and posturing: Québec nationalism is only one of a thousand particularisms that now threaten the universalism that Western liberals have fought for since the Enlightenment. It is disappointing that Richler’s book hops about from one newspaper clipping to another without any coherent account of why universalism is in trouble, and how much worse that trouble may get. Richler mentions a Francophone school official who wants to break up concentrations of allophone immigrants: to avoid being swallowed by the English, Québécois must swallow the smaller fish of immigrant subcultures. Once a group defines itself in terms of an essential difference from others, the difference of the others inevitably becomes a threat. But that mistrust reflects an anxiety about one’s own identity. Francophone Québec used to be a rural, Catholic, traditional, isolated and French-speaking society; now only the last characteristic survives – which is why it takes on ever-greater prominence as a rallying-point. The nationalisms of our era are understandable reactions to the disintegration of the rooted local cultures in which most people lived until this century.

Ethnic particularism, Québec style, assumes that dominant cultures become stronger and ‘more themselves’ by assimilating weaker groups. The Canadian Federal Government proposes the alternative of ‘multiculturalism’, whereby ethnics preserve their folkloric qualities but become loyal Canadians as well. In Eastern Europe, the current solution is to redraw boundaries to try and re-create homogeneity. As their populations become more diverse, all Western countries are experiencing a more fluid kind of ethnicity. What is really happening on the ground is transculturalism, in which every group – not excluding the dominant one – absorbs cultural traits from the others. Modern popular culture makes this process specially evident, but in the long run it prevails at every level of society.

Ethnic states – with a capital E – are bound to pay a political and economic price for their fetishising of national character. In an increasingly pluralist world, their self-centredness can never be credible to outsiders; nor will the international community accept their rationales for repressing their minorities. Pretensions to exclusivity, special status and an unchanging historical destiny are bound to be eroded by the larger forces of globalism and transculturalism. Even the unitary nation-state may see much of its power redistributed to smaller units, like cities and regions, or larger ones, like the European Community. We may even come to recognise that the dream of a united country is one we can comfortably survive without.

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Vol. 14 No. 18 · 24 September 1992

It is an ironic expression of current problems that Paul Delany – an English émigré to Quebec of some vintage, now working 3500 miles away at Simon Fraser University in (English) Vancouver – can write a full-length essay on Mordecai Richler’s Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! (LRB, 20 August) without ever once directly mentioning Canada’s ‘First Nations’, the Indian peoples and the Inuit. One of the key elements in the ‘crisis of legitimacy’ that is currently being experienced in Canada (as evidenced in the quite extraordinary level of ennui being reported in every national poll with respect to the established political parties and political leaderships) is surely the exhaustion of the idea of Canada as a fiefdom simply for the Anglophone and Francophone élites.

Canadians in all parts of Canada, and also those living abroad, are sickened by the unending constitutional conferences, focused only on the division of the spoils between English Canada and Quebec, and are increasingly interested in listening to other voices – particularly where such voices (like that of Elijah Harper, the Cree Indian and Manitoba MP who ‘talked out’ the Meech Lake Agreement in the Provincial Parliament in June 1990) give expression to other values and other political or social possibilities. Harper’s speech to the Manitoba Parliament insisted on the claims of the aboriginal peoples, unrecognised in existing constitutional debates, to be a ‘distinct society’, and was delivered with great calm and deliberation, a feather held high as a symbol of such identity. In calling for respect for the land and for nature, it resonated to an altogether different, but still powerful, conception of Canadianicity from that which has been dominant in the era of Brian Mulroney – and it was a speech which attracted great admiration across Canada.

To hear the voice of the aboriginal peoples in Canada is to hear tales of repression and exclusion by English Canadians, but also, quite vitally, by Quebec – a province which has insistently characterised itself over the years as an oppressed minority. One of the most unpleasant recent examples was the armed siege of the Mohawk reservation at Oka, just outside Montreal, during July to September 1990, arising, it should be remembered, out of the attempt of a local town council to extend a golf course – in this case, onto sacred Mohawk burial ground on the Kahnesatake reservation. The routine racism of the Quebec Provincial Police vis-à-vis the aboriginal peoples was quite evident at Oka, and has been widely observed within Quebec in recent years. But many observers suspect that the belligerence exhibited by the QPP may be symptomatic of a larger problem in respect of multicultural openness and tolerance within Quebec, which Mordecai Richler smells out in terms of anti-semitism, but that does not stop there. Certainly, this is an issue which ought not to go unremarked in a review like that provided by Paul Delany, which is so generally uncritical of Quebeckers’ desires to be ‘masters in their own house’.

The sorry truth may be, however, that neither Richler (in lamenting some aspects of a failed bilingual, federal Canada) nor Delany (in his sanguine acceptance of disunity and the break-up of Canada as a nation) is really addressing the key issue in that part of the world. In the light of the firming-up of the Free Trade Agreement struck by the Mulroney Government with the United States and Mexico, institutionalising democratic representation of non-élite minority groups in general, not only in the territory we have been used to calling Canada, but throughout the North American continent, may be what really matters.

Ian Taylor
University of Salford

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