The past, present, and future of Québec (Part Five)
By Mark Wegierski
The Québécois nurse a great number of grievances against what has ironically been dubbed "TROC" ("the rest of Canada"). (“Troc” apparently means “rump” in French.) The term has an interesting significance – giving the impression that Quebec wants to see itself as both the most quintessentially important part of Canada – as well as separate from Canada. It also points to the unwillingness of TROC to call itself “English Canada” or “English-speaking Canada.” Indeed, the term “English Canada” is frequently rendered in quotation marks in many of the more recent Canadian English-language political works, as it would today be considered presumptuous to assert the existence of such an entity, considering the supercharged multiculturalism that especially characterizes such major megalopolises as current-day Toronto and Vancouver.
As in the case of most so-called “recognized minority” groups today, the Quebecois have amplified in their collective memory, a long catalogue of wrongs that were committed against them by the anglais. However, the Quebecois cannot just be seen as a “recognized minority” – they have a huge area of land to which they could be considered “native” – they are a nation – and, were they to separate, they would form a territorial nation-state.
For the Quebecois nationalist today, everything bad begins with the battle of the Plains of Abraham, and the resultant Conquest -- the conquest of French Québec by the British in 1759. This primal wound has haunted French-English relations in Canada. However, the French of an earlier Quebec seemed to be better able to reconcile themselves to their fate. The British had ironically been relatively tolerant to the institutions of Ancien Quebec, especially in regard to the Roman Catholic Church which was allowed to continue to flourish – something that was virtually unheard of in most British realms. Some may remember that phrase from an American Revolutionary ditty – “if Gallic Papists have the right, to worship their own way, what hope then, for the freedoms, of poor Americay.” George III’s toleration of Roman Catholicism in Quebec was read in as an article of indictment against him in the Thirteen Colonies. In the nineteenth century, the British constitutional monarchy was not seen as alien to Quebec, as it has latterly become perceived.
From the 1960s forward, as modern, progressive-minded nationalists, the Québécois have had to find a way to repudiate much of their earlier, Catholic-centred, rurally-focused history, and to simultaneously blame what is today seen as this unfortunate backwardness exclusively on the English. The artifact which fulfills this function is the idea of the so-called "roi negre" (which could be politely translated as “local chieftain”). It is assumed that first the prelates of the Church, and then such figures as Duplessis (a long-serving Premier of Québec in the 1930s to 1950s, called "le Chef", somewhat similar in style to America's Huey Long), were actually tools of the English in maintaining social control over Québec. The English were not interested in improving Québec society, so long as they had a "local chieftain" they could rely on to enforce order among the locals – about whom the English couldn’t care less. The English did dominate commerce and industry in Québec up to the 1950s, largely confining French-Canadians to the rustic, but it is not often considered that many at that time might have preferred such a life.
One of the great focal events of Québec, for the Québécois nationalists, is the 1837 Rebellion of the Patriotes, led by Louis-Joseph Papineau, which was brutally suppressed by the British. Although the Rebellion actually had comparatively little support at the time, across a Church-bound Québec, it is seen as a harbinger of secular nationalism.
The execution of Louis Riel, the leader of the half-French/half-Indian Métis in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, is seen as another atrocity. The fact that Riel had decades earlier executed an English-Canadian in rather gruesome circumstances – which made it difficult for Canadian Prime Minister John A. Macdonald to show clemency -- is rarely mentioned. Salt was also rubbed into the wounds when French-language schooling in Manitoba was done away with, and failed to be enacted in other provinces with French minorities. The execution was certainly a baneful event, which turned Québec away from the once-powerful Bleus/Conservative Party in the federal election of 1896.
Relying on a solid bloc of seats from Québec, and a minority of seats from English Canada, the Liberals have almost always formed the government of Canada in the Twentieth Century. While Québec remained a very conservative society until the so-called "Quiet Revolution" of the 1960s, it generally voted Liberal federally. This trend was continued with its support of the chameleon-like Pierre Elliott Trudeau, first elected in 1968. English-Canadians believed that Trudeau would "put Quebec in its place", while French-Canadians voted for him because he was seen as a "native son". The idea of Trudeau’s toughness against the Quebec separatists was reinforced by his declaration of martial law in Quebec in October 1970, against a small, extremist separatist faction, that had kidnapped (and later murdered) the Quebec Minister of Labour, as well as kidnapped a British trade official.
Trudeau enacted the policy of coast-to-coast bilingualism (French and English) in Canada, which was said to be the price of keeping Québec in Canada. Ironically, the Québécois nationalists cared little for bilingualism, and moved to make their province unilingually French. Trudeau's individual rights, multiculturalism, and aboriginal rights policies came to be seen as diluting and undermining the now undisputed place of French-Canadians as one of the "two founding peoples" of Canada.
The 1980 Québec referendum on "sovereignty-association" failed by a ratio of 60 to 40. In 1982, Trudeau "patriated" the Canadian Constitution, including within it the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, within the Constitution Act, 1982. The Parti Québécois provincial government, led by René Lévesque, which had just lost the referendum, refused to accept this. The so-called "patriation", and the maneuvers of Trudeau and the other Premiers concerning its initial announcement to the public, are often seen as an anti-Québec conspiracy, sometimes described in Quebec, rather too flamboyantly, as "the Night of the Long Knives".
In an attempt to have Québec accede to the new Canadian Constitution, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney negotiated the Meech Lake Accord in 1987. A strange kind of fury seized English Canada, especially in opposition to the legal recognition of Québec as “a distinct society”, an obvious historical and social reality, but a blow to absolute individual rights, as well as to the notion that so-called “group rights” are normally afforded only to visible minorities (a term of official usage), as well as to Aboriginal peoples in Canada. The Accord failed in 1990, when it was rejected by the recalcitrant legislatures of two smaller English-Canadian provinces.
In 1992, the Charlottetown Agreements were cobbled together by Mulroney and the ten provincial Premiers. They were in many ways similar to the Accord. They were put to a countrywide referendum. The Québécois nationalists opposed them because they did not offer enough to Québec, whereas TROC opposed them because they offered too much. The Agreements were solidly defeated across the country.
Written in 1840, Lord Durham's famous Report had accurately warned that the future of Canada might consist of "two nations warring in the bosom of a single state".
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.