The Trouble With Quebec

Canada’s internal affairs have become troubled during the past three years by the spirit of rebellion in the province of Quebec. For a view of the meaning and extent of this rebellion we have turned to GÉRARD PELLETIER,editor of LA PRESSE since 1961. Mr. Pelletier is also one of the cofounders of a French magazine of opinion, CITÉ LIVRE.


QUEBEC has been a prey to Anglo-Saxon “colonialism” ever since it was conquered by the British in 1760, Most of our young intellectuals are very intent on demonstrating that Quebec’s ills are those of all colonized people throughout the world. They have been writing on that theme for three years now, and it does have some plausibility.

They point out that our standard of living, although relatively high, is still lower than the Canadian average. They underline the fact that Quebec’s industrialization has been achieved by foreign capital and foreign management, which to their mind includes the businessmen from English Canada. It is a fact that French Canadians own but a small percentage of Quebec’s business and industry and hold few jobs of importance in their own province. Their participation in the ownership and management of Quebec’s business corresponds in no way to their numerical importance. Large companies are all English-speaking, and it is very difficult for a competent French-Canadian employee to reach above a certain level which is mysteriously established and roughly the same in all companies.

Traditionally, the English explained their management of the firms by Quebec’s “backward educational system,” but this is less and less true; as the supporters of the colonialism theory point out, this is the reason set forth by all colonial powers to excuse their domination. Whatever the reason, French Canadians supply nearly all of the manpower for Quebec industry and only a minute portion of the management. By and large, business and industry in Quebec have no respect for the culture and language of the majority. The same firms which operate in Spanish in South America, in Italian in Italy, conduct their Quebec operations in English without a trace of scruple. They might even react with irritation if their employees, or, for that matter, their customers, insisted on using their mother tongue in dealing with them.

But, of course, the charge of colonialism is mainly leveled against Canada’s central government in Ottawa and the provincial governments of EnglishCanadian provinces.

The French were the first Europeans to settle in Canada, 150 years before the British, and they constituted the majority of the population until the middle of the nineteenth century. One of the aims of the Canadian Confederation formed in 1867 was to allow the French-Canadian population to maintain their culture and develop as an autonomous group, different from the rest of the country. In Quebec alone nearly five million French Canadians account for more than 80 percent of the population, and no other ethnic group in Canada, not even the British, is as homogeneous in any given province.

Officially, Canada is a bilingual and bicultural country. In practice, however, no one can deny that the central authorities, ever since Confederation came into being, have behaved like the national and even nationalist government of a British nation. Lip service was paid to “the presence in our midst of a different culture which adds greatly to the intellectual riches of Canada.” But precious little was done to give it meaning.

The English-speaking majority has been running the country ever since it was created. The presence of a French-speaking minority was always considered a nuisance, and the hope was never abandoned that it would eventually be assimilated. Waiting for that happy moment, English Canada managed to get governments elected with the participation of Quebec by yielding on details. For example, bilingual stamps and money won an election in Quebec for the Liberals in the thirties, after years of campaigning; and last year for the first time, menus were printed in both languages in the Ottawa Parliament’s restaurant. But Canada’s central government remained an English government, with fewer bilingual civil servants in its External Affairs Department than in the United Kingdom’s Foreign Office. And as a rule, a French Canadian who works for the federal government works in English.

The grievance against the provincial governments of English Canada is of a different nature. It centers upon the treatment the provinces have given their French-Canadian minorities. It is hard to imagine what more they could have done to thwart these minorities and erase all trace of French culture from their territories. Wherever there existed recognized rights for these minorities (Manitoba, Alberta), such rights were ignored and trampled upon. And where no written law existed, the growth of the French population did not incite the Englishspeaking majority to make room for cultural development. A good example of that can be seen in New Brunswick, where nearly 40 percent of the population is French; despite this fact, the government could never be convinced that a French Teachers’ College was needed, whereas in Quebec, the English-speaking minority, with less than 20 percent of the population, has three universities and a complete educational system, all subsidized with public funds. It is no wonder that the theory of colonialism is gaining ground in Quebec. And what is the answer to colonialism? Independence, of course, according to the post-war pattern developed all over the world. Hence the emergence of the separatist movement, which in three years, according to a carefully conducted opinion survey, has conquered 13 percent of the electorate and made spectacular headway in Quebec’s public opinion.

WHY, then, is there resistance to the idea of independence among the French Canadians themselves? Why is the movement for independence restricted to the middle and lower-middle class? Why are the industrial masses still untouched and the older intellectuals, most of them at least, dead set against separatism? Why this cleavage?

For the separatists, the explanation is simple. In all colonial countries, they say, in every situation where one people dominates another, the grande bourgeoisie and the intellectuals for the most part associate themselves with the colonial power to exploit the masses. And the masses themselves are kept ignorant enough and so politically confused that they remain submissive.

Such a theory could be accepted if it were not for the major differences between the situation in Quebec and that in most colonial countries. Federalism exists in Canada. No matter how much Confederation has been “rigged against the French,” as the separatists contend, or exploited in favor of assimilation into the majority’s melting pot, Quebec still enjoys more freedom and a greater measure of political independence, or self-determination, than any other colonial country one can think of. That is why there is in Quebec, besides a majority of bystanders who for the time being cling to the existing order, a group of French-Canadian federalists whose analysis of the facts is quite different from the separatists’ colonial theory.

Generally speaking, the federalists are no more satisfied with the present situation than the nationalists. They recognize the evidence that Confederation has failed to make Canada a bicultural country. But they do not assign the same causes to the failure, nor do they envisage the remedies in the same perspective.

They claim that French Canadians are but a very small cultural minority in North America, and they insist that no matter what their political status may be, the situation of their group will remain a risky and dangerous one. In their opinion, the heart of the matter lies in the rapport between five million French-speaking people and close to two hundred million English-speaking people. For that reason, they believe that the emphasis must first be placed on the human values of the minority group itself.

To develop its culture in that kind of environment, a minority’s basic need is for better education, better training, greater creativity, a better sense of reality, and the sharpest of political views. The group must be alive, articulate, vigilant, and equipped with modern techniques in every field.

French Quebec has been awakening to this necessity over the last twenty-five years. It has emerged from the bucolic dreams of a peasant people, isolated in its past, who resented all change and whose hope was to “survive” by fighting off all the influences from the outside world. The social upheaval brought about by industrialization and the shock of World War II has changed the mood of French Canada. Our tradition of stubborn conservatism has given way to a critical reappraisal of our own values, of our collective ideology. We are now less preoccupied with the necessity of defending our way of life than with the need of modernizing it. French Canada has only recently entered into the twentieth century. But we are catching up as rapidly as we can. Already, a new vitality in the Quebec government, the presence of more competent civil servants and governmental experts among the French Canadians, and a better knowledge of public-administration techniques have given substance to provincial projects and complaints which twenty years ago would have been mere dreams or short-lived fits of our collective temper.

This process of revitalization, reason the federalists, must be given priority over the dubious project of an independent Quebec. We still have a long way to go before the revamping of our society is completed. And the present constitution of Canada supplies us with enough power to go on with our housecleaning job without interference. As we go along, we might feel the need for constitutional readjustments and proceed to achieve the necessary changes, but it would be a mistake to divert our energies toward a nationalist revolution which would do very little for the social and economic advancement of our people and would in no way modify the “rapport de forces” in North America.

As for Confederation, the federalists share the view that we should try to play the game, now that we know it better, and see what comes out of it. We might, they argue, be surprised with the results.

This, I realize, is an oversimplification of both attitudes, but it roughly identities the two main trends of thought. Basically, each one springs from a different ideological background. The separatists believe that French Canada must go through the nation-state stage as a priority if it is to achieve any measure of maturity as a cultural group. They consider this process an essential prerequisite to any form of real, coherent progress in the economic, social, or cultural fields.

On the contrary, the federalists adhere to Lord Acton’s views that “the combination of different nations in one State is as necessary a condition of civilized life as the combination of men in society” and that “nationality does not aim either at liberty or prosperity, both of which it sacrifices to the imperative necessity of making the nation the mould and measure of the State.”

But how can one account for the action of young extremists who throw bombs and who land in prison? If the problem were that simple, if it were merely a choice between two lines of reasoning, would one have to cope with violence and terrorism?

That is a good question. Even after pointing out that terrorist activities in Quebec are restricted to a limited group of very young men, one must recognize that they do point to a deeper, more tragic disturbance. If youngsters are moved to imperil their own lives and those of their fellow citizens for political purposes, even though they enjoy total freedom of expression and action in the political field, there must be deep emotional factors at work.

First of all, let me state that it is not easy to be a young French Canadian in 1964. Older men were brought up within the authoritarian atmosphere of a closed society dominated by the French-Canadian dream of survival through immobility. They were conditioned to believe that in spite of shortcomings French Canada’s culture and way of life were better than English Canada’s. But the younger generations were brought up during the reappraisal I mentioned earlier; they fed on self-criticism; they are acutely conscious of the deficiencies of their culture and extremely critical of the society they live in. And underneath their violence lies a revolt, not only against the political framework of Canada but against the fact that French culture in North America is immersed in an overwhelming majority of English-speaking people. There is an element of despair at the basis of their action.

WHAT will eventually come out of the present turmoil?

At this point, I should like to be a learned political scientist, capable of weighing all the factors and of predicting the outcome with accuracy. But I must be content with mentioning two more elements and leaving the reader to his own conclusions.

On the one hand, it is obvious that the central power in Canada is undergoing a major crisis, and not because of Quebec alone. English Canada, by giving its votes to minority parties, maintains the plague of minority governments in Ottawa, which causes increasing paralysis at the federal level.

On the other hand, all political parties in Quebec, at the provincial level, are caught in the nationalist blaze. For the first time since Confederation, they all agree on one point: the necessity for constitutional reform, with a particular emphasis on obtaining a special status for Quebec within Confederation. The provincial government, with the wholehearted support of the Opposition, has set up a committee to survey the advantages and inconveniences of complete independence. More and more, prominent politicians are advocating the status of “associate state” for our province, a solution which would leave the English-speaking provinces to their own decisions on how they would unite between themselves.

Is there a nationalist revolution going on in Quebec? The answer is not a clear no but not a definite yes, either. Contemporary Quebec is by no means in the classical condition for a nationalist revolution, and if there is a nationalist revolution going on in Quebec, it is not developing in the kind of conditions usually associated with such movements.

To make my point clear, I should like to state four unquestionable facts about our situation.

1. We, French Canadians who live in Quebec, have full control over our educational system.

In Canada, provincial parliaments have been given exclusive jurisdiction over educational matters; the provinces are sovereign states in that field. Therefore, Quebec has three French universities and a complete system of French schools over which the central government has no authority whatsoever.

2. We enjoy a degree of political freedom and civil liberties comparable only with those of the most advanced democracies.

Even the separatist movements, which openly advocate the breaking up of Confederation, can promote their ideas with complete freedom, and their spokesmen can run for public office if they so desire.

3. We live in a highly industrialized society.

Quebec’s industrialization is relatively recent and is still going on at a fairly rapid pace, although it does not yet compare with that of Ontario or the United States. But more than two thirds of the population are already engaged in industrial or administrative work and live in urban surroundings.

4. We enjoy a high standard of living.

The annual per capita income reached $1504 in Quebec in 1963, which places it well above most European countries. But one of the difficulties is that Quebec’s average is $230 below the Canadian average. Highest in Canada is Ontario, with $2019, and lowest is Newfoundland, with $1029.

Among the nations that have waged nationalistic rebellions in modern times, no other people has enjoyed even one of these freedoms or advantages. In spite of the resemblance between Ireland and Quebec, none of the four advantages did the Irish enjoy in 1921. Consider India, the African states (including North Africa, with Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria), and Cuba. In all these cases, to which we spontaneously refer when nationalism is concerned, there was present an obvious domination of the educational and cultural institutions, a more or less radical curtailment of political freedom and civil rights, a primitive economy, and, in most cases, an appallingly low standard of living.

Anyone who comes to Quebec looking for all the characteristics associated with a nationalist revolution will not find them. At least not in the statistics or in the legal textbooks. And important changes are taking place, with more to come in the near future.