Atlantic FOUNDED IN 1857
by Mordecai Richler
Only ostensibly bland and seemingly quiescent, Canada can no longer be taken for granted. This endearing northland, perennially richer in promise than in fulfillment—tomorrow country—is not merely ailing, it’s in real danger of flying apart. The center, maybe even the periphery, won’t hold. Out there in Tuktoyaktuk, Inuvik, and Aklavik, the Inuit and the Indians, yesterday’s enemies, have come together to ask for something like self-government in the vast Northwest Territories. A special status for the branch of the branch-plant. An American manufacturer, typical of a dastardly breed that would turn a profit on a neighbor’s misfortunes, has brought out “The Canadian Civil War Game.” The Russians, we have come to realize, play better and more exciting hockey than we do. And if this seems unimportant, imagine, if you will, a team of spunky Chinese, lugging their own tattered equipment, coming off the antiimperialist sandlots of Peking, a real Red Machine, to stretch the Boston Red Sox to the ninth inning of the seventh game in a World Series. Our dollar, worth $1.03 U.S. as recently as nine months ago, has diminished, as I write, to 92 cents, a mere 90 cents being offered across the counter in savvy Buffalo. And yet— and yet—with inflation and unemployment threatening to burst into double figures, the leader of the Progressive Conservative (PC) party, the official opposition, wee Joe Clark, continues to sink, the latest poll assuring him of no more than 29 percent of the vote, that support probably strongest in those parts of the country where he has yet to be seen. Not waving, but drowning.
Clark should not pass unobserved here as he can, to his chagrin but to his party’s advantage, on almost any Canadian main street. Like the prime minister himself, he has marital problems. His steely young wife, Maureen, will not answer to her married name, but insists on being called Ms. McTeer. Like Margaret Trudeau, she is outspoken, having recently implored reporters to “stop crapping all over my husband.” Actually, thirty-eight-year-old Clark, elected PC leader in 1976, everybody’s second choice at the convention, is more pitied than scorned by the press corps. Many reporters, who feel there should be some alternative to Pierre Elliott Trudeau, spin out entire columns in celebration of the fact that Clark, speaking in Toronto or Calgary, made complete sentences.
Though his fumbling and obvious lack of stature have hardly helped, Clark was really undone by the emergence of Quebec as the major issue in Canada. Following the PC leadership convention it was Clark who was riding high, very high, and the Liberals, in office since 1963, who had been reduced to a chilling 29 percent in the polls. The Liberals, I should point out, are so often in power in Ottawa that they have come to take office as their heritage and to look on elections not as a time to choose, but as an opportunity for the rest of us to applaud. With power their only unbending principle, and their support shriveling, there was even talk of dumping Trudeau. Then, presto! on November 15, 1976, out there in la belle province, René Lévesque and his Parti Québecois (PQ) rode into power, set on independence for Canada’s largest province. The heartland.
Canada is a fragile, loosely knit confederation comprised of the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and ten squabbling provinces, their interests and loyalties, largely regional, conflicting more often than not. The premiers, only ten in number, enjoy more power than the governors of American slates and are constantly embroiled in tussles with Ottawa over provincial rights. Discontent is the rule, but only Quebec wants to quit. A majority of Canadians took another look at Trudeau and decided he was needed. Badly needed.
The truth is, most of us suspect that one day the prime minister will have to sit down to the table for some hard bargaining with the premier of Quebec, and while Trudeau is easily the intellectual equal of René Lévesque, Clark, even if he sat on three telephone directories, would still have the fiery Quebec premier looking down on him. Clark is unbelievably inept. In a crucial batch of by-elections last May, one ol the candidates he extended the PC welcome wagon to was Roger Delorme of Terrebonne, a former radio hotliner. Delorme, a real charmer, had already revealed on his radio show that a mere million Jews had been burned in the Holocaust (the other live, kindling?) and furthermore, “. . . Zionist rhymes with Nazism. ... I have dealt with Zionists and Nazis and it was the same thing. . . .”
Clark stubbornly refused to disown Delorme, who stood no chance of winning, and thereby failed all at once as both opportunist and man of principle. He also suffered the indignity of having his candidate disown him. Clark, Delorme said, was largely unknown in Quebec. “I’m fighting a campaign and I haven’t got time to sell him.”
Our third major political party, the social-democratic New Democratic Party (NDP), is presently led by Ed Broadbent, an obviously nice but unfortunately loquacious man. Thrust a network microphone at him—any time, any place—and he will instantly pump out a thirty-second clip on abortion, coffee breaks, or Quebec, treating each problem as equally important. Reticence, alas, is unknown to him. If he pauses, it’s not to reflect but to swallow.
And our travails do not end there. It now appears that we will be tearing up the Yukon to build a pipeline to transport Alaskan gas to the lower forty-eight, and Canadians everywhere are beginning to worry about the small print. Especially since President Carter, beaming with obvious pleasure, pronounced Canadians “real hard bargainers.” Oh, there’s trouble, trouble everywhere. Even the pusillanimous CI3C, our national radio and TV network, which can count on only a humiliating 25 percent of the audience in areas where viewers also have a choice of American channels (everywhere but the north in fact), has suddenly come out lighting. Its chairman declared, “Our culture is being electronically raped by the Americans.” Whether by Charlie’s Angels, a prospect some who are not necessarily wanting in patriotism might endure, or the chatelaine of the Bunker household, he does not say. But all our other headaches dwindle compared to Quebec. For it is there, and only there, that a government committed to independence if necessary but not necessarily to independence has charged into office, also crying cultural rape, the offenders in this indecent assault being the electronically violated English-speaking Canadians themselves. Little, unobtrusive us.
The mind boggles.
The Inuit and the Indians claim to be a colony of white Canada, making no distinction between English and French obloquy. The Quebecois, who insist they are North America’s oldest colony, les N’ègres blancs d’Amerique, protest that they have been shamelessly exploited by English-Canadians, whom some of them compare to white Rhodesians. But, hold on, Englishspeaking Canada’s aroused nationalists shout, No, no, we are the colony, America’s patsy, our economy run as a branch-plant.
There’s some truth in all these accusations, but also a good deal of hyperbole. In an adolescent society, where the verities come in convenient halves only, and absolutely nobody is responsible for his own failures, round and round we go. It’s a dizzying time, a depressing season, this country, like Stephen Leacock’s famous horseman, riding off in all directions. And through the confusion and name-calling totters yesterday’s fool, eighty-two-year-old former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, saying to anyone who will still listen that it’s all rubbish, what’s needed is more respect for the queen.
And the prime minister too, come to think of it.
When the Watergate tapes revealed that former President Nixon had referred to Trudeau as “that asshole,” the immediate retort from Ottawa, as quoted in the New York Times, was “no comment”; an endorsement less than ringing, it seems to me.
Trudeau deserves better.
In 1964, a Montreal magazine, Cite Libre, printed a “Canadian Manifesto,” signed by seven French-Canadian intellectuals who referred to themselves as “The Committee for Political Realism.” The committee called for social justice, a fairer distribution of the wealth, and less nationalist heat.
To use nationalism as a yardstick deciding policies and priorities is both sterile and retrograde. Overflowing nationalism distorts one’s vision of reality, prevents one from seeing problems in their true perspective, falsifies solutions and constitutes a classic diversionary tactic for politicians caught by facts.
Our comments in this regard apply equally to Canadian nationalism or French-Canadian nationalism. . . . Separatism in Quebec appears to us not only as a waste of time but as a step backwards. . . . We do not attach to [Canada’s] existence any sacred or eternal meaning, but it is an historical fact. To take it apart would require an enormous expenditure of energy and gain no proven advantage. . . .
One of the signers of the manifesto was a rich University of Montreal law professor, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Among hangers-on at Cite Libre editorial conferences was a nervy, chain-smoking journalist, Rene Levesque. Even then, the relationship was abrasive. Levesque took Trudeau for a dilettante and Trudeau enjoyed puncturing Lévesque’s logic. Shortly afterward Trudeau, hitherto an NDP supporter, ran for office as a Liberal candidate.
It was on an extended visit to Ottawa in 1967 that I first met Trudeau, then minister of justice. He was the most intellectually resourceful man I encountered in the capital, but if anybody had suggested that he would succeed retiring Prime Minister Lester B. (“Mike”) Pearson as Liberal leader within months and, furthermore, ride into power with a majority government, I would have thought that person mad. Obviously this bachelor, intrepid enough to argue for an easing of laws against homosexuals, venturing that the state had no business in the nation’s bedrooms, was too chic for the prairie and maritime provinces. But ride into power he did, on waves of Trudeaumania, as it was called. For a country short on mythology, here was the promise of a hero.
When I next met Trudeau, in the spring of 1969, disenchantment had already set in. Hustle wheat, not women, the West enjoined him. The public image had begun to pall. To those who had labored through the night to elect a man they took for the compleat Gene McCarthy, it seemed, on wakening, that they had thrust Fred Astaire into office. Sliding down banisters and doing the boogaloo while Canada began to fracture. But, tiresome swinger image notwithstanding, the truth was that in private Trudeau was working assiduously all along. To see him in 1969, looking oddly fragile, even monkish, in his own sitting room, was to be totally disarmed. Once more I was struck by his candor and the feeling that, come a crisis, he had plenty to draw on. Maybe too much.
We weren’t to meet again until the October crisis of 1970, when the Quebec Liberation Front (FLQ) terrorists had already murdered Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte and were still holding British Trade Commissioner James Cross. Trudeau had already invoked a World War I security act, sending troops streaming into Montreal, claiming that there had been a “state of insurrection, real or apprehended” in the province, and when we met he adamantly insisted that, given the climate in the city following the kidnappings—abandoned streets, deserted restaurants—there had been nothing else for it. Possibly. But the War Measures Act meant that anybody could be picked up on suspicion, denied bail, and held for up to ninety days without trial. Once recovered from the initial shock, early intellectual boosters of Trudeau, especially in Toronto, turned against him.
Since then Trudeau, a man who jealously guards his private life, has suffered yet another blow, this one personal and possibly the least supportable to him: his marital troubles have made him the stuff of gossip columns here, headlines there. The Prime Minister’s stunning young wife, a mother of three yet a selfdeclared flower child, recently abandoned Ottawa to Do Her Own Thing in New York, snapping pictures for that pillar of the counterculture, People magazine, her assignment won in exchange for an embarrassing interview. The Trudeaus announced a separation, but a reconciliation of sorts has been rumored.
Trudeau, whom I saw for lunch late in September, remains a compelling figure, out of the common run of politicians in Canada, or indeed anywhere, unless he and California’s Jerry Brown are the beginning of a new wave. He was soberly optimistic about Quebec and in a fighting mood, sensitive to criticism that he was too rigid with his own people or that, conversely, as Diefenbaker had once put it, he and Levesque were peas in a pod. Though he was against special status for Quebec, there was a strong suggestion that he did have a third option, something between separation and the status quo, possibly a constitutional conference; but he was loath to reveal his hole card. “It’s because I’m a French-Canadian myself,”he said, “that I’m so opposed to separatism. Why should we be reduced to a self-inflicted ghetto? And if we become unilingual again, how will we function on this continent?" However, the Prime Minister was not displeased to see the Parti Quebecois in office at last. “Better they are in power now than five years from now. The issue has been joined and Canadians, English as well as French, will now have to make a choice.”The PQ, he suggested, rather than those who stood for federalism, feared the coming referendum in Quebec. “Or,”he said, “Levesque wouldn’t be delaying, he would be holding the referendum right now.”
All the same, he warned, gratuitously, many would protest, that uncertainty was bound to continue for some time. Especially in Montreal.
Montreal, where I live, is the center of the battleground, still lacking sufficient international sympathy only because President Carter has yet to stand at the psychological wall that divides the French from the English here—say, St. Denis Street—and proclaim, “Je suis aussi un Montrealais.”
Even so, we have never walked so tall. Pollsters test our temperature on the hour and there is hardly a taxi driver or bartender who has not had his in-depth views sought out by a hung over foreign correspondent on the fly, fresh from Belfast, en route to Beirut. Don’t knock it. Canadians of my generation, sprung to adolescence during World War II, were conditioned to believe that the world happened elsewhere. And now, suddenly, we are a bona fide trouble spot. Switch on the American evening news, the big time, or turn to the front page of the New York Times, and there we are. Real at last. Edge City.
Aislin is the pen name of Terry Mosher, author of Hockey Night in Moscow, ‘Elio, Morgentaler?, and other books of caricatures. He is a regular cartoonist for the Montreal Gazette.
Here, we don’t sneak into print by seizing a hundred pounds of heroin, worth untold millions on the street. Or by grabbing a cache of cocaine landed by glider in a remote cow pasture. When the intrepid Quebec police pounce, it’s the stuff that deserves to make headlines the world over. One night a friend phoned from Beverly Hills to say he had read in the Los Angeles Times that police had seized 15,000 Dunkin’ Donut bags in Montreal and, hard put to contain his laughter, he asked if it was true.
“Damn right it is,”I said.
“Because they weren’t bilingual.”
The population of Quebec is 6.23 million, of whom almost 5 million are French-Canadian, their culture, separatist spokesmen insist, incredibly vibrant on the one hand, yet desperately in need of protection on the other. It’s very, very confusing, even to somebody who lives here. Anyway, roughly another 800,000, including 1 15,000 Jews, are classed as anglophones (English-speaking), and the rest are recent immigrants, largely of Italian, Greek, or Portuguese origin. Most of Quebec’s WASPs, Jews, and recent immigrants are rooted in Montreal, its total population something over 2 million, 35 percent of whom are regarded as English-speaking.
It’s one of many Canadian ironies that disgustingly rich Toronto, the hothed of English-Canadian nationalism, could easily be mistaken for American. But Montreal is unique among North American cities, a place to be cherished. Look at it this way. Our favorite little restaurant here is called Le Pickwick, its cuisine indubitably French, its decor Dickensian. We also boast, as The New Yorker once noted, something called the Notre Dame de Grace Kosher Meat Mart. And the majority of marchers in our annual St. Patrick’s Day parade are French-speaking, even if they are named Ryan or Bourke: Jean-Guy Ryan, Euclid Bourke. The last time I saw Rene Levesque, he protested, “Don’t give me that shit about this being a cosmopolitan city and how we’re going to spoil all that.”
But now the grim ideologues of the PQ are threatening to take down all the city’s bilingual signs and put up in their place French-only signs, hardly a life-enhancing act. Oh dear, oh dear, these are indeed days to try the souls and property values—often interchangeable—of English-speaking Montrealers. No time for sunshine patriots or real estate developers. There seem to be more “For Sale—A Vendre signs than impatiens out on the lawns of the privileged suburb of Westmount, traditional preserve of the rich, and rare is the West Island home that cannot be had at a bargain price. The value of property in largely anglophone Westmount has plummeted an estimated 30 percent in the last fifteen months and, according to CanaData, new construction by business in Quebec fell 43 percent in the first five months of 1977 as compared to the same period last year. No sooner do young graduates pick up their degrees in dentistry or engineering than they book a flight out of town. Many bank accounts have been cleaned out and safety deposit boxes emptied, and the border bad towns in Ontario, Vermont, and New York State are bulging with treasure. The Cubans, the Russians, and of course the CIA are rumored to be up to their dirty tricks. A purported agent of the Deuxieme Bureau had his cover blown by the press one morning, denials grudgingly printed the next. Young families are pulling out, station wagons west; old businesses are creeping out of town on tippy-toe. American tourists were hardly anywhere to be seen in the city this summer. Possibly, they were sulking at home because they heard they were unloved here, or maybe they had been so ill-advised as to fear French-Canadian violence. In any event, the hotels were hurting. And every morning we open our newspapers, such as they are, to read that yet another company has done a midnight flit, its ashen-faced spokesman announcing without so much as a wink, “The departure of our head office to Toronto has been on the drawing board for years and has nothing whatsoever to do with the present political situation in Quebec.” Oh yes, yes indeed.
In the absence of Torquemada, Quebec’s minister of cultural development, Camille Laurin, his manner insufferably patronizing or heroic, depending on where you pay your political dues, lectures recalcitrant anglophones daily. A fifty-five-year-old psychiatrist who dyes his hair black, Laurin is primary spokesman for the controversial Bill 101, which makes French the official language of Quebec and the province unilingual. Laurin “relaxes” the unclean at public hearings rather than in proper auto-da-fe. We are overprivileged and reactionary, lie says, and must begin to think positively, but he also protests that there is nothing bigoted in the term “Quebecois.”Anybody who lives in Quebec, Premier Levesque has said, and pays his taxes here is a Quebecois and, he failed to add, by extension also a Canadian, for the larger chunk of our taxes is still paid to Ottawa. What he did add later was even more unnerving. When the premier appointed Robert Boyd head of Hydro-Quebec, the largest public utility corporation in North America, he hastily pointed out to the faithful that, in spite of his anglo-sounding name, Boyd was a proper Quebecois, that is to say, of French origin, and not one of the oppressors. Or, put another way, in the new order all animals on the farm will be equal unto the Quebec tax collector, but do not ask for too much.
Quebec is seething.
One day late last spring I pulled into a filling station on Lake Memphremagog, in the rolling country of this province’s once idyllic Eastern Townships, where for years the descendants of United Empire Loyalists and French-Canadians have been farming together peacefully.
“WherE’d you get that?” the attendant exclaimed enthusiastically.
He meant the sticker on my somewhat battered 1973 Peugeot station wagon, which reads, against a background of merry musical notes, “I’m happy to be a Canadian.” I explained that it had been fixed to the rear window late one night two years ago, a prank by a good friend. He hadn’t realized then, and neither had I, that yesterday’s joke would become today’s battle cry.
“Don’t worry about me,”the attendant said. “I was born right here and I’m not going anywhere. Eve got my hunting guns oiled and I’m just waiting for those bastards.”
Those bastards, until November 15, 1976, most assuredly meant the Americans. Our absentee landlords. Since then, however, as far as too many anglophones are concerned, it means only one thing—those ungrateful, exasperating, and ever-demanding French-Canadians (sore losers to a man, brooding ever since they lost the day in 1759 on the Plains of Abraham) who, to our horror and their amazement, voted the separatist PQ into power on November 15, deposing a Liberal government with 102 seats out of a possible 110, the largest majority in the history of the province. Considering that the PQ was formed only in 1968, it was a remarkable political accomplishment. The separatists had endured to win 70 new seats and form a government out of what Trudeau, only a few years earlier, had disdainfully dismissed as not so much a party as a particle. Some particle.
No matter what happens next, true independence, sovereignty with association, a new constitution, economic civil war, the marines following the route of Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys into Montreal, seizing the Seaway, one thing is resoundingly clear: Canada will never be the same. The real opposition, rather than the floundering Progressive (yet) Conservative party, has been heard from, and they want out, an end to this marriage of convenience that is called Canada. Mind you, they want out with a favorable property settlement. A little understanding, a lot of alimony. And maybe something like a joint bank account maintained.
The motto of Quebec is “Je me souviens,” and what they remember with something like total recall is the British conquest in 1759 and the colony’s subsequent abandonment by France until 1967—our Expo year—when General de Gaulle, suddenly remembering his long-lost brethren, sent a chill down Canada’s spine by shouting the separatist slogan “Vive le Quebec libre!” from the balcony of Montreal’s City Hall.
French Canada’s loyalty to the crown was first tested by uppity American rebels in 1774, when the not-quite-Continental Congress invited the French to abandon their British masters and “seize the opportunity presented to you by Providence itself.” But even when the American irregulars, taking the Ho Chi Minh Trail of their day, captured Montreal, the French, possibly remembering their earlier wars against the “Bastonnais,” stood aside. In 1837, however, les Patriotes rose in brief armed rebellion against the British. The rising was ruthlessly put down. Afterward Lord Durham wrote that French-Canadians “brood in sullen silence over the memory of their fallen countrymen, of their burnt villages, of their ruined property ... of their humbled nationality,” and he anticipated “an indiscriminating and eternal animosity.” But one of the veterans of the rebellion, George Etienne Cartier, took French Canada into Confederation in 1867, a bartered bride, pronouncing it the lesser of two evils. “We must either have a confederation of British North America or be absorbed by the American union.”
Under the terms of Confederation, Quebec was granted control of its own educational system and legal code. But tensions between what Hugh MacLennan, in a memorable phrase, called “the two solitudes” continued to smolder, yielding a good deal of this country’s appeal and creative energy as well as its dark underside, a fearful resentment.
“OF COURSE IT’S DIFFICULT FOR OUTSIDES TO GRASP THE SUBTLE COMPLEXITIES OF THE SITUATION HERE IN QUÉBEC”
In 1956, Trudeau described French-Canadians as “a people vanquished, occupied, leaderless, kept aside from business life and away from the cities, gradually reduced to a minority role and deprived of influence in a country which, after all, it had discovered, explored, and settled. . . Since then, of course, he has bet his political life—a wager still on the table, the rest of us serving as chips—on a bilingual Canada. A country where not everybody need speak both languages, but each would be entitled to his own. A society where French-Canadians, rather than retreat into a sullen ghetto, the windows slammed shut, the doors bolted, could feel at home from sea to sea. Trudeau, for all his failings-an unseemly arrogance, a tendency to strike back petulantly at times—has a dream, and, were it only sweetened by real constitutional change, it is one that most Canadians, F.nglish or French, would buy.
There is a snag, however: Rene Levesque.
If once French Canada was leaderless, it is now being pulled in absolutely contrary directions by the two Canadian politicians of size in their generation, one talking to their heads, the other appealing to their hearts. And French Canada, endearingly, supports the two of them.
I asked Trudeau if, fearful of an English-Canadian backlash, he felt compromised in how far he could go to accommodate Quebec, being French-Canadian himself. Emphatically no, he said, but, come the utterly unthinkable, separation, he would, as he has already stated publicly, resign rather than negotiate. He also pointed out that the PQ never would have come to power had not the provincial Liberal government been so unpopular. So second-rate, he might have added. In that case, I asked, was it not possible, when he and the other so-called Wise Men declared for Ottawa and the Liberal party, that they erred in not leaving somebody of stature behind to mind the provincial shop? Going to Ottawa, he said, was absolutely necessary at the time, if only to convince Erench Canada that the Quebecois were acceptable op the highest levels there, and that it was their country, too.
At the moment, not only the prime minister but also the governor-general, the minister of finance, and the minister in charge of federal-provincial relations are Quebecois.
In 1964, speaking out against traditional FrenchCanadian nationalists, Levesque complained, “Our elites scorned or disregarded the economic role of the state. In their eyes, the state had only one role: to act as a kind of insurance company and supplier of technical services to the large corporations. It was a colonial regime, supported by negro-kings, which sustained an economic system where Quebec was absent.”
Levesque, a lean and romantic figure, a people’s tribune, was not a separatist in the first instance. A popular TV journalist, he entered political life in 1960, a candidate of the provincial Liberal party, and went on to become the most charismatic cabinet member of the best government we ever had here, the reform government of Premier Jean Lesage. In 1967, with the Liberals in opposition again in Quebec, a discontented Levesque walked out on the party to form the PQ out of two separatist fringe groups, and thus bestowed on French-Canadian nationalists what they had lacked until then: credibility and a celebrated presence.
Where Trudeau is admired, Levesque is loved. Through him, the Quebecois have undoubtedly rediscovered their pride and surprising muscle and, understandably, this is proving very heady stuff. The government that came into power on November 15, 1976, is not mincing words. The reconquest, stated the first published draft of their language bill, has begun.
Recently, I called Quebec City, trying to reach Claude Morin, Levesque’s minister of intergovernmental affairs.
“Where are you calling from?” his secretary asked,
“Lake Memphremagog. The Eastern Townships.”
“What country is that in?” she asked.
I could have said Canada, but I did not wish to be unnecessarily provocative, so I said, “It’s still in Quebec, my dear.”
Lévesque, enormously sensitive to criticism in the United States, has protested that American journalists hearken to Ottawa’s sweet talk, but never seek him out. Some try, but not all get to see him. Possibly, like me, they find him impossible to reach. I regret that three weeks of negotiations with his office, many a phone call unreturned, failed to yield an interview.
Jacques Parizeau, Quebec’s portly minister of finance, adding a grace note of his own to our present conundrums, said he didn’t mind all the anglos fleeing Westmount, it would make the mansions there cheaper for his chums when it came time for them to move in, administering social democracy de haut en bas. And Jean-Pierre Charbonneau, a purist among PQ backbenchers, has argued that it makes no difference if the anglophones try to adjust. “They could all be bilingual tomorrow morning, this wouldn’t change the fact that they think and live in English.”
So far, it is not an offense to think in English here, but, like all English-speaking Quebecers, I have my nightmares. I see my nine-year-old being tossed in the unilingual slammer, having copped three years for eating alphabet soup whose letters were proven to be without accents grave or aigu.
What is it you really want,” I asked Gerald Godin, “a new marriage contract?”
Godin, an amiable poet and publisher, had unseated former Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa in his own riding. “Yes,” he said.
“Then why are you asking for separation?”
Godin and I, along with Michel Tremblay, Quebec’s most celebrated playwright, had just appeared on a TV talk show together. “You can’t be a Quebecois, thirty-four, and intelligent,” Tremblay had said, “and not be a separatist.” In an interview in The Canadian, he added that he could not forgive the English. “They never respected us. Never. For me it isn’t a case of economics or statistics. Just a lack of respect. And I don’t mean the English of Toronto or Calgary, but the English of Quebec. They lived here, a minority, but didn’t respect the majority enough to learn its language.”
The PQ’s controversial language legislation. Bill 101, is something the English-speaking people of this province brought on themselves by the infuriating refusal of so many in high and influential places to learn French. In a province where 80 percent are French-speaking, it was incumbent on any of them who would aspire to rise above the factory floor to be fluent in English, and even then only a modest proportion of the top positions were available to them. The truth is that in this society, which has been called a vertical mosaic rather than a melting pot, it was the WASPs who were at the pinnacle and the adorable, saucy French-Canadians who were expected to tote the bales. Through all the years of my boyhood here hardly a French-Canadian (or a Jew, for that matter) could be seen in the exclusive WASP dining and country clubs. McGill University, an anglophone citadel, was insultingly indifferent to the French-Canadian society that surrounded it, and maintained a quota on Jewish students.
So there is a vengeful side of me that claps hands each time the PQ minister of retribution, Camille Laurin, lectures the WASPs on their need to cultivate manners more appropriate to a minority; a part of me that responds with glee when I see, on televised news clips of the language bill hearings, that they have swiftly grasped lesson number one, how to smile ingratiatingly and make noises calculated to please, latterday Stepin Fetchits, even as they are seething inside. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Once indifferent to anything but their own appetites and undisputed rightof-way, they have belatedly learned to speak up for the rights of the individual in a civilized society. Oh yes, yes indeed, those same pillars of the Protestant community who for years would not suffer a Jew to sit on their stock exchange or teach in the school system that was common to both of us, yesterday’s sweeties, have now learned to plead for their children’s right to be taught in English.
But, having savored their discomfort, I am fearful that what we are really seeing is not the coming of justice but rather one form of intolerance displacing another. A bill to certify the supremacy of French here is one thing, but it is something else again to agree that the existence of a thriving English-speaking minority is a menace to the very survival of the French language and culture in Quebec.
Quebecois fears, clearly stated, are twofold. If the language of business within the province does not become indisputably French, the anglophones will continue in their dominant role. If immigrants are allowed to educate their children in the language of success in North America, the French will eventually become a minority at home and their culture will gradually fade away. Legitimate concern is one thing, cultural paranoia another. No matter what the PQ legislates, the language of international head offices will continue to be English, as a committee of the PQ’s own creation discovered when it embarked on a European tour. Obviously head offices here should be bilingual, but Quebec, like it or not, is an island in an English-speaking sea, and it would be folly to pretend that the province can be complete unto itself, as a country its size easily could be in another Europe. And while it is acceptable that future immigrants to Quebec, warned ahead of time, would have to educate their children in French, it is a cruel breach of faith to impose this on immigrants already landed here.
A clause in the language bill, which calls for “francization” of all businesses, is to be enforced by language inspectors. For those of us who were raised in Quebec, familiar with its petty officials, this seems a clear invitation to zealotry or corruption. One manner of inspector, pinched and officious, his shoulders salted with dandruff, will disqualify a Greek restaurant if he hears a scalded kitchen hand curse in his native tongue. But even more commonplace will be the fat, incomparably good-natured official, spiritual brother to our sticky-fingered fire and meat inspectors, who will go out to three-hour lunches with clothing manufacturers, taking a thick envelope under the table to pronounce a cutting-room floor linguistically pure.
Bill 101 does not take into account the heartening changes that have already occurred in Quebec. Increasingly, anglophone families are sending their children to French schools or schools with French immersion courses. This bill, which the Englishspeaking are fighting with such a passion, should be even more worrying to the French. With its concentration on French studies, to the exclusion of improved English teaching within the French school system, it virtually guarantees that yet another generation of Quebecois will be raised unilingually, held back by nationalism as they once were by a church-dominated school system.
The PQ charged into office riding a protest vote. The preceding Liberal government of Robert Bourassa was not only scandal-ridden but had already alienated English-speaking voters, especially immigrants, with a tough language bill of its own, Bill 22, an ill-advised attempt to outflank the PQ. Bourassa called an unnecessary election, his thinking being that he could defeat the PQ one more time, Levesque would then retire, and the party would be diminished as a serious threat. He was wrong on all counts. The PQ, which was elected with 41 percent of the popular vote, displacing a government that had come to be held in contempt by most Quebecers, separatist or not, shrewdly chose not to run on an independence platform this time out, though it was always there, the sustaining floor of their political structure. Instead, they seized the day, promising an electorate weary of strikes, corruption, and ineptitude un vrai gouvernement to be followed by a referendum before any move toward independence. I suggested to Gerald Godin, as we continued to drink together after the TV show, that if I were in his boots I would negotiate with Ottawa now, from a certain strength, as I expected the PQ could not win a majority in a referendum where the choices were unambiguously stated. The Quebecois were simply too conservative to opt out. Godin disagreed. Then, as 1 drove back to our cottage on Lake Memphremagog, my station wagon broke down on the highway and a police car pulled up behind me. While I sat with the young French-Canadian cop. waiting for a tow truck, the chat turned to politics and 1 asked him what he thought of the present government. “I saw that bunch on TV on November 15,” he said; “you know, in the Paul Sauve Arena. Some of those guys were wearing overalls. What do you call them—Oshkosh, Bigosh? Others had long hair or beards. Listen here, you work, I work. Those bastards don’t work.”
The Pequistes (members of the PQ) were dubbed “those bastards” on the eve of the election by Charles Bronfman, addressing 400 Jewish community leaders in Montreal. He warned his audience, “Make no mistake, those bastards are out to kill us,” and he added that if they were elected, against his advice, he would pack up his toys and quit the province. His toys, far from negligible, include the head offices of Seagrams (Canada), and Cemp, the Bronfman family investment trust, its estimated worth 800 millions, as well as the feckless Montreal Expos, founded a year after the PQ, but still traditionally last in the National League.
I am assured that a prescient hasidic rabbi immediately rose to protest. “If you leave, Mr. Bronfman, what happens to the rest of us? After all, we haven’t all got private 707s, or whatever, at our disposal.”
On second thought, after the election, a rueful Bronfman decided to stay put after all. And, to his credit, the newly elected Levesque responded with panache. We are all just a little overexcited right now, he said. But, obviously a baseball buff, he also allowed that the Expos might benefit from new management.
To be fair, fears of anti-Semitism are not altogether invalid. There have been precedents, and nobody was reassured when joyous PQ supporters sang a French version of “Tomorrow Belongs To Me,” the chilling Hitler Youth song from Cabaret, at their victory rally. In fact it is now estimated that between 10 and 25 percent of Montreal’s 115,000 Jews, most of them young, will have quit the city by the year’s end, not all of them fleeing their mothers.
Mind you, over-reaction to the PQ’s triumph has not been confined to Jews. In a recent issue of Maclean’s, the Canadian approximation of Time and Newsweek, the distinguished if aging Canadian historian Donald Creighton ventured, in an intemperate article entitled “No MORE CONCESSIONS, If Quebec Goes, Let It Not Be With Impunity,” that for thirtythree years, “Quebec has been playing the politics of political blackmail.” They are to be appeased no longer. If they go, let them leave Confederation as they entered it in 1867, without the District of Ungava, the northern and larger half of the province, once part of the Northwest Territories; and “minus, of course, the territory of Labrador,” which was awarded to Newfoundland in 1927. Les maudits Quebecois will also have to concede a St. Lawrence Seaway corridor, to be under joint Canadian-American control. There would be no more bilingualism in the rest of Canada. Or garlic in salad dressing. But Creighton, not totally blinded by rage, did stop short of demanding that Levesque and his cabinet be hanged.
Among other mad and foolish things, there has sprung up in Montreal itself a movement for an eleventh province that would save anglophone areas of Quebec—Westmount, Montreal’s West Island, the Eastern Townships for Canada, creating something of a Palestinian state on our own west bank, as it were.
Some of the French are also over-reacting. Or talking nonsense.
In the county of Hull, an especially deep PQ constituency group, taking the long view, resolved that the new country of Quebec should adopt a pacifist foreign policy, which is to say, you can relax out there, we are not about to reclaim Louisiana or other American territories first discovered by the French.
And in a silly attempt to patch together an instant mythology, the search for usable heroes has led the PQ shamelessly to dust off a statue of Maurice Duplessis, hidden in a government warehouse for years, and plunk it down in a prominent position in front of the National Assembly. Ironically, Levesque came into politics to fight everything the wretched Duplessis ever stood for. At the time, he referred to the generation that had endured Duplessis as one that had been “cursed” and “damned.” Duplessis, I should explain, leader of the once mighty Union Nationale, was premier of Quebec for twenty years, sixteen of them, from 1944 until his death in 1959, uninterrupted. His two decades of dictatorial rule, known as the era of la grande noirceur, “the great darkness,” were notorious for cynicism and corruption on a fabled scale, vicious union-bashing, provincial police shooting at strikers, and an almost total lapse of civil liberties under the quasi-fascist Padlock Law, which enabled ”le Chef,"' as he was known, to shut down any establishment he judged subversive.
Je me souviens aussi. I was raised during the Duplessis years and cherish memories of the era, among them the time one of his acolytes handed me, on the eve of an election, a pamphlet warning the people against the perfidy of Jewish financiers. It showed a bearded Jew with a bulbous nose, actually drooling as he gathered bags of gold unto himself. I also recall, during World War II, one of Duplessis’s backbenchers standing up with impunity in the Assembly to protest that Jewish doctors were being allowed to handle naked Gentile flesh in army induction centers. The children of the shtetl goosing the progeny of voyageurs, asking them to cough in English. Such, such are the joys of cultural pluralism. But Duplessis was also a nationalist, his government highly autonomist in style, and that’s why his memory is being burnished.
Meanwhile, on the highest levels of political action on both the separatist and the national unity fronts, a humiliating common denominator, symbolic of the crux of the real Canadian dilemma, prevails. Given a spot of trouble in the northern dorm, even the most promising lads in the branch-plant school must report, cap in hand, to the principal’s office. No sooner was Levesque elected, independence his long suit, than he got a shave and a shoeshine and revealed where our true dependence lies: he flew down to New York to sup with the bankers there, attempting to reassure them in an unfortunate speech that, while separation was inevitable, the Quebecois, unlike the Cubans, would be well-behaved neighbors. We wouldn’t pick our toes, we wouldn’t nationalize American holdings. Shortly afterward a jaunty Prime Minister Trudeau pinned a carnation into his lapel and hurried down to Washington to tell some senators, and an even larger audience of page boys, that, though the lads in the French sixth form were being obstreperous, Quebec would certainly not separate.
Anglophone Canadians and Quebecois, equally concerned about their future, were obliged to watch their leaders, speaking in another country, making their position clear to us on this one for the first time since the November 15 election.
To think that this country once seemed serene beyond compare, serene to the point of boredom, not so much ruled as mismanaged, a succession of governments peddling our natural resources to the United States, selling them off dirt cheap without a thought for tomorrow.
All the same, we once had real class here. No flag. On a visit to Toronto during the fifties, Mort Sahl was cornered by an indignant reporter. “Do you realize, the reporter said, “this country hasn’t even got a flag?”
“That’s a start,” Sahl replied.
In 1965, we finally got a flag of our own, and these being inflationary days, we may soon have two or maybe three or more. For, if Quebec goes, it is entirely possible that British Columbia may be the next to opt out. And then maybe oil-rich Alberta.
Yesterday’s profligate vendors of our natural wealth have done a good deal to create today’s acrimony. Canadians, the younger generation in particular, are all at once fiercely nationalistic and anti-American in spirit. As the Quebecois blame us for all our pratfalls, so we lay all our failures at the big feet of the Americans. Utterly baffled Americans. The problem is that there is sufficient truth in both charges to make a case, a case riddled with convenient distortions and more than one self-serving omission, but convincing enough all the same to enlist the hearts of people who are honestly concerned. Separatists here, nationalists there. Some of our brightest, a few of our best, and a good many with their eyes on the main political chance.
Mel Hurtig, a leading nationalist spokesman, thumps the drum out of a small publisher’s office in Edmonton. On one wall, a huge map of Canada swarms with colored pins, denoting any city or town where Hurtig has been invited to speak. The opposite wall is plastered with newspaper clippings about Hurtig, enshrining the pages of any publication, however humble, that was good enough to mention him. Hurtig argues that about $665,000 in Canadian funds leaves the country every hour of the day—80 percent going to the United States. Foreign ownership in Canada, largely American, exceeds $ 100 billion. “A breakdown of foreign investment in Canadian industry shows manufacturing is 60 percent foreign-dominated. Oil and gas 90, aircraft 92, computor 91, electrical 88, tobacco products 90, machinery 78, petroleum refining 99.9, mining 64, rubber 93, auto 97, chemical 89, mineral fuels 81, and smelting and refining 85.”
Even if these figures are not absolutely accurate, it is obviously a sorry state of affairs, strongly in need of corrective measures. The pleasures of living in a branch-plant economy, largely those of a kibbitzer, are not to be sneezed at. If, for instance, there is war in Vietnam, we can, even while we do piecework for the aggressors in private, plead for peace in public. We delight in lecturing the other America on its treatment of blacks, even as we keep them out of here. But there are also problems in being a branch-plant. Dividends earned on Canadian wealth are invested or spent out of the country. Indigenous capitalists, a sentimental bunch, tend to store their profits in Bermuda, which at least shares our British traditions, but the ugly Americans clip their coupons at home. Something else. Too many of our natural resources are railroaded south to be refined, creating no jobs here. Decisions involving our industries are made outside the country, the head office’s priorities, not a community’s dependency on the branch-plant, being the primary consideration. Beyond that there is the question of pride. We are not, as the Quebecois once put it so eloquently, maîtres chez nous. But nationalist spokesmen, their rhetoric overheated, seldom tell the whole story. No matter what we legislate, while we are 23 million and you are 215, we will continue to be culturally and economically dependent on the United States to a degree.
English-speaking Canadian nationalists and Quebec separatists have more than grievance-collecting in common. Both movements are elitist, middle-class, finding their largest support in universities, among intellectual journalists and politicians, lawyers and other professional men. Not surprisingly they are short of working-class support; the man on the factory floor, whether in Ontario or Quebec, understandably is not concerned as to who exploits him, homebred or foreign capitalist, so much as he craves a fairer share of the cake for himself and his family, no matter who ultimately carves it up.
In blaming the Americans because to some extent we became tenant farmers on our own estate, nationalists do not allow that U.S. entrepreneurs were filling an astonishing investment vacuum of our own making. Our real dilemma, perhaps unique in the Western world, was that we lacked an indigenous buccaneering capitalist class, indifferent to those whom they exploited, but imaginative nation-builders all the same. Our problem was a failure of nerve. Inept and timorous capitalists, not builders but vendors, or, at best, circumspect investors in insurance and trust companies. If the business-minded, pre-World War I American boy, at the age of sixteen, was dreaming of how to conquer and market the rest of the world, his Canadian equivalent was already seeking a position with an unrivaled pension scheme. We both suffer and benefit from American appetite. Their ignorance of matters Canadian is insulting, their indifference sometimes maddening, but our adolescent society, with so much to recommend itself, will come of age only when it answers to its own shortcomings.
While it is true that for years the Quebecois were treated as second-class citizens by the rulers of Montreal’s St. James Street, who controlled the levers of financial power in the province, it is also fair to point out that they were held back by their own educational system. Antiquated and churchridden, emphasizing family verities, it eschewed materialism and its rewards: a spiritually praiseworthy but, alas, impractical stance, which left the financial fields to be plowed by the uncultured anglophones. The anglophones didn’t protest, no sir, they rubbed their hands together gleefully, putting French-Canadian shoulders to wheels they spun for their own fun and profit. But if this economic imbalance, certainly unjust, has already begun to be remedied, it is owing not to the PQ but to the Liberal government of Jean Lesage, which came into power in 1960, bringing us the so-called “quiet revolution”—much-needed reforms in education and, among other first-rate measures, the nationalization of our power system, a long overdue takeover that was largely the work of Rene Levesque.
The nationalists and separatists also share an unfortunate arrogance. The very name Parti Quebecois, which Levesque once had the good taste to object to, suggests that anybody who is not of it is of necessity against Quebec, beyond the pale. The more militant Pequistes are in the tiresome habit of branding those Quebecers who went to Ottawa—numerous civil servants, Trudeau, and the Quebecois members of his cabinet—not as ideological opponents, in honest disagreement with them about the direction this country should take, but as traitors pure and simple. Federastes, vendus. This officious line, gathering all virtue unto itself, is nowhere more in evidence than in the lean and hungry figure of Camille Laurin, minister of cultural development. His language bill, he has argued, is absolutely necessary if the French are to claim their rightful place in the economic sun. But more than 300 francophone business leaders, who have already claimed that place, signed a letter objecting to the bill, saying they found some of its clauses “almost odious.” While they were in fundamental agreement that French must become the undisputed language of the province, they feared that if the bill were adopted without making adequate provision for the teaching of English, “We French-speaking people of North America will quickly fall into functional illiteracy.” Laurin immediately snapped back that these businessmen were the lackeys of the English establishment. This brought the editor of Le Devoir, Montreal’s only newspaper of any intellectual distinction, into play. Michel Roy reproached Laurin for the narrowness of his vision. “On one side there are good Quebecers, those who share his convictions; on the other side are the bad Quebecers, who, daring to utter a few reservations, are therefore in the pay of the enemy.”
Similarly, those in English-speaking Canada who do not endorse the more outlandish assumptions of The Committee for an Independent Canada, blaming the Americans for just about everything that is wrong here, are presumed to be for an even more dependent Canada. Or, what is worse, in the pay of the CIA.
Separatists, like nationalists, have yielded too often to self-pity, distinguishing themselves as injusticecollectors more than anything else. Take, for instance, the solipsistic theory of the Quebecois as the “white nigger,” an idea advanced by Pierre Vallieres in his N’ègres blancs d’Amerique. The theory, which originated some years ago with Andre Laurendeau, then editor of Le Devoir, suggested that the real rulers of Quebec (the English) used a French-Canadian chieftain (Duplessis) to govern the province, just as colonial powers used African puppets to keep their tribes quiescent. This, of course, before the resurrection of Duplessis as hero.
The analogy, albeit a clever one, has always struck me as suspect on more than one count. Though some anglophones may have been pleased with the reactionary Duplessis, French-Canadians, unlike the southern blacks, had the vote. I’ll go further. Many of them had fifteen or twenty votes, for ballot-stuffing was the rule in the halcyon days of the Union Nationale. So if I was raised in a notoriously corrupt province, it was, no matter how artfully you slice it, an overwhelmingly French-Canadian electoral majority that boosted the government into office and kept it there and kept it there. Raising the ante after the fact, revising our history to hold English-speaking Quebecers responsible for all the province’s deficiencies, does not enhance Quebec’s case.
Neither does it behoove our fulminating cultural nationalists to play the fool so often. Most recently, working through ACTRA (the Association of Canadian TV and Radio Artists), they succeeded in banning a promised CBC radio production of the Stratford Festival’s lavishly praised Richard III, because the radio version would have featured the Stratford cast of Maggie Smith, Brian Bedford, and Margaret Tyzack. Bloody foreigners, the lot. Like Shakespeare himself.
ACTRA’s meritricious case was based on the fact that some Canadian performers do find it difficult to obtain work permits abroad and, furthermore, that the CBC will not allow the union to decide which foreigners are acceptable here. The CBC, the union maintains, should employ predominantly Canadian talent. Fair enough. But the truth is that out of 3607 performers engaged by CBC-TV last year, only nine were foreign devils. And working together in the name of forging a national identity, they produced little that was intelligent, entertaining, or even laid a claim to being anything more than second-rate American pap.
I sometimes think that our official cultural policy, closely examined, would prove to be essentially Stalinist. It is based on the assumption that mediocrity here, like communism there, can succeed, if only it is sufficiently subsidized by the Canada Council. Me, 1 remain a Trotskyite on both counts. Though I long to watch the CBC, most of the programs 1 want are on American PBS, which comes to me out of Vermont. I look to Maclean’s for news of the country (and, to be fair, the funniest political columnist in Canada, Alan Fotheringham). I take Montreal’s two English-language dailies for local and sports news. But I would be lost without the New York Times, Time, and The New York Review of Books, among other cultural imports. Those crazed nationalists who would actually remove foreign literature from our public library shelves to accommodate more Canadians remind me of World War I bigots who wanted to ban the playing of Wagner or Mozart for the duration. Playwrights and film-makers who demand that the government legislate what talent has denied so many of them, an audience, by imposing quotas on our theaters and cinemas, make me shudder. It should be obvious that a culture that cannot stand comparison with what is being produced beyond the country’s frontiers is not worth saving. Furthermore, the protective measures some nationalists would like to see enforced are an embarrassment to the best of our artists, the few who can compete. Say, Robertson Davies and Margaret Atwood, or Gabrielle Roy and Marie-Claire Blais.
All but the most obdurate Quebecois should grasp that their highly vaunted culture, essentially parochial, has a better chance of surviving on this continent within the confines of Confederation (English-speaking Canadians, many of them bilingual, acting as a buffer) than it ever would should the province separate, finding itself adrift in an utterly anglophone sea. As things stand, the best French-Canadian film ever made, Mon Oncle Antoine, was financed by the National Film Board of Canada, and there is hardly a separatist publisher, writer, or painter who does not also stand in the breadline of yet another federal agency, the Canada Council. Similarly, English-Canadian nationalists, consumed by anti-Americanism, need only glance at the map to appreciate that if we are bordered on one side by voracious commercial appetite and a culture of a daunting vitality, we look out on the other at the Gulag Archipelago.
For all our difficulties with the United States, real and imagined, we are fortunate in our neighbors. Both English and French Canadians must come to terms with continental realities before the ship of state sinks, a bickering bankrupt. We can certainly negotiate fewer branch-plant humiliations, more independence, but we can’t saw the continent apart on the 49th Parallel. Or the Ontario border. And, obviously, we are stronger together.
There are, I should point out, many Canadian voices calling for an end to acrimony here. Prime Minister Trudeau has said that he is ready and willing to discuss constitutional change for Quebec. He visualizes an increasingly bilingual Canada, where there is genuine acceptance of a newly dynamic Frenchspeaking community, centered in but not confined to Quebec. Others, including many English-speaking intellectuals, would go even further to accommodate the Quebecois. They feel strongly that both English and French Canadians would be culturally diminished apart. It is worth noting that the most eloquent spokesman for English minority rights within Quebec is Claude Ryan, publisher of Le Devoir, a Quebecois himself. And it should also be said that even as Canada is confronted with the real possibility of dismemberment, the debate, some strident voices aside, is still informed by an amazing civility. Troops are not being threatened on the one side, or a Unilateral Declaration of Independence on the other. And the streets of Montreal are far from turbulent, as everyone waits for Quebec to pronounce on its fate.
Though I didn’t vote for them, I welcomed the victory of the Parti Quebecois on November 15, 1976. After years of dithering, it promised that the real issue that divided this drafty house against itself would at last be joined. It also meant something else to me. I grew up in a Canada where we found our own politics ineffably boring, but now, wherever I wander in this country, everybody is worrying about its possible extinction. They care, I care. The PQ has made us absorbing to ourselves as never before.
As I write, a year after the PQ came into office, support for outright separation has actually diminished here. The latest Gallup Poll shows 19 percent of Quebecers for separation, 70 percent opposed, and 10 percent undecided. Last February, the figures were 20 percent for, 63 against, and 14 percent undecided. Possibly the trouble is that the PQ, having raised high expectations, has not really performed very well. They have yet to prove themselves un vrai gouvernement. Indeed, for a party which pulled off a political miracle, they seem a grim bunch, almost entirely without joy. Even Rene Levesque, an engaging man, seems uncharacteristically petulant a good deal of the time, lashing out at Ottawa one day, at the anglophones of Quebec another.
With the language bill out of the way, the government will now undoubtedly concentrate on the referendum, its timing, and the phrasing of the vital question. Most of us fear we will not be asked outright, Are you or are you not in favor of an independent Quebec? because even if the polls are somewhat inaccurate, even if support for separation virtually doubled, the PQ could hardly claim a mandate for independence with only 40 percent in favor. So, the likelihood is that we will be asked something like, Are you in favor of negotiating more cultural sovereignty with Ottawa? a larger tax rebate to the province? cheaper gin? a shorter work week? a longer life? Something we could all support with a resounding Yes. But in that case nothing will have been settled and the PQ will have proven itself a through-the-looking-glass government, a dotty office they sometimes seem to be filling anyway. After all, they have already blessed us with the highest minimum hourly wage in Canada, three dollars, to go with an unemployment rate of 10.3 percent. You might not be able to find work here, but if you could, the pay would be just fine.
The referendum, whenever it comes, will not make for halcyon days. It is the yahoos on both sides who will be most clearly heard from. There will be rallies for Canada in the West End of Montreal, celebrations of Quebec in the East End. The fleur-de-lis hanging from some balconies, the maple leaf from others. We can count on bands here, street marches there, and provocative billboards everywhere. Inevitably, there will be unpleasant incidents we will all have to live with after the ballots have been counted, and Montreal, our Montreal, will never be the same again. Our sad decline, accelerating swiftly since November 15, is now irreversible. Those who have left will return only for family funerals, and for the rest of us, English and French, there is the melancholy prospect of this eventually becoming Canada’s fourth city, after Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary.
For Quebec, there are three possibilities.
The most remote, certainly, is outright independence. Which is to say, if the PQ loses this referendum, they will then say let’s play twoout-of-three, and after ten more abrasive years in and out of office, they will lead this battered province into nationhood, distinct from the rest of an exhausted Canada. In that case, I believe the business powers of English-speaking Canada, their country fractured, would be understandably vengeful, and the economy of Quebec would be ruined for a generation, maybe more. Certainly the province’s important secondary industries (furniture, shoes, textiles) would find themselves confined to a domestic market of 6 million, whereas Canadian tariffs now guarantee them 23, to the detriment of the western provinces, which could buy their goods more cheaply in the United States.
The bitterness of the ultimate property settlement could be devastating. Quebec would become a cultural and economic ghetto. Possibly charming, certainly impecunious. A North American Ireland, the most energetic of its young constantly leaving to seek opportunities in the rest of North America. And, ironically, if Quebec did become a nation, I fear it would prove more provincial than it ever was as a province.
Another possibility, sovereignty with association, still a muddied proposal, is one that is nevertheless appropriate to a movement that is essentially middleclass. For it would enable the provincial boyos to leave home, but not without a substantial allowance. This is the solution that Levesque himself seems to favor, his case being that as we have both grown uncomfortable in the same bed, we would be better off settling for separate apartments under the same roof rather than shopping for a waterbed, more alluring lingerie. But this, too, seems unlikely; another recent Gallup Poll shows that 70 percent of Quebecers themselves are against even a special status for the province. To be fair, an even more recent and contradictory poll shows that 51 percent of French-speaking Quebecers would be in favor of attempting to negotiate sovereignty with association, if it were available.
The third and most likely possibility—this being a country built on compromises, nobody taking a risk if it can be avoided—is a constitutional conference that would yield real concessions to Quebecers who feel, reasonably or not, that their culture is still threatened. It would render something Ottawa could call dynamic federalism and Quebec a new deal, enabling all of us to get on with bailing out the leaky Canadian boat, equal partners, one culture enriching rather than menacing the other, both of us coming to terms with North American realities. Accepting the mortgage we’re lumbered with, having already enjoyed its considerable spending power. Bringing an end to adolescence, a beginning to adulthood. □