Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Progressive Patriot: Quebec

One of the oldest and biggest of Canadian political anxieties is the strife between French and English Canada. As Part II in an intended series, I'd like to describe the progressive position on this issue and contrast it with what I see as the right-wing or "conservative" opinion.

As all Canadians know from their history books, this part of North America was colonized by the French until 1759 when France ceded their North American colony to the British following the Seven Years War. The British government didn't really know what to do with 50,000 French-Catholic subjects but they did know they didn't have the resources to suppress them if they imposed a punitive peace on them. The British decided to let them keep their Catholic Church hierarchy and to retain their language, and, since the colony hadn't had representative government before, they decided it would be ruled through an appointed governor and a hand-picked executive council.

The preservation of the Catholic Church and the lack of representation in Quebec went a long way to starting the conflicts that eventually became the American Revolution. When the British eventually lost the Thirteen Colonies, their English-speaking supporters fled to Quebec and Nova Scotia. (Funny how Canadian history is really a story of dismal false starts, isn't it?) Quebec became Upper and Lower Canada and in both places the ruling elites decided that the cause of the American Revolution had been too much democracy and that henceforth, British North America would be a pillar of executive rule, more monarchist than Britain itself. The resulting bad government produced rebellions in both colonies by 1837, with the autocratic nature of the government in Lower Canada having a racist, anti-French tinge.

The upshot of Lord Durham's Report was that the French had to be assimilated and made British. The colonies were united into one and the French were (in Canada East) to be given equal representation with Canada West (despite having a much higher population) and the slight number of English voters in Canada East would combine with the wholly English vote in Canada West to allow for the legislating away of the whole establishment of French culture (including religious and language rights). But, fighting for their survival, the French voted as a bloc whereas the English were split between Conservatives and Reformers. The French would assist one side or the other to prevent the passage of legislation that would advance or hinder anyone's agenda and the result was legislative and political stalemate. Something had to be done.

That something was the sundering of the united Canada and the pursuit of a federal system with a Confederation of all the colonies of British North America. Within this federal system the provinces would have jurisdiction over health, education and social welfare (as these areas were of obvious religious and linguistic importance). French Catholics and English Protestants could retain their languages and their religious delusions within the separate provinces, and, together, as one bi-cultural nation, the French and the English would march hand-in-hand in equality to steal the West from the First Nations.

It didn't work out that way. English Canadians broke the spirit and the letter of the law both inside and outside of Quebec and tried to force a culture of British imperialism on the entire country. Quebec nationalism became insular and paranoid and vindictive. The Catholic Church and nationalist politicians like Maurice Duplessis practiced a bizarre form of Quebec nationalism. Quebec would be guarded from any policy intrusions from Ottawa and any attacks on the Catholic culture from inside or outside the province, but the economy would be served up on a platter to (mostly US-American) business. The old guard nationalists were reactionaries. Urbanization and industrialization changed the face of Quebec and weakened the old guard, which produced the Quiet Revolution in 1960. This was led by the Quebec Liberal Party and by intellectuals like Pierre Trudeau. Trudeau's vision of federalism was to realize the bi-cultural compact of Confederation of 1867. French language rights were to be recognized across the country and French Canadians would become full partners with English Canadians the way that they had thought would be the case in the first place.

For some of the new generation of Quebec nationalists, this was not enough. It was too little, too late. They wanted independence from Canada. From the October Crisis, to the election of the Parti Quebecois to the government of Quebec, through the First Referendum in 1980 to the Second Referendum in 1995, through Meech Lake and the Charlottetown accord, there have two schools of thought: federalists and nationalists.

To right-wingers, or "conservatives" the existence of two separate kinds of Quebec politician is too confusing. Instead, Quebeckers are just people who complain too much. (as opposed to right-wingers who never complain about anything except Muslims, Jamaicans, the First Nations, single mothers, taxes, rap music, ... etc., etc.,) and who want equal rights for themselves (horrors!) while insisting on inferior rights for other people (which, again, is something that right-wing "conservatives" never do). Quebec will goddamned stay in Canada because it's part of fucking Canada for fuck's sake and that's all there is too it. And too fucking bad if those goddamned frogs don't like it! (Obviously, French Canadians would have to be insane ingrates to want to leave a country full of such wonderful people as these!) Quebec's language is stupid. Their culture is one of socialism (paid for by us). I hate going there because they all speak French. They control the federal government. But I don't want them to leave. ... That appears to be the conclusion of these insufferable shit-for-brains.

What about me? Well, while I suppose that nobody should be stuck in Canada against their will, I do have a sentimental attachment to the shape of the country of Canada on the map. More importantly, I like that there's a part of Canada that's generally smarter about things like imperialist wars and public services than most of English Canada. And I think there's something to be said for the productive relationship that obtained in Canadian history as detailed by John Ralston Saul in Reflections of a Siamese Twin. In that story, while there are a lot of problems (some of which I've detailed here) the story of Canada has also been one of cooperation and accommodation. It's fine too, to think of Trudeau and Chretien as sell-outs, so long as we admit that that's not the monopoly of opinion. Trudeau and Chretien often thought as dismissively of the Quebecois nationalists and for reasons as valid as those that nationalists thought poorly of them. I agree with the part of the Clarity Act that says that any referendum question has to be a clear question before it can be used as a basis for separation. I don't agree that more than 51% is  necessary to decide the issue if it's a realistic question. (I also recall that in Chretien's last federal leadership candidate's debate, the only time he got animated was when he lambasted Bouchard for the bullshit 1995 referendum question, causing Bouchard to respond with mute embarrassment.

Canada is a better place with Quebec in it. (If you don't believe that, and still want to refuse their right to separate, you're only exhibiting the same insane level of incoherence of right-wing stooges everywhere.) There's no reason for Quebec to stay in Canada if it isn't wanted. They have every right to secede if they think that they'd be better off that way. The same goes for British Columbia, Alberta, or Newfoundland and Labrador. It's not up to us in Ontario to be the father who imprisons his children in the basement to keep the family together. It's up to us as Canadians to want to make all the parts of Canada desire to stay in Canada. Ottawa shouldn't be the head-waiter to the provinces, but some of the time it should play that role, to allow the diversity of Canada to flourish.

1 comment:

Owen Gray said...

As someone who grew up in Quebec, I would hate to see the province leave, thwap. It adds more to Canada as a province than it would take away if it left.

Unfortunately, the Harper government is completely tone deaf when it comes to Quebec -- and its intransigence will encourage separation.

I hope that Quebecers see past Stephen Harper -- and remain in the federation.