The Allure of Bias

How Quebec students view the province’s turbulent past

During the 1995 Quebec independence referendum a theatre company set up in a Montreal public square. There it re-enacted the 1837 war for Quebec independence as a series of encounters between Punch and Judy–style political hacks, with occasional heroic intervention by a rebel. I best remember the scene where Lord Durham opined that the defeated habitants were charming bumblers who might one day be civilized.

If obsessive rumination on one’s own history is a measure, Quebec is now highly civilized. Consider the widespread publicity accorded to University of Laval historian Jocelyn Létourneau’s new book, Je me souviens? Le passé du Québec dans la conscience de sa jeunesse. Provocatively, the book’s title is Quebec’s proud motto (“I remember”) undone by a question mark. A study of historical memory in Quebec based on questionnaires completed by more than 2,700 students, it has attracted numerous media reviews and made the author a familiar face
on TV.

Lurking slightly offstage is another host of reviews, written by Létourneau’s academic colleagues. Their attention was attracted by the book’s novel format, in particular its canvassing of students of all backgrounds—francophone/anglophone, urban/rural, male/female and new Québécois from a variety of countries. Nor did they fail to notice its canny tribute to the world’s shortened attention span. Each student answered one question, in one sentence: “Tell me the history of Quebec as you understand it, from the beginning.”

The questionnaires were completed by students in 4ème secondaire (Grade 12), 5ème secondaire (Grade 13), community college (CEGEP) and university. They were from Montreal, Quebec and the countryside. Their responses were classified as “unhappy,” “mixed,” “positive,” “neutral” and “others” (the latter subdivided into “ironic,” “philosophical” or “defeated by the question”).

That actual humour infiltrates this study—and the book itself—is a tribute to Létourneau’s puckish and enthusiastic personality. But one should not underestimate his influence on the public conversation. He became a professor in the early 1980s, when Quebec still had a fresh memory of pre-1960s history, a series of stale and somewhat censored dates and events that reflected the views of the anglo ruling class. After the triumph of Lesage’s liberalism, the teaching of history see-sawed between conservatives and nationalists according to election results.

To some extent Létourneau stands outside this right-left paradigm. His particular specialty is identity formation, collective references and the relationship between history, memory and identity. He has avoided political commitment by building links with conservative entities such as the Trudeau Foundation (visiting scholar in 2006) and Historica, while rarely disparaging Quebec -nationalism. This led to his nomination to the Quebec government’s 2007 project to reform the province’s existing school history program, which was called the History of Quebec and of Canada. The new program, launched in 2007 and bearing Létourneau’s imprint alongside that of another centrist, Antoine Robitaille, is called History and Education for the Citizen (Histoire et éducation à la citoyenneté). The present book can partly be seen as an attempt at quantifying the results of the new program.

Létourneau begins by confronting the issue of historical forgetfulness in the modern world. From the 1960s to the early 2000s, Quebec was an exception to this contemporary rule because of its struggle to overthrow anglo dominance. In recent years, though, the sharp historic awareness of that militant generation has been replaced by the familiar indifference of the succeeding cohort, which displays what Létourneau calls “a historic awareness so incoherent that it’s almost not there.”

Extraordinarily, this does not faze him. His belief is that everybody needs to situate him or herself in the matrix of history, and young people do so using whatever scraps—accurate or not—they retain from family and friends, as well as a nit or two from school. While they may be unable to name Quebec’s first premier, psychosocial methods reveal that they do possess a narrative (Létourneau does, however, acknowledge the limits of the psychosocial; it is merely somewhat better than the conventional approach).

Now, as the French say, let us make our way to the evidence. A series of chapters deals with each academic year, starting with the 4ème (Grade 12) students. They are about 16 years old, tend to confuse Cartier with Montcalm, quote a Cowboys Fringants song about history being what is on the licence plate and lean toward simplistic conclusions. Francophones in this group are likelier than anglos to go to the extreme of either unhappy or positive views.

A year later, in 5ème, these students have developed what the author describes as “a lot of intellectual autonomy.” This leads, he believes, to the 20 percent increase in those with an unhappy view of provincial history that he observes with this cohort. But he also describes this unhappiness as a “passing extremism,” which seems to contradict the previous remark.

This is a characteristic of Létourneau’s method, which is to emphasize that each data set contains a spectrum of opinions, ranging from “unhappy” to “positive.” He gives first place to the majority in each case, but remains fascinated by minority views. Nor does he hesitate, as in the example above, to speculate about the reasons for them.

The high school students graduate to community colleges called CEGEPs. These “cégépiens” develop a pattern of their own: the older the students, the more they tend to a “victimization” view of Quebec’s past. At the same time, however, militant statements drop off and the writing matures to include insightful phrases such as “an exchange of cultures which gave us greater openness of spirit.”

Now come the university students—and a disturbing revelation about Létourneau’s methods. We learn that nearly 60 percent of this group (299 out of 509 respondents) specialize in history. Specializing is, of course, what one does at university, but it gives this cohort a depth of knowledge not possessed by the high school students, who take a single history course in the 4ème and 5ème years. And yet their views are compared without qualification.

Similar differences will appear in the percentage of anglophones or females in a given group. This leads to different opinion sets. Young women, for example, do not employ the belligerent vocabulary favoured by young men. And as for anglophones…

Létourneau is honest in acknowledging the situation. It arose because he had little control over the proportions of males versus females or anglos versus francos in classrooms selected from across the province. The reader can easily believe that a professor and a few assistants undertaking a project on this scale would find themselves with anomalies they cannot repair. The author’s peers, however, may not be so kind.

Overall, however, it seems reasonable to agree with Létourneau’s conclusion that university students are more mature in the sense that they are eloquent when positive, while becoming thoughtfully memorial in speaking of what they feel to be negative (using phrases such as “people caught in a turning wheel”). They are also witty: “It’s the beginning, along with English Canadians, of a new people.”

In the chapter on anglophones it is noted that they study the same history as francophones. Unsurprisingly, they draw different conclusions from it. Only one in ten feels positive about Quebec, as opposed to three in ten francophones (that may seem a low number of francophones, but it reflects internal tensions of the franco community). Anglophones seemingly have no ability to see their ancestors’ relationship with Quebec as an abusive one, and avoid referring to specific issues. They also “conceive their historic relationship with the Quebec experience as that of outsiders.” This hardly reflects two centuries of anglo residence and the homesickness of those, like my wife’s Scots-origin bilingual father, who fled separatism after 1980. It appears that anglos use the “outsider” trope in order to shield themselves from francophone slings and arrows.

There is also a chapter apiece on geographic differences of opinion (e.g., Montreal versus Quebec City), gender differences and different French-English views of Quebec’s Native people. These do not really merit lengthy treatment, and the insights they provide can be briefly stated. Geographically speaking, the small anglo community in Quebec City is more circumspect in its views than the outspoken and wealthy anglo crowd in Montreal (which helps explain why Montreal francophones’ feelings go from “happy” to “victimized” between 4ème and university). Males are likelier to feel victimized than females, which is reflected in the former’s heavy use of terms such as “defeat,” “error,” “conquered” (neither group mentions a female historic figure). Native people are rarely mentioned at all, perhaps because they disappear from the historic account shortly after first contact with Europeans.

More interesting is Létourneau’s analysis of student reaction to the new history curriculum. He does not emphasize his own involvement in it, preferring instead to compare the post-2007 curriculum on which he worked (usually called “reformed”) with the previous one (“non‑reformed”).

According to the author, the relatively new reformed program is represented by its critics as soft and apolitical because it “compromises the transmission of the francophone national memory.” To investigate this, in 2012–13 he sent more than a thousand questionnaires to students of the reformed curriculum and then compared the results with those of a similar questionnaire sent to those who had studied under the non-reformed curriculum.

The result cannot have overjoyed the author. The new reform program on which he worked scored lower than the non-reformed in both the “unhappy” and “positive” areas—those that attracted the most extensive and thoughtful responses. It won in the “mixed” “neutral” and “other” areas.

It is predictable that it was the pre-2007 aggressively nationalistic non-reformed program, which dwells on historic injustices to francophones, that gives higher “unhappy” results. What is perplexing at first glance is that the older program also scores higher in “positive” reactions. Létourneau makes the best of this by arguing that the smaller number of positive reactions to the new reform program is because it does not present a rosy or “jovial” picture of Quebec’s past. Or perhaps it is “the influence of a professor.” Or maybe even the presence of post-2007 immigrants “signalling their -disinterest in a Quebec past that does not concern them.” Eventually he acknowledges what I would say is a much more evident reason for the outcome: that the students enjoy the old non-reformed program precisely because it is biased and nationalistic.

His counter-argument is that the new program also presents the oppression of Native peoples as well as the courage and perseverance of the Québécois in the face of “trickery,” “deception” and “lost causes”—these quotes coming from the students themselves.

Still, I suspect that the temperature of the new program is not nearly as bubbling hot as the old one. He indirectly acknowledges this in noting that students who complete the new program “do not reach the level of finesse of the expressions shaped by the ‘non-reform’” students who took the earlier, more pugilistic program. But, he insists, the new program protects their historic consciousness just as well.

In his conclusions Létourneau is skeptical about studies that do not show insight into the way students actually interpret what they study. Certainly, he has been honest in sharing his own insights about the student mind—including those students who reacted with less enthusiasm to the history program on which he worked. This is admirable. So is his insight that young people are determinative in their own education, learning that which they “think necessary … to implant themselves into historical continuity.”

History’s task, then, is to become a “psychic stabilizer” in a world where popular culture (which he describes with a lovely French expression meaning “thought-grinding wheel”) has more influence in shaping young people’s thinking. Another influence is the autonomous thought of young people themselves. Many do not carry a “defeatist” view of Quebec, but are rather fond of the world they inhabit. These ones slowly distance themselves from their political parents, performing the healing function that is the task of every new generation. In such a world, he argues, the best a teacher can do is to implant a less binary, less stereotyped story than parents and pop culture provide.

Some academic critics, such as historians Harold Bérubé and Marc-André Robert, criticize Létourneau’s distinction between historic consciousness (subtle and organized) and historic memory (entertaining dribs and drabs). Bérubé sees this as a false distinction, since historic memory is a “rich corpus of research” and not a heap of uninterpreted facts. Robert emphasizes the chronology of historic memory and sees Létourneau’s criticism of it as a veiled criticism of the separatist chronology that was previously taught in Quebec. Both bristle at Létourneau’s reductive view of historic memory. They suggest that “historic consciousness” is what you get when you treat historic memory as a stepping stone toward higher insight.

These critics, subtle as they are, seem to me to avoid Létourneau’s sincerity in coming to grips with the fragmentation of historic knowledge in a world that breaks all information into bits and bytes. In my own college teaching I saw this metaphor come to life as students clicked on their laptops and phones the instant they felt they were not being sufficiently entertained. The illusion of omniscience conveyed by electronic devices masks a deficit of basic competence in these students.

It may be—selon Létourneau—that we will never get that back. In that case, his argument is about what we can save from the shipwreck. I personally am very willing to hear what he has to say.