Who, Us?

Debunking the mythical Quebec

Spite is a beautiful thing. Channelled correctly, it is the ultimate motivator—less blinding than revenge, more enduring than anger, as fulfilling as happiness without any of the delirium.

The men and women in Legacy: How French Canadians Shaped North America are a testament to the power and necessity of this maligned sentiment. The book, edited by the senator and former journalist André Pratte, along with the editor and writer Jonathan Kay, sketches out the lives of maverick French Canadians—a baker’s dozen of themwhose exploits served to steal glory from the conquering English. North America is a far more interesting place as a result.

With a few exceptions—notably Jack Kerouac, a French Canadian soul whose upbringing in Lowell, Massachusetts, robbed him of the French words he so wished to use—there are few true celebrities on the list. We get Henri Bourassa, not Wilfrid Laurier; Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas-Louis Tremblay, not Léo Major, whose blood-and-guts exploits during the Second World War earned him the moniker “Quebec’s Rambo.”

This is purposeful, if only to show that the impact of French Canadians on North America stretches beyond Quebec, and goes beyond the coterie of famous francophone surnames. Maurice Richard fomented a cultural movement with an indignant glare and ready fists. His teammate Jacques Plante did much the same—within the National Hockey League, anyway—by putting on a mask when other goalies were suffering through broken teeth and lacerated faces. Legacy portrays Plante. While he is less known, his legacy is arguably just as important.

If the English presence in North America was a symptom of weaponized pride, manifest destiny well before the term existed, then the French version was a spite-fuelled act of rebellion to ensure that vision did not come to full fruition. In Philip Marchand’s portrait of Pierre de La Vérendrye, we find a man seemingly built to tilt at windmills. Born well off in Trois-Rivières, La Vérendrye could have lived a decent life on the land or in the priesthood.

Instead, La Vérendrye chose to go to war against the English. He fought them in St. John’s, and in Deerfield, Massachusetts, then nearly died in France, only to return penniless to Canada in 1712. He quickly became obsessed with finding the mythical inland Western Sea. Apart from not existing—although La Vérendrye could hardly have known that—the Western Sea was a quixotic pursuit for another reason: it threatened to pit La Vérendrye against most of the Native tribes to the west, with whom the English had well-established trading ties.

It is here that spite gives way to common sense. English supplies were cheaper and of better quality than the French equivalents; the English were winning the war of attrition with the French not only through bullets and muskets, but also with manufacturing chains and mechanization.

So he compromised. Yes, he traded in inferior goods, but he also befriended the indigenous people—mostly Cree and Assiniboine—with whom he did business. This sensible approach informed La Vérendrye’s style. He was less conqueror than freewheeling frontiersman who did not trade in booze or spread smallpox. Even when the Sioux tribe stabbed, scalped and disembowelled his son Jean-Baptiste, La Vérendrye convinced his Native allies not to go to war on his behalf.

La Vérendrye died in near poverty in Montreal. It is difficult to imagine a similar fate for Sir George-Étienne Cartier, whose early spite-driven years against the British—he fought in the Lower Canada Rebellion of 1837—gave way to keen-eyed pragmatism later on. Either Kay or Pratte (or both) must have had a good laugh at siccing former Quebec premier Jean Charest on Cartier. Charest, along with his son Antoine, a burgeoning politician, presents the story of the statesman and father of Confederation. Although separated by about 100 years, the careers of both men echo with similar themes. Cartier advocated for the radical decentralization of what became the federal government; Charest, as Quebec premiers are wont to do, pushed for even more powers.

Cartier was a Patriote who fought against the British, only to become a federal member of Parliament and a bona fide Canadian patriot. Charest’s early political career was as a “Captain Canada,” wielding his Canadian passport like some sort of federalist bible, fending off evil Quebec separatist spirits. In his later years, when he needed a proper scapegoat for his dwindling political fortunes, Charest took a nationalist Quebec-first turn. And the careers of both men were ultimately punctuated by scandal. For Cartier, it was by way of kickbacks for the building of railways to the West. For Charest, it was the financing of the Liberal party through demonstrably illegal donations from the province’s biggest engineering firms. Neither men invented the mechanics of these schemes, but both benefitted mightily from them. Cartier grew rich, while Charest’s Liberals became a fundraising dynamo.

If Charest is heir to Cartier’s brand of pragmatic politics, then Parti Québécois premier Lucien Bouchard is Henri Bourassa’s equally indignant successor. Fittingly, it is Bouchard who writes the portrait of this firebrand, whose frequent clashes with Wilfrid Laurier are similar to Bouchard’s lengthy travails with former friend and then political rival Brian Mulroney.

Bourassa is spite personified. The grandson of Louis-Joseph Papi­neau, Bourassa was first elected to Parliament in 1896, resigned three years later in protest of Canada’s participation in the Boer War, and was then re-elected a short time later. He was perpetually unsatisfied, his restlessness stoked by the plight of French Canadians in the new country. “It is impossible to relate here the episodes of the many other struggles waged by Bourassa in Ottawa on behalf of the French language,” Bouchard writes. “Each had a disappointed outcome.”

While it surely did not help his constitution, being constantly frustrated did wonders for Bourassa’s oratorical skills. When Archbishop Francis Cardinal Bourne waltzed into Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica and declared that Catholicism in North America must have an “English tongue,” Bourassa took the podium and delivered a largely unscripted retort. “Do not tear from anyone, oh you priests of Christ, that which is dearest to man after the God he adores,” Bourassa said. Many of the 10,000 people on the streets and inside were brought to tears.

Spite, anger’s more level-headed cousin, can be given to compromise if the situation calls for it. And Bourassa was not beyond compromise. Papineau favoured annexation with the United States, if only to get out from under the British thumb. His grandson was more pragmatic, calculating that a largely imagined bilingual country was better than certain cultural assimilation, should Canada join the United States. At the same time, he was fiercely republican, loudly criticizing the Queen at a time when English Canada could not dream of severing that umbilical cord. (Apparently it still can’t.) Like Bouchard, Bourassa wavered on the Canadian dream. Unlike Bouchard, who ultimately gave up on it, Bourassa died believing the dream was possible.

Was there spite among the French-Canadian pioneers of the women’s movement? God, yes. The subordination of women was literally written into Quebec’s Civil Code. “It is not difficult to imagine how Quebec’s legislature reacted to a British verdict that women, though still not eligible to vote in Quebec’s own elections, now could sit in the Canadian Senate,” writes Samantha Nutt, the executive director of War Child Canada. Thérèse Casgrain changed that, in 1940. Casgrain, Nutt’s subject, is a model of first-wave feminism—an establishment figure who, the times dictated, should have been busy clutching her pearls or rearing her children. Her husband, Pierre-François Casgrain, was speaker of the House of Commons during Mackenzie King’s long Liberal reign. Her own loyalty to the Liberal Party was not particularly deep, however. She ran for the rival CCF following the Second World War and eventually led its Quebec wing, becoming the country’s first female political leader.

Spite even stemmed from the prolific pen of Gabrielle Roy, an author who, Margaret Atwood recalls in her piece, was one of the few female Canadian staples of high school curriculums in Atwood’s own youth. The Tin Flute brought Roy fame and riches. It also held a mirror up to the plight of women in Quebec. Those women did not like what they saw. There is a direct line between the tragedies depicted in The Tin Flute and Quebec’s Quiet Revolution.

History, never objective, is often the retelling of myths. Nowhere on this continent is this truer than in Quebec, where historians typically hew to a well-worn narrative that is almost biblical in its pacing and narrative. First, there was the paradise of New France, then the shame of the British Conquest of 1759, then the Rebellions beginning in 1837, then the further shame of Confederation. The next century was a disgrace of corruption, oppression and priest-ridden social austerity. The Quiet Revolution’s shining optimism was blunted by the loss of two referendums that left Quebec a prisoner of Canada. Legacy is a rebuke of this familiar refrain. Despite centuries of indifference or worse from their English-speaking brethren, French Canada have thrived in North America, and left an indelible mark on the continent.

Still, the myths persist, to the point that they have congealed into truisms. Rather than the beleaguered, angry Quebecer, we now have the progressive, egalitarian, cooler European cousins of Canada. And these ones, according to Alain Dubuc, are just as misguided.

Is This Who We Are? 14 Questions about Quebec is Dubuc’s attempt at an antidote to all this myth making. As a former Trotskyite sovereigntist turned Liberal federalist, Dubuc is a frequent target of Quebec’s intelligentsia, who know a proper sellout when they see one. And as a writer for La Presse, the influential perch from which he launches his pensées, Dubuc follows in a long line of columnists for that paper who tow the editorial line of the Desmarais family, the paper’s rich, secretive and über-federalist owners. (Pratte himself was another one of these columnists.)

For some of Dubuc’s critics, it is an eminently exploitable caricature. For more than a decade, he has traded barbs with journalist, academic and polemicist Jean-François Lisée, who—as this article went to press—was the leader of the Parti Québécois. (These things change frequently.) The pair have had what you might call a protracted egghead battle over everything from language to sovereignty to doctors’ salaries to whether Quebec is richer or poorer than the state of Louisiana. As egghead battles go, it is an interesting show. It is all the more so when one considers how such protracted, mutual fits of pique between the province’s opposition leader and one of its better known columnists do not really exist anywhere else in the country—or continent, for that matter. In this respect, contrary to what Dubuc writes in Is This Who We Are?, Quebec is indeed unique. Only here can a journalist raise the ire of its politicians with such reliable alacrity.

The buttoned-down Dubuc seems to revel in his stature, having written extensively in column and book form on Quebec’s many sacred cows. “You’re not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake,” Chuck Palahniuk wrote in Fight Club. Dubuc goes even further. By many measures, he argues, Quebec is worse than humdrum. It’s actually inferior.

Each chapter of Is This Who We Are? poses a question. “Are We a Unique Model?” “Are We Educated?” “Are We ‘Cultural’?” “Are We Egalitarian?” “Are We Happy?” “Are We in Solidarity with Each Other?” And so on. Spoiler alert: the answer to nearly every question is no.

We Quebecers are not unique, Dubuc suggests, as the Quiet Revolution was but the Québécois extension of the 1960s social upheaval. Does our vaunted hydroelectricity make us green? Nope. We actually consume more oil per capita than Spain, Britain and (gasp) France. Dubuc also informs us that we Quebecers work less, are less educated and less in solidarity with one another than most other provinces.

It is difficult to come away from Is This Who We Are? without a nagging desire to move to Saskatchewan, where the potholes are few and (I’m told) you can get decent enough poutine. Yet although Dubuc has statistics to back up his spiel, he falls short in one notable area. Citing Statistics Canada data, he posits that Quebecers are less generous than their brethren in Ontario et al. We volunteer less (ten percentage points less than the national average) and donate less than half the dollars that the rest of the country does.

More recently, we have seen this argument from Andrew Potter, erstwhile director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. Potter wrote a hot take for Maclean’s magazine, in which the former Ottawa Citizen editor equated the virtual abandonment of hundreds of commuters on a snowbound highway outside of Montreal with Quebec’s broad and corrosive “social malaise” and its “low trust society.”

Potter cited the very same statistics as Dubuc. Like Dubuc, he either forgot about or ignored historical precedent. For hundreds of years, the Catholic church was the receptacle of choice for French Quebecers’ dollars and time, if not their entire souls. In return the church controlled everything, from education to health care to caring for society’s less fortunate. This came to an abrupt end in the late 1950s, with the death of Premier Maurice Duplessis and the advent of the Quiet Revolution. As Atwood points out in Legacy, the Quiet Revolution ushered in a massive shift in societal habits practically overnight. Among them, women became less prolific at having babies, and more apt to stay in school past grade six.

Obviously, this is a good thing. Yet in throwing off the often oppressive norms of Catholicism, Quebec society also lost its main vehicle for volunteerism and donations. For centuries, the church was l’état providence. You can hardly blame Quebecers for lagging a little bit.

As for trust in institutions, as Conrad Black and Vincent Geloso have argued in their respective books, Duplessis’s influence on Quebec society was not the stuff of nightmares conjured up by latter-day historians. Yet he was demonstrably corrupt, and his removal from office, after a stroke in 1959, gave rise to Quebec’s collectively wary eye on government. Subsequent governments, Charest’s very much included, certainly have not helped matters.

Potter’s real crime in that Maclean’s column was in making a series of sweeping and demonstrably incorrect statements about Quebec society, including the suggestion that restaurants, housing contractors, garage owners and doctors “insist on cash,” if only to cheat the government out of its rightful share. It is a patently absurd notion, and Potter rightly apologized and retracted. It should have ended there, but it did not. Instead, Potter resigned as director of the McGill Institute, not long after facing the ire of Quebec politicians, who loudly and near unanimously screamed “Quebec bashing.”

Here is where Dubuc gets it decidedly right. In his chapter on the supposed decline of French in Quebec, a long-running and demonstrably false contention, Dubuc says politicians have cynically fashioned themselves the protector not just of Quebec’s purse strings but of its heart strings as well.

In 2010 I wrote a piece in Maclean’s outlining the rot and corruption within the province’s political class. Dozens of Quebec politicians—including, without an ounce of irony, Jean Charest—labelled me a Quebec basher. Canadian parliamentarians unanimously passed a motion expressing “profound sadness” that such a thing would find its way into print. Although the whole thing was quite amusing, it was disconcerting how quickly politicians were willing to wrap themselves in the fleur-de-lys at the smallest perceived slight.

For all their chipped shoulders and political opportunism, Quebecers are not, as it may seem, a miserable lot. In fact, as Is This Who We Are? points out, we are happy. Seriously: despite the uneducated quagmire of gluttony and laziness that is Dubuc’s Quebec, we are actually satisfied with our lives. Only the 150,000 residents of Prince Edward Island are happier, according to Statistics Canada. Dubuc is at pains to explain why, but I have an idea. Maybe you need to laugh to spite the tears.