Separation Anxiety

The secret correspondence of two Quebec luminaries

In January of this year, the Bloc Québécois chose a new leader, Yves-François Blanchet, who promised to promote independence tirelessly in order to “win Quebec and win for Quebec.” To those anglophone Canadians who noticed, this probably seemed a ghostly echo from the past. Yet the event does prompt us to ask what has become of Quebec separatism. Has it effectively disappeared as a force capable of posing an existential threat to Canada, or has it merely gone quiet for a time, still able to take on new life if sufficiently provoked?

The answer might appear obvious if one takes the federal BQ and the provincial Parti Québécois as the measures of separatist strength. The former will struggle in the forthcoming federal election to win enough seats for official party status, while the recent 2018 provincial election saw the latter reduced to third-­party status, with a mere ten seats. This is far from the halcyon days of René Lévesque or Jacques Parizeau. How many in the rest of Canada could even name the leader of today’s PQ? (Pascal Bérubé, who became interim leader after Jean-­François Lisée lost his own seat in 2018.) The decline is dramatic and appears terminal, though party politics, especially in today’s unsettled landscape, is wildly unpredictable.

Party fortunes are not the only way to measure the vitality of separatism, however. From the beginning, the PQ was the political wing of a movement drawing its deeper life from the intellectual classes: the artists, writers, journalists, and academics who replaced the Catholic church, in the wake of the Quiet Revolution, as the guardians of a unique and distinctive Quebec culture. Among these new guardians, Pierre Vadeboncoeur was a leading luminary: a Montreal lawyer, who worked as a negotiator and legal advisor for one of Quebec’s largest trade union federations, he combined social activism with a body of writing that made him highly regarded and widely read. As a public intellectual, he was a passionate proponent of independence and arguably the most important essayist in Quebec, publishing some thirty works from the 1960s until his death in 2010 that touched on art, literature, philosophy, spirituality, and, of course, politics.

Vadeboncoeur was also a prolific writer of letters (2,500 of them by his own count). Some 100 of these are collected in a recently published volume of hitherto “secret” correspondence with another independence activist, Hélène Pelletier-­Baillargeon, a prominent journalist, biographer, and feminist concerned with reforming the Catholic church. Their friendship began in the 1970s, shortly after the October Crisis, when they both worked on the editorial committee of the journal Maintenant. Their letters, from 1983 to 2006, take us from the aftermath of the first referendum loss in 1980, through the next failed referendum of 1995, to just four years before Vadeboncoeur’s death. Publicly available for the first time, these exchanges offer an intriguing look into private discussions of Quebec separatism.

Anglophone Canadians able to read Le pays qui ne se fait pas in French will learn much from Vadeboncoeur and Pelletier-­Baillargeon’s insider perspective on Quebec politics. In reading their analysis of the personalities and the positions of leading figures — Lévesque, Parizeau, Lucien Bouchard, and, of course, Pierre Elliott Trudeau — one realizes how small the world of Quebec politics is.

Pelletier-­Baillargeon, for example, knew the future premier, Jacques Parizeau, from childhood. Her archly amusing description of his typical adolescent behaviour at “mixed” parties held by the Scouting movement — where he dressed impeccably and danced flawlessly but without spontaneity and with a joyless smile — prefigures his deficiency as a leader unable to make a human connection with the people. She is not surprised that after the defeat of 1995, he removes himself to his beloved France to devote his attention to his vineyards. (It is worth noting that Pelletier-­Baillargeon and Vadeboncoeur are themselves ardent francophiles.)

Vadeboncoeur, for his part, was at Collège Brébeuf with Trudeau, and worked with him at the journal Cité libre in its early days. He finds the key to Trudeau’s political career in something he and others noticed about the future prime minister: his capacity for mathematical logic far exceeded his literary-philosophical sensibility. Trudeau was aware of this, too, and did his utmost to conceal the deficiency, succeeding because of his agile intelligence. Indeed, he shaped a life and career out of the single-­minded promotion of his “superior” part over the “inferior,” of the head over the heart. Quebec paid the price of Trudeau’s willingness to sacrifice its cultural survival to his hyper-­logical chimera of a bilingual Canada, Vadeboncoeur believes: “We are the victims of Trudeau’s ambition, of his infinite desire to camouflage his weaknesses.”

What may surprise anglophone Canadians is the remarkably cogent and dispassionate explanations in these letters of why independence is “impossible.” This impossibility is apparent to Vadeboncoeur as early as 1983, after the first referendum. He continues to confirm it before, during, and after the second referendum, despite the close result. He asks rhetorically in 1997, “Isn’t independence for us a project not lived, but only imagined and hoped for? So aren’t we in this regard nothing but gentle dreamers?” Although she tends to distance herself from Vadeboncoeur’s “pessimism,” Pelletier-­Baillargeon describes their correspondence as the “unavowable chronicles of a country that isn’t happening.”

The unrealizability of the independence dream takes two dimensions in the letters: the exterior force of an irresistible historical Destiny (Vadeboncoeur consistently capitalizes the word), and the interior lack of force in Québécois identity. As for destiny, the Quiet Revolution propelled the province into the modern world with such abruptness that it was impossible at first to measure the new reality, above all to recognize that it was not static. Rather, this new world was characterized by an ever-­accelerating dynamism, driven by the forces of global capitalism and technology, which tend to dissolve particular cultures. And in the forefront of this dynamic is the American empire, right at Quebec’s doorstep. If even France, one of the few great cultures left, is “menaced with the slide” into Americanization, what hope is there for Quebec?

The other dimension entails an unflinching look into the mirror. According to Vadeboncoeur, the “moral force” requisite for bringing about independence is lacking among the Québécois. For most who have voted or will vote oui in the referendums, he writes, oui is strictly conditional on it not costing too much. From his perspective, the force of will necessary for political victory and, more importantly, for the real work of implementing such a victory against the fierce opposition of the rest of Canada is notably absent. If he were alive today, Vadeboncoeur might well point to Brexit or the Catalonian crises: real-life evidence that a referendum by itself solves nothing.

Canadians outside Quebec might be thrown by Vadeboncoeur’s frequent allusions to the rest of the country’s implacable opposition to Quebec independence, an opposition rooted in excessive nationalism, teetering on “hysteria.” Although less prone to speaking of the veiled violence of “Canadian imperialism,” Pelletier-­Baillargeon does note the potential for “outrage” among anglophone Canadians at the metamorphosis of the “nice French Canadians we used to have” (she employs English here) into something more demanding.

This may not sound like us. But then how often does the rest of Canada look at itself from the perspective of thoughtful Quebec nationalists who actually lived through the October Crisis? Vadeboncoeur suspects that tolerant respect for the democratic choices of Quebecers is more surface than real, reflecting an intuitive calculation among anglophone Canadians that little more is necessary in response to a tepid movement. He attributes a lack of political will, in part, to the psychological makeup of a subjugated people who got into the habit, as it were, of not being in control, so that when the opportunity finally arrives, they are unable to break the habit of feeling themselves still the vanquished — anxiously aware of their ­weakness.

Given the absence of an absolute determination that animates a people destined for sovereignty, independence is actually a species of consolatory dream. Vadeboncoeur describes it as an “île flottante” — taken by the current until it meets a stronger counter-­current.

Le pays qui ne se fait pas will not make for happy reading for those militant souverainistes who still believe in the cause. Vadeboncoeur makes some disturbing comparisons, likening them at one point to a “handful of Japanese soldiers on an island who, twenty years after Hiroshima, still did not know that the war was over” — a comparison likely prompted by Pelletier-­Baillargeon’s declaration that even though Québécois culture is going to die, it should “die fighting, die saying it refuses to die, die arms in hand.” With such images throughout the letters, it’s no wonder they wanted them kept strictly “top secret” (they used the English phrase) at the time. As Vadeboncoeur avows, “It is not my vocation to discourage others.”

In December 2003, Vadeboncoeur confesses to feeling caught between two contradictory convictions: “I have never really believed that sovereignty would be realized, while believing it has always been the only solution for Quebec, which I still believe.” The first conviction might be reassuring to the rest of Canada, but the second should not be: that without independence, the long-term survival of French identity in North America is impossible. After all, the deeply embedded language and culture of Quebec is one of the few indisputable markers of Canadian distinctness from the U.S.

As a whole, these letters evince a great deal of skepticism, to say the least, about any notion that the Québécois culture can be better preserved within the national larger framework. Pelletier-­Baillargeon regards Canada as a bilingual country only in “the fantasies of the Commissioner of Official Languages.” Vadeboncoeur dismisses the concept of Canada as “vraiment trop bête.” In their assessment, the country is incapable of preventing itself from disappearing into the American cultural behemoth, let alone preserving the fragile uniqueness of Quebec culture. Failing the protection afforded by political independence, the destiny of Québécois identity will be if not complete death, then a shallow survival of charming customs and remnants of language, akin to that of other minorities within Canada.

In fact, the separatism of these two writers is clearly premised on a decidedly un-­multicultural understanding of Canada. At times, their exchanges read as naively simplistic; for instance, the assumption of the “Englishness” of what both insist on referring to as “le Canada anglais.” One finds little appreciation of the complexity of the country’s ­cultural makeup.

Vadeboncoeur wrote works of cultural criticism of a quality that makes him one of Canada’s most significant thinkers — Les deux royaumes (1978), for instance, is a both lucid and lyrical consideration of the malaise of modern culture. Yet one finds in his writings, as well as his letters, virtually no ­reference to the culture of anglophone Canada. He does mention three names — Marshall McLuhan, Glenn Gould, and Leonard Cohen — only insofar as they are better known in France than any Québécois cultural figures. He seemed unaware of the philosopher George Grant’s Lament for a Nation, which as early as 1965 questioned in profound terms the possibility of preserving Canadian sovereignty, as well as Québécois culture, in the face of U.S. hegemony.

Of course, it is equally remarkable that Vadeboncoeur is so little known in the rest of Canada. How many Québécois cultural figures —
Vadeboncoeur among them — are familiar to anglophone Canadians? The two solitudes persist.

There are hints that Vadeboncoeur was interested in bridging those solitudes. He sets himself to improve his English (through a systematic reading of the old anthology British Poetry and Prose), and thinks of writing a “Letter to English Canada,” presumably connected with the need for a complete “rethinking” of Quebec nationalism toward something more “polyvalent” or “­comprehensive.”

For both correspondents, the cultural form that Quebec incarnates comes from France; their own cultural reference points are almost exclusively French (Charles Péguy is prominent). They would likely be surprised to learn that Britain has ceased to be for the rest of Canada what France is for Quebec. The rest of Canada seems further along the path of developing a less essentialist identity tied to a European mother country, something more “comprehensive.” In this respect, Quebec might need Canada as much as Canada needs Quebec. This mutual need could yet foster a more ­conscious cultural bond against the dissolving power of global capitalism.