What we still get wrong about Quebec
This past July, during the usually unremarkable annual meeting of provincial premiers, something noteworthy occurred. The leaders of Alberta and Manitoba took the premier of Quebec to task: the former over Quebec’s opposition to an oil pipeline, and the latter over Quebec’s new law banning police officers, teachers, judges, and other public employees from wearing religious symbols at work. François Legault was unmoved. To Jason Kenney, who even hinted at secession if Alberta did not get its way, Legault reiterated the “social unacceptability” of pipelines to Quebecers. To Brian Pallister, he declared that there are collective rights as well as individual ones, including the right of Quebecers to insist on a certain level of secularism and to declare, “This is the way we live in Quebec.”
Quebec has always been something of an enigma. At the moment, it is against pipelines, a stance typically perceived as progressive. At the same time, it limits head scarves in public, a position typically perceived as right-wing. So are Quebecers today generally progressive or conservative? Even xenophobic?
Some reliable guidance to the enigma is needed. Before undertaking to lecture Quebec, Kenney and Pallister, or their advisers, would have done well to read Robert Calderisi’s Quebec in a Global Light. Calderisi is a well qualified guide to contemporary Quebec: an anglophone political economist born and raised in Montreal, with wide-ranging international experience, he reads French and has, as he puts it, “delved more deeply into indépendantiste writings than most English-speaking Canadians would have the time and patience to do.” He offers a comprehensive and lively portrait of contemporary Quebec, accessible to anyone who is interested, including elected politicians and their advisers (indeed, he seems to have written with that audience uppermost in mind).
Let’s consider pipelines. To most Canadians outside Quebec, Kenney’s position is crystal clear. Legault’s declaration of “social unacceptability,” however, might seem vague and arbitrary. But consider that Quebec has long led the way in Canada on climate change. In 2006, for example, its government became the first in North America to set emissions reduction targets according to the Kyoto Protocol. The next year, it was the first to introduce a carbon tax. And the year after that, it joined a group of states and other provinces to introduce a cap-and-trade system. All this before Legault’s party, the Coalition Avenir Québec, came into existence. Quebec might fall lamentably short when it comes to putting green theory into practice, but its commitment to climate change as an ideal is long established and underpins the “social unacceptability” of pipelines running through its territory.
Quebec’s pipeline position is one aspect of a broader political culture that has in recent decades served as the “social conscience” of Canada; it led the way, for instance, on child care and maternity leave, just as Saskatchewan led the way in the 1960s on medicare. Indeed, Calderisi argues, Quebec has confirmed its status as “the only social democratic society” in North America. Still, the “Quebec model” of socio-economic fairness, which at times makes Quebec seem more Scandinavian than Canadian, has certainly become tattered and frayed of late. Calderisi does not hesitate to point out its deficiencies, among them the highest corporate and personal income taxes in North America, combined with one of the highest government debts. Quebec might lead the continent when it comes to narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor, but this may be partly because “very few really rich people decide to live there permanently.”
While appreciative of Quebec’s role as Canada’s social conscience, Calderisi is not merely cheerleading, and the portrait he draws is also prescriptive, especially in regard to economic efficiency and health care. Indeed, he is unapologetically up front about his own social-democratic principles, offering far-ranging “suggestions for the future”: progressive experiments, ideally suited to the province, that include a guaranteed annual income (at least as a pilot project) and proportional representation.
If the “social unacceptability” of pipelines is consistent with Quebec’s long-standing aspirations, what about Bill 21, the law prohibiting “religious symbols,” a phrase read by many as a more neutral stand-in for “head scarves”? Notions of identity and diversity are fraught and complex in contemporary Quebec. Following a brief overview of the province’s colonial history in relation to France, then Britain, and then the rest of Canada, Calderisi assesses the current state of Québécois identity, in which language is key. After coming into power under René Lévesque in 1976, the Parti Québécois wasted no time in passing Bill 101, the law that required all children to attend French schools (unless their parents had studied in English) and all public signage to be in French. It also created the Office québécois de la langue française, or OQLF, to enforce the new rules. Since the Quiet Revolution, the survival of Québécois culture has been primarily about the survival of the French language. This is where the anxieties and the debates have been concentrated.
During a recent visit to the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, I took a boat tour of the old harbour with some friends from Ontario. Except for us, all on board were Québécois. Across from us sat a group from the Saguenay region, who, realizing we were anglophones and assuming we spoke only English, asked the guide, in French, if our presence meant that he would have to give the tour in both languages. He affirmed that he would and that this was usually the case in Montreal, though not in Quebec City, where he also worked as a tour guide.
But assumptions about language do not always bear out (for one thing, two of us knew perfectly well what our fellow passengers were asking). Calderisi cites numerous statistics about language, many of which challenge assumptions. Only two-thirds of Montrealers now work in French, but across the province 80 percent use it at work. Even more, 85 percent, speak French primarily at home, and 60 percent of Québécois today speak no English at all. Even the OQLF, apparently, is confident that the French language’s status has been “stabilized” for now.
Even if Quebec has successfully defended French, without independence, is this really equivalent to protecting a unique Québécois culture? Here Calderisi’s analysis falters, perhaps because he needed to delve even deeper into indépendantiste writings. One writer, the sociologist and poet Fernand Dumont, argued that language is not an end in itself. “Language goes back to something else besides itself,” he wrote in The Vigil of Quebec, three years before Bill 101. “It is the echo of a collectivity that is worthy of expression.” In the absence of Dumont’s “something else,” have the Québécois simply become North Americans who happen to speak another language? Calderisi seems to endorse this view when he says “most Quebecers (like most Canadians) are in fact American in the broad sense of the word. They are direct, unpretentious, fair-minded, and ambitious, but willing to give others a chance.” Such fair-mindedness might help Quebecers “get used to Muslim headscarves,” which Calderisi prescribes as a suggestion for the future.
But what underlies this suspicion of head scarves in the public space to begin with? It is not idiosyncratic to today’s CAQ government; think of the earlier PQ government’s aborted Charter of Quebec Values or the previous Liberal government’s requirement that people’s faces be uncovered when they deliver or receive public services. Legault’s position reflects the majority opinion in Quebec, as he insists repeatedly, one shared by many intellectuals who are decidedly not xenophobic. There are progressives, too, who support Bill 21 for reasons rooted in Quebec’s unique cultural situation: its relatively recent emancipation from a Catholic Church that dominated public space; and the example of France, which has long declared itself officially secular. As a response to cultural diversity, the law might be egregiously misguided, but it is not simply reducible to Islamophobia.
Affirming secularism is not all that’s at play, though. When the premier of Manitoba takes the premier of Quebec to task for legislation that is “un-Canadian,” he must be assuming that to be Canadian is to embrace multiculturalism and the closely associated Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Here Brian Pallister seems to speak for most of the country, where multiculturalism and its attendant diversity are sources of pride — almost on a par with hockey and medicare. Not so for Quebec, which, it should be remembered, never signed on to the Constitution Act of 1982 and which has always been equally reluctant to endorse the official multiculturalism of Pierre Trudeau.
It is not enough to attribute such reluctance to “cultural insecurity,” as Calderisi does. Dumont argued that official Canadian multiculturalism effaces the long-standing concept of a nation that is bicultural, having its unique origins in a modus vivendi achieved in 1867 between English-speaking and French-speaking peoples. Confederation was entered into by French Canada not to protect the rights of the individual but to protect the rights of a nation. The replacement of biculturalism with multiculturalism implies that French Quebec is no more than one culture among many. What does it actually mean to insist repeatedly (as another Prime Minister Trudeau does) that diversity is the essence of Canada? As one Quebec journalist tells Calderisi, it means no culture exists “except a collection of minorities of different languages, cultures, and traditions, with English as their common means of communication.”
Indépendantiste writers like Dumont and Pierre Vadeboncoeur regarded the concept of a bilingual and multicultural Canada as a vacuous fantasy that would do little to protect Québécois culture. Vadeboncoeur privately regarded independence as an “impossible dream” (as I discussed in the April issue of this magazine). Are such voices still influential, such perspectives still reasonable in today’s Quebec? Calderisi, for his part, believes the chances of independence are “now extremely faint.”
Yet the dream has not died. Witness the agitation in Quebec last May concerning Ottawa’s apparent revocation of a travel permit for Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan president in exile, who was invited to address the nationalist Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste. Indeed, if Quebec is to be looked at in a “global light,” it is well to consider the global phenomenon of resurgent nationalism. In his recent book, Scots and Catalans: Union and Disunion, the Oxford historian J. H. Elliott observes that distinct minority societies can act in counterintuitive ways. Just when independence seems unnecessary or unappealing, from a detached economic or even cultural viewpoint, pro-independence movements can experience new life, as they have in Catalonia and Scotland. According to Elliott, both groups have historically been characterized by contrasting psychological forces: one pulling toward pragmatic realism to the point of caution (seny, to use the Catalan word) and the other pulling toward a passion that throws calculating reason to the winds (rauxa). When passion will prevail is unpredictable; a trivial event can trigger a swing. This psychological observation can be applied to any proud, historically distinct group without its own country.
Calderisi acknowledges the conditions that could rekindle Québécois nationalism: the stubborn fact that half of all Quebecers who primarily speak French still support sovereignty; the province’s continuing absence from the Constitution; the growing national indifference to Quebec’s identity concerns. Despite all this, he observes a generation of Quebecers born after the referendums who are turning away from inward-looking nationalism and toward global engagement. He points to one young intellectual, a philosophy professor in Quebec City, who still believes that an independent Quebec would have been better for everyone but is now willing to relinquish that best option for what is at least better: the Québécois seeing themselves again as French Canadians, joining with other Canadians in building a more just democracy.
Is the rest of Canada open to such a challenging invitation? This would mean recognizing that Quebec’s identity anxieties are ours too. “Is this not basically your own problem also?” Dumont asked in “A Letter to My English-Speaking Friends,” his introduction to The Vigil of Quebec. “You too are colonials: lately second-class Britons, provincials in an empire where you have never had much to say, now rehashed Americans of the second rank. Do you not need to find yourself in your history and according to your own plan?” How Canada has responded to this provocative question, posed forty-five years ago, is beyond Calderisi’s purview. Perhaps some of the answer could be provided by a book as interesting and balanced as his, written by a francophone Quebecer about the rest of Canada — a book that would help the premier of Quebec better understand the cultural tradition that informs the lecturing of the premiers of Alberta and Manitoba.