I’d Love to Talk to Them

In my previous post, I talked about Quebec separatists in relation to Canada’s Governor-General. However, since the resignation last June of Bernard Landry, the Parti Québécois’s predecessor to André Boisclair who was chosen party leader leader yesterday, and the marking of the 10th anniversary of Canada’s near-death experience (i.e., the Quebec referendum that didn’t pass by a razor-thin margin), I’ve been thinking a lot about a Canada without Quebec. Specifically, I’d love to talk to a separatist capable of answering what is so bad NOW with a Quebec within Canada, and, frankly, how sovereign is sovereign.

First, though, I should point out that the PQ is an interesting party to observe. Like the Democrats in the United States or the federal Liberals in Canada, the PQ is more of a coalition of diverging political viewpoints with one underlying common principle—that being, in the PQ’s case, the creation of a new country called Québec. As such, the PQ has many factions: the left-leaning, with which leadership race runner-up Pauline Marois more strongly associates; the centre-left; the moderate right (socially liberal but fiscally neo-conservative), with which the last three PQ leaders—Parizeau, Bouchard and Landry—identify; and, specifically with regard to sovereignty, the purs et durs (pure and hard-line), who favour a quick and unilateral secession from Canada, versus those who lean towards a more cautious, gradual, and dare I say pragmatist approach to achieving Québec sovereignty. Meanwhile, according to an analysis by the people who run the Political Compass, the positions of the BQ (Bloc Québécois), the federal but unaffiliated wing of the PQ in Ottawa, are essentially similar to the NDP‘s, with the difference that the NDP is a resolutely federalist party.

Second, early in the recently completed leadership race, Pauline Marois garnered the support of women’s groups, and claimed that it is much more difficult for a woman to have leadership aspirations in Quebec. However, many pundits pointed out that Marois’s problem was less the fact she’s a woman than the fact she has a long political past, which included the finance and health portfolios in past PQ governments—a past that has earned her a reputation, good and bad, within many quarters. While appealling to women’s vote, she also emphasized her long experience which, at 39, André Boisclair does not have despite holding a few junior cabinet portfolios.

As an observer of the PQ leadership race, I felt mixed. What would be better? A young, second-generation separatist who happens to be openly gay and has admitted to using cocaine some ten years ago, or a first-generation separatist with extensive high-level policy experience? My knee-jerk reaction was to favour Boisclair, except that despite his youth, he’s cut from the same cloth as Parizeau, Bouchard and Landry—that is, the party’s right wing in terms of policy—while Marois is firmly planted in the left wing. Were Boisclair in the United States, would he be one of those oddities known as the Log Cabin Republicans? I do wonder, although I recognize that might be an overstatement.

But now that the leadership race has ended, let me get to the title of this entry, namely the reason why “I’d love to talk to them.”

The thing is that I’ve been conscious of talk of Quebec separation since I was 10. Yes, that’s 30 years. What’s more, I’m a first-generation born-outside-Quebec Québécois, which, at the end of the day, makes me a “mere” French Canadian outside Quebec. I never lived in Quebec. When I visit Quebec, I am viewed as Acadian, but when I back home in Moncton, I’m seen more as Québécois. The French I speak can vary from franglais (“Frenglish”) when I meet up with people from my childhood to a more Quebec-accented French while I’m in Quebec (although there are several different accents with Quebec). Thus I always hesitate when I’m asked if I’m Québécois or Acadian.

French is the first (and often only) language of more than 4 in 5 Québécois, whereas overall for Canada (including Quebec), that figure plummets to fewer than 1 in 4. Taking out of Canada the approximately six million francophones from Quebec would leave such a tiny minority of French Canadians that any hope of cultural survival for this minority would vanish. Additionally, geographically, the four Atlantic provinces would be separated from the rest of Canada, which would make the country resemble—again, geographically speaking only—Bangladesh from 1947 to 1971, when it was East Pakistan. Many have said that should Quebec ever succeed in separating from Canada, the Atlantic provinces should simply join the United States. But that assumes the U.S. would even be interested in this permanently economically depressed region. (I remember hearing at one point that the state of Maine, which is no California, has a larger economy than the four Atlantic provinces combined.)

For me to say that I’m French Canadian is more than a statement on my mother tongue. It’s runs much deeper than that. It’s about culture and heritage. With this understanding, and knowing how francophones within Quebec were definitely treated as second-class citizens of Canada some 40 years ago (and all the years before that), I don’t have to stretch my imagination too much to figure out how the separatist movement rose, specifically during Quebec’s Révolution tranquille of the 1960s. Also, don’t forget that my first impression of Montreal as a kid was that it was overwhelmingly English on the surface, which was both puzzling and a huge disappointment to me.

If Quebec’s situation today was like it was even 30 years ago, I would fully understand the continued drive towards Quebec independence. However, the fact is that, although there have been monumental failures in the attempts by the rest of Canada to make things right, there HAVE been many concessions over the years which I doubt would have been allowed within other countries—certainly not in the United States, but also not in European countries either. For instance, I have trouble imagining the U.S. allowing one of its states to have what amounts to no less than overseas diplomatic consulates, or virtual control of its immigration. Yet that is some of the latitude that has been given to Quebec over the years, although the consulates certainly aren’t viewed favorably by Ottawa. Additionally, Quebec is the only province where English is NOT an official language.

What’s been troubling, however, is the vagueness and outright naive separation plans that have been put forward in the past—embarrassing plans that reeked of “I want my cake and eat it, too,” which included that Quebec share Canada’s currency, military, and passport. One plan years ago, if I recall correctly, even called for continued transfer payments from Ottawa! Indeed, Quebec is one of the seven provinces on the receiving end of transfer payments; British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario are the three provinces in the opposite situation.

Nevertheless, I do believe that Quebec has the population base and wealth to form a successful, Scandinavian-like country. However, it cannot be assumed that treaties that have been signed with a Canada that included Quebec will easily (if ever) be converted to include a sovereign Quebec. What’s more, beyond ideals and slogans like “Masters in our own domain,” how would Quebec be better off? I’ve spent enough time in Quebec to say that I have felt the extent to which it is a “distinct society,” but does that distinction really make coexistence within Canada impossible?

THAT is the kind of questions I would like to have a Quebec separatist answer. I wouldn’t want to hear about grievances that go back 40 years, let alone the freakin’ Plains of Abraham. I would want a discussion about the situation NOW. I’m troubled when I see one PQ leader after another, including Boisclair, earning degrees from Harvard and the London School of Economics and advocating for separation (isolation?) for the rest of the people of Quebec. Before the Révolution tranquille, the Roman Catholic Church was the elite governing the majority “ti-culs”; to me, it looks like the same thing all over again, except with a politico-economic elite at the helm.