Vivre comme chien et chat
- Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country by Mordecai Richler
Chatto, 277 pp, £13.99, June 1992, ISBN 0 7011 4673 7
The population of Québec is about seven million, all of them minorities. The Jews, for whom Mordecai Richler makes his complaint (though not only for them), are outnumbered by 11 to one in the English-speaking community. The English are outnumbered five to one by the French, but the French are outnumbered by three to one in Canada as a whole. In North America, finally, the Americans have Canadians outnumbered by a factor of ten.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 14 No. 18 · 24 September 1992
It is an ironic expression of current problems that Paul Delany – an English émigré to Quebec of some vintage, now working 3500 miles away at Simon Fraser University in (English) Vancouver – can write a full-length essay on Mordecai Richler’s Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! (LRB, 20 August) without ever once directly mentioning Canada’s ‘First Nations’, the Indian peoples and the Inuit. One of the key elements in the ‘crisis of legitimacy’ that is currently being experienced in Canada (as evidenced in the quite extraordinary level of ennui being reported in every national poll with respect to the established political parties and political leaderships) is surely the exhaustion of the idea of Canada as a fiefdom simply for the Anglophone and Francophone élites.
Canadians in all parts of Canada, and also those living abroad, are sickened by the unending constitutional conferences, focused only on the division of the spoils between English Canada and Quebec, and are increasingly interested in listening to other voices – particularly where such voices (like that of Elijah Harper, the Cree Indian and Manitoba MP who ‘talked out’ the Meech Lake Agreement in the Provincial Parliament in June 1990) give expression to other values and other political or social possibilities. Harper’s speech to the Manitoba Parliament insisted on the claims of the aboriginal peoples, unrecognised in existing constitutional debates, to be a ‘distinct society’, and was delivered with great calm and deliberation, a feather held high as a symbol of such identity. In calling for respect for the land and for nature, it resonated to an altogether different, but still powerful, conception of Canadianicity from that which has been dominant in the era of Brian Mulroney – and it was a speech which attracted great admiration across Canada.
To hear the voice of the aboriginal peoples in Canada is to hear tales of repression and exclusion by English Canadians, but also, quite vitally, by Quebec – a province which has insistently characterised itself over the years as an oppressed minority. One of the most unpleasant recent examples was the armed siege of the Mohawk reservation at Oka, just outside Montreal, during July to September 1990, arising, it should be remembered, out of the attempt of a local town council to extend a golf course – in this case, onto sacred Mohawk burial ground on the Kahnesatake reservation. The routine racism of the Quebec Provincial Police vis-à-vis the aboriginal peoples was quite evident at Oka, and has been widely observed within Quebec in recent years. But many observers suspect that the belligerence exhibited by the QPP may be symptomatic of a larger problem in respect of multicultural openness and tolerance within Quebec, which Mordecai Richler smells out in terms of anti-semitism, but that does not stop there. Certainly, this is an issue which ought not to go unremarked in a review like that provided by Paul Delany, which is so generally uncritical of Quebeckers’ desires to be ‘masters in their own house’.
The sorry truth may be, however, that neither Richler (in lamenting some aspects of a failed bilingual, federal Canada) nor Delany (in his sanguine acceptance of disunity and the break-up of Canada as a nation) is really addressing the key issue in that part of the world. In the light of the firming-up of the Free Trade Agreement struck by the Mulroney Government with the United States and Mexico, institutionalising democratic representation of non-élite minority groups in general, not only in the territory we have been used to calling Canada, but throughout the North American continent, may be what really matters.
University of Salford