Is Quebec Crying Wolfe?

Peter Clarke and Maria Tippett

After Napoleon won the battle of Waterloo, the former British colonies went to France. In due course, Australia was opened up by French settlement, with a British cultural residue which remained long after the new nation’s independence. Only in New South Wales did a British community survive in appreciable numbers. Sydney, to be sure, became impressively bilingual, with the French élite long occupying the smart area of the city; but the bulk of the Anglophone population remained monoglot and showed a stubborn resistance to assimilation. Cultural links with Britain were one way of maintaining a sense of identity, which easily spilled over into politically sensitive assertions of independence. Hence the enormous fuss when a visiting British leader publicly endorsed the separatist slogan, ‘Free New South Wales’.

Such fancies were prompted by a recent visit to Montreal. The Parti Québecois (PQ) now forms the provincial government and is pledged to fulfil the aspiration for a ‘Québeclibre’ which de Gaulle helped to publicise a quarter of a century ago. With the collapse of the Conservative Party in last year’s Federal elections, moreover, the Liberal Government faces an official opposition at Ottawa made up of over fifty MPs from the Bloc Québecois, which is similarly committed to separation. Although there has been some tension between the two wings of the separatist movement over strategy, they are now agreed that the issue will be settled by a referendum sometime in 1995. But is anything ever finally settled in Quebec? Certainly there seemed to be no consensus in Montreal, either on what would happen next, or on how it would happen, still less on what ought to happen.

At three million, Montreal holds nearly half the population of Quebec and is the largest Francophone city in the world after Paris. A visitor needs no persuading that this is ‘a distinct society’. Not only are the public signs in French, as required by provincial law, but all the mundane paraphernalia of the city streets have a French quality – billboards and advertisements, the shops, the look of the buildings, the priorities between public space and private, the sense of scale and the pace of life. The 17th-century origins of the city are still obvious in the Vieux Port. The cafés and bistros are there for the tourists, but the old buildings haven’t been tarted up and there’s a shabbiness and scruffiness in the streets which squeaky-clean Canadians deplore; it’s obvious that residents don’t spend a lot of their income on keeping up appearances in Francophone Montreal. Until well into the 20th century every reputable Canadian bank and insurance company had to have its head office there. But some of these imposing stone buildings are now to let. Montreal’s relative decline (and Toronto’s rise) has been accelerated during the last generation by an exodus of increasingly apprehensive Anglophone institutions. Political uncertainty has hastened the flight of capital.

It’s not as though anyone is asking Quebec to celebrate Wolfe’s birthday; it’s just that Francophones can’t easily forget a catalogue of resentments which began with the conquest and was long reinforced by a pattern of discrimination that in effect made them second-class citizens. Every Quebec licence plate carries the motto Je me souviens. In this sense the situation has some parallels to Northern Ireland. The substantial enjoyment of equal civil rights is not enough to expunge the folk memory which sustains nationalism. A group of Québecois professionals recently made the point that the old arguments for separatism have been overtaken by events. In the Sixties, Francophones made up 25 per cent of the Canadian population but held only 10 per cent of the top jobs in the Federal Civil Service. This disparity has now disappeared. Similarly, the Quebec economy used to be controlled by an English-speaking minority: it is now in Francophone hands. What grievance can Quebec possibly nurse against its treatment in Canada, when it has provided every long-serving prime minister for over twenty-five years – Trudeau, Mulroney and now Chrétien?

Paradoxically, however, the one recent political leader to achieve prolonged national dominance and instant international recognition is himself the most resolute opponent of Quebec nationalism. Of course, Pierre Elliot Trudeau was nothing if not cosmopolitan, an elegant figure as effortlessly witty in English as in French. But his education was Francophone: he attended not McGill but l’Université de Montréal. As a student during World War Two, Trudeau resisted conscription with the rest of them – better Hitler than Mackenzie King, so to speak. Twenty-five years later, when he had King’s old job, Trudeau imposed his own bilingualism on the whole country, so that out in Vancouver, five thousand kilometres from Montreal, all federal government notices now appear in both languages. Trudeau sought to propitiate this sort of Francophone cultural sensitivity with one hand, and with the other he administered a sharp slap. His adoption of a policy of multiculturalism, which explicitly recognised Canada’s ethnic diversity, undercut the Francophone claim for parity as one of the two ‘founding nations’. It was an ambitious strategy which initially upset some monoglot Anglophones, especially those who had to brush up their French in order to hold onto their government jobs; but it showed how far Trudeau was prepared to go in order to kill off Quebec nationalism.

Many Québecois have now become frankly dismissive of the French Canadians who make good in Ottawa, regarding them as even harder on Quebec than the English-speaking prime ministers whom they succeeded. Thus Trudeau’s years in power saw the rise of separatism under René Levesque, a high-profile television journalist turned politician. The two men had previously worked together within the revitalised Liberal Party, helping to effect the ‘quiet revolution’ which liberated the Québecois from the longstanding hold of the Union Nationale, founded on inward-looking political jobbery, reinforced by the muscle of the Catholic Church. Trudeau took the fast train to Ottawa and was made prime minister almost as soon as he got off it, while Levesque broke with the Liberals and founded the PQ.

The Péquistes initially languished as Trudeau enjoyed his long electoral honeymoon. His response to the 1970 terrorist campaign in Quebec was drastic; in the October Crisis he invoked emergency powers for the internment of many Québecois, including prominent Péquistes. The mythic status which these events have achieved is attested by the fact that the film Octobre – billed as ‘un dilemme cornélien: faut-il tuer un être humain ou laisser tomber la cause à laquelle on croit ardemment?’ – is currently playing in eight cinemas in Montreal (one of them avec sous titres angl). Trudeau cowed his opponents but at the price of lasting bitterness, and in 1976 Levesque snatched an unexpected victory in the elections for the Quebec assembly. With little more than 40 per cent of the popular vote, he trod cautiously; not until 1980 did he hold a referendum, and even then the separatist issue was fudged by talk of ‘sovereignty-association’. Trudeau was again an implacable antagonist, with Jean Chrétien as his loyal lieutenant. The referendum proposal was lost by sixty to forty.

So we have been here before. A lot of people are now saying that the referendum next year will yield the same result. Fewer are confident that this will be the end of the matter. For though Levesque is long dead, his party did not die in 1980. What has revived its fortunes has been the failure of several attempts since then to amend the Canadian constitution in a way that would satisfy Quebec’s lingering desire for recognition as ‘a distinct society’. The Conservatives, too, found a prime minister from Quebec – Brian Mulroney, whose Irish ancestry and upbringing in Baie Comeau combined to give him the gift of the bilingual gab. A more popular prime minister could probably have sold a redrafted Federal constitution to the rest of Canada, but Mulroney had become a lame duck by the time he tried; and the defeat of the constitutional referendum in 1992 was inevitably perceived in Quebec as a further rebuff by English Canada.

This time round, up against a tired Liberal provincial government, the Péquistes were expected to win the Quebec elections. Were the people of Quebec never to be allowed to change their government? Quebec is not Northern Ireland, with everyone in each community always voting the same way. To be sure, the Liberal Party now has the support of nine out of ten non-Francophones. This is not just a matter of English Canadians sticking together: the new immigrants have little enthusiasm for being turned into Francophones. This would not matter if the Francophone vote were solid, since it can carry three-quarters of the seats. What decides the shape of Quebec politics is in fact the division within the Francophone community. The projections of a big win for the PQ were based on polls which put it 25 per cent ahead of the Liberals among Francophones. But on polling day the Francophone vote seems to have split 53 per cent Péquiste and 37 per cent Liberal. The PQ won a lot more seats (77 to 47), but the Liberals unexpectedly achieved almost a dead-heat in the popular vote, with both parties on just over 44 per cent.

There’s no getting away from the fact that there is now a Péquiste government under Jacques Parizeau. There is some attempt in the English-Canadian media to make him into a bogeyman; but Parizeau comes over in many ways as an affable Anglophile, with his ‘by Joves’ and his tweed suits. For twenty-five years, however, he has been dedicated to separation. But are his supporters? There is a universal feeling in Quebec that the recent vote was simply about a change of government, not a dummy-run for a referendum. Indeed, the explanation for the pollsters’ overestimate of the PQ vote may well lie in the Party’s soft support among Francophones, who go with the crowd in their general rhetoric, but are not prepared for the implications of separation. Moreover, it all depends on what question is asked. Support for ‘sovereignty-association’ – Levesque’s question – has been running at almost 60 per cent in recent years. But that is not on the table at present. ‘Sovereignty’ has been getting the support of up to 50 per cent – but ‘independence’ is supported by only 40 per cent. Worse still for serious separatists, when the S-word itself is used by the pollsters, support drops to one-in-three of the Quebec electorate. A lot has to change in the next year if a referendum is to look winnable.

Complacent federalists should not forget, however, that such polls are, at best, snapshots, taken by people who messed up their last roll of film. Parizeau, working with Lucien Bouchard, the adroit leader of the Bloc Québecois in Ottawa, will not be sitting back during the next year. They will both be exploiting expectations of change in Quebec, by wrong-footing the Federal Government at every opportunity. Parizeau says that even if this referendum rejects his proposal, there will be another in due course. Two scenarios were sketched for us by Montreal residents. Some shrug and imply that Quebec has been to the brink before without anyone falling over. Others talk of the cracks widening, and say it is too late to bring them together again. And when we inquired about the Quebec crisis, we met the Québecois response: ‘What crisis?’ Lisé Bissonnette, the editor of Le Devoir, the influential Montreal daily, is not a woman to be ignored when she says that this is a crisis for the rest of Canada, and that it is now up to them to respond. Irrespective of the result of the referendum, change will have to come because ‘things are not working out.’