I was born in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada, (on the border with Vermont and New Hampshire) and although I moved away when I was nine, my heart still lives under Hereford mountain. So imagine my surprise when I reacted to the latest uproar about Quebec separating from Canada by wearily wishing it would just go and be done with it.
I must have got old and crotchety, I thought. How could I think that? True I didn’t journey to Montreal in 1995 as thousands of others from right across Canada did in a massive demonstration of love, which worked. That referendum was defeated and we have had almost twenty years of something like peace, not all that peaceful but not excessively worrying either.
On the other hand, we have been stewing over this problem since the early sixties when A Royal Commission on Bilingual and Bicultural-ism was set up in answer to growing Québec nationalism. The effect was that people enrolled their children in French immersion schools across the country and seriously ambitious folk made themselves bilingual. We had a brief cultural détente during Montreal Expo in 1967, but the next year, we had FLQ terrorism and murder in the name of Separatism. We had the War Measures Act, martial law in Québec. Individually, we had serious inner conflict. That was the year the Parti Québeçois was formed by the merging of two existing parties. Under the leadership of René Lévesque, it won the provincial election in 1976.
I took that very hard. My mother, who had been given two weeks to live in 1970, was by the fall of 1976, unable to fight death off any longer and this Lévesque wanted to take away my motherland.
English speakers left Montreal in droves and flocked a few hours down the road to Toronto doing their bit to liven up their new city.
In 1980, Lévesque held the first referendum to that effect, weighting the question by what we Anglais considered to be an ambiguous question. Despite this the No’s prevailed, settling the question, we thought. Foolish hope. In 1995, after the Unity Rally, the No’s won again but barely.
Before I go on, a little personal history. I was an English-speaking Québecer. The mortgage on our farm was held by a Frenchman. He was depicted in family conversations like Simon Legree. I was dragged along by my father to “negotiations” with this man. The rest of the continent might have been pulling out of the Great Recession, but not Hereford Hill. The only reason we were still eating, and not well at that, was we grew potatoes, milked cows, and hunted. I remember those tense ‘sort of’ conversations. Hard to talk when two people don’t share language, except for swear words. So my father gave up the farm. “Je me souviens” (“I remember”) is on the Quebec license plates. It’s not clear if it means the Battle of the Plains of Abraham where the British won over the French, or the humiliation of having to address the Federal government in English. When I read it, I remember being downtrodden by the French.
In the years since Lévesque’s win, Québec has passed laws limiting education in English schools. If you are a native French speaker or an immigrant, you are required to go to a French school. Together with the falling birth rate in the province, this policy has reduced the population, although people from Haiti or Morocco, French-speaking countries, flock in, it seems. Not sure how the “pur laine” (pure wool) the good old fashioned French Québecois, feel about that.
For a while in the 70’s, when I visited, store clerks, etc. actually pretended not to understand any English or my fractured French. I do have several years of study, but unfortunately under English speakers who had dreadful accents. My children fared better with French-speakers and summers in France. That is changed now. Hotel employees and other service providers are eager to communicate. They have lost their Parisian frostiness.
As I said in an earlier post, it is still not possible to figure out all the highway signs and I find myself praying – in English- that the one I just sailed past uncomprehendingly, didn’t say “Road closed ahead”. Let’s see “rue fermé…” And sort out “est” and “ouest” at 120 KPH!
Lately, Pauline Marois the P.Q. premier of Quebec and the merry band in her minority government, have sought to woo voters by plumping for a more secular state, à la France, which went that way after the French Revolution. She seeks to pass a bill forbidding the wearing of visible symbols of religious allegiance by public representatives and workers – the hijab, the turban, the yarmulka, even to be fair, ostentatious crosses, although small ones are to be allowed. So goodbye job, Muslim, scarf-wearing daycare worker/ teacher assistant. Marois called a provincial election for April 7, 2014 and proposes to win a majority in the legislature by this strategy. She vowed to fight the election on that bill and on the province’s economy.
Last week, she showed up at a press conference with PKP (Pierre-Karl Péladeau) in tow. He, she announced, would run in the election. He is the owner of a country-wide media conglomerate, including newspapers and television stations, which he vows to retain, but place in a blind trust if he is elected. (Blind, my eye; this guy is a hands-on publisher.) Trouble is he didn’t act like a humble, first time candidate. Immediately, he made it clear that he chose to run only with sovereignty in view. (Yes, that means Separation.) By the end of the week, Ms Marois was (gently) holding him back from the microphone. Then she went on to explain that a separated Quebec would still have open borders, use Canadian currency and have a seat on the Bank of Canada. Really! but will there be a tariff on cheese?
Pundits including Conrad Black in Saturday’s (March 15, 2014) National Post (Let’s hold our own referendum) think that “the French are about evenly divided on the issue, and the 20% of Quebecers not native French Canadians are solidly Federalist” leaving opinion at about where it was in 1980 – 60 No to 40 Yes.
But … do I care? Finally, in Rex Murphy’s column in the same paper, I found out that I am not so special after all. In fact, he says that as a country we are worn out by this marital spat and we have all begun to think, “If you want to go, go.”
Did I actually say that? Oh my dear starvation mountains please still be there.