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Of Canadian Unity and (mis) conceptions of Quebec

June 20, 2009

(Nota Bene: this was originally three separate (but adjacent) posts dated on June 20, May 31 and May 1 2009. I elected to combine them in my archives to simplify things)

(Warning: strong language ahead).

Over the past several weeks, I have been in a lot more contact with English-Canadians from Ontario and the Prairies province than is usual for me. (I’m far more used to dealing with Newfoundlanders (thanks to a friend of mine) and British Columbians, somehow).

It has, on the whole, not been a particularly pleasant experiences. It appears misconceptions and simplistic views of Quebec abound between the Rockies and the Ottawa River, and these views are used as justification for attitudes ranging from wariness toward Quebec, to outright hatemongering, and what would be (if we were talking skin color) out-and-out racism (but hey, it’s about a sub-ethnic group of white people, so it’s fine, really! They’re white after all!). Now let’s be clear: I’m not talking about Don Cherry here (though he is bad enough): I’m talking about ordinary people who are otherwise pretty nice.

1)Quebec language

We can begin with what was perhaps the simplest misconception: that the Quebec language/advertisement law derive from racism against and hatred of English-speaking people (which certainly exists in Quebec). For those needing a recap, these laws largely state 1)that advertisement, signs, etc in Quebec must include French in a prominent role, and 2)that goods sold in Quebec must come with instructions in French. (there are others laws, but this is the most troublesome bit).

Now, I can see the basic complaint: these are limits on Freedom of Speech, true enough. It’s also true that place like the United States or (English-speaking) Canada have no trouble dealing with the occasional ma and pa store with non-english signs, so why does Quebec feel the need to have such laws? Anti-English racism provides a simple answer to the question.

There is a fundamental flaw in that answer, of course, and that’s assuming the situation now is anything like it was before the law was voted. Consider video games: the law was extended in recent years to include game manuals and packaging. What do you think the situation was like before then? French (or bilingual) material common, with the occasional rule-breaker? Of course not. US-based, English Canada-based and England-based corporations (among others) just saved themselves the trouble, and sent Quebec the same shipments they sent everyone else: English packaging, with english manuals. The situation there, was not fundamentally different from what the situation was with other elements of the language laws beforehand.

And, given that there are millions of French-as-first-language Quebecers living in this (fairly small) territory, that attitude is frankly insulting. More: I will go as far as to say that treating English as some “default” language that it’s our own fault for not speaking is borderline racist, skin color or not. It is also unacceptable, as it basically demands that the Quebecers learn a foreign language to be able to be proper informed consumers within their own homeland. (And of course, if French speakers are forced to use english in all their business transactions, eventually French is going to be nothing more than a novelty/curiosity). Note that the supreme court of Canada, while limiting some abusive derivation of this law (eg, the “signs in French only” version), and rightly so, has generally supported the conception that Quebecers are entitled to French within their own homelands, and to laws to make it so.

You could make a case that ma and pa stores in english or Chinatowns-like areas should be spared; and that the law as it is being applied now is too broad, but it gets hard at a certain point to make a law that only gets the multinationals, and not the ma and pa stores, without violating one equal rights provision or another. You could make a case that the laws are not needed anymore, but do you honestly think WalMart and consorts would all bother with French without being arm-twisted? It could be they woudl (or at least enough of them would), but honestly? I don’t really believe it.

2)French is the language of a province and a half; English is the true language of the land (and should be the official language).

I’ve already touched on this some, but another conception I encountered is that English really is the default language of Canada. The most blatant (and decidedly racist) formulation of this comes from a letter to the editor in a Edmonton newspaper that a Newfoundlander friend working in Alberta was nice enough to forward to me.

“I want to know why Stephen Harper comes to Calgary and speaks French. Who is he talking to? If he can’t talk white, stay out of Alberta. Go back to where they like this kind of garbage.”

“Talk white” is, of course, a…wonderful formulation. Quite aside from obviously racist implications in the phrasing (“white” as the default status, as something normal while all other skin colors are somehow abnormal), it makes a very insulting assumption about French’s place in Canada – that it has no place in the country, except (possibly) Quebec. (Note that many Canadian politicians have english segments in their speech in Quebec, as far as I remember); that it is an aberration, something normal people don’t do.

There is an obvious underlying idea here, I think – that immigrants to Canada learned english and integrated, and they don’t get speech in their own language. Legitimate enough a complaint, except that it ignores an important detail. Those immigrants, whether Polish, Chinese, Italian, or of any other origin, all immigrated to English-speaking regions of a country which had English as one official language.

The French-speaking Canadians are, of course, in another boat entirely – they were there before the English. In their case, it’s not they who immigrated to English-speaking lands, but the English-speakers who immigrated to French-speaking lands, and did not learn French. (I won’t cast any stone here; French-speakers who learned native tongues are few and far between). It doesn’t strike me as logical to have only one of these two language as the official language at the country level, or to consider either as a “default” for the entire country.

Related is the idea that making French an official language is a “boon” to Quebec, and, as it has not satisfied the Quebecers and made them shut up, it should be taken back to spare Canada the effort. That, of course, is a common misunderstanding in many majority-minority situation: Quebecers don’t see it as a boon given, but as a basic courtesy it took Canada some time to get straight. If Canada were to withdraw that courtesy, I doubt it would end well.

(This is not to say learning English is a bad thing. It’s a very good thing, and something I’m glad I did. But I did it, and encourage others to do it, because it’s the lingua franca (irony, I know) of the world, not because it is (or should be) the default language of Canada.)

Even if we speak different languages, we’re really all the same, and Quebecers should not act like they are so different.

We are not “all the same people”. WE. SPEAK. DIFFERENT. LANGUAGES. If you cannot understand how deep a divide that is…please, try to think about it. Different languages means different news sources (and therefore, different editorial takes), both on television and in printed form, both in broadsheets and tabloids and even in magazines. Different languages means different television channels, airing their own arrays of shows (and the only translated shows being effectively the US blockbuster shows: Lost, 24, etc, certainly not CBC’s homemades). It means a whole local tv/cinema industry that exists only to provide for a local market. It means different publishing houses, and so different selections of books (with, again, the usual blockbusters overlap being mostly international success everyone else gets to read too). Different languages means even our anthems are (significantly) different.

I’m probably a little more knowledgeable than most Quebecers about Canada, and I couldn’t name you many Canadian TV shows, past or present (This Hour has Twenty-Two Minutes, Little Mosque on the Prairie, Royal Canadian Air Farce…) or famous piece of litteratures (In Flanders Field, and I only know about that one because the montreal Canadiens co-opted two lines from it as their motto; Anne of Green Gables, and that only because the French CBC aired a Japanese anime version of it back in the eighties). Reversedly, how many French-Canadian TV shows can you name? How many French-Canadian movies? What about books? Some of the most famous “IPs” in Quebec (Séraphin/Un Homme et Son Péché/Les Belles Histoires des Pays d’En Haut, for one – 23 years of radio show, 14 of TV shows, a ten-printings novel, movies in 1949, 1950 and 2002) haven’t even got a stub on English Wikipedia yet.

This includes generation-defining shows and events: Quebecers by and large know exactly what you are refering to if you say “La guerre, la guerre, c’est pas une raison pour se faire du mal”. (War, war, that’s no reason to harm one another): it’s perhaps the most (and certainly one of the most) iconic movie line of the eighties here. Ever heard it?

Quebec culture developed largely (although not completely) in isolation: linguistic isolation from the capital (London), and from neighboring provinces and states; geographic and political isolation from the former motherland, France. It cannot be, in the circumstances, anything but a unique culture, fairly far removed from any other (except to a degree the Acadians (& other French Canadians), although there is a significant difference in the fact that Quebec never had to face being a political minority at even the provincial level, which is a pretty big difference.

This isn’t to say the rest of Canada is a monolithic block. I’d tend to think that the various English-Canadian cultures are closer to one another than any of them is to Québec culture, or closer to one another than Québec culture is to any other culture (except perhaps Acadian culture, and even that is questionable because the Acadians have undergone trials and traumas that Quebec culture hasn’t come close to enduring, from the deportation to being a minority culture within even their provinces). That doesn’t mean you are all the same; just that the difference between each of you cannot be as great as the differences between any of you and Quebec.

I’m all for working with you, I’m all for working on a better country with you. But please don’t try to convince me I’m “just like you”.  That, in the end only shows me you don’t know who I am.

Then there’s this…(some mild swearing)

Along this, I ran into an interview with a scholar – someone who teaches and work in a Canadian university. Someone  who openly wished Canada had had a civil war way back when, so Quebec could have been brought “in line” with the rest of Canada, forced to accept the English vision of Canada, like the South was (supposedly) forced to accept the Northern vision of the indivisible United States, one nation, after the Civil War?

EXCUSE ME? I mean, I just can’t imagine what to reply to that sort of things. Wishing Quebecers had been made good little Canadians at sword (or gun) point? How much more imperialistic, self-righteous can you get? What sort of warped sense of nationalism lead someone to conclude that this would be a good thing? What sort of pig even dreams up this sort of twisted, sickening logic? There isn’t a bloody word, not in French, not in English, and not even in Quebec French, the foulest, swearingest of all foul languages, that begin to describe how I feel on this, how much I hate the little turd.

(Apologies for the language)


This isnt to say Quebec is perfect. Or that there’s no racism (I’ve heard Parizeau as clearly as anyone, and I wanted his head as much as anyone, thank you very much. He’s hardly the only one, either.), or no possibility that the current law will go down a slippery slope. It’s not to say that we can’t do any better than we have now, or that Quebec and the rest of Canada have nothing in common. Or that Quebec should be given unique political rights within the confederation (political equality between provinces is a perfectly legitimate stance).

This is, however, to say that by denying the very valid reasons for many of our laws (and ascribing them only to racism), by pretending that Quebec only acts the way it does because of racism; by pretending Quebec is not unique and different (instead of just saying you don’t think it should have special rights), you’re just getting in the way of Canada getting anywhere. That vision of yours is never going to be true, because it is built on a flawed, false premise when it comes to Quebec.

And by repeating the above opinions, parroting them, rather than offering pointed, informed, knowledgeable suggestions and criticism, you drown whatever point you may have in what can easily become offensive ignorance. And when you do that, listening to you becomes a waste of time.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Alex permalink
    July 21, 2009 10:43 am

    Parizeau only state the truth…
    Thing is, he shouldn’t have said it out loud…

    So yeah, politically, he just shoot himself in the foot…

    The “Sponsorship scandal” showed him right on one of his point.
    Chrétien himself said afterwhile that it was “payer peu pour faire perdre le referendum au Québec!” (speaking about the millions, tenfold what the other side spent… And all that illegally…)

    For the other, well, it is now a fact that _a lot_ of immigrants have been “naturalize” in a rush just before the “referendum”.(

    Diefenbaker once said “One Canada, one nation”. I think that it is worst than what Parizeau said. For that is saying that we don’t (and shouldn’t) exist.

    Show me wrong…

    • guillaumehj permalink*
      July 21, 2009 12:01 pm

      That there was *some* truth to what he said can’t be disputed. No one’s going to say he was wrong about money, for a start. And the immigration cheat was pretty blatant too.

      The problem is with the sweeping generalization, and all the unfortunate implications of saying “The ethnic vote”.

      For a start, if you say “the ethnic vote”, you’re categorizing votes. You’re taking every immigrant, everyone who isn’t “pure wool”French-Canadian, and putting them in one category (“The Ethnic vote”). Then by associating them with an illegitimate way to win elections (“Money”), you basically imply that their vote is not a true vote, that *all* ethnic vote (or at least all ethnic vote against the referendum) was not a legitimate vote. By extention, the only vote that matters is the vote of true Quebecers (eg, not ethnic) who should get to dictate the direction of the nation.

      Was that exactly what Parizeau meant? You could make the case he said a lot more than he wanted to say, and worded what he wanted to say wrong. I could accept that. *But* no matter what he actually meant regardign the precise nature of the vote, his choice of words still reveal a profoundly ancestry-based “Them against us” mentality, the descendants of the French settlers (us) vs the others, the ethnics (them).

      We saw just how common – and how racist – that conception of Quebec is with that horrid little Bouchard-Taylor affair. Which, again, started with legitimate complaint, but wound up (through sweeping generalizations and over-the-top statements) into a Them against Us disaster that pitted self-described “Real Quebecers” (French, Westerners, Catholic in name at least, generally White) against “Ethnics” (Not one or more of the above).

      It’s nowhere near the apartheid, or the Jim Crow laws, or slavery, obviously. But it most certainly is a racist form of mentality, and it was the sort of ideology that the Parizeau comment reeked of, even in its most charitable interpretation.

      (It’s also the best example when dealing with English-speakers, without wanting to do explanations. They haven’t heard all the horrors from people at Bouchard-Taylor and the like. They are more likely to have heard about money and the ethnic vote, and, while it’s not as bad as what we heard at Bouchard-Taylor, it’s still bad enough to make a good example).

  2. Alex permalink
    July 21, 2009 1:33 pm

    “*But* no matter what he actually meant regarding the precise nature of the vote, his choice of words still reveal a profoundly ancestry-based “Them against us” mentality, the descendants of the French settlers (us) vs the others, the ethnics (them).”


    But it is my understanding that we have been forced into that venue…
    By fear, by (historical, mind you) injustice, by ignorance, call it what you will…

    And from what you quoted, with “others” that want us to end in a bloodbath, I can understand this mentality… It _IS_ us against them…
    I’m not endorsing it, but at least I know how we got there…

    Now if you’re saying we should forget what happened in the past, and all try to work together for the greater goods, I agree…
    I just don’t really see any good will from people outside Quebec, and even in Montreal…

    WE, in Quebec, have make efforts to get closer to Canadians.
    I never saw it the other way around… (And no, I don’t include politicians, for obvious reasons…)
    Again, that _IS_ “us” and “them”…

    I’m not saying it is right…

    And I’m with you when you say that “they” generally don’t use informed, knowledgeable arguments…

    Exactly like peoples at Bouchard-Taylor…

  3. guillaumehj permalink*
    July 21, 2009 1:53 pm

    The problem with the Us vs Them mentality is that it leaves no middle ground – no room for people who are not part of the “us” (the Québécois people) and are not part of the “them” (the people with the sort of opinions above). If you’re not part of “Us”, you’re automatically suspect, and most likely one of “them”.

    That’s not the way the world works, that’s the way *BUSH* thought the world works. There’s a difference, I hope you know.

    There certainly is a “them” group – people who spread lies and misinformation about Quebec; particularly the Mordecai Richler wannabes (Richler had some good points, mind, but he had a lot of bad ones, and even more outdated ones). People who rant against Quebec for political gain (see: “THEY’RE ALLYING WITH SEPARATISTS” last winter. While Harper had no problem doing it when it came time to try and topple the liberals). People who just hate Quebec because it’s French. You got a good sampling of them in my original post.

    But there’s plenty of not-“Them” and not-“us”. Plenty of immigrants to Quebec from all over the world who just want to live a better life and thought Canada looked like a nice place, and Montreal its nicest city (without knowing much if anything about our history). Western Canadians who just got tired of being screwed over by the Liberals because all the Liberals care about is winning votes in Ontario and (a little) in Quebec too. English-speakers even here in Quebec who just haven’t had the time to learn enough French to try to use it in public (because, seriously? I wouldn’t try to speak english in public if all I had was high school english).

    The “Them and Us” mentality sees them as necessarily “them”, because they’re not “us”, and sometime they wind up wanting things that are different from what the majority of the “Us” wants. And of course, to Western Canada, it’s Quebec and Ontario who are the “them” against an “us” of all the provinces that historically haven’t been favored.

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