Antonia Maioni is professor of political science at McGill University.
There’s a joke in Quebec that, because weather is a federal matter, it’s always sunny on Canada Day. This year was no exception, allowing most Quebeckers to indulge in what is, essentially, a bank holiday. And, for many, to face the heat of the traditional fête du déménagement as rental leases change hands on July 1.
The actual celebration of Canada’s birthday, however, was limited, largely because francophone Quebeckers are not flag-waving Canadians in the kind of patriotic sense that we see elsewhere. Their nationalisme is rooted in a different nation altogether, the one that was supposed to be part of the Confederation pact. Instead, as we inch toward Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017, Quebec’s role in the seminal events that led to that feat remain under the radar.
Indeed, this year is historically important because it marks the 150th anniversary of the two conferences that would shape the form and content of what we know as Canada. In PEI, the Charlottetown Conference of 1864 has become a cottage industry: The scene of Sir John A. Macdonald and his Canadian colleagues crashing the Maritime union party with a boatload of champagne is the stuff of legend. And Charlottetown has made sure that those iconic whiskered gentlemen live on and on, with the federal government’s help.
Still, if the devil is in the details, it’s the Quebec Conference of 1864 that should be riveting our attention. Quebec, the capital of the then United Canada, is where the resolutions about the actual constitutional framework were hammered out. It’s where Sir John A. apparently needed plentiful liquid refreshment to draw up a bicameral Parliament and the division of powers between federal and provincial governments. It’s where the mythical “peace, order and good government” clause was borrowed from the New Zealand colonies. It’s where reformer George Brown accepted the “dreadfully Tory” result, believing it would end the “old French domination.” And it’s where, as historians have battled out, the great debate about George-Étienne Cartier’s role in speaking for French-Canadian interests originates.
Which may be why, at least compared to Charlottetown, there is relatively little in the way of celebration in Quebec City to mark this historic date. Instead, Parks Canada has a schedule of events focused, quite literally, on the “shadow” of Cartier himself, the man some see as the linchpin of Confederation: insisting on federation instead of union; bringing French-Canadian votes to the table; and manoeuvring (not without scandal) the opening of the West and the transcontinental railway. But his biggest legacy is perhaps what didn’t happen: bringing the essence of two nations together in a projet canadien.
Today’s Canada has little in common with that project, and it would be unrecognizable in more ways than one to the Fathers of Confederation. And if the difference between the Charlottetown and the Quebec City 1864 festivities are any indication, Canada Day 2017 will be a curious celebration indeed. Expect festivities recognizing multiculturalism, the arts, aboriginal peoples and les francophonies across the country, as well as the now-familiar commemorations of war history. But what about something in the sense of the historical portent, and controversy, of that Confederation moment?
Since it coincides with Montreal’s 375th anniversary, the 50th anniversary of Expo 67 and the Tall Ships Regatta in Quebec City, there will be plenty of summer fun in store that year, with substantial federal contributions. And yet, for most Quebeckers, that July 1 may well end up as just another sunny bank holiday, another sweltering moving day. And, as a reflection of so much else about the relationship, essentially a Canadian celebration without Quebec.
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