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Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)
Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

Quebec, meet your neighbour Ontario Add to ...

Quebeckers, sensitive to their province’s image beyond its boundaries, sometimes lament what they see as an “anti-Quebec bias” in reporting about their province. They’re correct – to a point. But there are, and have been for a very long time, writers who’ve taken Quebec seriously and written about it fairly.

The major English-Canadian media have always had correspondents in Quebec. Shelves groan with books written by non-francophones about the history of Quebec. Non-Quebec journalists have written biographies of prominent Quebeckers. The best journalistic account of the Parti Québécois government was penned by Graham Fraser, then a journalist and now Official Languages Commissioner.

Turning the mirror around, however, reveals an almost total lack of coverage and interest among Quebec writers, journalists and intellectuals about what is called the “rest of Canada.” No Quebec media outlet, except for state-subsidized Radio-Canada, has a correspondent in the rest of Canada (outside Ottawa). Such indifference is deep and widespread.

Which is why Jean-Louis Roy’s book comes as a shock and a delight. Chers voisins: Ce qu’on ne connaît pas de l’Ontario is part reportage, part analysis of Canada’s largest province. The treatment is thorough, generous (almost to a fault), curious and deeply researched.

Very few Ontarians will have read as much literature by Ontario authors, plowed through more government reports about the province, spoken to so many thoughtful citizens and tried as hard as Mr. Roy to situate Ontario within contemporary Canada and the world. There’s a French expression for such a book: un tour de force.

Chers voisins is obviously written for a Quebec audience, but the book doesn’t keep comparing Quebec to Ontario. Instead, Mr. Roy treats Ontario on its own, as a fit subject for inquiry.

What he finds is a province that has transformed itself into something he calls “post-multicultural.” Toronto, the focus of the book (the rest of the province is a bit far off in his intellectual distance), he discovers to be a city where ethnicities blend and meet with more harmony than almost anywhere else on the planet. Yes, he acknowledges, many new arrivals struggle, but the ascension of so many is something he finds deeply admirable.

The transformation of Toronto impresses him, as does the city’s cultural and intellectual life (he obviously didn’t spend much time at City Hall). Toronto is “une ville métisse,” its population mixture an “essential category for the current century and also a fundamental tenet of humanity: diversity.”

Mr. Roy, a polymath who has been editor of Le Devoir, head of la Francophonie, Quebec’s agent-general in Paris and president of Rights and Democracy in Montreal, doesn’t explain whence came this curiosity about Ontario, so rarely found in his native province. But once he set about applying his intellectual curiosity to Ontario, he found a place more diverse and challenging than its vague and outdated reputation in Quebec suggests.

For all Mr. Roy’s generosity toward Ontario, and his obvious delight in its cultural vitality and demographic diversity, he doesn’t neglect the province’s serious economic challenges: a beaten-up manufacturing sector, a large government deficit, reliance on a U.S. market that has flagged, and undeveloped trade relations with Asia. A tighter marriage of the province’s ethnic diversity and new overseas markets is a critical pathway for Ontario’s economy.

Mr. Roy sympathizes with those thinkers (mostly in the policy world) who believe Ontario should recapture some powers from the federal government. Perhaps he does see Canada as a country of regions. What he may have missed is that these complaints have never impressed those for whom they were intended – Ontarians – and receive no support outside the province. Nor is much of rural Ontario as ethnically diverse as its large cities.

Ontario now receives equalization payments, as much a commentary on the province’s decline as the nutty system of equalization. Yes, Mr. Roy argues, Ontario faces a host of economic challenges.

But Ontario has what he thinks is a fine higher-education system, centres of real innovation and creativity, a population that’s diverse and growing, and a vibrant cultural life. It’s a place that will remain a vital player in the Canadian Confederation and North America.

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