Minister Jean-François Lisée said recently that Quebeckers no longer have a connection to Canada and that Canada has become a “foreign body.” He is not alone. Former federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff said something similar a year and a half ago in an interview with the BBC, and Konrad Yakabuski wrote recently that he has spent his career watching Quebec’s decoupling from the rest of Canada.
I don’t think this is the case.
To begin with, when exactly was this golden age of Quebec commitment to the rest of Canada? During World War I? During World War II, with the conscription crisis and the 1942 referendum, when 80 per cent of Quebeckers opposed conscription and 80 per cent of the rest of Canada supported it? During the Duplessis era, when Quebec refused federal financing for the Trans-Canada Highway and post-secondary education? During the Quiet Revolution?
Perhaps he was referring to the era of Trudeau, Marchand and Pelletier? But they did not go to Ottawa because of their interest in the rest of Canada, but on account of their position in a purely Quebec debate. Gérard Pelletier was very clear in his memoirs: “To suppose that I have an emotional attachment to the Canadian political entity would be an error, because I feel none,” he wrote.
When I came to Quebec in 1976, shortly before the election of the Parti Québécois, I was struck by the total lack of interest about the rest of Canada. There was a deeply-rooted conviction that, by definition, nothing interesting could happen in the rest of Canada. If there was a cabinet shuffle that moved a Quebec minister from one department to another, it was as if his or her former department had been abolished and no longer existed. The Quebec media covered federal politics the way media from every country cover the Olympics: coverage of “our politicians.”
There was a deliberate denial of the idea that activists in Montréal municipal politics could learn something from activists in Toronto. Michel Tremblay refused to let his plays be performed in English outside of Quebec.
I remember having a conversation with a Quebec MP in the midst of a now forgotten parliamentary crisis. I asked him what his constituents thought about it, and he said, “My constituents don’t even know Parliament is in session.”
And what about media coverage of provincial elections in other provinces? Inconceivable. Because English Canada was, by definition, tedious and boring.
Since then, I have seen some changes. The Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010 were a great source of pride across Canada.
Some believed that the Royal 22e Régiment’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan would cause a backlash in Quebec. On the contrary, the sense of pride was as strong in Quebec as anywhere else in Canada.
These days, it seems to me that the Quebec media is much more interested in what’s happening in the rest of Canada – as long as it’s interesting! So when Alice Munro wins the Nobel Prize, or when Michael Ondaatje’s new book is translated, or when David Cronenberg or Sarah Polley come out with movies, these events get full coverage. Guillaume Bourgault-Côté writes a weekly review of the English-Canadian press for Le Devoir.
L’actualité’s Alec Castonguay was the first journalist to investigate the F-35. Mr. Castonguay also recently received an award for his in-depth profile on Jason Kenney. And James Moore, Bob Rae and Margaret Atwood have all been guests on Tout le monde en parle.
During Maple Spring, Denise Bombardier’s column in Le Devoir quoted a study that compared Quebec and Ontario students’ post-secondary performance. And when Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois toured universities outside of Quebec to talk about the student movement, he didn’t go to Europe or the United States; he stayed right here in Canada.
Another example of Quebec’s involvement in the rest of Canada is university football. I was at the Vanier Cup in Québec City and saw the Rouge et Or win. I get the feeling that some Canadian university football fans would be happier if Quebec – especially the Rouge et Or – were a bit less interested in this particular Canadian sport! For years, my friend and former colleague Jeffrey Simpson would provoke his federalist friends in Quebec by saying that the province had never voted for a party whose leader wasn’t from Quebec if there were a party in the running whose leader was from Quebec. Jack Layton proved otherwise.
Does all this mean that there are no more tensions, conflicts or misunderstandings between Québec City and Ottawa, or between Quebec and the rest of Canada, or between Anglophones and Francophones? Not at all. Yes, there is still a sense of distance, misunderstanding or sometimes disconnection. There always has been and there probably always will be. But we can rise above the tension and conflict, and we can get past the misunderstandings.
Because despite everything, there’s a sense of pride and belonging and a tradition of mutual recognition. For a “foreign body,” Canada is surprisingly inclusive. French, which has been a parliamentary language since 1848, was in the Constitution Act of 1867 and has been formally recognized as an official language since 1969. In 1982, the key elements of the Official Languages Act were enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
And when there are victories and sacrifices and remarkable things happening in Canada, including our cultural achievements, all Canadians – including Quebeckers – show their interest and their pride.
Graham Fraser is Canada’s official languages commissioner.