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Life Quebec and the royals: A rocky history risks another bump

Protesters hold signs near the building where Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, attended a citizenship ceremony at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec.


As riot police clubbed anti-monarchy protesters during the Queen's Quebec visit in 1964, three stunned British journalists couldn't believe the contrast from the warm welcome she had received just five years earlier.

That turbulent moment signalled a turning point in Quebec's roller-coaster rapport with the monarchy, the latest shift in a complicated relationship that has ebbed and flowed with time.

Immediately dubbed "Le Samedi de la Matraque" - or "Truncheon Saturday" - it was a vivid example of growing Quebec nationalism in a decade of change dubbed the Quiet Revolution.

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Quebec's relationship with the royals is on full display again this weekend, as Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, spend two days in a province where several protests are planned.

Any royal visit to Quebec can bring surprises. Just ask those British journalists who were there in 1964.

"They were 'shocked' by the change in reaction in Quebec vis-à-vis this royal visit," said a report at the time in the Quebec City newspaper Le Soleil, following a day of violence that led to 34 arrests from the swarm of pro-independence marchers.

Once again, 47 years later, raucous anti-monarchy demonstrations are planned during royal stops in Montreal and Quebec City.

The protests, organized by a fringe pro-independence group that disrupted a 2009 Prince Charles visit in Montreal, promised even more civil disobedience during his son's tour.

"We want the message to get across that the monarchy is not welcome in Quebec - there are people who aren't happy," said head protest organizer Patrick Bourgeois, leader of the Quebec Resistance Network.

"We want it to be unpleasant for him."

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Polls suggest the institution is indeed less popular in Quebec than elsewhere in Canada.

A recent survey published in Montreal's La Presse newspaper found that 58 per cent of Quebeckers think Canada should sever ties with the British throne, compared to only 33 per cent in the rest of the country.

That difference is also reflected in the media coverage.

Compare the gushing coverage in Anglo media to three front-page headlines on the same day this week in La Presse - a newspaper that is otherwise staunchly pro-Canada: 'Royal indifference,' 'The princely couple's arrival leaves a majority of Quebeckers cold,' and 'How could we get rid of the monarchy?'

So, what is it about Quebeckers and their dislike for the institution?

For obvious starters, there's history.

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The continued presence of the monarchy atop Canada's constitutional order is a constant reminder, after 250-plus years, that the country's two "founding peoples" formerly waged war against each other.

But one historian and royal expert says the relationship between Quebeckers and the British throne has seen good times and bad times.

Michael Behiels, a professor at the University of Ottawa , said there was much hostility between the French and the English in the years following Great Britain's 1759 conquest of New France.

But after the 1837-38 rebellions, the British monarchy gained support in Quebec, Prof. Behiels said, mostly because it shielded French Canada's religion, laws and language from American assimilation.

"The connection with Great Britain was seen as a safeguard against annexation to the United States," he said.

"So there was a strong attachment by the vast majority of the people - probably not by the small elite, which became increasingly pro-French to some extent after Confederation."

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But Prof. Behiels said public support in Quebec for the Royal Family dropped in the 20th century, after the province's youth were conscripted to serve in the First and Second World Wars.

Then, in the 1960s, the Royal Family's image took a nosedive at the start of the Quiet Revolution, a time when French-speaking Quebeckers began demanding more political and economic power.

The Queen found herself in the eye of that nationalist storm.

As she toured the city in 1964, helmeted police officers clashed with several hundred boisterous marchers, who shouted slogans like "Le Québéc aux Québécois" and flashed obscene, two-finger "V" signs at the young monarch.

At the time, the Montreal Gazette reported that constables thumped "scores of separatists and half a dozen journalists" in the legs, shoulders and chests.

But the English-language newspaper's editorial played down the day's events.

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"As it came about, little happened except the sporadic flutters of a few troublemakers, the odds and ends of disorder, caused by a motley fringe," the editorial said.

In contrast, the nationalist, French-language daily Le Devoir splashed the following headline on its cover: "Quebec remains indifferent but its police are of great brutality."

"That was really a hotbed," Prof. Behiels said of the timing of the Queen's 1964 visit.

"The Queen, of course, [who was]ill-advised at that time, came and was plunked smack in the middle of that. She should not have been put in that awkward situation."

He believes the winds are shifting in favour of the monarchy once again in Quebec, arguing that sovereignty appears to be moribund - at least for now.

Prof. Behiels says he thinks the royals have a shot to gain ground in Quebec, particularly with the help of the popular, young newlyweds.

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"Winning the minds and hearts of younger Québécois is not going to be an easy task," he said. "[But]this will be an opportunity to begin to rebuild the importance of the monarchy in the lives of all Canadians, including the young Québécois."

A royal expert from McGill University believes that Quebeckers don't actually have a beef with the Royal Family itself.

Peter McNally argues the monarchy's cool relations with Quebec are simply tangled with the province's mixed feelings towards Canada.

"I would say that the real issue here is an indifference or hostility towards Canada, and that any negative or hostile attitudes towards the monarchy are probably secondary," Prof. McNally said.

He said boosting enthusiasm for Canada in Quebec would help improve the province's perception of the Royal Family.

The demonstrators are perfectly aware of such political overtones. That's exactly why they're demonstrating.

The separatist cause has suffered political setbacks lately, with the drubbing of the Bloc Québécois and infighting within the Parti Québécois. Protesters are now determined to send a clear message - that their movement won't go away.

"The relationship between Quebec and Canada is still not resolved. It will be resolved the day the Québécois people will be assimilated or the day the Québécois people have their own country," said Mr. Bourgeois, who expects at least 400 demonstrators in Quebec City alone, an event that has caught the attention of the British media.

He said Canadian news outlets would start writing the Quebec independence movement's obituary if Prince William and Kate's visit to the province included nothing but cheers and balloons.

"We're going to do our part and make sure that our message is to say that ... the British monarchy is not welcome in Quebec."

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