Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Quebec Premier François Legault gestures during a press conference to announce the creation of the Musée national de l’histoire du Québec at Le Seminaire de Québec, in Quebec City on April 25.FRANCIS VACHON/The Canadian Press

If you have visited almost any major museum in the past few years, you have likely noticed the multiplicity of exhibitions devoted to Indigenous and minority cultures, as institutions created to represent the collective memory seek to make up for past errors of omission.

From the National Gallery of Canada to Spain’s Museo Nacional del Prado, “decolonization” is the watchword on the lips of museum curators everywhere. In the new and old worlds alike, permanent collections are being recontextualized and reinterpreted through the decolonization prism. Indigenous art and artifacts acquired without prior consent are being returned to their places of origin.

Quebec Premier François Legault either did not get the memo or does not care. Last month, in announcing the creation of a new Musée national de l’histoire du Québec, or National Museum of the History of Quebec, the Coalition Avenir Québec Leader said the institution’s exhibits would cover the period from Samuel de Champlain’s founding of the first permanent French settlement at Quebec City in 1608 up to the present day.

“I think it is important to start with Champlain, right at the beginning, to show how it wasn’t easy for a small French-speaking minority to survive in America,” Mr. Legault insisted at an April 25 press conference. “My objective is that, when Québécois visit the museum, they leave saying to themselves, ‘Oh, how proud I am to be Québécois.’”

Real museums should inspire many different emotions in visitors, but ethnic pride is not one of them. Suffice it to say that Mr. Legault’s conception of the $92-million MNHQ, to be housed in a former Catholic seminary in Old Québec City, is problematic to begin with. But his summary dismissal of Quebec’s first inhabitants in outlining his vision for the new institution is not just unacceptable; it has blatant overtones of systemic racism.

Historian Éric Bédard, a former Parti Québécois activist and speechwriter for Mr. Legault who will act as a consultant on the MNHQ project, offered this explanation for the absence of an Indigenous component in the museum’s mandate: “They say history began with writing, and before history, there is prehistory; Indigenous people are perhaps Quebec’s prehistory.”

Three dozen Quebec historians signed an open letter in La Presse disavowing the proposed museum’s narrow focus and mandate. “The elaboration of a unifying and sugar-coated narrative aimed at stimulating national pride would represent a missed opportunity to seize on history’s potential for developing critical thought,” they warned.

The Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador, Ghislain Picard, issued a scathing rebuke of Mr. Legault and Mr. Bédard. “We are inseparable from this land’s history and Champlain’s arrival does not define Quebec,” Mr. Picard said. “To suggest that we are prehistory amounts to relegating us to a secondary role, while our contribution to the formation of modern Quebec is fundamental. This narrow nationalism does not represent Quebec’s history; entire sections are being omitted for political reasons.”

That probably does not come as any surprise to students of Mr. Legault’s style of politics. The CAQ Premier, a former sovereigntist and PQ cabinet minister, has revived the old-style conservative nationalism of the pre-Quiet Revolution era by celebrating Quebec’s French Catholic heritage. His government has passed legislation banning some government employees from wearing religious symbols, which disproportionately affects Muslim women. It has reinforced decades-old language legislation to protect French, risking the linguistic peace and waging a war of attrition on English-language colleges and universities.

Even so, Mr. Legault’s government has plummeted in the polls in recent months, the result of a series of own-goals, arrogance and widespread voter dissatisfaction with the quality of basic public services. The Premier’s constant attacks on the federal government over surging immigration numbers and asylum claims have backfired on him, driving voters to a rejuvenated PQ that promises to solve the problem once and for all with separation.

Creating a new history museum catering to the tastes of Quebec nationalists sounds suspiciously opportunistic for a politician who will need such voters in 2026.

“There are 11 First Nations in Quebec, and we are open to working with them … but the idea [for the MNHQ] is to show the history of what was the French-Canadian nation and is now the Québécois nation,” Mr. Legault said in defending his plan this week. “Our Québécois nation began with Champlain, and maybe a bit with Jacques Cartier.”

Truth be told, the term “museum” is a misnomer in this case. To go by his own descriptions, what the Premier seems to have in mind is a pantheon of Québécois heroes, from hockey greats Maurice Richard and Mario Lemieux to artists such as Céline Dion and Ginette Reno – all francophone Québécois, though he did allow that Leonard Cohen might also make the list. How big of him.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe