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opinion

Is Stephen Harper a "racist" for having used the expression "old-stock Canadians"? If he is, then I am.

Let me introduce myself. I am an old-stock Canadian whose ancestor, Mathurin Gagnon, came to Canada in 1640 from a small farming community in the western part of Normandy.

Contrary to the oft-repeated tale that (except for the aboriginals), "we are all immigrants to Canada," Mathurin Gagnon, his wife and those of his siblings who embarked for the long, perilous trip across the ocean, were not immigrants. They were French nationals who had signed a contract with the state authorities to help colonize a territory that then belonged to France.

Canadians do not all share the same history because ours is an extremely diverse country. There is indeed a group that can be called old-stock Canadians, especially those who came from France in the early 17th century and a much smaller group who came from Great Britain in the wake of the 1759 British Conquest.

I would be happy to have grandparents who hailed from Sicily or Eastern Europe. I would be honoured to be a descendant of those brave immigrants who escaped persecution or extreme poverty to build a new life for themselves. I would actually, if truth be told, be delighted to have an exotic surname rather than the pedestrian Gagnon (the equivalent of Smith in French Canada).

Does being an old-stock Canadian make you a more entitled citizen? Certainly not. Neither does it make you inferior. Does it convey some sort of confrontational concept, like "us versus them"? Absolutely not. It's just a fact, a reality that's part of a family history.

There's never been, in my family, stories or recollections of another kind of life on another continent or memories of an exodus. My forebears never knew another country than Canada. They never had another native language than French. They never cooked meals that were different from their neighbour's. They never had a wide network of cousins in faraway places. As a child, the most "different" persons I had in my family circle were a Scottish aunt and a few Irish cousins.

Coming from an old-stock background (which is the case of 80 per cent of Quebeckers) shapes your personality and influences your views – not always for the best, mind you. Ethnic and cultural homogeneity, as comforting as it is, can be overly conformist and lead to an enclosed life. This is why so many Quebeckers are eager to break with their tight-knit society and make their way throughout the world, as artists or entrepreneurs.

As a political columnist, I've often used the expression "Québécois de souche" while describing Quebec's political demographics. If one wants to be accurate, you can't label the French-speaking majority group that propelled the idea of sovereignty as merely "francophones" since there are other francophones (from Lebanese, Belgian, Morrocan origins and so on), most of whom don't feel concerned with nationalist issues.

My anglophone colleagues found a neat trick: They use the term "Québécois" (which means old-stock Quebeckers). But of course this doesn't work in French.

Old-stock francophones used to call themselves "French-Canadians" (with a hyphen). This was a sound descriptive, but the sovereigntists, although they lost their political battles, succeeded in changing the semantics. The focus was exclusively on Quebec identity, the word "national" applied to Quebec institutions, and adjectives related to Canada deemed archaic. Rare are those who still talk about "French-Canadians."

It is utterly unfair to accuse Mr. Harper of dark, hidden views because he borrowed an expression that's commonly used in Quebec.