In Quebec, Everyone’s a Minority

Written by Lionel Tiger on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.



Stop
the presses. A political leader has actually resigned on grounds of principle.
This extraordinary eccentricity occurred two weeks ago in Quebec when the premier
of the province, Lucien Bouchard, left office because he could no longer stomach
the intransigent narrowness of too many fundamentalist separatists in his Parti
Quebecois. While he was himself committed to an independent
Quebec,
as many thoughtful Quebecois are, he could not tolerate those devotees of separatism
who defined citizenship rigidly and blamed setbacks to the independence movement
on the Jews and "ethnics" of Quebec. Because relatives of a good friend
were victims of Nazi death camps, evidently managing the contrast between the
enthusiastic bigotry of his critics and the stark and potentially lethal consequences
of sharply defined human boundaries became an unendurable burden. So he just
quit. And left his historic opportunity to make and change history, to say nothing
of giving up a monthly check, a car and driver, and all the fun and toys heads
of affluent communities can enjoy.



The
episode is interesting in itself. But it also underscores the strange power
of the continuities of acrimonious history. Since I grew up in Montreal, some
of the intense force that Premier Bouchard faced was very familiar. I once described
Montreal as a city in which everyone defined themselves as a member of a minority
group, including the French-speaking majority. The community was in chronic
search for equipoise, with the French-speakers afflicted by the economically
dominant English-speakers, the latter by Americans, and the smaller groups such
as Jews, Greeks, Italians and Chinese having to negotiate carefully among the
larger groups.


The
Francophone sector is historically interesting because it arrived from France
before the French Revolution. For several hundred years it was one of the most
conservative of Roman Catholic strongholds. Its politics were dominated by a
brittle but effective system involving an alliance of politicians and clergy,
with the economic elite that was largely English-speaking in uneasy collusion.
For example, the premier during the 50s maintained control of newsprint and
the owners of the English papers protected their own interests by failing wholly
to challenge the draconian politics of the regime. Because they were an easy
target, poor Witnesses of Jehovah were hounded from corner to corner–a
popular Bible-thumping trick for political consumption, but a legal travesty
by any standard. During the Second World War, some strident French-Canadian
nationalists–while others served fully and admirably–resisted the
draft, and publicly protested any obligation to fight, ostensibly to protect
either English royalty or Jews.


During
the war itself, the major Francophone newspaper Le Devoir announced that
the Vichy government in France was the best France had ever had, and that the
collaboration of the Vichy regime in actions against French Jews was "essential
to protect the state." As a small Jewish kid growing up under these circumstances,
I learned that when you walked into a Francophone neighborhood you had to adjust
your scarf because your neck hair stood up straight. And not only was there
this matter of the war, but regular assurances were provided that because Jews
had killed Christ, remedial justice was surely appropriate. It was believed
that Montreal had more churches per capita than anywhere else in Canada, and
also the highest ratio of home renters to owners.


It
was actually a rather grim political environment overall, even if the bars stayed
open later than anywhere else in Canada. But it changed massively in the 1960s,
as other places did too, and more so. A new liberalism in politics, the arts,
sexuality and the economy produced a turbulent and immensely fruitful pageant
of changes that had seemed unimaginable just 10 years before. The international
Expo of 1967 and an inventive if spendthrift mayor, Jean Drapeau, turned Montreal
into a vibrant center. Frenchness became a prideful matter of elegance and deftness,
not negation and caution. Business had always been a second-rate occupation
for French-speakers, well below law, medicine and the church. But new energy,
confidence, educational initiatives and skill produced internationally competitive
companies such as Bombardier. Quebec joined the world as an equal economic partner.


Small
wonder numerous Quebecois–largely Francophone, but also with some English-speaking
support–decided this was an opportune moment to establish a separate Nation
of Quebec. Dozens of entities from Kazakhstan to Kashmir to Kosovo have had
the same idea, and the army of flags of member states outside the UN building
grows ever larger.


The
result in Quebec was a vast swirl of political forces. They led on the one hand
to martial law imposed by the Ottawa federal government after some kidnappings
and bombing, and on the other to several orderly referenda asking the citizenry
if it wanted to separate from Canada. None of these passed, but those committed
to separation continued to bide their time. And Lucien Bouchard was one of them.


But
there’s always something. Native Canadian tribes decided that if Quebec
could leave Canada, they could leave Quebec. Linguistic purists sought to fight
English by requiring all public signs to display French twice the size of English.
A spirit of contentious primordialism persisted, despite the fact that the lives
of Quebecers were broadly comparable to those of other North Americans. And
this is what has resurfaced in the Bouchard episode.


A
70-year-old former would-be candidate for election to the Provincial Assembly
spoke fairly explicitly about what he considered the disloyalty of Jews and
similarly recent arrivals to Quebec. His aria was very familiar, and would have
been to people in the 1940s. It was like a cunning virus that stays irritating
enough to cause a minor malaise but not enough to kill or severely damage the
body. In this case the body politic has sustained a cold negative force for
decades. When the Assembly censured the candidate, another group of traditionalists
demanded that he be allowed to speak as he wished and receive an apology.


This
finally triggered the Premier’s exit. The ensuing turmoil was marked by
an important Francophone manifesto from 1000 people, published in provincial
newspapers, rejecting the bigoted remarks and the bitterness that animated them.
This was largely the new generation of activists who wanted to open the windows
of the national house they were planning. The glum candidate has now withdrawn
from politics, and while the separatist movement is in understandable and major
disarray, at least an important point has been made.


Yet
who would have thought protest against generations-old bigotry would have been
necessary in a fluid global age? Must communities depend for acts of political
principle on the history of family extermination of the friends of leaders?
According to the distinguished Montreal writer Ann Charney, Quebec has consistently
shown itself in surveys to be the most tolerant and secular-minded among the
provinces of Canada, which makes the unperturbed persistence of viral bigotry
the more remarkable.



 


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