Posted by: Bob Fisher | February 8, 2012

Québec’s Sovereign Sense of Self

Je me souviens

The mid-air jazz program on the China Airlines flight is playing “Is you is, or is you ain’t my baby?” There’s nothing like mind-bending time zones and distance to make one think… laterally. It occurs to me that this is an appropriate theme for exploring 400 years of Canadian-American-Québec history.

An incongruous, convoluted comparison perhaps, given the song is in an African-American dialect, but bear with me.

National and “domestic” relationships of all kinds are subject to such “Does he or doesn’t she…” quandaries and queries. And in Canada, English-speaking citizens of our officially bilingual nation have been wondering for almost 300 years whether Québec is a willing partner in the marriage of inconvenience that resulted from a 20-minute battle on the Plains of Abraham outside Québec City in 1759 when the tide of history in North America underwent a dramatic volte-face.

This is not of course the definitive summary of French-English relations in Canada, but if the possibility of Québec becoming one day a sovereign and separate nation interests you, may I offer just a soupçon of perspective.

Let’s start with the numbers.

Québec has always been concerned about being assimilated by la marée des anglophones (the tide of the English-speaking majority on this continent). Canada is just a tad over 33 million people, of which about seven million of those are francophone; six million in Québec and another million in other regions throughout the rest of Canada. In the province of Québec francophones make up about 80 per cent of the population. But it is important to juxtapose these numbers with the predominantly English-speaking “American” mega-culture to our south — a mere 300+ million!

Given that the Québécois inhabit the same land mass and are potentially as inundated by Americana as English-Canadians — and have no linguistic compatriots within easy shouting distance — is it any wonder that the (separatist, nationalist, sovereignist … your choice) Parti Québécois government of Québec of the last few decades enacted fierce language laws making French the ipso facto official language in that province?

By the way, the policy worked because the populace now must get their nuts and bolts from the quincaillerie as opposed to the hardware store. And even non French-speaking immigrants to La Belle Province have been required to go to French schools, and ultimately become French-speaking Québécois. So… voilà, the language is alive and well. (The outrage and lamentations in English Canada and Anglophone Québec have died down a bit, but the resentment lingers on in the coeurs and esprits of many.)

Of course if you are hoping to earn your Open University degree in La Science Politique Québécoise, you will need to do some heavy duty pondering of such philosophical questions as: When’s a state a state; or what’s a state within a state? Where’s the fine line between cultural, economic, and legal sovereignty? (Of those latter three criteria, I can assure you that the Québécois … um … the French-speaking ones, have already achieved at least two. And although things are pretty quiet on the separation front at the moment (nothing like a prosperous and educated middle class to throw a sop to Cerberus), there are those who are still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Oh, and please be aware that in a 1995 referendum in Québec, the “Yes Let’s Separate” side lost by only one percentage point. You should also probably be aware that Québec’s motto is Je me souviens. (I remember); a harmless-sounding “Let’s-all-remember-our-heritage” call to the faithful, but as the matador said, “Prends garde à vous!

By the way, if this Canadian conundrum intrigues you, remind me to tell you about Newfoundland’s renewed sense of nationalism.

Travel resources

To visit the official Québec tourism site, click here.

To visit the official tourism site of Newfoundland and Labrador, click here.

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