"Ich bin ein Berliner" – I am a citizen of Berlin – was the memorable phrase from one of the most moving speeches of the 20th century.
The place could have hardly been more dramatic. The date was June 26, 1963, and the Soviets had just built the Berlin Wall to prevent free movement between the East and West.
Speaking from the balcony of West Berlin’s city hall, U.S. president John Kennedy had added a last-minute addition to his speech to the gathered thousands of Berliners. Recalling the proud claim of being a citizen of Rome, the youthful president proclaimed his solidarity with the city.
With the very real threat of Soviet tanks just minutes away, the crowd lustily cheered as they realized Kennedy was speaking in plain terms to the Soviets that the mighty U.S. army would stand with Berliners shoulder-to-shoulder.
Fourty-four years later, I would like to appropriate this phrase for today’s Quebec and say, "Ich bin ein Québécois" or I am a Québécois.
The dictionary defines "Québécois" as a French word meaning the inhabitants of Quebec, while "Quebecer" is simply the same word in English. But what I am talking about is the practical meaning of these words. If I say, "I am a Québécois" in English, I am admittedly mixing two languages but people know I am making a political – and hopeful – statement.
A generation ago, this would have been impossible. Being a Quebecer of Irish-Finnish descent, my DNA would have ruled me out as a Québécois. Today DNA seems wonderfully, marvellously irrelevant.
History has forced this conclusion on us. We have seen the evils of putting DNA front and centre, whether it be the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or South African apartheid.
To measure a person by their DNA seems so very passé. Not only that but plain downright wrong. As someone who has the "wrong" DNA, this strikes me as a rather good change. With my wife a "pur laine," I am particularly happy that we don’t have to obtain a legal ruling on whether our children are Québécois or not.
If it is not DNA, what then qualifies one as a Québécois ? Mostly, that is easy. Do you permanently live in Quebec ? Have you chosen to make your residence here ? In some ways, we must admire those who chose to live here ; many do so because they were born here and have known nothing else. Fine, most of the world’s population lives in that enviable state. Someone who chooses to make Quebec their home is making a conscious choice.This demonstrates a very real affection for our province, something not to be undervalued.
Being a permanent resident seems to be a reasonable requirement. The many international students or those from other provinces at McGill and the other universities add a wonderful mix to Quebec, yet are here only for a few years. I am sure they will return with a warm place in their heart for Quebec but they are not committed to life in these parts.
How about hockey ? It would be almost within the bounds to require felicity to the Canadiens hockey team, but although it would be hard to think of a reason not to support them, it seems we cannot exclude Senators fans, particularly those who live in Hull.
Poutine ? To be honest, I don’t really like the stuff, so personally I would vote to nix that requirement.
Home ownership ? No, with one of the highest rental rates in North America that seems to be beyond the pale.
Speaking French ? Ah, now here is an interesting one. We have the unfortunate stance of our National Assembly that we are a French-speaking province. The reality in Montreal is different, of course, though it is much truer for the rest of the province. Montreal is a bilingual city with a French-speaking majority located within a province that has a very considerable French-speaking majority. May it long stay that way !
As someone who regularly goes to meetings at the Université du Québec à Montréal that are held in French, and who muddles through La Presse and speaks some French, I guess I can be relaxed about this.
Recently, I tried to do an interview in French for the 10 o’clock news for Radio Canada. As a regular viewer, I was excited to be on this program. However, after a few minutes of trying, the journalist from Radio Canada, in the midst of gales of laughter, put me out of my misery and switched to English.
So how much French do you need, if any, to be Québécois ? Clearly, I don’t speak French well but would probably be deemed within the bounds of acceptability. Let me make a bold if somewhat contentious suggestion that my friends who speak English, Chinese, Spanish, German, etc. are full citizens. They eagerly follow events in The Gazette, on CTV, Global and CBC. They discuss and debate our beloved province’s future ; they are "Lucids" or "Solidares," some Liberals, others ADQers, still others PQ supporters. In other words, they are engaged, involved, concerned people – is that not what a citizen is in a democracy ?
Can they say, "Ich bin ein Québécois" ? As permanent, committed Quebecers, I would say a resounding "Oui" !
By any measure other than DNA, I believe that I can hold my head high and say, "Ich bin ein Québécois." The vast majority of my fellow Québécois would graciously agree, polls tell us.
A generous people.
Karl Moore is an associate professor in management at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University.