Forty years ago today Charles de Gaulle electrified many Quebecers, and infuriated many other Canadians, by proclaiming from a balcony at Montreal city hall the freighted phrase "Vive le Quebec libre!"
Symbol of French freedom during the Second World War, president of France, and a man of unlimited self-esteem, de Gaulle had been invited to help celebrate the centennial of confederation. Instead, he told the large and rapturous crowd that greeted his arrival in Montreal that his reception in Quebec reminded him of the atmosphere at the liberation of Paris in 1944. His bombshell followed.
Did de Gaulle know the Rassemblement pour l'independance nationale, a forerunner of the Parti Quebecois, used "vive le Quebec libre" as its slogan? He surely knew his mischief would infuriate Prime Minister Lester Pearson, who called those four words "unacceptable to the Canadian people," and added "Canadians do not need to be liberated." Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau mused about going to Paris and saying "Brittany to the Bretons!" De Gaulle cut short his Canadian trip.
Today, 40 years later, what's notable about de Gaulle's remark is how little echo it arouses. Even Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois steered well clear of commenting on the anniversary. The bloom is well and truly off the rose of independantiste utopianism, and support for another referendum is even lower than professed support for independence itself. Even the PQ acknowledges other concerns now preoccupy Quebecers.
It must be admitted, however, de Gaulle's declaration does now seem to have been prescient. Like a rain squall at a picnic, his meddlesome remark changed the tone of the summer of '67. Detroit was burning the day of de Gaulle's Montreal pronouncement, and Vietnam was bleeding, but Canada was exulting in the sunny centennial summer of Expo.
Despite the crowd's roars of approval for what de Gaulle said, few Canadians could have foreseen the tumult that the notion of "Quebec libre" would sow here for decades. Nor are we foolish enough to argue the tempest is over. The independence genie will not be stuffed back into the bottle; it can be countered only by continued goodwill and common sense from the rest of Canada.
Ultimately, however, the real wisdom of the diplomatic incident of 1967 rested with Pearson. Quebecers truly did not need "liberation" then, and do not need it today.
The Canadian state, and Canadian society, have updated themselves mightily in matters of linguistic duality and biculturalism (and the independence movement has played a part in that). Today, we like to say, no one needs to choose between Quebec and Canada. Our system works admirably. Consider how much Canadian politics and institutions have changed since 1967.
Our success in managing political tension and adjusting our institutions demonstrates that Canadians are all free, fully free to work together and share the benefits of union while enjoying the flexibility of federalism. Vive, we might even say, le Canada libre!