History and the bad guys

Crise d'Octobre '70 - 40e anniversaire

By Janice Kennedy, The Ottawa Citizen October 1, 2010 - The rhetoric has already begun. In preparation for Tuesday, the 40th anniversary of the start of the October Crisis, the retrospectives are rolling.
Grey-haired former members of the Front de libération du Québec are re-manning the barricades. Questions are being raised, again, about the moral advisability of the War Measures Act. (Not by me, though. Not by a lot of us who were living in Montreal at the time -- rather than the safety of Toronto -- watching our world slide toward the brink.)
And the FLQ agenda, in all the sensationalist colour of its 1970 Manifesto, is being trotted out again, just like last year on the Plains of Abraham, where it was cheered. We'll hear about the utopian freedom of an independent Quebec. We'll hear about a society purged of "anglo-saxons," colonial masters, "rapacious sharks." And we'll hear, once more, about the big bad bogeyman that speaks English.
If you're an anglo-Quebecer, you know the drill. Either you don't exist -- default position in the rest of Canada -- or else you're the bad guy. At least you were, back when your numbers warranted and before recent statistics showed that, on average, Quebec's francophones now earn more than its anglophones.
You may have been an ordinary Joe or Joanne, living an unfabulous life far from the gilded streets of Westmount, sending your kids to French school, celebrating the linguistic and cultural majority with an open heart and mind. But if English slipped out of your mouth, you were the enemy. Mort aux anglais, went the graffiti.
It didn't matter if your family roots went back generations, to the time even before Montreal had a linguistic population fully half and half. It didn't matter that your forebears contributed mightily to Quebec life, urban and rural. Injustices existed, so history had to be rewritten. You became the enemy.
They don't talk that way any more in present-day Quebec, of course, which is nice. Even diehard separatists no longer throw dirt in the faces of their anglo concitoyens, at least not publicly. But 40 years isn't really a long time, particularly when old scars are ripped open. And mythologies of hate are always dangerous.
What doesn't help, either, is the persistent ignorance from beyond provincial borders, the belief that anglo-Quebecers are "among the best treated minorities in the world." Franco-Ontarians, for example, have been known to say they'd love to have even a fraction of the institutions that anglo-Quebecers have had. It is a fiction.
The truth is, no one gave Quebec anglos anything. They built their own schools, hospitals and churches, and then they built things like museums for the whole community to enjoy. Such is the provenance, for instance, of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts/Musée des beaux-arts.
True, there existed a relatively large and wealthy population within the anglo community, especially compared to its minority counterpart in franco-Ontario. But not all English-language institutions rose out of wealth and privilege. (Consider Montreal's inspiring and very beautiful St. Patrick's Basilica, built by the distinctly non-wealthy Irish in 1847, when a tide of famine refugees was spilling into the city.) And the majority of Quebec's anglos, then and now, are as middle-classed or underprivileged as anyone else.
Myths die hard, especially among nationalists, but the reality is that no Quebec government ever gave the anglos what they had.
Mind you, various Quebec governments did do the opposite, though that was inevitable and probably fitting in the developmental scheme of things. In an increasingly complex society, governments through the years took over more and more of those institutions built by the anglo community. Schools, community centres, world-class hospitals -- all were brought under the kindly wing of the provincial government, with its language laws and restrictions. All were made subject to the mothering ministrations of Quebec's fabled bureaucracy, a civil service with effectively nonexistent anglo representation.
Nor can anglos ever hope to see a bureau for minority linguistic issues, a counterpart, say, to Ontario's Office des affaires francophones. Nor, God forbid, English-language signage grown too big for its britches. Nope.
But nationalists have made a kind of peace with anglos (as long as said anglos don't raise their voices), and anglos have made their own kind of peace with their place in Quebec society.
And really, that's OK. There was an imbalance that needed righting, so it's fine. It's evolution. Some of it is even just.
But let's call it what it is. Let's stop perpetrating the myth that English-speaking Quebecers were "given" anything, especially a free ride, by a benevolent Quebec government. And while we're at it, let's put an end to whatever vitriol may be dusted off in time for Tuesday's commemorations.
Forty years ago in Quebec, there were indeed some bad guys doing bad things. But they weren't the ones talking English.

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