In Quebec, the toxic myths are alive and, sadly, doing well

Offensive canadian d'anglicisation du Québec


Janice Kennedy - - Among Quebec sovereigntists, the party line runs something like this: Quebecers (as if they were a single bloc) want independence, and the rest of Canada is denying them. Such a skewed and simple-minded viewpoint is deeply annoying, though not nearly as annoying as its corollary: that "English" and "evil" are synonymous.
That's the notion that finds expression in the actions of lunatic groups such as the "Ligue de défence nationale," which recently threatened to put "lead in the heads" of West Quebec anglos looking for English translations of Gatineau bylaws. French is Quebec's only official language, proclaimed the defenders of the faith, and anglos had better stop their crusade against it.
This well-burnished anglophobia has been decades in the making, crafted by Quebec separatists relentless in their reworking of reality.
"Reworking?" Why am I being so polite?
They've lied. They've lied so long and so hard that their distorted version has come to sound like the truth. They've lied so convincingly they've started believing their own fiction.
Ignoring the mosaic modern reality of immigration, they paint a demographic picture that hasn't been accurate for a century. They pretend that the province's metropolis has always had a fully French face. (The truth? In the 1800s, Montreal actually had an English-speaking majority. By the 1900s, it was fairly divided for the first third of the century before becoming majority francophone. Even then, the anglophone and allophone minority was considerable, totalling more than the population of the Maritimes. And here's a shock: it wasn't all in Westmount or on the West Island.)
The sovereignty crowd uses rhetoric suggesting anglo-Quebecers have been bloodsucking leeches, instead of vital contributors who added schools, universities, hospitals and museums to the landscape. They reinforce an image of the tête carrée that comes straight from the fiery René Lévesque, who liked to paint anglos as upper-crusty Westmounters -- "white Rhodesians" -- lording it over oppressed francophone natives.
Try selling that WASP stereotype to the descendants of the 19th-century famine Irish who contributed endlessly to the place that took them in, or to all the other non-francophone immigrants who brought new life to their new land. Try convincing Montreal's vast numbers of working-class and middle-class anglos, past and present, that they're grasping, greedy overlords.
Yet that's one of the crucial lies of separatist dogma, even though History 101 teaches that exploitation is an issue of class, not culture. Yes, the North American reality created the conditions for an English capitalist majority -- but Quebec history also features a generous proportion of French-speaking movers and shakers who didn't mind running roughshod over their less-favoured linguistic compatriots.
Several facts about Canada's société distincte are indisputable. Absolutely, it is the country's key repository of French language and culture. Provincewide, it has always had a French-speaking majority, one that has only grown over time. You'd have to be a pigheaded fool (and/or an insensitive boor) to believe you could, or should, live comfortably in Quebec today without some knowledge of French. No one disputes that.
What is disputable, though, is the suggestion that Quebec was and is a culturally and politically monolithic society, its anglos a minority so minuscule as to be insignificant. What is deeply disputable is the offensive fiction that Quebec's anglos, despite more than two centuries of presence, are nothing but a nasty and dispensable footnote with no legitimate place in its history books.
Mythology thrives on national altars. Since the beginning of time and collective awareness, communities have tended to erase the warts of their greatest contributors, smoothing them into idealized figures better suited to iconic status. Nations need heroes, and they need their heroism to be largely uncomplicated. If Quebec separatists want to keep polishing Lévesque's nationalist halo -- even though the late premier has kept the wart-erasers working overtime -- that's their business.
In its proper place, mythology is fine. What is not fine is when mythology displaces history, distorting what really happened and replacing it with a neat fiction of what the mythmakers would have preferred.
Despite the anglophobic flair of the indépendantistes -- a legacy, in part, of the formidable Lionel Groulx, the man Claude Ryan called the spiritual father of modern Quebec -- the narrative of Quebec is not a simple tale of some idyllic corner of the world, an Arcadian version of France, invaded by English devils who have worked their iniquitous ways for 21/2 centuries, held at bay only by the indomitable spirit of noble creatures with pure wool in their veins.
On the subject of Quebec separation, I am far from neutral, believing passionately that my native province is a rich and vital part of our confederation -- culturally, politically, socially. Its departure would be tragic on both sides.
But who knows what lies down the road? Events may some day overtake common sense, one set of passions vanquishing another. God forbid, but that fertile and lively chunk of Canada that has nourished so much of our consciousness may eventually become an independent state.
But if it should some day happen -- I repeat, God forbid -- let it happen from a position of truth. Let it not be based on wild fiction.
Quebec's anglos don't deserve the public stoning they've been getting for three decades. And a nation's history is too important to discard for the sake of a few convenient myths.
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Janice Kennedy's column appears here on Sundays.


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