Quebec anglos aren't the only ones suffering a dearth of leaders

Decline in church attendance might well be a factor

17. Actualité archives 2007

In the new, revised edition of his book Time to Say Goodbye, Reed Scowen made a point that is pertinent to anglophone Quebecers.
"It is impossible to identify a leader of the English community today," wrote the former MNA from Notre Dame de Grace. "Most people, when asked for a name (of a leader), might refer to the director of an anglophone educational institution, health centre or religious organization; these are competent people, but with public interests that do not go beyond their professional mandate."
He said the demise of Alliance Quebec, which he once chaired, is symptomatic of this disappearance of anglo Quebec's "leadership infrastructure."
Writing in The Gazette yesterday, Scowen expanded on this. He urged holding a major conference whose purpose would be to "provide anglophones and our remaining institutions an opportunity to think about our community in a positive way and perhaps identify some new leadership."
At first, I thought this was an attractive idea. Upon reflection, I wonder about its utility.
There are two kinds of English-speaking leaders. One kind defended the English community and its institutions. Only 10 or 20 years ago people, like Gretta Chambers, Joan Fraser, Michael Goldbloom, William Johnson, Robert Libman, Eric Maldoff, Alex Paterson and Scowen himself, to name just a few, were regularly speaking up (often with sharply different viewpoints) for the interests of anglophones, mostly on language issues. Today, they've moved on, and no one has really replaced them.
Why? One reason is surely that anglos have more or less made peace with the Quebec government on language.
Although many anglos do not feel fully accepted by the francophone majority, the two solitudes are now both less solitary. Many anglo recalcitrants have died or left the province, a la Howard Galganov. Many anglos have married francophones. And the "children of Bill 101" - including new Quebecers who are part of the increasingly heterogeneous English community - feel easy in both languages.
In short, the pressures that produced defenders of the English-speaking community after the 1976 election are less acute today. The need for new leaders of this kind is not so evident.
The second kind of leader is not so much an anglo leader as a leader who happens to be an anglo. He or she contributes significantly to the larger society. Such people are also on the wane. Quebec needs them as much as ever.
I'm thinking of people who had comfortable careers but embraced community service. In recent decades they've included, among many others, lawyer Stephen Cheasley (a force behind both the McGill College Ave. and Old Port renaissances, and also the Exporail Museum), engineer Michael Fainstat (No. 2 in city hall in the late 1980s), pediatrician Victor Goldbloom (who as a Quebec minister helped save the Olympics), architect Phyllis Lambert (a powerhouse on heritage issues and low-cost housing), scientist Abe Limonchik (city hall's Mr. Democracy), lawyer Herb Marx (who as Quebec justice minister in the late 1980s was the last anglo to hold a high-status cabinet portfolio) and chemist Peter Trent (who led the demerger campaign).
The rarity of such people today is not, however, just an English Quebec phenomenon. It extends to French Quebec as well.
There is, of course, no lack of francophones in leadership roles: Power is more accessible to them. But I'm not sure they're as public-spirited as before. Montreal's drift under mayors Gerald Tremblay and Pierre Bourque reflects more their love of power for power's sake than purposeful vision. Their predecessors, the social-democrat Jean Dore and the modernizer Jean Drapeau, showed a greater sense of public service.
As well, the three baby-boomers vying for the premiership in this month's election come up short when you compare their sense of direction with that of a Rene Levesque or Jean Lesage.
A book published this week - La culture quebecoise est-elle en crise? - indirectly throws light on this trend. Co-authors Gerard Bouchard and Alain Roy surveyed 141 intellectuals and found that 64 per cent believe Quebec is in crisis: Egocentrism, materialism and cynicism are more common than ever. As one respondent, sociologist Guy Rocher, puts it, the ideal of social solidarity has given way to the "ideology of personal success."
I think the decline in church-going might well also be a factor. Churches bring people together and build a sense of community.
But the phenomenon stretches far beyond Quebec. A book by San Diego State psychologist Jean Twenge called Generation Me says that if you think North American boomers are self-absorbed and lack community spirit, you should see their university-age progeny. Vanity and self-entitlement are the new virtues. She traces it to child-rearing.
In sum, the radical individualism of our day is inherently at odds with community spirit.
I share Scowen's concerns about this trend. But it'll take more than a conference to stem it. It'll take a sea change in modern culture.
Henry Aubin is The Gazette's regional-affairs columnist.

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