'Quebec is a bore'

Quebecois nationalists have had a long run. But now the theatre is empty, the music has stopped and the lights are off

MEECH - 20 ans plus tard...

In perhaps the greatest moment of his meteoric career, Claude Wagner -- Quebec's justice minister, twice a judge, federal MP, runner-up to Robert Bourassa as Quebec Liberal leader in 1970 and to Joe Clark as federal Progressive Conservative leader in 1976 -- electrified the Quebec Liberal convention that was choosing a successor to Jean Lesage four decades ago: "We must look ourselves in the eye and say what must be said." He did so, but the fix was in from Ottawa, and the Lesage liberals and Wagner came second, ahead of Pierre Laporte, who was murdered nine months later in the FLQ crisis.
Derrière les barreaux de l'esprit, le monde selon Black appartient à un siècle dépassé - Inutile, Conrad, d'exhiber le nationalisme ethnique, ce délire, cette divagation entretenue par les ennemis du Québec. L'horizon d'un Québec républicain méprise votre acharnement raciste, et écarte votre délire, démence, digression, égarement, élucubration, extravagance, folie, hallucination, incohérence, songerie, vision. - Vigile
It is surely time, 40 years on, that Quebec followed Wagner's advice. The Quebec nationalists have had a long run, but the audience has gone from the theatre, the music has stopped, and the lights are out. Maurice Duplessis and his most assiduous disciple, Daniel Johnson Sr., were the only Quebec leaders who managed to get the province's conservatives and nationalists to vote together, an artistic political achievement. Duplessis said the Quebec nationalists are a "10-pound fish on a five-pound line; you have to reel them in slowly and let them out slowly." Johnson said: "We must give Ottawa every kick except the last one."
Duplessis told his cabinet in 1958: "I shut the nationalists up for 10 years by giving Quebec a flag. I can shut them up for another 10 years by opening a Quebec office in Paris," (which he was prepared to do when de Gaulle returned to power and dispensed with the Fourth Republic, which Duplessis, who served continuously as premier of Quebec from before that Republic was founded to after it collapsed some twenty governments later, regarded as a farce). "And I will shut them down for 10 years after that by giving them a world's fair. Then you will be on your own. Someone will take my place but you will not replace me."
This was pretty much what happened, except that Duplessis died a decade early, and his chosen successors, Paul Sauve and Daniel Johnson, who had most of Duplessis's strengths and few of his shortcomings, but lacked his stamina, died in their early 50s, in office, Johnson in 1968, less than a year after the close of the Montreal World's Fair.
The nationalist torch in Quebec passed to Rene Levesque and the left. But it was still a confidence trick. The 1980 and 1995 referendum questions were bogus requests for a mandate to negotiate "sovereignty" while maintaining "association"; eat the cake but still have it before you to contemplate in salivary self-irrigation.
And it was a farce. The great architect of the new nation, Claude Morin, proved to be a federal government double agent; the parliamentary leader was caught trying to flee on foot after shoplifting at Eaton's. Levesque himself ran down and killed a derelict in the middle of the night while apparently coming off a boozy evening, and the police conveniently took five hours or more before the thought of a breathalyzer popped into mind.
Now the pitiful detritus of the independentists are advocating revocation of the right of Quebec parents to chose the language of their children's daycare centres, as if the English language were a primitive dialect of no legal standing and not the language of the great majority of Canadians and Americans and a billion other people, and as if the rights of English-speaking Quebecers, exercised for centuries, could be repealed in a trice by low, delusional, separatist demagogues.

Quebec should recognize that its history of cultural survival is a subject of pride, and that its self-emancipation in the Quiet Revolution has largely failed. Alone, abandoned by the French, it made its deal with the British in the Quebec Act of 1774, kept the French language, and sent Benjamin Franklin packing when he came to rally the French-Canadians against the British in the Revolutionary War.
These events were fraught with ironies, as the Americans, despite all the claptrap about "no taxation without representation" improvised by the Boston merchants and Virginia slaveholders, were really trying to leave Britain with the entire cost of removing the French as a threat to them in the Seven Years War. When Franklin failed to induce the former American bete noire of French Canada to throw in with the Americans, (who would have assimilated them in 10 years, no matter what guaranties they had given), he removed to Paris and, in the greatest diplomatic triumph of American history, persuaded France to go to war against Britain in favour of American democracy and anti-colonialism.
Without French intervention, the Americans could not have won, and France would probably not have had their own revolution. The Americans ditched the French as soon as Britain offered acceptable terms. In the whole swirling drama, the French Canadians were the only player that acted with wisdom (unlike the British and French), and integrity (unlike the Americans). These facts should be celebrated in Quebec.
The achievement of the Roman Catholic Church in building and retaining a high literacy rate, a competitive health care system, the French culture (albeit a rustic version of it), and a birth-rate that ensured French Quebec's demographic survival for 200 years, was an astounding feat. That too should be celebrated.
On the 50th anniversary of his death, in September, Maurice Duplessis was largely remembered as a tenebrous and primitive retardant to Quebec's progress. In fact, he was the saviour of Quebec's jurisdiction and the physical modernizer of the province. He recouped Quebec's forfeited right to collect income taxes, and reasserted the provinces' constitutionally guaranteed concurrent right to direct taxation. His government built 3,000 schools, all the universities except Mc-Gill, the autoroutes, extended electricity to 97% of rural Quebec, made Quebec Canada's leader in disability pensions and day-care access, attracted huge investments in the mining, manufacturing, and forest products industries, while reducing taxes and eliminating debt. Quebec's per capita income gained on English Canada's for the only time in the country's history.

Duplessis did this by retaining clerical personnel in the schools and hospitals at a fraction of what secular personnel would have had to be paid, and without the disruptions of unionization and endless strikes in the public services, or the bane of schoolteachers' unions insisting on a complete separation of scholastic performance from teachers' pay-scales.
Duplessis's Quebec was priest-ridden and his government was heavy-handed and cynical, though unsanctimonious, and enlivened by its leader's lively sense of humour. He had the genius of maximizing the interests of French Quebec without oppressing its minorities or threatening the integrity of Canada. This too, should be celebrated.
The Quiet Revolution which followed has been the greatest orgy of self-serving myth-making in Canadian history. The teachers and nurses left their religious orders and performed the same tasks as before, less assiduously and at 10 times the cost to Quebec's taxpayers. Almost all manufacturing and almost a million Quebecers have fled, and unknowable billions of investment dollars have avoided the province. The birth rate has collapsed. This should not be celebrated, but in the perversity of Quebec's disorientation, it is.
It all went horribly wrong when English Canada responded to the sentiment expressed by Quebec's nationalist leader in the Thirties, Dr. Philippe Hamel, (before Duplessis evicted him from public life and sent him back to the practice of dentistry): "Conquer us with goodwill, my English-Canadian friends. You will be astonished at the easy victory which awaits you." The Laurendeau-Dunton Commission was established and its recommendations were followed. French and English were established on an equal footing throughout the country, at considerable inconvenience and expense to the majority.
The federal government poured money raised in the wealthy English provinces into Quebec, and the response of the heirs of Hamel and Duplessis and of the Quebec cultural and political elite generally, was to accuse Canada of attempting to assimilate French Quebec. All English-Canadian political leaders since Pearson and Stanfield have had nothing but goodwill for Quebec. But, as one of Canada's greatest and most generous-minded modern political leaders, John P. Robarts, told me in 1977 about the then current Quebec leaders, "What spoiled child when offered chocolate ice cream, won't ask for vanilla; and how do you reach agreement with people who don't want to reach an agreement?" You don't and we didn't.
Haitians and North Africans, who haven't the remotest interest in Quebec nationalism, are being imported to replace the unborn, in an effort to maintain francophone numbers. But Quebec is superannuated, both as bully and as cry-baby. No one wants to hear it anymore. There is no significant ill-will to Quebec in English-Canada, but the province's ability to frighten or perplex the country, or even arouse its curiosity, is past. Quebec is a bore.
The description of French Canadians in Hemon's Maria Chapdelaine as 'a race that knows not how to die' was accurate in the era described, 100 years ago. Now, that is almost all Quebecois do know.
Quebec's political acuity enabled it to exercise an influence in Canada beyond its numerical strength for the first 135 years of Confederation, reaping the reward of the 10 generations of survivalist forbearance of its ancestors. It should now do homage to its honourable past, stop pretending that the lights went on only in 1960, forsake infantilism (like sending 50 separatist MP's to Ottawa to mock federalism and vest their pensions) and enjoy Quebec's earned and potential status in what -- despite the purblind malice of the separatists, who habitually claim English Canada to be a pathetic excrescence of the anglo-Americans -- has become one of the most successful countries in the world.

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