Pauline Marois reminds us, almost a half-century after former premier Jean Lesage rolled in with his “equipe de tonnerre”, that we continue to be threatened by a resurgent reactionary strain that has always swung like a pendulum through Quebec’s history. The reactionary inability of Quebec to come to terms with its past. And therein lies the problem.
The philosopher George Santayana once wrote that “those who forget the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them.” In Quebec one can easily say that “those who perpetuate lies about the past are condemned to be imprisoned by them.” And that is at the heart of the Quebec malaise. It is a society that has permitted the perpetuation of the big lie through generations of political leaders who have exploited it for electoral gain and greater provincial power regardless of what party they came from. They have all used the philosophy of “divide and conquer”, creating a francophone majority riddled by self-doubt driven by jealousy of others’ self-belief.
The heart of the lie that the Parti Québécois keeps perpetuating is that some great injustice was done to a “native” francophone people in their “terre natale” — their native land — by the English who conquered Quebec in 1763 and supposedly kept the French under their heel. The reality is that the French came here as imperialists for the King of France and slaughtered the real native people, the aboriginals, and stole their lands. The English came and killed Frenchmen and aboriginals and gave a third of this land to the Hudson’s Bay Company. And who was the francophone power that signed the Concordat of 1763 that basically said to the English, “You take commerce. Give us our people to educate and we’ll keep most of them down on the farms”? The very same French Catholic clergy that every francophone leader in Quebec since Lesage once denounced, yet whose “traditions” are today protected by ex-Maoist Duceppe; lauded by Mario Dumont; subliminally supported by the Liberals and PQ who have all refused to agree to the removal of the crucifix from the National Assembly even while proclaiming the need for “laicite” and accommodation in our public life. Stalin once said that the broad mass of the people will believe a big lie rather than a small one if repeated often enough. That’s what’s happened here.
Arguments for Quebec sovereignty, or the cultural supremacy of francophones based on nativist claims, have no moral foundation in the history of this province. Yet no political leader has spoken these hard truths to Quebec in a very long time. It is more convenient to pander to Quebec’s demands on language, immigration and a host of other powers to gain electoral advantage based on the argument that it is better to trade some national consequence just to keep Canada together. Well that argument no longer suffices if indeed it ever did. Because all these political maneuverings have merely created a culture of extreme prejudice in Quebec with a population unable to compete in the North American reality and constantly on the lookout for someone, or some group, to blame for its own failings. And each devolution of federal power is met by increasing demands for more from Quebec premiers of whatever political stripe.
This is not to say that there are not many true progressives in all facets of Quebec society. There are. Like Germaine Belzile, the Hautes etudes commerciales lecturer, who organized a bold public letter in La Presse signed by dozens of other public intellectuals, including former PQ minister Jacques Brassard, urging this province to come out of its shell and recognize the world we are living in. These are the true heirs of the very real progressive political patrimony running through Quebec history.
A patrimony that began with Louis-Joseph Papineau’s emancipation of all minorities in 1837, 20 years before Britain; continued through Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine’s experiments in responsible government in 1856 that were the first in the British Empire; went on to Laurier’s internationalist and inclusive vision at the turn of the 20th century; through Jean Marchand’s heroic struggles for labour at Lac Megantic; to Jean Lesage’s “Révolution tranquille” that produced arguably the finest cabinet in modern times; and finally to Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s guarantee of the sovereignty of the individual in his justice policies.
This history is what makes Quebec distinct. The Quebec Identity Act betrays that history. Distinctiveness does not rise from some perceived injustice to “native” francophones that was far less than that perpetrated on Quebec’s aboriginal peoples by the imperial representatives of the King of France and then yet again against aboriginals and francophones by the King of England. Not on some misplaced fidelity to “sang et langue”. And certainly not out of the fear-mongering of extremists who see cabals of “ethnics” around every corner that they consider have no right to a say in Quebec’s future.