Last Sunday, more than a million Quebeckers tuned in for the annual Félix awards on Radio-Canada. Quebec's equivalent of the Junos was sweet vindication for a neo-folk group called Mes Aïeux (My Forefathers), whose toe-tapping single Dégénérations was voted song of the year by the Quebec public.
The song – whose title is a play on words that evokes both history and decline – was originally rejected by radio stations when it was released in 2004. Programmers thought its preachy tone praising great-great-grandfathers for clearing the land, and dissing their descendants for selling it off to become civil servants, would not fly with listeners. They thought the song's glorification of great-great-grandmothers with 14 kids, and its contempt for young women who today cover up their “stupidities” by getting an abortion, was definitely not Top 40 material.
No one knows what Quebeckers want better than disc jockeys, though, and by last fall, Dégénérations started getting airplay. The song topped the Quebec charts for weeks in late 2006 and early 2007. Its lyrics sparked living-room discussions and newspaper editorials, all of which became even more salient when the debate over the “reasonable accommodation” of religious minorities by Quebec's lapsed-Catholic majority broke out.
Within weeks, the whole province was thrust into the cauldron of identity politics, as Quebeckers grappled with what it means to be Québécois in an era of increasing religious and ethnic diversity. One response – that of Mario Dumont's Action Démocratique du Québec – seemed to strike a chord with a plurality of Quebeckers. The Québécois needed to reconnect with their past, the one that the generation of the Quiet Revolution (the civil servants of the Mes Aïeux song) had wholly rejected. Indeed, Dégénérations could have been the ADQ's theme song during the March provincial election campaign that culminated with Mr. Dumont's party, which is dominated by twenty- and thirty-something Quebeckers, going from 4 seats to 41 in the National Assembly.
The dark ages through rose-coloured glasses
The urgent call for a renewed connection with the past is a daily ritual at the public hearings now being held by a provincial commission examining reasonable accommodation. What is striking about the so-called Bouchard-Taylor Commission (so named for its chairs, scholars Charles Taylor and Gérard Bouchard) is just how uncritical many Quebeckers seem to be toward that past. Commenting on the tone of the hearings, Journal de Montréal columnist Richard Martineau remarked this week: “You'd think the years when the Catholic Church lorded over Quebec society were a golden age…[that] it wasn't the Grande Noirceur [Great Darkness], but the Great Enlightenment.”
It's not only a Catholic past that many Quebeckers seem nostalgic for. Lawyer Guy Bertrand had his compatriots nodding in agreement this week when he suggested to the commission – whose mandate seems to have expanded to examine all aspects of Québécois angst, no matter how peripheral – that the Montreal Canadiens had unreasonably accommodated its Finnish-born captain, Saku Koivu, by not insisting he learn French. Apparently, in an era when the majority of the team's 23 members are non-Quebeckers and can only address fans in English, Quebeckers yearn for a time when legends named Richard, Béliveau and Lafleur weren't just hockey players, but proud symbols of Québécois can-do.
The events of the past months certainly support the idea that a large number of young Quebeckers – perhaps not a majority, but certainly a strong and politically active minority – see pre-Quiet Revolution Quebec though almost rose-coloured glasses. That's easy for them. They have no scores to settle with that past – or more important, scars to show from it.
“To say that everything from that period was dark, that voters were all backwards, I think is a ridiculous interpretation of history,” Mr. Dumont said on the heels of the March election. “I won't accept that we take periods of our history, rip them out and throw them in the garbage.” His praise for pre-Quiet Revolution Quebec is not based on personal experience. He was born in 1970. He never lived through the church repression, reactionary politics and cultural isolationism that characterized the reign of Maurice Duplessis between 1944 and 1959. This is not to suggest Mr. Dumont is a reactionary or his followers Bible-thumping social conservatives. It simply speaks to a prevailing sense among many young Quebeckers that their society has lost its bearings and that one way to get them back is re-embrace what it has always meant to be a Québécois in the first place: their language, families and memory.
There is so far scant evidence that this desire to “re-root” is driving young Quebeckers back into the pews. Nor are they marrying in the church in greater numbers. Indeed, Quebec leads the nation, and the world, in common-law unions. But that does not mean young Quebeckers are willing to purge their society of its Catholic traditions, something that, next to sovereignty, was job one for many of their baby boomer parents.
And parents have decried Ministry of Education plans to replace classes on church catechism with a course on world religions and ethics, beginning with the 2008-2009 school year. Quebec's public schools were deconfessionalized almost a decade ago, and catechism classes are no longer mandatory. Still, the vast majority of parents – thirty-somethings, for the most part – enroll their kids in such classes, even though they themselves rarely attend Sunday mass. Why? Because such classes serve not just to teach kids about Catholic doctrine; they are a way to teach them about Quebec's history and traditions.
An unforeseen generation gap
This conservative revival challenges much of what we thought about modern Quebec. It has long been surmised that Bill 101, the law that makes French the province's only official language, had made linguistic and cultural insecurity a thing of the past. The “Children of Bill 101” – immigrants and their offspring – have been schooled in French. They're running for office, often for sovereigntist parties, and marrying old-stock Quebeckers. Aren't they proof that newcomers are integrating into the mainstream, changing the very definition of the term “Québécois” in the process? It no longer means that you can trace your bloodline back to 17th-century New France, right?
The conventional wisdom also has Quebec becoming a more individualistic society. Years of collectivist anxiety had distracted Quebeckers from taking care of their hospitals, roads and schools. Their business leaders were making their mark on the global stage. There was a growing weariness with a highly redistributive state that had failed to address the province's demographic and infrastructure deficits. There was a growing constituency calling for major, market-oriented policy reforms – ideas that were at the heart of the 2005 manifesto called Pour un Québec lucide (For a clear-eyed vision of Quebec) of 12 prominent figures led by Lucien Bouchard, the former premier.
The trends embodied by the Children of Bill 101 and the 12 “Lucides” are no less real than the conservatism on display at the Bouchard-Taylor hearings. Not all members of any society move in the same direction at once.
A group of mostly young Quebeckers, including several Children, signed an open letter this week deploring the intolerant tone of the Bouchard-Taylor hearings and denouncing a Parti Québécois bill to deny new Canadian citizens who fail to learn French the right to run for public office. And former PQ aide Daniel Audet recently rekindled the spirit of the Lucides with a provocative essay in L'actualité magazine proposing “15 ideas for a strong Quebec,” including major tax cuts, the privatization of Hydro-Québec and two-tier health care.
The polity can only process so many demands simultaneously, however. And when one – how to deal with reasonable accommodation – seems to overwhelm all the others, a society has no choice but to get busy with it. Identity politics are certainly nothing new to Quebec. Indeed, they have always been the dominant theme of public discourse. But the Bouchard-Taylor hearings have been a forum for the clash over identity between the “secular fundamentalists” – as the Archbishop of Quebec, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, calls them – who ushered in the Quiet Revolution and their children, who gave life to the ADQ. Sure, there are plenty of older Quebeckers who'd like to see a return to traditional, Catholic values, too. But this debate wouldn't be happening and wouldn't have taken the nostalgic turn it has, if Mr. Dumont and cohorts hadn't come along.
The Quiet Revolutionaries, who only experienced religion as the means by which societal elders controlled their parents, can't seem to get their heads around the idea that Muslim women are not necessarily signalling their submission by wearing a hijab. They fought tooth and nail to get religion out of Quebec's public institutions and they don't want to go there again. But many, mostly younger, Quebeckers, those who never felt the church's claws, don't carry the same baggage toward something their own parents never showed or taught them: faith.
Quebec is surely not on the cusp of some Catholic revival. But the success of Dégénérations and the rise of the ADQ does suggest there is a longing among the post-Quiet Revolution generation to fill the vacuum that was left when their elders sent the priests a-packing. It's as if, on the eve of the 400th anniversary of Champlain's founding of Quebec, they want desperately to remember what their parents have spent a lifetime trying to forget. It's as if they were truer to the spirit of a famous line in Louis Hémon's classic 1913 novel Maria Chapdelaine: “In Quebec, nothing must die and nothing must change.”