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Lettre d’un Québécois à ses cousins du reste du Canada | Dialogue Canada
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Lettre d’un Québécois à ses cousins du reste du Canada

Dear English-speaking Canada:

Almost a year and a half ago now, for the second time in fifteen years, Quebecers held a referendum on their future, to decide whether they wished to remain a part of the Canadian Federation or separate from it. And once again, as in the first referendum in 1980, a majority of Quebecers voted to stay in Canada.

However, while in 1980 the Yes vote numbered only about 41%, the battle between the Yes and No sides was much closer in 1995, and only last minute promises by the Prime Minister and pleas from English-speaking Canadians prevented the Separatists from winning the day. The next morning, Canadians all across the country swore that they had had a good wake up call. The decision of Quebecers, far from being a vote for the status quo, was a call for change. There was a great feeling of urgency; everybody seemed to realize how very close we had come to disaster. And now, a way would be found to resolve the unity crisis, once and for all.

Yet, where are we today? Precious little has happened. Worse, in many ways the issue seems even farther from being resolved now than it did in October 1995. Not only has there been a definite hardening of position toward Québec in English-speaking Canada in the last year and a half, but the Federal government has forgotten all its promises and reassuring words, and is hard at work on a “Plan B”, trying to devise as many ways as it can think of to intimidate Quebecers into rejecting separation and make it as difficult as possible for them to even vote on the issue a third time. There has even been talk of partitioning Québec in the event of a Yes vote. How did we get here? Did English-speaking Canadians not swear that they would find a way?

I am a French-speaking Quebecer, from very francophone Québec City. My family traces its roots in the province back to at least 1684, and in many ways I have a very strong attachment to this country. But in spite of many years spent living in English-speaking Canada, I still feel like a foreigner wherever I find myself in the rest of the country, and without a doubt my strongest ties are to Québec.

I am also a Federalist. Ideally, I would like French-speaking Quebecers to continue being a part of the great Canadian adventure. By that, I mean that I would like Québec to remain in Canada, while being assured that present and future generations of francophone Quebecers will always have the choice of functioning either in French or in English. However, if by staying in Canada our status as Francophones is in any way going to be jeopardized in the future, then I am no longer interested and would rather Quebecers took a chance on their own rather than run the risk of one day going the way of the dodo.

When I am in Québec and discuss the various issues with family and friends, I am a Federalist, no question about it. It is when I am here in English-speaking Canada that things are not always so clear for me anymore. When I hear what a lot of people have to say about the present situation, when I listen to the harsh position taken toward Québec by what seems to be a majority of English-speaking Canadians, I almost become a Separatist. One look at the opinion pages of any major newspaper on any given day is often enough to make me feel like there is no hope for reconciliation and that Québec would be better off on its own.

I was just old enough to cast my vote in the May 1980 referendum, and I said No to the P.Q.’s Sovereignty-Association project. I was at the time a member of the Comité pour le Non in my Cégep, and remember vividly a certain rally in Québec City where then Prime Minister Trudeau promised francophone Quebecers that their concerns would be addressed in a new constitution if they voted No. They listened to him. Less than two years later, in 1982, the Constitution was being patriated against their will.

Then along came Brian Mulroney and his promise to find a way to reconcile the country and bring Québec “back into the constitutional fold, with honor and enthusiasm.” The result: the Meech Lake and Charlottetown failures. Once again, nothing was settled.

In the case of the Charlottetown Accord, it has been said that it was rejected by English-speaking Canada because it granted too much to Québec, while francophone Quebecers voted against it because they felt it didn’t give them enough. So much for reconciliation…

Finally, there was the second referendum in 1995. At first, it looked as if the Federalist forces would easily win. But then, gradually, polls started to reveal to Canadians outside Québec that they were going to lose the battle if nothing was done. Prime Minister Chrétien, reversing his previous stance, went on national television to promise francophone Quebecers that this time their call had been heard, and that if they voted No, their concerns would be addressed. (Heard that promise before?) Then, tens of thousands of Canadians descended on Montréal to tell Quebecers that they loved them and ask them to give their country one last chance. In all these efforts, something must have worked: while in the week before the Yes side was significantly ahead in the polls, on October 30, a tiny majority of Quebecers voted No. And everyone is still waiting for something concrete to come of that vote.

“What does Québec want?” Well, as a recent poll clearly indicated, a majority of French-speaking Quebecers wants to remain a part of Canada. But their attachment is conditional: they insist on being recognized as different and respected as such, and they also want to exercise control over the tools which they feel are essential to ensure that their language, culture and institutions can survive in the context of English-speaking Canada and North America.

To use a common image, French-speaking Quebecers are barely 6 million in a sea of 275 million English speakers in North America, including about 24 million in Canada.

And in spite of the progress that has been made in the last forty years or so, the French language in Québec is still very much under threat. For demographic reasons having to do with the province’s low birth rate and immigration, it is perfectly conceivable that francophone Quebecers will eventually become a minority in their province and, eventually, their status might be like that of the Welsh or the Gaels today.

This is not a doomsday scenario or paranoia. It is exactly what has been happening to other francophone communities across the country that are progressively being assimilated. Indeed, according to a 1993 report by Statistics Canada (based on their 1991 census), the pace of assimilation of Francophones across Canada has quickened. The number of Francophones outside Québec who use English at home jumped from 28.5 per cent to 35.1 per cent between 1981 and 1991. In Ontario, home to about half the country’s Francophones outside Québec, 37 per cent of those whose maternal language is French use English at home, up from 29 per cent in 1981. In Newfoundland, the rate went from 38 to 55 per cent during that period, while in Nova Scotia, it climbed to 42 per cent from 33 per cent. In British Columbia, the rate was a staggering 73 per cent in 1991, compared to 52 per cent ten years before. What will be the status of these francophone communities outside Québec in another ten or fifteen years? Clearly, there is cause for concern.

Some people look at Québec and argue that the French language seems to be doing quite well right now, and they do not see how francophone Quebecers can consider themselves threatened. Well, while it is true that French has progressed in the last forty years or so, demographics show that long-term prospects are actually not so good. With a birth rate of 1.5 child per family, the province’s rate is one of the lowest in the industrialized world, not enough to replace the aging francophone population. Since the mid-eighties, the relative weight of the French-speaking majority has been declining, particularly so on the island of Montréal where, accordingly to Charles Castonguay of the University of Ottawa, it will fall under 50% unless the trend is reversed soon (“Chrétien, Durham, même combat”; Le Devoir, August 22 1996).

Meanwhile, there is also the problem of the “language of conversion” of new immigrants to the province. Presented with a choice between integrating into Québec’s French majority or into the English majority that exists in Canada and North America, most immigrants want to choose English, as it is THE dominant language of global trade and commerce, and they believe they have a much better chance of success in North America if they integrate into the anglophone majority. But obviously, if all immigrants to Québec were able to choose to integrate into the English community, Francophones would very quickly find themselves in a minority.

Laws had to be drawn up to deal with this situation. In the field of education, immigrants were made to send their children to French school. And although some critics say that there is not much French spoken in the school-yard, the fact is that the legislation has helped matters a little, and the visage of French-speaking Québec is much more multi-cultural now than it used to be. However, the parents of these children and, indeed, most adult immigrants still wish to choose English over French. That is why Québec also drew up sign laws, to make sure that the face of a large metropolitan city like Montréal was more French than English, thus sending the message to newcomers that this was a francophone province. But the results have been mitigated, and the battle for the survival of French in Québec continues. A majority of English-speaking Canadians outside Québec disagree very strongly with these language measures; but I wonder what they would do if they were in the shoes of Francophones.

Many English-speaking Canadians point to multiculturalism and how other cultures have been able to survive and prosper economically in Canada under the present system, and suggest that French Canadians should settle for the same deal. But French-speaking Quebecers are not in the same situation as new immigrants to Canada: this is where generations of Quebecois were born and grew up; they are not freshly arrived from France or Belgium, and the cradle of their unique culture is Québec. There should be no reason for them to have to sacrifice their language and culture in their own home.

Others cannot understand this francophone Quebecers’ obsession with their language and culture. They say that in the long run, there is little that anybody can do about this anyway. History is on the march, English is the language of the new global economy, and Francophones should simply go with the flow and integrate into the “global culture”. If any second language is needed in North America, they say, it should be Spanish or Chinese, and the French language will soon be totally obsolete. Well, all of that may prove true in the long run, but that is not a reason to just surrender to it. French-speaking Quebecers are quite open to learning a second or even a third language, but they also very much wish to keep their own linguistic heritage. One’s mother tongue is much more than a simple communication tool. It has made you who you are, it defines you. To lose it means that you lose a big part of your soul. Some may see the French language and culture in Québec as being doomed to extinction, but no self-respecting people can accept such a fate without a fight. Francophone Quebecers are determined to survive.

Which doesn’t mean that they are the hostile, intolerant, xenophobic people described by some… A lot has been said about the “repressive” language laws, but the fact is that the anglophone minority in Québec enjoys more rights than any other minority group in Canada. It has its own schools, hospitals and other health facilities, and control over all these different institutions. Even today, it is still perfectly possible for someone to be born, grow up, be educated and get a job in Montréal without having to learn a word of French, as many of my anglophone friends in that city could testify. There are incidents and excesses in Québec as elsewhere, obviously; but xenophobia and prejudice are not generalized among the francophone population, and they are certainly not exclusive to Québec.

The question “What does Québec want?” was very popular years ago when English-speaking Canadians were just starting to grapple with Québec’s demands. French-speaking Quebecers tried to explain, and gradually more and more people in the rest of Canada started to understand and stopped asking. Recently, however, the question has started to resurface, this time in a tone of exasperation and anger. “What does Québec want?” As if to say: “What do they want now? Are they never going to be happy? What more can they possibly want from us than we have not given them already? Why do they always come back with more demands? Why do these Separatists want to destroy our country?”

Ah, the Separatists! These days, it seems, the very word has become a lightning rod that attracts much of the anger and frustration of English-speaking Canadians. Being able to put the blame for the present impasse on a small group of unreasonable radicals is a very convenient excuse for maintaining the political status quo. People say that as long as the PQ is in power in Québec City, there is little point in trying to make an offer to the province, and English-speaking Canadians spend more time cursing Lucien Bouchard and his “cronies” than trying to find a way to resolve the crisis.

But ask yourself this: fundamentally, why does Separatism exist in Quebec? Is it because of the Separatists and their propaganda or, rather, because a majority of francophone Quebecers are looking for changes in the Canadian system, changes that never come? Would the whole unity issue just disappear by magic if Lucien Bouchard and company were not around? Obviously not: a clear majority of francophone Quebecers voted yes to the PQ’s option in the last referendum. Why then concentrate all our attention and energies on the Separatists? As Roger Landry, president and publisher of Montréal’s La Presse newspaper, said in a speech given in Toronto in early March 1997, the next Québec referendum will likely be decided by French-speaking federalist Quebecers. So why not make an offer to middle-of-the-road Francophones like me instead of trying to scare all French-speaking Quebecers into submission? How about a “Plan A”?

What is needed at this time is some kind of package that will help Quebecers protect their language and culture, and address their present need for reassurance. That was the purpose of the “distinct society” status for Québec when it was conceived back in the eighties. Everyone who knows Québec recognizes the fact that its society is different from that which exists in the rest of Canada. It is not better nor superior, just different. The “distinct society” status had nothing to do with establishing the superiority of one language over another in Canada, and it was not about giving francophone Quebecers certain privileges that other Canadians would not have. Unfortunately, because of all that has happened over the past ten years, the phrase has become so loaded that it probably is not the way to go anymore. But some other way of recognizing Québec’s differences will have to be found and formally incorporated in the constitution. French-speaking Quebecers will accept nothing less.

The solution will probably have to incorporate “asymmetrical federalism” as well. Many English-speaking Canadians do not support this, as they feel that all provinces should be absolutely equal and that any new power would have to be granted to all ten provinces. What they do not realize is that the federation is already asymmetrical. Equalization payments are an obvious example of the way in which certain provinces are treated differently from others. All provinces do not have the same needs; the “genius” of our federation is that it has found a way to accommodate these different needs without compromising the whole. Why could that not apply in the case of Québec’s different needs as they relate to its culture and language?

For a long time, now, French-speaking Quebecers have had the impression that they are constantly being bullied by the will of the country’s anglophone majority. The rights of Francophones outside Québec since 1867… Conscription… The new Constitution of 1982… The Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords… From their point of view, it has happened many times in the past, and they fear future changes that could affect them dramatically.

With the cuts now being made at all levels of government, for example, who is to say when services to the francophone population anywhere in Canada are going to be sacrificed on the altar of efficiency? In Ontario, the Harris government has already cut services to many francophone communities where it claims numbers do not justify there being such services, and it is now about to close Ottawa’s Montfort Hospital, the only remaining French hospital in the province, despite the fact that it serves about a third of the francophone population in the province, about one hundred and eighty thousand people. At the Federal level, the Reform Party has already talked about axing most of the current policy on bilingualism. It would seem highly improbable that this will happen tomorrow morning, but who is to say where we will be in ten or fifteen years? Who would have predicted the cuts to our social safety net just a decade ago?

The problem is that while francophone Quebecers feel as if they have had to “take all the hits” in the past, a majority of English-speaking Canadians have a very different interpretation of the first one hundred and thirty years of our Federation. They believe that the country has already been excessively generous with Québec over the years, and they have stated unequivocally that they will no longer tolerate that such a “teeny, tiny” minority hold the whole country hostage. (The expression “spoiled child” is a very popular one in letters to the editor.) Since the people of Québec have made the choice to stay in Canada, twice now, they should accept the consequence of their vote and stop whining. What these people very conveniently forget is that if a majority of Quebecers chose to “give another chance” to Canada in the two referendums, it was at least partly on the basis of promises that were made to them by the rest of the country through its representative, the Federal government, first by Mr. Trudeau in 1980, by Mr. Mulroney in the late eighties and early nineties, and finally by Mr. Chrétien in 1995. If the threat of separatism never goes away, it is because those promises are never kept and the problems never truly resolved, only swept under the rug.

At times, it feels as though French-speaking Quebecers and English-speaking Canadians live in totally different worlds. If we cannot even agree on the facts of the past, how are we ever going to resolve this whole issue? As I have said before, there are times when I feel like throwing in the towel and saying: let’s just get the whole thing over with and find a way to go our separate ways, peacefully. As you know, I would not be the first Quebecer to go through a similar process of disillusionment…

So, almost a year and a half after the second referendum, everyone is still waiting. As a francophone Federalist from Québec, I must say that I am extremely distressed by the lack of progress that has been made. It would be easy to put the blame for this “mess” on our politicians and on the media. And indeed, they have done very little it seems to solve anything. But they are not the only ones responsible: had there been a genuine, strong movement toward reconciliation among the population of the country, the media would have had to report it, and the politicians would have been forced to act. Such has not been the case.

Some observers are now hoping that the Separatists’ plans are crumbling as Lucien Bouchard and his government tackle the deficit situation in Québec, and they expect to win the battle by simply doing nothing and letting the separatist threat self-destruct. Meanwhile, others want francophone Quebecers to give the Canadian federation yet another chance to show that it can work for them, and they are calling on the PQ government to put off another referendum on separation for a while, perhaps as much as ten or fifteen years. All of that is only wishful thinking: anyone who believes that the unity crisis is going to simply vanish by itself is mistaken. French-speaking Quebecers insist on change, and the No vote in the 1995 referendum was only a reprieve granted to English-speaking Canadians. There will be another referendum in Québec, no matter how hard the Federal government tries to prevent this from happening. And if at that time no changes have been made to address the concerns of francophone Quebecers, then they are going to say Yes to separation. If it should ever get to that point, how could I disagree with them?

If things are negotiable, then Québec and the rest of Canada have to sit down and talk. Now. The present situation is intolerable for everyone. On the other hand, if English-speaking Canadians really feel that they cannot compromise anymore and that changes to accommodate Québec are totally out of the question, then French-speaking Quebecers should be allowed to pull out, and arrangements made between the two solitudes to allow for a smooth transition for everyone concerned.

One last thought: a lot of English-speaking Canadians believe that, fundamentally, francophone Quebecers are intent on destroying the country no matter what. If only they could see that such is not the case at all, and that if Quebecers were brought “on side”, so to speak, they would probably be even more pro-Canada than many English-speaking Canadians will ever be… If all the enthusiasm and passion of French-speaking Quebecers were successfully transferred onto Canada, and if everyone’s energy, from coast to coast, was focused on our common challenges instead of being wasted on arguing with each other, just imagine the possibilities! But that will not be possible unless there is some kind of resolution to the present crisis.

Obviously, there are people across English-speaking Canada who truly understand that changes are needed. Many of them have become involved in various grassroots organizations that have sprung up across the nation, and they are trying to build some kind of momentum for change. As I now leave for another country where I will be living and working for a few years, it will be very interesting to watch what happens from a distance. To those of you who are working on finding a way out of this mess, I wish you good luck, and sincerely hope that you will succeed. However, I have to say that at present things do not look very promising. Your voices are more often than not drowned by the roar of other, less reasonable souls, and few among ordinary Canadians appear to be listening. I hope that it isn’t too late, and I know that my position is shared by many other Quebecers. But time is running out… I expect that by the time I come back, everything will have been settled, one way or another. Which way is it going to be?