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What does Quebec want ?

We hope that this will be the first of a number of articles. If they do not appear in both languages, it is simply that we don’t have the resources to translate them.

Nous espérons que cet article soit le premier d’une série d’articles. S’ils ne sont pas publiés dans les deux langues, c’est simplement que nous n’avons pas les moyens de les traduire.


This, in the year 2000, is an old question, a very old question!
Et, ça prends du culot pour un franco-ontarien d’y répondre !
(And it takes a lot of gall for a Franco-Ontarian to reply to it)

There have been several responses to that question in as many years, none putting it to rest it seems and I think it will be asked as long as there continue to be two solitudes in Canada, a condition that Dialogue Canada among many others has attempted to resolve. At the risk of “sounding” exasperated, let me try yet another response which in the eyes of the country’s learned ones may well be considered to be too simplistic. Be that as it may…

Les Canadiens du Québec have been asking for a return of provincial powers to the provinces for at least 80 years. “The two World Wars are over”, they say, so “let us establish the policies that were once ours to do, let us implement them like the pact of 1867 required us to do, and return the means that once allowed us to so do”.

Les Canadiens français du Québec agreed, reluctantly perhaps, yet they did nevertheless cooperate with their Canadian colleagues from other provinces and territories in order that a centralized war effort be actualized. World Wars I and II raging primarily in Europe threatened the whole Commonwealth, North Africa, North and South America and much of the rest of the world, therefore relinquishing provincial powers was indeed a modest price to pay to find and then be at peace.

Canada was one in that war effort. Canadians accepted and then got used to the fact that Ottawa made all the important decisions. Canadians got used to the fact that Ottawa had all the necessary powers and the accompanying means to live up to those crucial decisions.

Mais les Canadiens du Québec ne considéraient ces besoins et ces mesures centralisés que “temporaires”, ils n’avaient en aucun temps “abandonné” leurs droits fondamentaux, ils n’avaient en aucun temps accepté que le Fédéral dorénavant mènerait tout…Les Canadiens du Québec ont donc réclamé le retour de leurs pouvoirs et privilèges dès le retour à la normale qui se faisait sentir dès les années ’20, mais de plus en plus fort dans les années d’après guerre commençant vers la fin des “40…

( Translation: But les Canadiens du Quebec considered that these centralized needs and measures were only temporary. They had never abandoned their fundamental rights, and they had never accepted that the Feds would from then on take the lead in everything. Les Canadiens du Quebec therefore called for the return of their powers and privileges as soon as the situation returned to normal, which began to take place in the 1920s, but even more strongly during the post-war years, beginning at the end of the 40s.)

Yes, Québec believed World War 1 was over, in 1918! But Quebec soon began to feel quite alone in requesting a return to the conditions of the pact they had formulated and agreed to with their Canadian counterparts in 1867. Canadians in other provinces had become accustomed to the new ways, they were not overly concerned with the centralization that had taken roots, much to the dismay of the majority of their French-speaking fellow citizens most of whom were residing in the province of Québec.

The fight against the great depression of the ’30’s was not unlike a war effort, it required a strong national approach so Ottawa continued the entrenchment of centralization. World War II followed soon after so Québec put “all that on the back burner” so to speak. However, in the late ’40’s and early ’50’s Québec’s concerns and Québec’s requests got louder and louder: “World War I, the Depression, World War II are all past events, so let’s return to our initially intended and agreed upon provincial roles and responsibilities”. In Québec’s perception – especially its French-speaking majority’s – “no one was listening”, “the rest of Canada do not seem to care”… Exasperation surfaced in English-speaking Canada and it eventually led to “What (the hell) does Québec want?”

Sometime along that 30 to 40 year period beginning in the ’20’s the problem also took on an “English versus French” hue in many parts of Canada. “What does Québec Want?” progressively became “What do those French want?” (too many times “What do those damn French want?”) and the Canadiens français in all provinces of Canada “outside” Québec felt hostility, even hatred, and lived through terrible repressions: le règlement 17 (Law No. 17) in Ontario as one example, much like legislation in Saskatchewan banning not only the teaching of French but forbidding teachers and students to even speak French in the classroom…Today French-speaking Canadians are constantly faced with “o.k., if the numbers warrant it” ! The recent and bitter controversy about la place du français (the place of French) in the about-to-be-created City of Ottawa is fresh evidence that a number of non-French-speaking citizens are not about to accept that the nation’s capital be officially designated a bilingual city !

“What does Québec Want?” was first quite simply wanting all powers provinces had in the early agreement of 1867 returned: “World War is over” they said and repeated in the early ’20’s. Astonishing perhaps, but “English Canada” only began to listen in the early ’60’s and then only after Jean Lesage, Premier of Québec, unequivocally affirmed during the election campaign “Maîtres chez nous”. “What does Québec Want?” was now quite simply wanting a re-visiting of the first Constitution and its amendments in order to re-consider and re-align our hundred year old agreements. Unfortunately, that was not enough because “What does Québec Want” kept being repeated, all over the place, to the point where les Canadiens français du Québec framed Québecois, a distinctive self-assertion to replace Canadiens français; it was now obvious to a vast number of them that Canada was no longer their country. Incidentally the small minority in Saskatchewan immediately followed suit with fransaskois to replace franco-saskatchewanais…which is interesting indeed, because French-speaking Canadians had always referred to themselves as Canadiens français.

“Les Étâts-Généraux du Canada français” of the mid to late ’60’s was first an attempt by French-speaking Canada to answer both questions: 1) “What does Québec Want?” and 2) “What does French-speaking Canada Want?”. “Statistically-correct” representations of French-speaking Canadians from all provinces and territories proudly and optimistically attempted to accomplish that task. Exasperation however soon reached the point where “Les Étâts-Généraux du Canada français” became “Les Étâts-Généraux du Québec” where les québecois abandoned the million canadiens-français hors Québec (outside of Quebec) to “the wolves” as it were and not long after Canada saw the birth of the R.I.N. which eventually led to the formation of the Parti Québecois.

French-speaking minorities across Canada knew the answer to “What does Québec Want?” but only very reluctantly accepted it because they needed strong Federal “présence” and “interventions” in order to have their rights respected. They were instinctively very reluctant to abandon Federal involvement, especially in education at all levels – primary, secondary and post-secondary. Federal involvement in employment issues, in cultural issues, in health services is still mandatory in their view ! French-speaking minorities in all of Canada were and still are vulnerable and they must fight, yes fight, for the recognition of their existence and the respect of their rights The “division” between the French-speaking community in Québec and the French-speaking minorities across Canada has, regretfully, not yet healed.

Regrettably perhaps and only after the first referendum did the “rest of Canada” really understand “What Québec Wants”. Today all provinces west of New Brunswick want “the Feds out”, in some instances much more so than Québec ever did! Consider Alberta as the most outspoken and look at what it is doing about health care legislation…for starters. Alberta no longer asks “What Does Québec Want” because it wants that and more !

Enlightened Canadians know that Canada was built by French and English speaking Canadians as equal partners and are now recognizing that Canadians from the First Nations should have been considered equals and full partners in the first place. Enlightened Canadians accept and support policies on Bilingualism and Multiculturalism. Enlightened Canadians no longer ask “What Does Québec Want” because they know that the French speaking Canadians of all Canada want to be recognized as equal partners in the formation and evolution of Canada.

Enlightened Canadians know that Canada is like a pearl necklace, as beautiful as each of its pearls but no stronger than the thread that binds them. The pearls to which I liken the provinces and territories must each be self-confident and self-directing to be truly beautiful. Québec has known all along what it needs in order to be beautiful and what it needs in order to be equal to its partners. Québec knows that partnership (the “thread”) can only be achieved by uniting with its sister provinces and territories through a Federal arrangement. Québec has known all along that the Federal government cannot be both pearls and thread and everyone knows one pearl does not a necklace make! Should the question not now be: “What Does Canada Want?”

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