Canada in Crisis: The Historical Background
We belong to that little group of peoples destined... for a special role, the tragic role. Their anxiety is not whether they will be prosperous tomorrow, great or small, but whether they will be at all... - Lionel Groulx, Quebec historian
In the speech from the throne at the opening of the Canadian Parliament earlier this year the Governor-General asked: 'Will Canada still exist as a country at the end of this decade or will it have broken up by tensions of our past and recent history?' The question was prompted by the possibility of a majority 'Yes' vote in the May 20th referendum by which Quebecers were asked to give their provincial government a mandate to negotiate a crypto-independence termed 'sovereignty association'. Despite the overwhelming 'No' vote most Quebecers do want some constitutional change and up to 20 per cent would probably opt for outright separation.
The present crisis has been evident for the last twenty years during which Quebec's aspirations have been profoundly influenced by such examples of colonial independence as Algeria and the upheavals minority groups like the American Blacks. Quebec may be the only place on earth where the Queen, witness her 1964 visit, cannot be assured of a warm reception; in Montreal in 1967 General de Gaulle intoned the emotional, impolitic 'Vive le Québec Libre' ; in 1970 seven years of extremism culminated in the murder of a provincial cabinet minister, Pierre Laporte and the kidnapping of British trade Commissioner, James Cross; in 1976 the present government of René Lévesque and the Parti Quécois swept to power. Paradoxically in the federal election of February, 1980, Quebec overwhelmingly supported the Liberal Party that is pledged to continued federalism.
All this doubtless supports former Prime Minister Lester Pearson's claim that Canada is the most difficult country in the world to govern. Certainly, although separatism has not been a serious movement for over a century until now, the roots of the problems go back over 300 years. An Englishman must look to Ireland for a parallel. The nationalist Quebec historian, Lionel Groulx, accurately invoked 'notre maitre le passé' (our master the past); the province's motto, on all car licence plates, is 'Je me souviens'.
Quebec's history is sufficiently unfamiliar to merit a brief chronology. Permanent colonisation began with the founding of Quebec City by the French in 1608, one year after Jamestown.' New France grew slowly. Its future was not certain until the 1660s and 1670s with the sponsorship of Louis XIV's great minister Colbert and the able leadership of Governor Frontenac, Bishop Laval and the intendant Talon. While the colony developed a modest fur trading and semi-feudal agricultural base it was part of a spectacular, if over-extended, empire that ranged from Cape Breton to the Gulf of Mexico. In 1759 Wolfe's defeat of Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham led to the fall of the citadel of Quebec and, with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, to France's abandonment of its mainland empire.
The transitional post-conquest period was marked by the Quebec Act of 1774, granting the French their religion, law and civil rights, and by the arrival after 1783 of thousands of loyalists fleeing the American Revolution. The result was the Constitutional Act of 1791 which created loyalist Upper Canada (the future Ontario) and largely French Lower Canada (old Quebec), each for the first time with an elected lower house of assembly. The year 1837 witnessed rebellion, led by Louis-Joseph Papineau, against the oligarchic government of the Chateau Clique which partly pitted French against English (with only 10 per cent of the population the English largely controlled the government and the economy). The result was Lord Durham's famous Report of 1839 which inspired the 1840 Act of Union, creating a single province of Canada with an East and West section.
The two sections had equal representation in the assembly but at first government merely became more representative than responsible. This was gradually rectified culminating in the biracial Baldwin-Lafontaine Coalition of 1848. By the 1860s fast-growing Canada West became dissatisfied with the Union. For this and other reasons the 1867 British North America (BNA) Act still Canada's constitution and still amendable only by the British Parliament was passed in London, creating the Dominion of Canada composed of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Since then six more provinces have been added to the Confederation that is now threatened by separatism.
While French and English have more in common than they often realise, the metaphor of Pierre Chauveau, the first Quebec premier after Confederation, is still apt: Canada was like the celebrated staircase in the Chateau de Chambord so built that two people will go up and barely meet. 'English and French, we climb... without meeting each other, except on the landing of politics. In social and literary terms, we are far more foreign to each other than the English and French of Europe.' Or, as the Canadian novelist, Hugh McLennan, puts it, we are 'two solitudes'.
The central fact about Canada is its two 'nations' or 'races', French and English, with different cultures, histories and origins. New France was a 'fragment' of the France of Louis XIV absolutist, centralised, seigneurial, homogeneous, classical and above all Catholic in the spirit of the Counter-Reformation. The thirteen English colonies to the south (which through the loyalists supplied the 'fragment' of English-speaking Canada) were self-governing, decentralised, bourgeois, Lockian liberal, heterogeneous and definitely Protestant.
In the New World, as in the Old, each side sought to destroy the other during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For French-Canadians the central, obsessive, fact of their history is the Conquest, enveloping them like a permanent Gaspee fog. The English-speaking peoples, apart from American Southerners whom the Quebecois resemble, have difficulty understanding the alien experience of conquest. Not that the Conquest Parkman called it 'a happy calamity' was harsh. Just the opposite. But, as the fine Canadian historian A. R. M. Lower has written, conquest, however benevolent, is 'a type of slavery'.
French-Canadians have an historic distrust of the British whose seeming fairness has sometimes cloaked self-interest. For example: after the Conquest Governor Carleton's conciliatory policies were partly aimed at gaining a counter-weight to the growing American rebellion; in 1847 Governor-General Lord Elgin encouraged Quebec nationalism as a barrier to the annexation (to the US) movement that included not only Papineau and his followers but also some anglophones who felt betrayed by British free-trade policies; Lord Durham proposed responsible government but only in order to assimilate 'a people without a history or a literature', a taunt that provoked a strong French cultural counter-attack. The English often favoured the conservative clerical-seigneurial leadership against the mass of habitants. At another level there has been widespread racism that at best regards the Canadien as a quaint half-civilised, source of cheap labour and at worst as a sinister, alien Papist, a remnant of a Conquest that unfortunately was never finished.
Just as all inconsistencies in the ante-bellum South shatter on the bedrock of slavery, so all of Quebec history crystallises on the theme of la survivance (survival), one of the most remarkable survival stories of modern times. The Conquest made the problem acute; it did not create it. Survival was the difficult objective of the early missionaries, traders and farmers, who faced hard winters, harsh environments and hostile Indians. Nor did the Conquest begin the beleaguered sense of divorce from France. Voltaire's 1759 quip that Quebec was merely 'quelques arpents de neige' (a few acres of snow) reflected a long-standing official preference for the Rhine and the Pyrenees over the St. Lawrence and the Appalachians. The failure of French involvement in the War for American Independence to include any re-conquest plans followed by the unpopular French Revolutiion and Bonapartism, clinched the French-Canadians' realisation that they would have to survive unaided.
The struggle has been focused by population figures. From the start French superiority in Europe was reversed in America. By 1760 the entire French population was about 60,000, concentrated in the St. Lawrence valley, while the British numbered up to one-and-a- half million. The British were 'surrounded' in the way a company might surround a brigade. Despite an heroic birth-rate first fostered by Talon, the position worsened in the face of massive British immigration, in contrast to negligible French immigration, plus substantial French-Canadian emigration to other Canadian provinces and the United States where assimilation has been the norm, all this against a backdrop of the gigantic growth of the United States and, until recently, a powerful Britain and a declining France. Today Quebec is a largely francophone island of only six million people in a mainly anglophone sea of over seventeen million other Canadians plus more than 217 million Americans. Add the immense pressure of anglophone culture, add the English-Canadian and American domination of Quebec's economy and the fear of assimilation is readily understandable.
Naturally, immigration policy has been a touchy subject. The British have favoured mass immigration partly as a means of curbing the French. In the 1830s the French viewed the arrival of hordes of typhoid-ridden Irishmen as a form of germ warfare! Current legislation requiring most children in Quebec to attend French schools is partly aimed at reversing the tradition that even non-English immigrants chose to be Anglicised.
The proportional decline of the French population has marked Canadian constitutional history. After the Conquest the small minority of Anglo-Americans in Quebec cynically but unsuccessfully called for an assembly based on a Protestant suffrage. The arrival of the loyalists challenged the preponderance of the French in British North America but paradoxically also ensured French survival. Without the loyalist strength the country would have been swallowed by American expansionism and, within the Republic, French culture would have succumbed to the 'melting pot'. The union of 1840 was avowedly discriminatory. Canada East and Canada West were given equal representation in the 'assembly although the latter had a much smaller population. Prior to Confederation Canada West, in a brazen reversal of principle, was demanding 'rep by pop' because its population now exceeded Canada East's. Quebec entered Confederation in 1867 reluctantly. In the union it had 40 per cent of the population, in Confederation only 33 per cent. When Alberta and Saskatchewan became provinces in 1905, Quebec was simply one among nine, the rest of which were overwhelmingly anglophone. This was only tolerable because the BNA Act left Quebec (and the other provinces) with considerable autonomy including control over language, education, civil law and religion.
However, a Quebec tradition is that it is a province pas comme les autres (not like the others). Thus, for example, part of 'the quiet revolution' of the 1960s (a period of intense political modernisation, secularisation and cultural revival) consisted of 'opting out' of many federal-provincial programmes. But the objective of becoming 'maitre chez nous' (master in our own house) was nevertheless pursued within the concept of federalism.
Since the Conquest the French-Canadians have been adept at using the British system. As Louis Lafontaine said of the Durham Report: it contained 'its own antidote'. Quebecers could use parliamentary democracy as a means of survival. Indeed, they had already demonstrated great skill, dominating the assembly of Lower Canada by 1800. After the Act of Union Lafontaine so controlled the bloc of Quebec votes the English complained of 'French domination'. Since 1867 it has been virtually impossible for any federal cabinet to last long without French support. Three great Canadian Prime Ministers, Sir Wilfrid Laurier (1896-1911), Louis St. Laurent (1948-57) and Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1968 to the present) have demonstrated a French ability to dominate Canadian politics. Collaboration has been usual but from time to time a radical minority has labelled its practitioners 'vendus' and 'deracinés' (the bought and uprooted).
Sometimes the charges have validity. Even the popular, dictatorial premier of Quebec, Maurice Duplessis (he died in office in 1959), whose motto was 'co-operation oui, assimilation jamais' (co-operation yes, assimilation never) in fact cheerfully handed over large chunks of the province's economy to English-Canadian and American capitalists.
The English view has swung between the poles of assimilation and recognition. Lord Durham, for example, recommended the French be 'Anglified', but recognition was the policy of the Quebec Act and certainly the theory of Confederation of which Sir John A. Macdonald, one of its architects, said: 'There is no paramount race in this country, there is no conquered race in this country.' Partnership was taken a stage further 100 years later when the official languages act of 1968 proclaimed French and English as the two official languages of Canada. But today many anglophones irrationally oppose bilingualism and, betraying the mentality of the conqueror, echo Lord Durham's hope that the French will 'abandon their vain hopes of nationality'.
Even with majority goodwill on both sides Canadian history has been wracked by serious quarrels that have left deep scars. Francophone nationalism has been more sui generis than anglophone which tends to be hyphenated between Canada and Great Britain. In 1899 the suggestion that Canada join in against the Boers (whom the French saw as a similarly oppressed minority) provoked a quarrel that was merely a curtain raiser to the more profound conscription crisis of the First World War.
The crisis generated much bitterness and misunderstanding, It is often forgotten that Canadian enthusiasm for the war was strongest among British immigrants; that the commitment of anglophones, notably on the Prairies, was less than full; that many French-Canadians did volunteer at first; that even Henri Bourassa, the founder of modern Quebec nationalism, agreed to some participation. But the French do have a rooted suspicion of 'imperialist' foreign policy and do not rally to France in the way the English rally to Britain. Incredibly inept recruitment and heavy-handed conscription by the Conservative government of Sir Robert Borden caused bloodshed in Montreal and Quebec, and intense French resentment matched by English charges of treason and 'un-Canadian' behaviour.
The issue arose again during the Second World War when the vote in a plebiscite to release Mackenzie King's Liberal government from a pledge against conscription divided on ethnic lines. French-Canadian suspicion of involvement goes back to a certain apathy during Anglo-French wars of the eighteenth century and to a stubborn coolness towards the blandishments of both the English and Americans during the Revolutionary War.
Another major source of division has been religion. The vast power, only recently waned, of the Catholic Church over political, social and economic matters in Quebec, is alien to the English and at the core of racial bitterness, a bitterness exacerbated by the powerful Orange Order. Clerical power began in New France and increased substantially after the Conquest when leadership devolved on the church, particularly the cures giving rise to the gibe that Quebec is 'priest-ridden'.
An ultramontanism dating back to Bishop Laval revived in the later nineteenth century into a stand that equated modernism with the 'Anglo-Saxons'. In the twentieth century the church's support for Catholic trade unions, corporatism, and the semi-fascist régime of Duplessis strongly reinforced English prejudices.
Throughout its history Quebec education (not among the most progressive in the world) has been in church hands in contrast with the English secular tradition. The result has been some nasty disputes. For example, the creation, mainly by French votes, of Catholic schools in Canada West raised the cry of French domination that helped destroy the Union in the 1860s. Conversely in 1890 Manitoba abolished the separate Catholic schools set up at the establishment of the province in 1870, and in 1912 Ontario issued Regulation 17 which sought to limit severely French instruction. Moves against schools have caused a French feeling of betrayal of what is regarded as the contract of 1867.
Economic questions have caused friction. Quebec nationalism became extremely conservative as survival was equated with the old ways of the church and seigneurial agriculture. In 1807 the newspaper Le Canadien declared 'commerce brings dishonour on the human species', while in 1837 an English- Canadian decried the French as 'averse to emigration, to commerce, to international improvements, and all those interests which may be regarded as British'. The Quebec leadership of priests, lawyers and doctors has traditionally been anti-capitalist and 'backward'. Even radicals turn our to be curiously conservative. Thus Papineau called for responsibIe government but also supported the seigneurial sysiem. His parochialism is revealed by these words: 'our people don't want English capital or English people here they have no ambition beyond their present possessions, and never want to go beyond the sound of their own church bells'.
The equally unlikely Louis Riel ranks with Papineau as a Quebec hero. Riel, a part-Indian, drop-out divinity student, ended up as leader of the Métis (haIf-breed) independence movement in what is now Manitoba. His execution by the federal government after the 1885 rebellion has ever since been regarded as judicial murder and a heinous example of English opposition to French power in the West. Although Riel was insane and opposed by the Catholic Church he remains the great martyr in nationalist hagiography.
Today Quebec is industrialised, cosmopolitan and culturally vibrant, a far cry from the sluggish, inward-looking society of the past. The federal system has worked quite well since the war. Nevertheless, French-Canadians retain grievances heightened by an English-Canadian arrogance that is particularly galling when exhibited by Quebec's privileged English minority. A 1967 federal report found complete inequality between French and EngIish. The French were 'not as well represented in the decision-making positions and in the ownership of industrial enterprises, and (hey do not have the same access to the fruits of modern technology'. They also held 'less prestigious' jobs and averaged much lower incomes. One can understand why one Quebecer judged the anglophone idea of partnership as that of a horse and its rider, or why another labelled his fellow francophones 'the white niggers of North America'.
It would be unfair to conclude without stressing that anglophone prejudice is matched by its francophone equivalent, and that there are parallels to Quebec in the rest of Canada, most of which also desires reform of the federal system. Oil-rich Alberta and potentially oil-rich Newfoundland are now in the forefront of demands for more provincial autonomy. Violence has not been confined to French-Canada: there was a rebellion in Ontario in l837, and in 1849 an English mob sacked the Parliament building in Montreal. Nor has separatism been confined to Quebec. Nova Scotia was bitterly divided over joining the Confederation; Prince Edward Island declined membership until 1873; in the 1920s the Maritime rights movement arose from keen dissatisfaction with Confederation.
There seems to be little international concern about the present Canadian crisis. Quebec nationalism, compared with other nationalisms, is fairly benign. The parallel with the South in 1861 is obvious but Trudeau will not respond like Lincoln. Would Quebec secession be of serious global consequence? Perhaps not, though I am one Canadian who would regret the end of a noble experiment. But this essay concerns what has happened, not what will be.
Wallace Brown is Professor of History at the University of New Brunswick.
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