In Quebec, Everyone's a Minority

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Stop the presses. A political leader has actually resigned on grounds of principle. This extraordinary eccentricity occurred two weeks ago in Quebec when the premier of the province, Lucien Bouchard, left office because he could no longer stomach the intransigent narrowness of too many fundamentalist separatists in his Parti Quebecois. While he was himself committed to an independent Quebec, as many thoughtful Quebecois are, he could not tolerate those devotees of separatism who defined citizenship rigidly and blamed setbacks to the independence movement on the Jews and "ethnics" of Quebec. Because relatives of a good friend were victims of Nazi death camps, evidently managing the contrast between the enthusiastic bigotry of his critics and the stark and potentially lethal consequences of sharply defined human boundaries became an unendurable burden. So he just quit. And left his historic opportunity to make and change history, to say nothing of giving up a monthly check, a car and driver, and all the fun and toys heads of affluent communities can enjoy.

The episode is interesting in itself. But it also underscores the strange power of the continuities of acrimonious history. Since I grew up in Montreal, some of the intense force that Premier Bouchard faced was very familiar. I once described Montreal as a city in which everyone defined themselves as a member of a minority group, including the French-speaking majority. The community was in chronic search for equipoise, with the French-speakers afflicted by the economically dominant English-speakers, the latter by Americans, and the smaller groups such as Jews, Greeks, Italians and Chinese having to negotiate carefully among the larger groups.

The Francophone sector is historically interesting because it arrived from France before the French Revolution. For several hundred years it was one of the most conservative of Roman Catholic strongholds. Its politics were dominated by a brittle but effective system involving an alliance of politicians and clergy, with the economic elite that was largely English-speaking in uneasy collusion. For example, the premier during the 50s maintained control of newsprint and the owners of the English papers protected their own interests by failing wholly to challenge the draconian politics of the regime. Because they were an easy target, poor Witnesses of Jehovah were hounded from corner to corner?a popular Bible-thumping trick for political consumption, but a legal travesty by any standard. During the Second World War, some strident French-Canadian nationalists?while others served fully and admirably?resisted the draft, and publicly protested any obligation to fight, ostensibly to protect either English royalty or Jews.

During the war itself, the major Francophone newspaper Le Devoir announced that the Vichy government in France was the best France had ever had, and that the collaboration of the Vichy regime in actions against French Jews was "essential to protect the state." As a small Jewish kid growing up under these circumstances, I learned that when you walked into a Francophone neighborhood you had to adjust your scarf because your neck hair stood up straight. And not only was there this matter of the war, but regular assurances were provided that because Jews had killed Christ, remedial justice was surely appropriate. It was believed that Montreal had more churches per capita than anywhere else in Canada, and also the highest ratio of home renters to owners.

It was actually a rather grim political environment overall, even if the bars stayed open later than anywhere else in Canada. But it changed massively in the 1960s, as other places did too, and more so. A new liberalism in politics, the arts, sexuality and the economy produced a turbulent and immensely fruitful pageant of changes that had seemed unimaginable just 10 years before. The international Expo of 1967 and an inventive if spendthrift mayor, Jean Drapeau, turned Montreal into a vibrant center. Frenchness became a prideful matter of elegance and deftness, not negation and caution. Business had always been a second-rate occupation for French-speakers, well below law, medicine and the church. But new energy, confidence, educational initiatives and skill produced internationally competitive companies such as Bombardier. Quebec joined the world as an equal economic partner.

Small wonder numerous Quebecois?largely Francophone, but also with some English-speaking support?decided this was an opportune moment to establish a separate Nation of Quebec. Dozens of entities from Kazakhstan to Kashmir to Kosovo have had the same idea, and the army of flags of member states outside the UN building grows ever larger.

The result in Quebec was a vast swirl of political forces. They led on the one hand to martial law imposed by the Ottawa federal government after some kidnappings and bombing, and on the other to several orderly referenda asking the citizenry if it wanted to separate from Canada. None of these passed, but those committed to separation continued to bide their time. And Lucien Bouchard was one of them.

But there's always something. Native Canadian tribes decided that if Quebec could leave Canada, they could leave Quebec. Linguistic purists sought to fight English by requiring all public signs to display French twice the size of English. A spirit of contentious primordialism persisted, despite the fact that the lives of Quebecers were broadly comparable to those of other North Americans. And this is what has resurfaced in the Bouchard episode.

A 70-year-old former would-be candidate for election to the Provincial Assembly spoke fairly explicitly about what he considered the disloyalty of Jews and similarly recent arrivals to Quebec. His aria was very familiar, and would have been to people in the 1940s. It was like a cunning virus that stays irritating enough to cause a minor malaise but not enough to kill or severely damage the body. In this case the body politic has sustained a cold negative force for decades. When the Assembly censured the candidate, another group of traditionalists demanded that he be allowed to speak as he wished and receive an apology.

This finally triggered the Premier's exit. The ensuing turmoil was marked by an important Francophone manifesto from 1000 people, published in provincial newspapers, rejecting the bigoted remarks and the bitterness that animated them. This was largely the new generation of activists who wanted to open the windows of the national house they were planning. The glum candidate has now withdrawn from politics, and while the separatist movement is in understandable and major disarray, at least an important point has been made.

Yet who would have thought protest against generations-old bigotry would have been necessary in a fluid global age? Must communities depend for acts of political principle on the history of family extermination of the friends of leaders? According to the distinguished Montreal writer Ann Charney, Quebec has consistently shown itself in surveys to be the most tolerant and secular-minded among the provinces of Canada, which makes the unperturbed persistence of viral bigotry the more remarkable.

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