Casual Québec-bashing yet again: how bizarre can it really get?

April 14, 2008 (09:44) | Canada, Politics, Quebec | french

Earlier this month, Conservative MP Jean-Pierre Blackburn mused publicly about eventually re-opening the constitution to accomodate Québec. Whatever strategic motivations were being played out, it sure provoked a slew of reactions in the english language media, including the Liberal blogosphere, where comments ranged from the prudently constructive to the openly hostile. I was rather troubled, to say the least, by some of the extreme language that was used in some cases, revealing – no doubt – the depth of frustration at Québec haunting yet again the political agenda. In particular, I don’t know how come a word like “appeasement” could have become even remotely acceptable in our national unity debate – remember that this word is supposed to recall images of Nazi death camps and also, at least since 9/11, deadly international terrorist attacks – but I did encounter it here and here last week. Is it just me, or is there something terribly wrong here?

In one case, David Graham is apparently frustrated enough with those he calls soft-nationalists in Québec to support these stark implications by bluntly comparing ex-PM Mulroney to Lord Chamberlain himself, and yet another blogger (Lord Kitchener’s Own is his pseudo), commenting further in this other discussion, not only agrees with Mr Graham’s main point – that there is no place in this country for Québec nationalists – but he also suggests that this view is representative of the general state of mind outside Québec. How saddening, and the more so if there should be any truth to it. Yet again, in one reply during another discussion here, Big City Lib commented similarly that the Belleville flag-stompers and Reform war-mongers of not so long ago were merely expressing in a more extreme way certain feelings about Québec that were “not at all uncommon in an otherwise fairly moderate population”, as if this was to be at all re-assuring as to the sanity of such feelings.

Obviously, I can respect the frustration that is behind the inflammatory temptations that some people give into, with varying degrees of subtlety. I have no doubt either that there is no intent whatsoever, in using some of this language, to downplay the great moral damage and suffering that was caused by the very real crimes that such inflated rhetoric instrumentalizes. I don’t even find it that difficult to look beyond how harsh and unfair the implied judgements actually are toward Québec nationalists. What I find much harder to accept however, is the free ride of rationalisation that is afforded to uncooperative feelings in the ROC while those of many Québécois are being squarely labeled as “unreasonable”, with no comparable defence in sight. Double standard is the name of that game. Think about it: what is the root of Québec-bashing anyway, if not this very assumption that “reasonable” Canadians are understandably frustrated, and that it can only be due, in the final analysis, to reason itself being less abundant in the congenitally weak minds of most francophone Quebeckers? Pretty convenient indeed.

Again, being frustrated with how difficult it’s been – and still will be for a while, surely – to find an acceptable compromise to all parties involved in our bilingual “national conversation” is one thing. Tell us Quebeckers about it. Yet to infer from this that the other party is simply being unreasonable is just too easy, and even more so when you’re on the side that is holding the larger end of the stick. Notwithstanding how strikingly inconsistent the implications are of such a view with basic liberal democratic values. To think I had heard that these values were cherished from coast to coast. Weird indeed, wouldn’t you say?

Now Davey’s Politics is the other blog where I encountered the same loaded word, but in the context this time of calmly discussing Pierre Trudeau’s legacy, and contrasting in particular the latter’s hard-line attitude towards Québec with the attempts at “appeasement”, yet again, of both Pearson and Mulroney (kudos at least for the bi-partisan “generosity”). The tone of the article this time bears no apparent hostility towards Québec per se, or even Québec nationalists, but while the blogger seems to favour a fairly balanced assessment of Mr Trudeau’s role with respect to what has been called “Western alienation”, the evaluation of his success (“we could have done no better”) at keeping Québec nationalism at bay is infused with extraordinarily wishful thinking. “Sour grapes” seems an apt enough reference to qualify such an attitude with respect to bridging the gap between the solitudes.

At the very least, one should explain why emprisoning our parents for their views, or their friends, neighbours, their poets and singers, is supposed to have played no problematic role at all in this picture, and then, why emphatically promising the constitutional change they wanted to Quebeckers in order to win their hearts and minds, and imposing some change for sure, two years later, but against the will of their own legitimate and recently re-elected provincial government, that this was also perfectly benign, and why Mr Trudeau’s influential role in the derailing of Meech Lake had no part either in Quebeckers’ sense of belonging, or not belonging for that matter, to this country. Not that Mr Trudeau’s role has not been positive in numerous aspects of this country’s history, mind you, but curbing Québec nationalism is hardly one of those aspects. Unless you would be ready to believe, once more, that Quebeckers are inherently more unreasonable, the persistence of their contentious relationship with the rest of Canada must be due to something else than excessive flexibility on the part of federal leaders, and relate instead to deeper misunderstandings. It is hardly surprising however, that by framing national unity as a matter of how best to domesticate a wild beast rather than just having a discussion among equally rational social animals, casual Québec-bashing has apparently become an acceptable mode of public discussion in the rest of the country. Allow me to doubt that this is really strengthening Canadian unity.

By the way, who said “Treat them like a nation…” again? Aaaah yes. John A. MacDonald. The first “appeaser” of them all, I suppose. Whatever. As I was wondering who actually came up with this bright idea, I just googled a few combinations of “appeasement”, “Québec” and “Trudeau”, and after refreshing my memory with some of the pathetic things that were written in the fall of 2006, I ended up at a wikipedia page, suggesting that the original contribution to this twisted way of casting Québec nationalists as the supreme villains may very well have been that of a man going by the name of Stephen Harper, in a 1997 reaction to the Declaration of Calgary. Food for thought in so many ways.

A note to David now, before concluding: if you do get to read this, I know that I said I would discuss the substantial grounds of your frustrations in a coming post. It won’t have been this one obviously, as I did have something to get off my chest beforehand. Yet I feel better now, and I’m currently thinking about a 3-post series where I’ll attempt collecting my thoughts about (1) why the Québec-Canada relationship is and will remain problematic for all parties involved for quite a while, whatever else happens, (2) why constitutional revisions should not be dismissed outright any more than the corresponding expectations should be imprudently raised, and (3) why both Québécois and Canadian nationalisms should be reflected upon in a more mature perspective than it has been on both sides of that political divide for the last 40 years. Might sound a tad ambitious I guess, but why settle for less – life is short, after all. I hope to be back soon then.

Comments

Comment from David Graham
Date: April 14, 2008, 12:03 pm

Yvan, I am happy to see this well-written post and have indeed gotten to read it, and look forward to the next posts in your series with great interest. I will, in the meantime, answer the comments specifically directed to me.

I use the term “appeasement” very deliberately when discussing one of the two prevailing attitudes toward Quebec nationalism. In my view, there are two schools of thought. One is represented by PMs Trudeau and Chretien, ironically franco-Quebeckers, and the other by PMs Mulroney and Martin, equally ironically anglo-Quebeckers.

The former are the hardliners, or unconditional federalists. It is to this school of thought that I subscribe. The view is fairly simple. There is no “us” and “them”, we are all, collectively, Canadians. Canada is neither an English word nor a French word, nor is it an English country or a French country. It is a model for the world of multi-cultural cooperation and coexistence without the US-style requirement of a melting pot, or a sense of mutual exclusivity. It is the view that Canada is stronger working as one than as several.

The other school of thought is the one I unapologetically call the “appeasers”. These people take the view that Quebec is a separate and distinct entity from Canada that must be negotiated with and placated, or treated like a spoiled child. There is a prevailing attitude in this camp that there is an “us” (Canada) and a “them” (Quebec) which exist as mutually exclusive entities incapable of ever working together as a unit. The attitude is that Canada is somehow better than Quebec (and vice versa from the appeasers’ counterparts, the nationalists) and that it must make up for this supremacy by offering concessions to Quebec. Call Quebec a nation and perhaps it will work better with Canada. Give Quebec more autonomy and perhaps they will be our allies. Grant Quebec language rights and perhaps we can have peace. This is why I call it appeasement.

In my view there is only one Canada. Quebec is not a “distinct society” or a “nation” within Canada, but an integral piece of the Canadian puzzle. Quebec is as much a part of what makes Canada be Canada as is any other region of this country or any other aspect of its history.

It frustrates me to no end that there are factions – the appeasers and the nationalists – in Canada that want to divide the country into an Us and a Them, or just plain in two, rather than have all of us working together to just be Canada, to celebrate what makes us the diverse and culturally rich country we are instead of fighting to segregate and separate ourselves into warring factions.

I believe in a strong, united Canada. Dividing the country along linguistic or historical lines, in essence dividing me into little pieces as I have both Quebecois de Souche and Upper Canada roots (among others), does nothing for Canada. It hurts us as a country and it creates divisions where none need exist. No one part of Canada is better or worse than any other part, nor does any part deserve any special consideration.

Comment from Yvan St-Pierre
Date: April 14, 2008, 2:54 pm

David,

First let me welcome you here and thank you for providing these enlightening comments. I do remain quite troubled, I must say, with the language you use as well as the way you frame the issue, but it is fair to think that if I weren’t troubled that much, I probably wouldn’t bother to have this discussion in the first place. You see, I share entirely your desire to have all Canadians treat each other as equals and work better together, but I make quite a different assessment of how this can and should happen. I’ll develop this further later on, but the basic element of my disagreement with you is that the conflicts involved are not in my view a matter of whether there is political equality or there isn’t, or whether there is “one Canada” or some two-tier sort of country, but a matter of what political mechanisms are used to elicit consensus about these questions, given that our two languages, by the very nature of what language is and of the political role it plays, are liable to take this process in significantly different directions, something which has in fact been going on for quite a while, whether we like it or not.

There is also something in your position that seems inconsistent to me: you express frustration at political views that emphasize differences between Canadians, and would rather everybody share your view of an undivided Canada. Yet I can hardly help noticing that this is itself a division on your part of good and bad Canadians. A question I would have here is this: is it better to accept the existence of differences and work to build bridges across the relevant dividing lines, under the assumption that all sides are equally worthy of consideration, or is it better to require that all be blind to such differences and condemn those who refuse to do so to lower moral status? Who would most benefit from such a requirement by the way, if not those who can thus escape all criticisms from rival perspectives?

The paradoxical thing is that those of us who refuse to adhere to the nationalist mythologies here in Québec are exactly confronted with the same kind of majoritarian pretense to the higher moral ground: if you don’t agree with us, you’re not a real Québécois. I don’t see much difference between this and the attitude you say you subscribe to, to be quite frank. And there lies maybe my own frustration. I couldn’t be happier if our conversations could help me dispel this perception.

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