Referendum, plus-30

May 29th, 2010
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One of the few benefits of getting older is gaining some perspective. Being a native Quebecker, but not a Quebecois – not pure laine – it is interesting to look back on the events of 30 years ago and think about what has changed, and what hasn’t.

It’s hard to describe the pressure-cooker atmosphere that existed in Quebec around the 1980 referendum and in the years before and after. Kind of like the, if you’ll pardon the expression, frog in the pot of water, the political heat had been growing for years. It was not a question of if, but only a matter of when the uncontainable force of Quebec nationalism would burst forth – with unknown consequences. The streets of Montreal had been rocked by explosions as early as 1963, with the FLQ targeting English shops and institutions. The election of the federalist Bourassa in 1970 was followed quickly by the October Crisis. His re-election in 1973 papered over the growth of the separatist Parti Quebecois, who got over 30% of the popular vote.

The exodus of English Quebeckers, beginning as a trickle in the 1960′s, became a torrent after the election of Rene Lévesque’s PQ in 1976. Restrictions on access to English education and the use of English were also increasing: further evidence that the changes wrought by the Quiet Revolution were as much ant-English as pro-French Canadian.

The morning after Lévesque’s resounding victory left a monumental hangover. On one level the internal demons of French Canada were let loose in the political arena, and many parts of life that were purely personal became political. Could one put up a “For rent” sign in the window; did one ask for, or expect service in English; or more broadly, did one as an English speaker have a future in one’s home province? To many, the answer to all these questions was “no”.

The 1980 referendum campaign was fought in this kind of environment. Although the English minority and the ethnics had much at stake in the result, the fight was fundamentally for the hearts and minds of French Quebeckers. One example of the atmosphere is that it was almost unheard of that one would display a “No” sign during the campaign, particularly in an English neighbourhood. This, to nationalists, was a “provocation”, and would likely be answered with vandalism.

Everybody knew, after all, what side the minorities were on. But it wasn’t just the Separatists who held the view that, morally at least, they “didn’t count”. Typical was an interview with a PQ spokesman, on the CBC’s As it Happens, shortly after the Federalists won 60 to 40%. He very pointedly emphasized that 50% “of French Quebeckers” had supported sovereignty. This was the same sentiment expressed by Jacques Parizeau 15 years later, when he blamed his narrow referendum loss on “l’argent puis des votes ethniques“.

So, in some important ways – despite losing the (referendum) battles – the nationalists, the Separatists, won the war of hearts and minds. The historic English community is decimated, its institutions hollowed out and under-funded. English on public signs is proscribed, in order to preserve the “French face” of the province. Freelance “citizen spotters” frequently report on neighbours who transgress the law. In 2005–2006 alone, 1306 individuals filed 3652 complaints. English place names are eradicated by a government commission, for similar reasons.

It’s ironic that, in the Habs’ latest play-off run, fans hoisted “stop” signs with the name “Halak” on them: ironic because you won’t find a stop sign in the entire province. Similarly, in Quebec, Victoria Day is now known none-too-subtly as “Journée nationale des patriotes” (National Patriots Day).

Add to this 40 years of nationalists dominating the Arts, Education and many other aspects of Quebec life and you arrive where we are today. Whether this will ultimately lead to more political strife is uncertain. The economic tensions alone, with Quebec a chronically subsidized, “have-not” province may be sufficient to ignite new versions of the old conflicts.

Strangely, some are nostalgic for the years of strife. CBC’s Michael Enright became almost wistful when he talked about the times of titanic struggle from the 60′s to the 80′s, of Lévesque and Trudeau. Weren’t they so much more “stimulating” and “interesting” than today’s dull political landscape? He specifically praised Donald Brittain’s documentary “The Champions“, which chronicled those years.

Recalling those upheavals, I almost reflexively say – “Give me dull, thank you very much”. Enright did tempt me to watch part of the series again though. What struck me was a quote from Lévesque (from the mid-sixties!) that Canada was “the most ill-governed country in the world; over-governed and ill governed”. Wow. And I recalled the only thing I would agree with Trudeau on, the dangers of nationalism; as has been borne out in Quebec since the 1960′s. So, were the referendum years “stimulating”? Yes, they were. But from the perspective of 2010, dull is just fine.

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By John Weissenberger