The Quiet Revolution is over
OttawaCitizen.com – opinion/op-ed – With today’s political leaders discredited, Quebecers are seeking a way past a sovereignty deadlock fuelled by tribal myth
June 23, 2011. By William Johnson, The Ottawa Citizen
As the Québécois begin celebrating at sunset Thursday their “Fête nationale,” the recent political fireworks exploding in Quebec point to the end of the era that began 51 years ago called the Quiet Revolution. That elated sense that all is possible, all will be better, has evolved into fear that the more things change, the more they stay the same – or get worse.
The Québécois discovered in the 1960s the possibilities of politics and of the Quebec government. They put their faith in leaders like Jean Lesage, who won the election of June 22, 1960, René Lévesque and Pierre Trudeau. Today, the political leaders are discredited. Quebecers see their political process is paralyzed while imperative big decisions are beyond reach.
Jean Charest is considered Canada’s least esteemed premier. Pauline Marois, leading a shrinking Parti Québécois caucus, has suffered since June 6 the defection of three prominent members, then a fourth and, on Tuesday, a fifth. She banished a sixth who has legal problems. There is speculation that the PQ could implode.
The surprise collapse on May 2 of the Bloc Québécois, the surge of the New Democratic Party and now the rise of the party that former PQ finance minister François Legault has yet to launch, all point to a society that is volatile, fragmented, in disarray and searching to escape from a long deadlock.
A June 11 Léger Marketing poll had Legault’s still virtual party riding 12 points above the PQ and 13 points above the Liberals. The poll designated as the two most popular Quebec politicians Legault and Pierre Curzi, the actor who quit the PQ caucus with Louise Beaudoin and Lisette Lapointe, wife of PQ icon Jacques Parizeau.
What does it mean? Legault, though personally preferring a sovereign Quebec, argues that the separatist-federalist deadlock paralyzes Quebec and must be set aside to concentrate on more pressing problems in education, health care and the economy. That undercuts both the PQ and the Liberals, who have fought each other over secession in every election since 1970.
Benoit Charette, who quit the PQ caucus Tuesday, also urged the PQ to promise not to hold a referendum on secession during a first mandate.
From the start of the Quiet Revolution, the central political issue has been how to increase the powers of the Quebec government – renamed “the Quebec state.” The parties, year after year, fought over a glossary of power policies: provincial autonomy, special status, two nations, sovereign associate states, sovereigntyassociation, cultural sovereignty, distinct society, independence.
Common to each was the rejection of the Constitution of Canada in favour of a new arrangement whereby the Quebec government would approximate in power the government of Canada. As Daniel Johnson Sr. put it, Canada must be restructured as two equal nations or Quebec must become independent.
Decade after decade, the debate raged at party conventions, in sessions of the Legislative Assembly – renamed the National Assembly – at federal-provincial conferences. Agreements were made and broken – usually by Quebec. Memorable moments acquired names: the Fulton-Favreau formula, the Victoria Charter, the Meech Lake Accord, the Charlottetown accord. Three referendums were held, two just in Quebec, one nationally. But everything ended in deadlock.
Quebecers, wearied of the never resolved conflict, yearn for an escape. But they are prisoners of the operative assumptions of the Quiet Revolution that keep summoning them to a new battle. They won’t be free till they exorcise the myths that permeate their political culture and their perception of their history in Canada.
Laval University historian Jocelyn Létourneau gave an assignment to some 4,000 students over 10 years. They were asked to describe in 45 minutes their perception of Quebec’s history. New France they consider as a golden age, he wrote in a book published last year, Le Québec entre son passé et ses passages. But then: “Because of the Other, our destiny was diverted and our collective pursuit took the form of a struggle for survival.” The Other – l’Anglais – was and is their historic persecutor.
The Quiet Revolution took the established myth of paradise lost a step further. Quebec’s intelligentsia focused on the obvious inequality in wealth and education of French-speaking Quebecers. In explanation, the political class applied to Quebec the theories of decolonization advanced by Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Memmi, Frantz Fanon, according to which all inequalities and dysfunctions among the colonized was caused by the colonization, hence by the colonizers. C’est la faute des Anglais!
In fact, travellers to America before 1760 noted the poverty in New France compared to the prosperity in New England. The kings of France allowed no industry to develop in the colony that could compete with industries in France. So New France was reduced to sending furs to France. When colonists began to fabricate beaver hats, the king forbade it; and so with other products. With a one-dimensional economy, New France attracted few immigrants. On average, fewer than 70 immigrants arrived every year compared to 1,400 on average to the American colonies. It was the legacy of French colonization, not British or Canadian, that kept the Québécois poorer till recently.
The other powerful myth, of a solemn promise betrayed, was that Confederation meant to establish two equal founding “races” or peoples – a theory without basis in the negotiations of 1864-1867 or in the British North America Act. It was invented in the early 20th century by the ultra-Catholic nationalist leader Henri Bourassa.
By 1956, in the report of Quebec’s Royal Commission of Enquiry on the Constitutional Problems, the doctrine of two equal founding peoples was consecrated as a founding historic fact. It then governed the policies of every premier from Jean Lesage to Jean Charest.
The report depicted a people whose religious faith inspired all aspects of life. As pure Catholics with a French soul, French Canadians suffered a tragic fate, subjected to domination by alien and therefore oppressive institutions. They “were forced to accept the political structure and the mode of social organization of the new masters of the country, and so to subject themselves to an institutional regime created by a mentality (génie) different from theirs and the spirit of which they neither possessed nor shared. And it is by this subjection that the conquest of 1760 produced its most tenacious effects, to such an extent that, even after almost two centuries, and despite immense progress in some areas, the French Canadians have still not succeeded in overcoming them.”
The logical conclusion would have been that Quebec must separate. But that seemed impractical in 1956 and the commission proposed the next best thing: the Quebec government must acquire the greatest possible autonomy.
This became the Quiet Revolution’s leitmotif while adding the option of secession during a period when former European colonies gained independence. At first, Lester Pearson tried to accommodate Quebec’s demands, but the demands of federalists kept expanding while separatists insisted that new powers were merely a down-payment on secession.
Quebecers cannot escape their lobster trap until they achieve a second quiet revolution whereby they recognize the truths of history rather than tribal myths, the rule of law rather than the reckless presumption of secession on demand, and their obligations towards their fellow citizens rather than anglophobia. Then only, at last, they can be free.
William Johnson is an author and veteran journalist who has specialized in Quebec affairs.
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