I have a bad feeling about Quebec

Call me weird, but I’m worried about the Quebec election. Not the result, but the fact that discussion of it is taking place in two, how shall I put it, solitudes. Do you know why many Quebecers voted for Mario Dumont? OK, it’s also baffling that many Ontarians voted for Jean Chrétien. And some things about the election were strange in the usual way — for instance, politics being shaken up by an anti-establishment outsider first elected at 24 (versus Jean Charest’s 26 and André Boisclair’s 23) whose 1987 high school yearbook ambition was “to become premier.” But when it comes to Quebec’s place in Canada, it’s like we don’t even speak the same language.

Take Jean Charest … please. Anglos of the Juh swee uhn Kaybeckwaââ variety have long called him a federalist champion of Canada. Which reminded me of an old Hagar the Horrible cartoon where (if memory serves) a bartender announces “You gotta be real tough to drink in this place, sonny,” Hagar growls, “We’ll see about that,” drains his glass, goes “Ack gahrg give me a glass of your water” and the bartender replies grimly, “That was a glass of our water.”

Seven months after donning his Captain Canada costume in 1998, Mr. Charest told a University of Sherbrooke audience, “No matter what the consequences, I will defend what I have always had in my heart and in my soul. I will always defend the interests of Quebec.” In the campaign this year, he accused Mr. Dumont of having once gone “to grovel” before the wretched Anglos, and warned voters that a “minority government would limit our bargaining power with the rest of Canada.” His party severed formal links with its federal counterpart in 1964, and in the 1995 referendum refused to approve any TV ad that mentioned “Canada.” And that was a glass of our federalism.

Still thirsty? Try a swig of Mario Dumont. Red Tory Senator Hugh Segal assures us the ADQ victory is a message from voters to focus on economic issues: “Don’t hide behind la question nationale.” Blue Tory Stephen Harper welcomes “an official opposition that’s opposed to having another referendum.” Hold on, les gars.

Mr. Dumont may not want a referendum. But his party, the National Post blurted out after the election, has since 2004 wanted Quebec to have its own constitution and citizenship because “Our first fidelity, our passion and our loyalty are toward Quebec.” It wants to rename Quebec the “Autonomist State of Quebec,” fight “submission to Canada” and affirm Quebec’s “sovereign rights.” What part of buzz off don’t you square-heads understand? That was another glass of our federalism.

We don’t speak the same language these days in more ways than one. And forget members of the Anglo elite who say Quebec’s vital contribution to Canada is to make it left-wing. In 2004 Paul Martin told a TVA interviewer the Liberal vision “is really a Quebec vision.” The Globe’s Lawrence Martin asked earlier this month “for all it receives — what does Quebec ever give back?” and replied “Our status as a progressive, liberal, culturally tolerant nation — a beacon to the world — owes itself in large measure to Quebec …” Even Al Gore recently told young Montrealers “Quebec is the conscience of Canada” on the environment. And an anglo prime minister has told Quebecers “le Québec est le coeur du Canada …” But the attempt to persuade Quebecers that we’re left-wing too is falling on deaf ears; in a 1998 poll, 80 per cent of Quebecers said their province invented medicare. They just don’t believe Anglos can be progressive like them.

Indeed, this election reminded me that Quebec pundits rarely enjoy three-way races because there’s no NDP there. Odd since both are socialist, pacifist, environmentalist and feminist? Well, here’s the scary bit. Ask why in Quebec and you get the usual disgusted head shaking as they walk away. In English Canada you get “Hey, yeah, that’s weird — I never noticed.” Sounds like solitude not solicitude.

In my youth I backpacked around the world feeling oh so Canadian/cosmopolitan when I got to translate between French and English for fuddled travelers. I’ve since realized the feeling was never mutual. In a recent iChannel TV discussion, one of my panelists gave the standard Anglo bilingualism-makes-us-a-glorious-tolerant-light-unto-the-nations speech, so I asked if it bothered him that this sentiment is alien to francophone Quebec. It should.

While we’re busy talking about how much they love us, they’re busy talking about how much they despise us. And neither of us seems to know it, despite all the modern communications, expensively futile second-language training, and obsessive gazing from this side into that side’s navel. Maybe Mr. Dumont got his wish. Maybe Quebec quietly left and we missed it.

Am I weird to be worried by all this solitude?

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

UncategorizedJohn Robson