Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

December 20, 2006

Harper’s motion poses the question: Who is a Québécois?

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian, p. A7

The House of Commons recently passed a motion, by a vote of 266-16, declaring the Québécois to be a nation within the Canadian federation. Not surprisingly, Quebec’s National Assembly unanimously adopted its own motion acknowledging Ottawa’s recognition.QBut public opinion across the country is far more divided. An Ipsos Reid poll indicated a majority of Canadians outside Quebec opposed to the resolution, while 63 per cent of all people in Quebec agreed.

The candidates for the Liberal Party leadership, too, were split. Gerard Kennedy was opposed, Michael Ignatieff in favour, and the eventual winner, Stéphane Dion, though a passionate federalist, also voted for it.

Even the terminology that was used by parliament is in dispute. The motion, introduced by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, referred, in both its English and French versions, to a Québécois people.

While the use of the word Québécois in French generally applies to any and all people living within the boundaries of the province of Quebec, regardless of ancestry, ethnicity, or language spoken, in English that term is usually restricted to francophones, and sometimes only to old-stock people of French descent, the so-called “pure laine” French Canadians of Quebec. Others in the province are commonly called Quebecers.

So the English text seems to suggest the recognition of a narrow, ethnic nationalism, while the French version is territorial, and denotes a civic and more inclusive nation. This implies that all citizens of the province can regard themselves as, and be considered, Québécois.

The odd thing, though, is that it is the sovereignists in Quebec who insist that theirs is the more open and pluralistic form of nationhood, rather than the old exclusionary variety. In fact the Bloc Québécois’ Gilles Duceppe wanted the English text to refer to Quebecers, rather than Québécois. Yet the MPs from the three federalist parties -- Conservative, Liberal, and New Democratic -- almost all voted for Harper’s English version (as, in the end, did the Bloc).

Was this intentionally meant to suggest to the rest of Canada that the Québécois nation is one of “blood ties” united by a common past – the way in which we refer to aboriginal peoples as “First Nations?” Are we to consider Québécois a “tribe” unable to accommodate or integrate others into its body politic rather than the inhabitants of a modern society?

If so, this is a retrograde step, since that archaic form of French Canadian nationalism died in the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. It would indeed be the height of irony if federalists, rather than separatists, defined Québécois in this manner.

I guess Governor General Michaëlle Jean got it wrong when, at her official installation in September 2005, she asserted that “The time of the ‘two solitudes’ that for too long described the character of this country is past.” I doubt this is quite what she had in mind.