Canada and 'the Flamboyant Color of History'

GWYNNE DYER

October 29, 1992|By GWYNNE DYER

LONDON — ''Everything will take on the flamboyant colour of history when we march to combat, sub-machine guns in hand. When our brothers die in the ambushes, and our sisters are alone to salute June 24 [French Canada's national day] . . . ''

-- Hubert Aquin, from the novel ''Prochain Episode,'' 1972

London. -- Hubert Aquin is still revered by French-Canadian intellectuals as a literary genius, but his sham-revolutionary rhetoric reeks of the Sixties fashion (we would now call it ''cultural appropriation'') in which radical groups in the developed world dressed up in the political clothes of Third World liberation movements.

Aquin's suicide note in 1977 blamed writer's block, and his overheated rhetoric is certainly not typical of modern Quebec nationalism. But it throws a useful light on Canada's dilemma after six out of 10 provinces voted ''no'' Monday to a package of constitutional reforms backed by all the federal government, all 10 provincial governments and all three mainstream political parties.

Every one of those governments and parties has gone into intense damage-control mode after the collapse of the deal that was meant to reconcile Quebec nationalism and, to a lesser extent, the alienation of the western provinces and the native peoples, within a revised Canadian federal structure. Given the imminence of both a federal election and a Quebec provincial election, all short-term forecasts are suspect.

Quebec may at last move decisively to independence over the next couple of years, or it is possible that Canadian federalism will stumble on unchanged, in the usual atmosphere of low-level crisis. The ambivalence of French-speaking Quebeckers on independence is legendary, and they are unlikely ever to exercise their option unless some particular perceived insult or humiliation provides the emotional fuel for a clean break.

In normal circumstances, the threat of independence gives Quebec useful leverage in its perpetual quest for greater influence in a country that is three-quarters English-speaking. But the reality of an independent republic of 6 million Francophones adrift in the Anglophone sea of North America could be a lonely and perhaps impoverished alternative, and it is only to be chosen if all other options have failed.

Canada may survive the current impasse, held together as many unloving marriages are by the fear of life apart. But the endless cranky bickering is a huge waste of energy, and there is always the chance that one day the relationship will fall spectacularly apart, with huge costs to both partners. Is there any light at the end of the tunnel?

This is where Aquin's literary posturing is so instructive, for while he insists that Quebec's history will only begin with independence, he is actually obsessed with past history. Canada's ''two solitudes'' are unable to understand each other primarily because French Canadians cannot forget their history, while English Canadians cannot remember theirs.

Francophone Quebeckers of the 1990s are a prosperous, free, demographically secure North American people. They are an overwhelming majority in their own province (where English is banned from public display), and their provincial government already has all the powers it needs to do almost anything that does not contravene the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (and a few things that do).

But Francophone Quebeckers are still psychologically a minority, with the defensiveness and sporadic intolerance that often entails. More important, they are a clearly defined ethnic group whose nationalism is based on memories of past oppression: the British conquest of 1760 and the failed uprising of 1837 still have emotional and political resonance in today's Quebec.

English-speaking Canadians simply cannot comprehend this world-view and the passive-aggressive behavior it sometimes engenders, for they have almost completely lost their own history.

The English-speakers of 19th-century British North America understood it, for they too were an ethnic group: ''British'' Canadians with their own historical myths and obsessions. But generations of further non-British immigration have completely eroded that ethnic identity.

Contemporary English-speaking Canadians, confronted with the passionate certainties of French-Canadian nationalism, are just

confused and frustrated. They imagine they are negotiating pragmatic arrangements, while their Francophone counterparts are caught up in a historical psychodrama. It is, naturally, a dialogue of the deaf.

And the light at the end of the tunnel? It is the fact that Francophone Quebeckers, out of concern to maintain their numerical dominance in the province, radically altered the way immigrants are assimilated in Quebec almost a quarter-century ago.

Previously, Francophone ethnic and religious exclusiveness meant that almost all immigrants to Quebec assimilated into the Anglophone minority. But since then new laws have compelled almost all immigrants to Quebec to attend French-language schools.

Even such a radical change takes a long time to change a whole culture, and the results are only beginning to show. But the long-term effect will be to transform Francophone Quebec from a fiercely defensive ethnic group into a multi-cultural society that just happens to speak French. Even if Canada survives the decades that must pass before this trend comes to fruition, it will always be caught up in battles over linguistic turf. That is the fate of all bilingual countries. But at least the two linguistic groups would then be speaking the same political language.

Gwynne Dyer, a native of Canada, writes a syndicated column on foreign affairs.

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