Quebec nationalism turns ugly

December 03, 1996|By Gwinn Owens

WE ARRIVED in Montreal to find that the Quebec campaign to secede from Canada had reached an angry juncture. A year ago we had been there during the historic referendum on secession; it was narrowly defeated, leaving the Francophone (French-speaking) majority determined to win next time and the Anglophones confused and alarmed.

This year the Quebec separatists seem even more determined, and the Anglophones, relatively docile in the past, have begun to show signs of fighting back. A shopkeeper defied the weird anti-English sign law by posting forbidden equal-sized French and English signs outside his shop. Even if the language police throw him in jail he won't change his signs, he said.

A popular columnist for the English-language Montreal Gazette said ''it's time to fight back'' against the relegation of Anglophones to second-class citizenship. Meanwhile a French-speaking couple in a Montreal suburb dared to express their opposition to ''sovereigntists'' by flying both Quebec and Canadian flags, but awoke last weekend to find the Canadian flag had been burned.

At its convention last week, the ruling Parti Quebecois challenged the relative moderation of its leader, Provincial Premier Lucien Bouchard, demanding even stricter language laws -- no English signs at all. Mr. Bouchard, though himself a committed and sometimes demagogic separatist, found himself riding a tiger. Only by extraordinary political maneuvering did he thwart the militants and remain in control of his party.

The people of Quebec now live under laws that would be laughed out of court in the United States. Until recently shops had to have French-only signs outside. The law was moderated to allow additional English signs if they are smaller than the French. Even this minor compromise enraged the hard-liners. The minister of culture, Louise Beaudoin, complained that the province was succumbing to ''rampant bilingualism,'' as if speaking two languages were some form of corruption.

Quebec law now states that immigrants must send their children to French-speaking schools. In cosmopolitan Montreal, with its vast polyglot population, this does not sit well. Particularly affected is English-speaking McGill University, arguably the finest such institution in Canada. It reports that it has lost more than 100 professors in the past three years.

One former professor, an American, has seven English-speaking children, who were allowed only temporarily to go to English schools. He faced being forced to have them all switch in mid-education to French-speaking schools. He chose instead to leave Quebec.

Even those Anglophones who were lured to Quebec through an appreciation of its French tradition and Montreal's vibrant multicultural society are beginning to feel unwanted. One couple we know came to Montreal to assume academic positions and prepared to immerse themselves in the culture. He had spent part of his childhood in France and was fluent in the language; she studied French intensively. They started their children in a French school and are now delighted that they are completely bilingual.

But even this degree of devotion to Quebec's culture is not enough for the radical one-issue separatists, and it is a measure of the current tension that the couple in question asked that I not identify them. One of their friends, whose father was a refugee from the Nazis, finds the extreme separatists behaving ''like the Hitler Jugend.''

Nationalism in Quebec, as in other places, is based on the historic search of human beings for the comfort of sameness, a manifestation of the herd instinct. Thus it is often neither rational nor realistic. Quebec's separatists persist in their quixotic quest despite its economic, cultural and geographic dead-ends. Some them want to have their cake and eat it, favoring a ''sovereign'' Quebec that would continue to use Canadian currency, travel with Canadian or dual passports and enjoy free passage throughout Canada. They call this oxymoron ''sovereignty-association.''

The city of Montreal has just launched a campaign, promoted by business interests, called ''Montreal International.'' It seeks to market the city as a world target for investment and development.

Montreal is indeed a fascinating city -- to know it is to love it -- but for the very reason that its French culture is leavened by a mixture of Jews, Greeks, Italians, Hispanics, Africans, Asians and others, an asset that seems to be anathema to the separatists. In fact, after the sovereignty referendum last year, Premier Jacques Parizeau blamed ''the ethnic vote'' in part for its defeat, as if non-French-speaking citizens had no right to the ballot. It was a statement so shocking to world opinion that he was forced to resign.

The French of Quebec do have a case. Their unique and appealing culture is an island in a sea of Anglophones; they envision its disappearance unless it is actively preserved. If there is any slim hope in the situation today it is that the excesses of the militant separatists and the economic improbabilities of their cause will cause a reaction, and a compromise. There will be another referendum, though no date has been set. Meanwhile the future holds only anxiety for the people of Quebec and for all of Canada.

Gwinn Owens is a retired Evening Sun editorial writer.

Pub Date: 12/03/96

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