Let Them Eat Rags

“You see my kind of loyalty was loyalty to one’s country, not to its institutions or its officeholders. The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over, and care for, and be loyal to; institutions are extraneous, they are its mere clothing, and clothing can wear out, become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the body from winter, disease, and death. To be loyal to rags, to shout for rags, to worship rags, to die for rags – that is a loyalty of unreason, it is pure animal.” – Hank Morgan in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain, 1889.

I doubt that many English speaking Canadians feel the same way I do about French Canadian independence.

Probably because they didn’t grow up with the same North American tradition of distrust and disobedience of Old World rulers that I grew up with down in the U. S. of A.

Up here in Canada, like back in Old England, Old World monarchic attitudes still hold sway and continue to keep the country from evolving in a more decentralized and autonomous direction.

In the Province of Quebec these ‘chic’ Old World attitudes come double layered. Heirarchically and bureaucratically. French Colonial and British Victorian. Here in Quebec City (where Canada was first imagined) these double-layered aristocratic attitudes run deep. The first layer, seen through the eyes of seventeenth century French Europeans, is an Old World colonial, commercial, and highly religious incarnation. As the New World began working itself into this Middle-Aged French European consciousness, a French North American canadienne consciousness was born. A distinctive New World French North American attitude. Franco-creole. Mixed-bred. French, the first Old World European language to penetrate into the heart of North America, from the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, down through the Great Lakes, into the Ohio River Valley and all the way down the Mississippi, from the Red River Valley to the Gulf of Mexico. From Quebec to New Orleans. All of it, all of them, French North American.

Then came the Conquest and suddenly les Canadiens had a whole new set of Old World values and beliefs imposed upon them. A set of values and beliefs that many of them still have not fully accepted as legitimate. Below the double-layers of official English Canadian bureaucracy and politics lies a nearly four hundred year old North American fermentation that barely anybody in Canada or the rest of North America knows about.

***

Unlike the rest of the New World, where evolution and revolution has brought into being some thirty New World countries throughout North, South and Central America, ever since the British conquered French and Indian territory here at the end of the eighteenth century, British North Americans have rested loyal to the Old World way of doing things.

As Peter C. Newman in the epilogue of his book Caesars of the Wilderness puts it:

“The Hudson’s Bay Company, as portrayed in this book, represents the ultimate Canadian case history. Fur was an extractive industry, carried on by an overseas-based monopoly strictly for the gain of its private shareholders. That condition – a multinational corporation grabbing Canada’s most profitable natural resources for the one-way benefit of its owners – has characterized Canadian commerce ever since. No nation that has moved past colonial status owns a smaller proportion of its profitable assets.”

The latest Canadian ‘revolution’ that’s currently destroying decades of progressive reform in the neighboring Province of Ontario they’re calling the “Mike Harris Revolution.” And here in Quebec, an “ancient deputy conservative, turned Federal Minister, turned conservative deputy, turned head of the Bloc Quebecois, turned savior of Quebec” is now in power. Yet even though Prime Minister Lucien Bouchard is running his Province in the same ragged fashion that all the rest of Canada’s leaders are, he is above all a ‘separatist’ – and ‘separatists’ of all stripes (whether they tow the standard neo-liberalist “extractive” business as usual line or not) must be scoffed at and derided if you are a loyal Old World thinking Canadian. Because, as everyone knows, a complete and close examination of the Canadian Federal Government’s tattered Old World garments is completely out of the question.

***

British North Americans want to know what Quebec wants. Forget about Canada. Criticizing Canada is not permissible. Particularly when it comes from the mouth of a ‘separatist.’ British North Americans want Quebecers to stop whining. They want them to stop playing the victim and accept the fact that a French Canadian today is just another one of dozens of conquered minority groups here in Canada and should act accordingly.

Let’s let Mordecai Richler explain it better. He’s a native British North American from Montreal who still hasn’t yet gotten around to speaking the language spoken by more than eighty percent of the people he shares the Province with.

Famous for his fiction (which he should stick to), a couple years back he decided to write a non-fictional work entitled OH CANADA! OH QUEBEC! satirizing French Quebec’s efforts to guard intact their culture and their language.

Essentially it’s a book written by an Old World colonial sentimentalist longing for the good old days when the French majority knew their place (back when they were, according to Richler, “priest-ridden”) and an “Anglophone young man or woman could feel at home and anticipate settling into a future commensurate with his or her ability.”

In his book, Mordecai Richler seems exasperated with his Province’s independent minded subjects and longs for the day when Quebec’s French-speaking majority will quit trying to free themselves from conservative British Victorian/French Colonial rule.

Like most Old World traditionalists, Mordecai blames all the ills of late twentieth century neo-liberalism and British North American monetary flight from Quebec on the ruling Parti Quebecois. It’s because of these ‘separatists,’ the Richler way of reasoning goes, that there’s such a lack of good paying jobs in the Province.

It certainly wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that a large percentage of the other eleven wealthier ethnic groups are now living in Toronto where they’ve been fleeing with their booty ever since the Parti Quebecois came to power in 1976, would it?

Whadya think Mordecai? Think that might have anything to do with the recent downturn in economic activity in Montreal?

This is how Richler sees things from the cozy confines of British Montreal:

“If I thought for a moment that Francophone Quebecers were oppressed in Canada, I would be out there in the streets demonstrating with them. The truth is, I happen to believe the contrary. I believe that when Quebecers, as they are often inclined to do, compare their plight to that of blacks in the United States, or less frequently, to Zionists, it is revealing of their unquenchable thirst for self-pity and not, happily for them, a measure of their historical experience. English-speaking Canada, far from stifling Quebec, has acted – and could continue to act – as a commited partner, a buffer, shielding its culture from the rest of an English-speaking continent that Quebecers perceive as a threatening force. Educated Canadians in the rest of the country cherish French Canadian culture and recognize it as an essential ingredient of our own emerging national identity.”

 

Since reading Richler’s book, (besides being totally depressed and shocked by his cynicism and obvious hatred of the majority of his Provincial neighbors) I’ve come to the conclusion that the thing that worries him the most about his bothersome “separatist” subjects is that if they ever do get a chance to create an independent country of their own one day, it would leave him and the rest of British North America scrambling for an identity of their own.

Because of its language, French Quebec doesn’t face the same threats of immediate assimilation into the United States of Anxiety like English-speaking Canadians do.

“I can’t tell you what I am, but I can tell you what I’m not,” an ‘Educated Canadian,’ recently told me. “I’m not an American,” she said.

Nicole Nolan in a recent article in This Magazine entitled “Isn’t it Ironic?” writes:

“Canadian nationalism – English Canadian nationalism, that is – has never been renowned for its clarity of vision. This country’s cultural history is so full of anguished handwringing over the exact nature of national identity that the angst itself might qualify as a defining feature. Possibly this is why about a half-dozen different national visions have gone down the tubes since the Second World War.”

 

What a lot of “Educated Canadians” forget, I think, is that their country didn’t just suddenly happen one day in the summer of 1867 with the Act of Confederation. It was born already wrapped in the garb of Conquest one hundred years earlier and continues to limp along with those same old ragged clothes.

‘Educated’ Native and French North American canadiennes remember. And for more than two hundred years they’ve both been trying to break free.

Trying to be free, while adroit and agreeable ‘Educated Canadians’ argue that they already are.

***

I first got to thinking about Canada’s Old World rags while watching the referendum campaign unfold here in Quebec city in the fall of 1995.

Covered live by the federally-funded Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), the 1995 campaign ran across the land like it was just another “Hockey Night in Canada.” What we got in the guise of information were mean-spirited Canadian Federalists threatening economic disaster for Quebec if it dared vote OUI for sovereignty, while economic embargos seemed eminent. Canada’s leaders let it be known that Quebec would pay a big price for its own independence.

But then with the vote just days away, this federally-funded fear campaign suddenly got chummy and flew in all sorts of happy faces from throughout the country for a “spontaneous” rally around the flag in a final last ditch effort to love Quebec back into the country.

The scare tactics I could understand. As American as apple pie. But this last minute love fest?

Clearly Canadian!

“Don’t go messing with my country,” said the man from New Brunswick to a CBC reporter covering the ‘Canadian Unity Rally’ in Montreal just days before the vote.

He was one of thousands of patriotic Canadians who traveled from as far away as British Columbia to come to Quebec (with the help of uncommonly cheap air-fares subsidized by Air Canada) for a late October rally organized by a clueless Federal Government in hopes that it would convince enough undecided Quebec voters to just say NON to sovereignty.

“We love you Quebec!” read the signs held by these teary-eyed Canadian tourists. “Don’t leave us Quebec. We love you.”

What they meant to say though, I think, was: ‘We don’t understand you, but we love you all the same. We love you as our own little folkloric tourist society where everyone speaks French and it’s so European, you know? You’re such a charming folk. Don’t break up Canada and above all don’t change. What about us anyway? What about our culture? How is the Canadian identity ever going to survive without its colorful French counterpart? More importantly, how are we ever going to survive as a country when one quarter of our tax payers jump ship?’

“What is it to be a Canadian?” Mr. New Brunswick asked himself. “I really don’t know. I drive an American car, and the clothes I buy are all made in America. But when I see that flag, then I know.”

Which one, I wondered.

***

In the end, with a mere 50.6% of the vote in its favor, the NON side cheered victory and as promised nothing has changed for the better here in Quebec or anywhere else in the country. The impasse remains firmly in place. Instead of positive peace, negative peace reigns. In Montreal there’s even some segregationist Anglophones calling for war if the Parti Quebecois wins the next referendum. If there ever is another.

Directly after the NON ‘victory’ however, Quebecers were assured that their Province was better off in Canada.

So? Are Quebecers really better off in Canada?

I remember seeing one NON billboard during the course of the 1995 campaign that asked passers-by why they would want to risk losing their jobs for independence.

What jobs?

Here in downtown Quebec City where I live, more than fifty percent of the people in my neighborhood live below the poverty line. Well below. Whether they work or not. If you’re (un)lucky enough to qualify for a government welfare check, the average one around here barely pays the rent. Many of my neighbors routinely eat at the soup kitchen, while the neighborhood grocery store is on the verge of bankruptcy because people can’t afford to buy groceries there anymore.

Truth be told, the Province of Quebec continues to be one of the poorest regions in the country. Overall, we’re told that the official Provincial unemployment rate hovers around thirteen percent, but unofficially it’s much higher. Especially for young people, which explains in large part why the majority of them and the rest of French-speaking Quebec voted OUI for a sovereign Quebec at the end of 1995. Many of them don’t feel included in any of the decisions made by Canada’s leaders. They’re tired of being considered “people of no importance.” They figured they had absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain if their Province became autonomous.

Unfortunately those who thought they had everything to lose – more than ninety percent of the Province’s minority English population; most of the Province’s newly approved Canadian citizens (a large number of whom had their citizenship rushed to approval just weeks before the vote); the conservative moneyed class (both French and English); and the majority of the Province’s well-fed Old World federal and provincial bureaucrats – voted overwhelmingly NON.

Strike up another (slim) victory for economic blackmail.

***

Most of the people I’ve met here in Quebec city who voted OUI for sovereignty in 1995 did so in an effort to create something new, something different from the same old same old.

They wished to create a new country they could share with the rest of the world without having to ask for permission. A New World country in the corner of North America that still speaks and lives in French, like it has for nearly four hundred years, conquered and all.

The day after the vote as I lay in bed with my wife, she told me she felt like she had just asked her parents if she could move into a belle apartement on her own and live independently for a change, but her parents once again said NON. She told me she felt like she’d woken up on this day after her parents voted NON to change, once again stuck at home with parents who apparently only cared about the money she donated to the family budget and nothing much else.

She wondered why her parents feared her independence, her natural evolution. She wondered why they told her all the time that they’d make things more difficult for her if she moved out. Why did they always tell her she would fail on her own? And why did they always tell her that if she left they might not ever speak to her again (as if they do now) because that would be like breaking up the family, however dysfunctional it might be?

She layed her head back down on the pillow and told me she’s tired of living in someone else’s house and even more tired of asking permission to leave. She’s tired of waiting.

Another melancholy canadienne who will never feel like a Canadian.

Wanting to fly, but kept grounded by rags.

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