Yesterday morning, I woke up to find several posts on my Facebook feed about the recent provincial election in Quebec. Almost every post was disappointed and scolding in tone, admonishing La Belle Province as if they were a wayward child. Oh Quebec, the subtext seemed to say, why can’t you stop talking about separating and start behaving like a normal province? Why can’t you just be happy with everything we’ve already given you?
Full disclosure: I was born in Quebec and lived there for the first few years of my life. My parents were both born in Quebec. My mother’s (anglophone) family has lived there for several generations. My father’s family (who are anglophone, but come from a francophone background) moved there from the Maritimes in the mid-50s.
Fuller disclosure: I love Quebec, especially Montreal. I love the little frivolous things, like the buildings with outdoor wrought-iron staircases leading to second and third story apartments, and the giant Farine Five Roses sign that greets you as you pull into the train station. I love the people, and their laid-back attitude. I love how much they appreciate art and culture. I love the food.
I love the bigger things, too. In fact what I love most about Quebec are its socialist ideals and the fact that its people are willing to stand up and fight for what they believe in.
I would say that Quebec is easily the most-hated province, with Ontario coming in a close second. When I talk to people about Quebec, I often get negative reactions. The complaint that I hear most often is that the Quebecois are rude and want to make anglophones feel bad by refusing to speak English to them.
I hear this story a lot, actually. Usually, it’s an anglophone from a province other than Quebec traveling through there for whatever reason. They’re upset because they’re certain that every Quebecois is perfectly proficient in English but simply chooses not to speak it just to prove some kind of political point.
The funny thing is, while working in retail, I’ve heard these exact same people complain about francophone Quebecois visiting Ontario and refusing to speak English when shopping in their store. When I’ve suggested that these people greet the francophones in French, I receive blank stares. But I don’t speak French, they tell me.
So let’s break this down: it’s fine for you to go to another province and refuse to speak their language, and you expect to get service in your own mother tongue. However, when the Quebecois come to your province, they have to speak English, and they should expect to receive service only in English. It’s fine for you to speak zero French, but the Quebecois need to suck it up and speak English, right?
Here’s the thing: most francophes feel just as shy about their English as you do about your French. Here’s the other thing: I am calling total bullshit on your story. Whenever I go to Quebec, I speak French, in which I am fairly fluent. A good chunk of the time the person I am talking to will hear my accent and switch to English, either because they want to make me feel more comfortable or because they want the chance to practice their English.
If someone in Quebec is not speaking English to you, chances are that they just flat-out do not speak English.
The second complaint that I most often hear is that Quebec just wants more and more from the federal government and is never satisfied. I’ve heard people say that now that Quebec has French as its only official language and their culture is protected, why don’t they just stop? I mean, their rights are protected now, yes? This is like saying that women are totally equal to men and so feminism can end now, which is to say: totally untrue.
Francophones in Quebec had a pretty shitty deal up until the Quiet Revolution. They were kept oppressed by various premiers (but especially Duplessis) and (unsurprisingly) the Catholic church. English was (and, really, still is) the de-facto language of the federal government, and the majority of the ruling class in Quebec were anglophones. In order to get a good job in Quebec, it helped greatly to be perfectly fluent in English. It helped even more to have an anglophone surname.
Before the Quiet Revolution, unemployment for able-bodied francophone men was high, reaching 50% in some areas, but for the anglos it remained low. Although 80 percent of the Quebecois were francophone, they owned only 28.3% of the businesses in the province. The majority of those businesses were involved in manufacturing, but they accounted for only 15.4% of Quebec’s production. The anglos controlled everything else.
And then there was the threat against the francophone language and culture. Seems ridiculous, right? Except that it’s not. Let’s look at another francophone culture in Canada: the Acadians (i.e. my people!).
The vast majority of people with Acadian surnames are anglophones (myself included). Up until recently, it was often economically and culturally advantageous for the Acadians to assimilate, and many of them did. When my great-grandmother moved from rural Cape Breton to Halifax, she stopped speaking French altogether, even though it was her mother tongue. She didn’t teach her children to speak French, and would flat-out refuse to speak to her brothers and sisters in any language except English. For her, there seemed to be little advantage in passing her culture along to her children, and every advantage in having them grow up speaking only English. Towards the end of her life she began to regret her decision, but by then, of course, it was too late.
Unfortunately, this is a very common story.
So it’s not a totally unfounded fear that the Quebec language and culture could slowly and methodically be eroded by the anglophone majority in Canada. And it’s not like we have a federal government that is super supportive of them; it often seems like the Harper administration does its best to thwart Quebec at every turn.
And then there’s separatism. That’s the biggest one that people freak out over. I feel like a lot of this (not ALL of it, but a lot) stems from this idea that, hey, we’re Canada. We’re super nice. Why won’t Quebec love us even though we’re clearly the nicest nation on earth? If Quebec doesn’t recognize how awesome we are, then it must be because there’s something wrong with Quebec, right?
Canada, I’ve got two things to say to you:
1) As my mother would say, not everyone is going to like you and you just need to deal with it.
2) Maybe you aren’t as awesome as you think you are.
My mother (who was, don’t forget, an anglophone who grew up in pre and post Quiet Revolution Quebec) has always said that it’s easier to be an anglophone in Quebec than a francophone anywhere in the rest of Canada. You are far, far more likely to be able to find English services in Quebec than French services anywhere else. But you probably don’t see it that way because you have what I’ve decided to call Anglo Privilege.
Anglo Privilege may lead you to say any or all of the following:
“We won at the Plains of Abraham! Quebec needs to accept that!”
“They’re ruining their children’s lives by having them grow up speaking French – English is the leading business language of the REST of the WORLD.”
“Imagine how upset people would be if we had ENGLISH language laws in the rest of Canada!”
“They’re just threatening to separate because they want MORE from us!”
Buddy, I got news for you: they’re threatening to separate because they’re unhappy. The Parti Québécois keeps getting elected because the francophones in Quebec are concerned that the federal government and the rest of Canada do not have the best interests of their province and its people at heart. And every time you bitch about Quebec and how high maintenance they are and how they should just get over it already, you are reinforcing that view.
You guys, Quebec is awesome. They have socialized daycare, free post-secondary education (CEGEP), and, in addition to a one-year parental leave, they offer five weeks of leave to the partner of the person taking the parental leave. Plus they like to have demonstrations and riots! So many riots. All kidding aside, if it were possible for our family, I would move there in a heartbeat.
And so I say, Vive Le Québec Libre! And if you’re afraid of the possibility of Québec separating, then I would urge you to help build a Canada that contains a Québec Libre, whatever that term means to the people of Quebec. Surely this is something we can figure out if we work on it together? You know, like an actual, unified country would?
Okay, but really, shouldn’t it be Farine Cinq Roses? Where are the language police when you need them…