English-Canadian Culture and the Absent French Canadian

Article excerpt


FROM CONFEDERATION UNTIL THE 1960s, Conlogue argues, English Canada saw in Quebec a picturesque but backward people, whose language and religious-based cultural solidarity, it was feared, would prevent Canada's becoming a modern nation. A second period began with Trudeau's radical liberal insistence that cultural identity is solely individual. A third period began with the near victory of separatism in 1995. Shocked that francophone Quebecers still see themselves as a threatened collectivity, English Canadians have resurrected some of the fear of the first period. But because of Trudeau's influence, they no longer believe in the collective nature of Quebec culture.

Conlogue makes the plea that English Canada accept once again that language-based collectivities experience the world differently.

GEORGE WOODCOCK ONCE OBSERVED, bemused, that there is almost NO cultural exchange between English and French Canada. Mavis Gallant used the striking analogy of two schools of tropical fish which adroitly avoid contact with one another.

Within this paradigm there has been modest movement. There was a relatively sunny period in the early years of Pierre Trudeau's reign; it took a decidedly dark turn after the referendum of 1995.

In the past two years I've talked to many publishers, writers, filmmakers and television producers -- both francophones and anglophones -- in the course of doing arts coverage for the Globe and Mail. In this article, I want to draw some conclusions about the current place occupied by French Canada in the English-Canadian cultural imagination.

Inevitably, any summary gets it wrong in detail. But I think the case can be made that among English Canadians there have been three broad attitudes toward French language Canadian culture since 1867.

The first lasted until around 1960. French Canadians were viewed with antagonism because they were seen as a people whose culture possessed collective significance (negatively characterized in terms of religious or economic backwardness) that threatened the solidarity of Canada as a nation. Next came what I call the "Trudeau period," stretching from 1965 to the 1995 referendum. The French could be viewed with affection because Canadians outside Quebec no longer saw them as a people. Their culture supposedly blended into the Canadian whole, and thereby lost its collective significance. Finally, in the post-1995 period, the antagonism has returned, but belief that Quebec culture lacks collective significance has been retained.

Here I limit myself to the tactics whereby English Canada has minimized consideration of the cultural complexity of French Canada. Many of these arguments can, of course, be turned around. There is a certain francophone mulishness when it comes to assessing the cultural complexity in English Canada. To take a strictly reciprocal perspective occludes, however, the majority-minority dynamic. Take the example of translated books. They sell poorly in both English and French Canada, but that is not proof of reciprocal indifference. In the francophone case, many potential readers are bilingual and have already read the books in their original English versions.

The history

There is a persistent belief among English Canadians that the country's founding cultures enrich each other. The reasons for this belief are familiar to the point of banality, having chiefly to do with the need for an exotic national ingredient to demonstrate that we are not Americans. Statements to this effect reach back at least to the 1920s, often expressed in terms of admiration for French Catholic moral toughness in the face of a creeping Americanization which English Canadians seemed unable to resist. A certain naive fascination with the exoticism of French-Canadian culture coexisted with widespread anti-Catholic and anti-French sentiment.

With the resurgence of Canadian nationalism in the 1960s, the argument developed a different inflection. …