Quebec after Catholicism
Jones, Preston, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life
In July 1997 Quebec City unveiled a bronze statue of Charles de Gaulle outside its walls. Though the $150,000 price tag might have seemed exorbitant to Canadians whose cash-strapped governments have in recent years been compelled to cut social services, for Quebecois sovereigntists it was a small price to pay for the assurance that from now to forever the eminent general will preside over the Plains of Abraham, site of a definitive French defeat at the hands of the English in 1759, terrestrial source of perpetual French Canadian humiliation, historical souvenir of all that is wrong with the world.
It is of course fitting that de Gaulle should rule over the Plains, for few events in the history of Quebec's sovereigntist movement can match the long-term influence of his cry "Vive le Quebec libre!" from the balcony of Montreal's city hall in July 1967 before a crowd of fifty thousand. "Whatever General de Gaulle's ambiguous motives may have been," wrote Canadian historian Ramsay Cook soon after the event, "there can be no doubt that his adventures in `la nouvelle France' finally brought into focus the nature of the current Canadian crisis."
If de Gaulle's visit to Quebec in 1967 is remembered as having stirred a crisis among Canada's federalists, to Quebec's sovereigntists it stands as a signal event in their collective memory. The liberator of Paris was now their liberator. And even as a "quiet revolution" made radical changes in their own society, de Gaulle seemed to be saying that France was now eager to embrace her distant brood. "France sees you, she hears you, she loves you."
So let us say that Quebec received de Gaulle as something of a savior--in the words of former Quebec premier Rene Levesque to the French National Assembly in 1977, de Gaulle's declaration was heard like a prophetic shot around the world. Nineteen years later Premier Jacques Parizeau claimed that the general's four small words lived on "in the life of a people." And in his autobiography, current Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard effuses over the memory of a youthful handshake with de Gaulle in 1959: "He held out his hand. I grasped it eagerly. I couldn't help noting how fine and smooth it was."
Why this hero worship? What was so wrong that led French Canadians to turn to de Gaulle as a sort of Quebecois messiah? As a first step toward an answer, we might observe that from the 1850s until the early 1960s, Quebec's French-speakers believed themselves to be actors in a drama of universal import. "What Christian," asked the influential nineteenth-century French Canadian bishop L. F. R. Lafleche, "believing in the all-wise Providence controlling every event on earth, could fail to be struck by the resemblance between Abraham's behavior when he took possession of the land God promised his descendants, and that of Jacques Cartier as he took possession of this Canadian territory to which ... the same Providence had guided his footsteps?" It was obvious to Lafleche that French Canadians had, in his terms, a "providential mission"--to be a Catholic light and witness to North America and the world, to stand against liberalism and modernism.
It was in service to that mission that Quebec's religious and political leaders worked to preserve the French language and culture that had grown up along the St. Lawrence River, not for their own sake, but because those goods were inextricably tied to the Catholic faith to which French Quebeckers owed their existence as a people. They believed, correctly as it turns out, that whereas the scattered and outnumbered French-speakers in New England, the Canadian West, and Louisiana were in large measure doomed to assimilation into North America's predominant Protestant culture, Quebeckers who remained true to the Catholic faith and the French language and culture in which that faith was expressed could maintain a coherent society. Thus Quebec's premier, the heavy-handed Maurice …
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Publication information: Article title: Quebec after Catholicism. Contributors: Jones, Preston - Author. Magazine title: First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life. Publication date: June 1999. Page number: 12. © 2009 Institute on Religion and Public Life. COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.
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