Why Quebec's Heartland Will Tell 'English' Canada: Vive la Difference! Ardent French-Speakers Say They Want Respect for Their Culture as They Prepare to Vote 'Oui' for Sovereignty

By Mark Clayton, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 11, 1995 | Go to article overview

Why Quebec's Heartland Will Tell 'English' Canada: Vive la Difference! Ardent French-Speakers Say They Want Respect for Their Culture as They Prepare to Vote 'Oui' for Sovereignty


Mark Clayton, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


LIKE his French-speaking father and grandfather before him, Gaston LaPointe is striving to make ends meet on his small farm in a region that is the passionate heart of Quebec nationalism.

Standing in gray 7 a.m. light near a barn full of hungry Holstein cows, Mr. LaPointe's hand rests on the shoulder of his main helper, eldest son Frederic, as they speak to a visitor. "I'm proud to be a Quebecker," says the son. "And if Quebec votes 'yes' to become a country, I will be more proud."

Frederic expects to be the seventh generation to farm here - but on land he hopes will be part of a new Quebec nation. His fervently wishes that the Oct. 30 referendum on whether Quebec should secede from Canada results in a "yes" vote.

While polls show support for Quebec "sovereignty" slipping provincewide, the desire for nationhood is still powerful here in this almost-entirely French-speaking region bounded by Lake St. Jean and the Saguenay River, about 300 miles northeast of Montreal.

People here are proud that they are the hard core of Quebec's separatist movement, a bloc expected later this month to vote overwhelmingly for independence.

In interviews, families and residents of this unique region spoke of pride of language and culture, anger over wrongs done Quebec by "English" Canada, and their desire for nationhood.

Gaston, for example, echoes his son's hope despite concerns about the negative economic impact separation would have on his farm.

"It takes a great sacrifice to save our language," says the elder LaPointe, referring to the economic hardship many predict if Quebeckers vote for independence. "But it will be worth it if they {English-speaking Canadians} finally respect us."

Such feelings are deeply ingrained, harking back to the pivotal 1759 battle between the British and the French on the Plains of Abraham battlefield on the bluffs of Quebec City. The French defeat there led to Britain asserting its control over New France. It is still referred to as "the conquest" - forgotten by many, but not the separatist faithful of the Lake St. Jean-Saguenay area.

The 320-acre LaPointe dairy farm in the wide plain beyond the Laurentian Mountains is about a mile from Jonquiere. The region is a huddle of small farms buoyed economically by aluminum and paper manufacturing. Most residents are descendants of settlers who arrived in the 18th century from the French province of Normandy to inhabit the rugged New France.

Separatist sentiments have burned brightly here for at least three decades, the culmination of generations of resentment over economic and cultural domination by Anglophone (English speaking) society and business.

The flame of independence was ignited by former Quebec premier Rene Levesque in the 1960s - a period called the "quiet revolution" - when French-speaking Quebeckers began to reassert themselves politically. Since then, through thick and thin, the region has consistently supported Quebec nationhood and those who espouse it.

"Yes, I would be very proud if Quebec separates," says Anne, Gaston's wife. "I admit that I don't think it will make things better for women. I'm not sure how things will work out. But I'm prepared to make sacrifices."

Even within Quebec, which has tried and failed to gain recognition from Canada's other nine provinces as a "distinct society," the people of Lake St. Jean-Saguenay see themselves as distinct.

Guy Laforest, a political scientist at Laval University in Quebec City, says there is no easy explanation why this region so unfailingly supports independence, but suggests geography could play a role.

"It's a rugged region ... separated from the rest of Canada and even the rest of Quebec by mountains and forest," he says. "Its own sense of autonomy has given it a strong sense of identity - that and the fact that it is almost exclusively Francophone. …

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