Quebec's Struggle: Culture as Identity

By Mark Clayton, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 1, 1992 | Go to article overview

Quebec's Struggle: Culture as Identity


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


SYLVIE TOUCHETTE says controversy was the last thing she expected to find in this sleepy town when she, her husband, and their two children moved to Rosemere, Quebec, five years ago.

"What we wanted were the trees," she says. "Language never occurred to me as a political issue for this place."

But Mrs. Touchette and other residents were stunned when - after a town referendum in April approved keeping city services bilingual and having, for example, street signs in both French and English - provincial officials said no. Only French would do.

Canada's national press corps descended for the fight. So did TV crews, provincial language officials, and lawyers. Mayor Yvan Deschenes pales when he recalls the hubbub in normally quiet Rosemere and the bitter dispute over language and local history.

"We've always been a bilingual town, we've always functioned in two languages," the mayor says. "We've always lived in harmony with no problems." Now relations between Rosemere and the province are so strained that the issue will likely remain unresolved until after much bigger decisions have been made on the future of Quebec.

Rosemere is a surface explosion of the deeper internal conflict felt by millions of French and English Canadians over cultural and regional loyalties. After driving the national agenda for decades, the Anglophone-Francophone issue is coming to a head. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney is holding out the possibility of a national referendum in September if provinces cannot agree on a national-unity package of federal proposals to rewrite the Constitution, redistribute federal powers, and grant Quebec status as a "distinct society."

Quebec will hold a provincial referendum on federal proposals by Oct. 26 to determine whether Quebeckers feel the revisions to the Constitution go far enough in granting powers over immigration, cultural affairs, job retraining, and other concerns.

Either referendum could split the country apart if the proposals are not accepted in Quebec or by the rest of the nation.

"It's so important for us to preserve our language, and to control our laws on that," says Lise Sarrazin, a mother of two and native of Quebec interviewed amid the crowds of Place de Jardin, a downtown Montreal shopping area. "If English Canada could just understand that. We don't want privilege, just to be distinct." Canadians wrestle

Beneath the language fight and the eye-glazing governmental debate over constitutional reform are the emotional and intellectual wrestlings of ordinary Canadians trying to reconcile regional loyalties and their cultural identity with a fading concept of Canadian nationhood.

"Part of our problem is distance and geography," says Michael Bliss, a University of Toronto historian. "We're overwhelmed by trying to have a single national government and sense of identity for a diverse people scattered over 5,000 miles. We are, in fact, a thinly populated country with people clustered near the border.

"There's an enormous sense of regionalism, along with a sense of ethnic identification, that makes it very hard for us to talk about those things Canadians have in common, values we have in common," he says. "Natives tend to stay on reserves. Young Canadians don't move as frequently as young Americans. French Canadians tend to confine themselves to Quebec."

The province of Quebec witnessed a "quiet revolution" starting in the early 1960s when French-speaking Quebecois took it upon themselves to become better educated and gain economic clout. "Maitres chez nous" ("Masters in our own house") became an enduring watchword.

The province's high-spirited cultural nationalism, so closely associated by so many Quebecois with their individual identity, is one reason a near majority of all Quebeckers say they would vote for sovereignty, a term taken to mean some continuing economic ties to Canada. …

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