The Dream of Nation: A Social and Intellectual History of Quebec

By Williams, Colin H. | British Journal of Canadian Studies, September 2004 | Go to article overview

The Dream of Nation: A Social and Intellectual History of Quebec


Williams, Colin H., British Journal of Canadian Studies


Susan Mann, The Dream of Nation: A Social and Intellectual History of Quebec (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2002), 360pp. Paper. £21.50. ISBN 0-7735-2410-X.

This is a very welcome second edition of Mann's 1982 volume, now published under the Carleton Library Series (no. 198). Responses to the first edition were very positive, for at that time the interplay of the twin themes of nationalism and feminism in Quebec were both novel and challenging.

The opening chapter describes the tenuous political context of the Empire of New France and provides the key insight to understanding the messages of the nineteen chapters, which follow which, is that 'nothing in Quebec's future would assuage the insecurity bequeathed by New France'. (p. 15). Contrast this insecure foundation with the hegemonic notes sounded by the American frontier thesis or the mission-destiny interpretation of us history and immediately one captures the defensive tone of the French-Canadian intelligentsia in dealing with survival narratives.

By 1760 the dream of empire had turned into the nightmare of conquest and the reality for French Canadians of occupying a permanent minority position within North America. Mann argues that successive generations of historians have taken this dependency to be either a structural problem or a permanent challenge. Her analysis, whether related to the birth of nationalism, the flirting with British imperialism, the compact of confederation or the end of empire at the turn of the twentieth century, turns on this dualistic notion of problem and challenge.

In order to cope with these survivalist demands, Mann argues that much of Québécois social life was organised in accordance with a gendered division of labour. Thus notions of separate spheres, related to the western experience of industrialisation, and based on familial relationships, increasingly characterised the economic, political and national organisation of life which made Confederation viable. Two spheres divided human undertakings into complementary but separate functions and assigned them to the two sexes. 'Men were rational and intellectual; women were emotional and cultural. Men designed the state; women organised the family. Men created and women sustained' (p. 113). This theory was transposed to English-French relations, whereby French Canadians came to play a cultural, emotional, artistic, sustaining and civilising function in a state dominated by English-Canadian commercial, economic, rational, and materialistic activity. It is a short step from this to argue for a traditional-modernity continuum whereby culturally sustaining but non-essential economic routines are imprisoned within traditional modes of behaviour. The champions of traditionalism were the Catholic clergy who had defined French- Canadian interests and assiduously sought to champion their own vision of unanimity by a judicious mix of ultramontanism and nationalism. …

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