A NATION OF QUÉBÉCOIS © David Watts 25/04/2010
When the government of Stephen Harper passed a motion recognizing “the Québécois as a nation within a united Canada,” most people in the rest of Canada assumed this was about someone else.
Some saw it as capitulation in a struggle of words going back to the 1960’s, forgetting Sir John A. Macdonald’s advice a century earlier “Treat them as a nation and they will be loyal.”
Others saw it as very clever politics: laying to rest, under a western based Conservative government, of an issue generations of Québec based Liberal governments had failed to resolve.
Both viewpoints missed the point.
Recognition of Québécois in Canada is not about a “Them” in location, origin or language.
It’s about us: all of us.
For all Canadians are Québécois or contain a québécois within us, whether we recognize it or not.
We date the founding of Québec from 1608 when Samuel de Champlain built his habitation at the narrowing of the waters on the Saint Lawrence: an event set in Gilles Vigneault’s Mon Pays:
… mon père a fait bâtir maison. Et à sa mode je reste fidèle, à sa manière…
All who have come here and built homes, or lived here and done the same, are in that sense “Québécois.”
This homing instinct is also there in “O Canada.” English speakers usually take the last two lines, “we stand on guard for thee,” as standing on guard against some foreign military threat.
But the French original speaks of “protecting our hearths [homes] and our rights.”
So this Québécois spirit is evident every time we identify with a homeland: whether in the Québec region, or on Vancouver Island, or in the provinces of Alberta or Saskatchewan.
There is a political and historic significance of Québécois too, that most of us have forgotten.
When Britain set up a governmental framework for the North American colonies acquired from France in the Seven Years War, she did not call them New France or Laurentia as they had been.
The 1774 legislation was called the Quebec Act after the fort where the decisive military exchange took place between Wolfe and Montcalm.
All the Saint Lawrence valley and its tributaries: the Richelieu, Saguenay and Ottawa, and the land above of the Great Lakes down to Windsor and Detroit was included.
What was later divided into Upper and Lower Canada, or Canada East and West, was all called “Québec,” part of a single province.
What about today’s western provinces? Champlain’s base at the mouth of the river was not just about settling down and raising a family. It was a staging point for a push inland to find a western sea.
La Salle, La Vérendrye and others, the coureurs de bois and the voyageurs who continued the western thrust, put French names on many of the lakes and rivers in our four western provinces.
If the term had existed then, these too would have considered themselves Québécois, even though they spent most of the year and much of their lives away from home, in the woods or on the plains.
The Church tried to keep young men out of the woods, to make them “sons of the soil” who would raise large families as part of a parish it could control. But many Québécois did not accept this.
Today some secular nationalists play the priestly role, labeling as vendus (“sellouts”) or “non-québécois” those who travel away to take jobs in parks or teach French immersion. Plus ça change
Despite later pieces of legislation—Constitution Acts of 1791, 1867 and 1982—provision of the Quebec Act remain in effect: a charter of the French language, and ultimately, a pluralistic society.
So we who inherit the benefits of this legislation are all Quebeckers in the British legal use of the word, or Québécois” in French usage.
Now many hearing or reading these words at the heart of Québec may be beside themselves with frustration as they see their personal point of reference diluted further and further:
“You could include all human beings as “Québécois” then—no way!”
Not quite. Kanata “the meeting place,” can include all humankind. Kébéc, the “narrowing of the waters,” cannot.
Kanata is an encompassing, inclusive orientation; Kébec a more singular focusing one. The two go together: complementary sides of a single coin.
We need both: to be able stand under the sky, take in the sweep of horizon, and say “All this I am.”
And we need to be able to focus on one part, a sector of the horizon, and say “That’s my priority: where I’m going to start to work at knowing the whole.”
This balance of the specific and general, the focus and broad sweep, is mirrored in the systole and diastole of the heartbeat, and the in- and out-breath of respiration. With only one we cannot live.
Québec and Canada do this for one another. Québec has done this for the whole of Canada, pushing us to develop our own symbols, and creating a framework in which other regions and groups can experiment and express their own particularities, enriching us all.
Some Québécois ask, “Why don’t we have a Canada like a European federation of states?”
Truth is, we have it already. They don’t see it because they’re inside it, at the heart of it.
Québec’s being in the federation it created—otherwise we’d have a union, not a federation—has shaped a Canada different from the British polyglot, the American melting pot or the French lab.
An independent Alberta, a vibrant BC, a prosperous Newfoundland and Labrador, and a self-assured Prince Edward Island—all owe their strength to a strong Québec
The Québécois are a nation in Canada. Vive le Kébec! Vive le Kanata! Vive la tension créatrice!