The English Fact in Quebec
Deference to Authority: The Case of Canada
The Referendum of May 20 has directed the world’s attention to Canada and has prompted questions about its political integrity. It is true that Canada may have only one nation: Quebec. One could argue that the rest of Canada, almost entirely English-speaking, is not yet in any strong sense a nation, and it may never become one. That it is not a nation is clear to anyone immersed in the tormented and increasingly tedious debates over Canadian “identity.” These go on at many levels, especially in the press and on radio and television. Writers, painters, musicians, actors, pop stars, university professors, television personalities are most of them endlessly pressed to make pronouncements on the subject. It is thought to be a defect in English-speaking Canadians that they don’t have a strong sense of national identity. Very few seem to take the existence within one country of two major cultures and two languages as the happy state of affairs it could conceivably be.
Of course something like a common ethos, a family of attitudes, binds together English-speaking Canadians, from the maritime provinces of the east, through Ontario and the prairie provinces, to British Columbia and the Pacific coast. It comes from the British connections—the plural is deliberate: the soldiers and officials who ruled the conquered territory of New France; the United Empire Loyalists, refugees from the American Revolution, profoundly anti-French and haters of Jeffersonian democracy; the nineteenth-century immigrants from Britain and Ireland. The political models most admired are British in origin; the moral attitudes are Protestant, sometimes self-consciously so, for the Orange Order has had an important influence on cultural and political history, and is still a force in small-town Ontario. Immigrants from most countries in Western Europe and from the Slav countries seem for the most part to have adjusted themselves without excessive difficulty to the ruling ethos. Catholicism, outside Quebec, has a lot of life in it, both in its Latin and, among many Slavs, Byzantine-rite forms, more life than the deliquescent Protestantism of the majority, but it doesn’t modify or dissent from the prevailing ethos.
This ethos is hard to define but easy to recognize. When one moves between Canada and the United States the difference is not plain to the physical eye. On the surface American culture rules Canada. This is Reader’s Digest country; the National Enquirer and Time are on sale at the check-out points of the supermarkets, Playboy and Penthouse are in the barber shops; the roads approaching and leaving the cities speak of Burger King, McDonald’s, Kentuckyfried chicken; the inanities of American commercial television are available and popular. But one has only to go into a bar or a shop, ride in the bus or the subway, attempt to make a social contact with strangers, and one is certain one isn’t in the United States. The restless, energetic, noisy, affectionate, volatile manners of the Americans, all those things that strike the visitor from Europe with such force …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
O Canada January 22, 1981