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The Quebec Question

In response to:

The New Canadas from the August 16, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

J.M. Cameron’s review about the New Canadas, published in your August 16 issue, which, inter al., discusses Quebecois nationalism, leads us to the following comments:

1) We agree with Mr. Cameron that Quebec has in fact a very low birth rate (second lowest worldwide after West Germany) and that “fear of extinction accounts for the linguistic policy that requires the children of immigrants to use French, and only French, in the schools.” Mr. Cameron goes further, assessing that: “This seems a desperate policy. It is hard to believe that such a policy can turn the children of immigrants into patriotic Quebecois within a generation. The rigorous language policy of Quebec society, proscribing, to take a petty example, the use of English on signs outside shops, shows how lacking in confidence in the inherent power of the culture to maintain itself are the rulers of Quebec.” This legislation (namely Bill 101) simply imposes to the children of immigrants to learn the language of the majority which, in any other country of the world, would be considered perfectly normal. So, we imagine that California and New Mexico proscribing Spanish on signs, as well as Mexico does for English, suffer from the same lack of confidence…. (We are also aware that in all these cases, including Quebec, the law is not, in fact, fully enforced.)

2) We were properly astonished by the following passage of Mr. Cameron’s review about the situation of linguistic minorities in Canada: “Some have suggested that, in equity, the Francophone minorities in Ontario and Manitoba have no claim to be treated better than Quebec treats its Anglophones. They do in fact have a valid claim in law.” This suggests that the situation of the Francophone minorities in English Canada is far better than that of the Anglophones in Quebec. That statement reveals a total lack of factual information. The Francophone minorities in Canada are on the way to assimilation, because provincial governments always denied their rights (even when these rights were guaranteed by constitutive law—which was the case in Manitoba). The English minority in Quebec has legal and administrative control of its schools, hospitals and universities, a privilege enjoyed by no other minority throughout Canada.

3) Finally, to make his point about the “Maurrassien” dimension of Quebecois nationalism, Mr. Cameron quotes Mr. Karl Stern, in a rather equivocal way. “A distinguished refugee from Nazi Germany who came to live in Montreal, the psychologist Karl Stern, who was a Christian convert from Judaism, once told me that he had never felt so spiritually isolated as in Quebec. He was a foreigner and a Jew and, to confuse everything, a Catholic as well.” He did not explain why Mr. Stern felt so “spiritually isolated” in Quebec. Did he mean Mr. Stern felt spiritually isolated as a born-Jewish Catholic among English Catholics? or among French Catholics? among English Protestants? among English-speaking Jews? among French-speaking Jews? A more elaborated comment would have been welcomed.

It is unfortunate that a New York Review of Books‘ contributor, while reviewing an essay about Canada and Quebec, only takes into account English Canada’s point of view.

Robert Laliberté
Pierre Téolis
Danielle Tessier
Montreal, Quebec

J.M Cameron replies:

I thought it was obvious that in my review of Professor Lipset’s books I was not writing from the point of view of Anglophone Canadians. I had judged Anglophone Canadians harshly and Francophones with some indulgence. What your correspondents quote as suggesting or implying that Francophone minorities outside Quebec are better treated than the Anglophone minority in Quebec is nowhere stated by me nor is it implied or suggested by anything I write. The Anglophones in Quebec are a rich and powerful elite, well entrenched in Quebec institutions, resembling in this the Protestant minority in the Irish Republic. Their comment on Karl Stern’s remark to me shows an astonishing lack of imagination. Perhaps I should have dated the remark (1958). Anyone who remembers Quebec in that period, before the quiet revolution, knows perfectly well how “Maurrassien” much Quebec opinion was. Catholics who were not Francophones stood outside the national community. All the more did a Catholic who came from Europe and was also Jewish offend against the Maurrassien—and old-style Quebec—criteria for citizenship. Such a man as Karl Stern was also unacceptable to the Jewish and Protestant elites. Of course, Stern was not complaining about this. His isolation was a plain fact and, as I thought, had a certain poignancy when one compared his situation with the cosmopolitan milieu out of which he had come. I am astonished that your correspondents want me to explain this.

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