Claude Ryan
Claude Ryan; drawing by David Levine

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 on a first encounter with the United States, are absent from Canada, as Professor Edgar Z. Friedenberg, an American living in Canadian exile—and exile has to be given its full force—has discovered.

In their public manners the English-speaking Canadians strike one as decent people, rather cold and repressed, fairminded, unadventurous, a bit glum. The spirit of free enterprise, willingness to take a chance, don’t characterize the young professionals. They are more concerned with getting or preserving a certain style of life; one even comes across young men in their early twenties who are concerned about their pension rights. They have the virtues of their vices. The city of Toronto is one of the great Canadian achievements, singular among the great cities of North America in that it is safe and clean, has excellent public transport and a lived-in city core. Its weakness is that it is provincial and philistine and given to a mild (by world standards) racism. Blacks (some of whom have been Canadian for many generations), Chinese, East Indians, Canadian Jews, and the native peoples are here and there and from time to time disliked in a mindless way. They conflict with the self-image of the white English-speaking Canadian. French Canadians may also be the objects of a quasi-racist dislike. This motivates the booing that breaks out when the national anthem is sung in French at football, baseball, or hockey games in Ontario.

The historical causes or preconditions of many of these attitudes and prejudices are made clear in the fine study of French-English relations by Sheila Arnopoulos and Dominique Clift, two political journalists whose book, originally written in English, was first published in French and recently won a Governor General’s literary prize. They detach, layer by historical layer, what lies behind the manners and customs of the English minority in Quebec and the English-speaking majority elsewhere. Wherever they live in Canada, the English-speaking Canadians still in some degree order their perceptions of the French population in accordance with principles first stated at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries.


The Durham Report of 1839, which proposed the establishment of responsible government in Canada, made the attitude of the English masters of Quebec quite clear. The French, it was argued, show “the unreasoning tenacity of an uneducated and unprogressive people…. They remain an old and stationary society, in a new and progressive world.” With the immense confidence of the English ruling class at the height of its fortunes, Lord Durham wrote: “It is to elevate them from [their] inferiority that I desire to give to the Canadians our English character.”

The stupidity that has commonly marked the attitudes of the English to the Irish came to mark their attitudes to the French Canadians, in Quebec and elsewhere. A consequence was a retreat of the French into a tribal nationalism, inward-looking, Catholic in a style scarcely known elsewhere in the Catholic world (a “mixed” marriage meant not only a marriage between a Catholic and a Protestant or a Jew but also a marriage between a French Catholic and an English-speaking Catholic). The situation was rationalized by both “solitudes”—to use the expression coined by the Canadian novelist Hugh McLennan—in the following way. The two peoples are formed, or so it is imagined, by temperament and history to perform two distinct roles. The French are concerned with the arts and letters and with domestic morality, with what is picturesque and eloquent of the past, the English-speaking are the makers and doers, the entrepreneurs, responsible for the increase of wealth and the elevation of living standards.

This distinction was cherished in Montreal at precisely the moment when that city was losing its economic predominance to Toronto and as the pressure of a new kind of French self-consciousness—everything summarized in the phrase “the quiet revolution”—was weakening the English control of the city. Arnopoulos and Clift write:

The strong attachment of the English elites of Montreal to the idea of well-defined English and French domains appeared very clearly in a brief presented by the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal to the Gendron Commission [appointed to inquire into the position of the French language in Quebec] in 1969. “The French Canadian heritage will continue to find expression through the arts, through literature, through the theater and mores of the people” while the anglophone minority will “assure that Quebec, while remaining forever [sic] the heartland of French culture in the Western world, shall at the same time be part of the economic, industrial and cultural life of North America.”

No one will ever speak in this way again.

Urbanization, the ending of even the outward appearance of the old Quebec of seigneurs, censitaires, habitants, and curés, and—most surprising of all to those Anglophones who were terrified of the fertility of French Canadians—the fall in the French birth rate to a point far below that required to keep the French population stable, have all altered the relations between the French and the English. The same factors have changed the position of the Church, and the old-style political allegiances among the French. For the first time, after a long period of inward brooding upon their wounds and their virtues, the French of Quebec—and the English too—are being challenged to entertain as a real possibility the political independence of the Province of Quebec, with or without some kind of association with the rest of Canada.

The English Fact in Quebec is required reading for those who want to understand the origins of the present crisis. It makes, perhaps, too little of the unexpected failure of the French to reproduce themselves, though the authors note that the attempt by the Québecois to make the immigrant ethnic minorities Francophone is to be explained by the demographic situation. Twice, so presumably they mean it, they write something open, I should have thought, to logical and moral objections: “In 1964…the Civil Rights Act [in the US]…established the principle that certain groups—blacks, women, and Puerto Ricans, for example—need not abandon their particular identities to enter American society”; and they refer to this particular concatenation on another occasion. This is like putting into one conceptual bag redheads, senior citizens, and males.

On May 20 Claude Ryan and his Quebec Liberal Party won a majority in the Referendum on the question of “sovereignty-association,” i.e., on whether Quebec should negotiate a new sovereign status that would maintain an association with the rest of Canada. It would be wrong to think that the major difficulties in the relations between Francophones and Anglophones, and between Quebec and the rest of Canada, have been settled by this victory.


The question drafted by the Quebec Government of René Lévesque was “softened” in order to suggest that the Referendum was not about separatism; and yet a possible implication of the wording of the question, perhaps the most natural implication, was that in asking for the authority to negotiate sovereignty-association the Provincial Government was in effect asking for the rights and powers of an independent state as a precondition of entering into negotiations with the Federal Government. The question put to the voters was this:

The Government of Quebec has made public its proposal to negotiate a new agreement with the rest of Canada, based on the equality of nations; this agreement would enable Quebec to acquire the exclusive power to make its laws, administer its taxes and establish relations abroad—in other words, sovereignty—and at the same time to maintain with Canada an economic association including a common currency; any change in political status resulting from these negotiations will be submitted to the people through a referendum; on these terms, do you agree to give the Government of Quebec the mandate to negotiate the proposed agreement between Quebec and Canada?

It is obvious why, from the beginning, Mr. Trudeau said he was not prepared, in the event of a Yes, no matter how resounding, from Quebec, to enter into any such negotiations, for in doing so he would have conceded the separatist case.

The answer to the question is No. Almost 60 percent of those voting (more than 85 percent of the electorate) voted No, just over 40 percent voted Yes. Virtually all the Anglophones voted No, as did the so-called “ethnics” (Italians and others of European origin). The interesting question is how the Francophone vote went, and in fact there was a Francophone majority (52 percent against 48 percent) for No. Had Ryan’s majority been slender, with a clear Francophone majority against the No choice, then the social situation would have become exceedingly irritated. But it seems clear that there is no Francophone consensus for Quebec sovereignty, with or without association with the rest of Canada.

Mr. Trudeau has committed himself, as have the leaders of the other provinces, to changes in the Constitution of Canada, changes that will in some way attempt to meet the difficulties of Quebec and of Francophone minorities in other parts of Canada. Changes that will benefit Quebec will, some of them, be changes that will benefit the other provinces, with their special characters and interests. A constitutional conference is now being convoked and it may soon become clear what the other provinces are prepared to do for Quebec, what Quebec will settle for, what the Federal Government will concede and where it will feel compelled to stand and not to yield. But while there has been much talk during the Referendum campaign about “a renewed federalism,” it isn’t at all evident what this means. The No voters of Quebec have accepted a blank check upon which they hope a handsome figure will be written.

As to the outcome of the negotiations, something will depend upon the man who represents Quebec at the constitutional conferences. It will at first almost certainly be René Lévesque, for although Claude Ryan would like a provincial election by the fall, with the strong possibility of a Liberal victory, it isn’t certain that Lévesque will oblige him; and when the election does come, as it must within a year, it isn’t at all certain that Ryan and his Liberals will win. the Québecois are much practiced in distinguishing their right hand from their left. At present, they have a Parti Québecois provincial government but are represented in the Federal Parliament by a federalist majority.

I ought to say something about Claude Ryan. It is often remarked, sometimes by way of compliment, sometimes with an affected pity as though for a lamb among tigers, that he is not a real politician. He is a man of strict moral standards—it is impossible to think of him as pocketing a bribe or going along with a dirty business deal. He is austere, an ascetic, a devout Catholic and a thoughtful one, somewhat professorial in manner, inclined to lecture. It is as though he is a voice and a personality from the romantic Catholic past of Quebec. Now that he is in the fight and has been successful he may develop a taste for power. But those who know him would, I am confident, think him deaf and blind to the grosser temptations of power. (For those who like parallels, he is Robert Schuman rather than Georges Bidault.) And he, alone among the leaders of the first rank, has set down on paper what he understands by “a renewed federalism.”

In January of this year Ryan issued a “Beige Paper” on the future of federalism. His constitutional proposals are radical. He wants the fact of the two cultures and languages, the founding cultures of Canada, to be embodied in the language of any new constitution. He also wants expansion of provincial rights and powers, a new Bill of Rights, and the entrenchment in the constitution of guarantees for linguistic minorities. Under his proposal the present Senate would be abolished—there would be few mourners—and instead there would be a Federal Council composed of delegates from the provinces, including the premiers, and this Council would have some of the sovereign powers that at present belong to the Federal Government. The Council, to take other examples of Ryan’s proposals, would also have the power to remove judges of the Supreme Court, have a voice in important Crown appointments (e.g. to Air Canada or to the regulatory bodies that oversee energy and communications), and share with the Federal Government jurisdiction over treaties with foreign powers where the interests of the provinces are affected.

When the Beige Paper first appeared, most provincial premiers found it interesting and worth further discussion. How far it will go in the negotiations in which Ottawa will be confronting the Western provinces and the Maritimes and Ontario, as well as Quebec, we shall see. At stake in these discussions are not only the issues connected with cultural nationalism, but also control of timber, uranium, potash, fisheries, and petroleum, the last present and flowing in Alberta and possibly present in commercially interesting quantities off the Atlantic coast. The desire of those provinces rich in natural resources to control them for provincial profit may, on account of the quid pro quo involved in the negotiations, benefit the cultural ambitions of the French. But if the general consequence were to be a weak Federal Government and a ramshackle confederation, no one in the end would benefit from such a settlement.*

Whatever the future, English-speaking Canada will remain a large and powerful political community, though how large, how powerful, and how resistant to being broken up into component regions with greater powers in relation to Ottawa than they now have is another question. Professor Friedenberg offers us an acute study of how Canadian society, in its Anglophone form, strikes him.

Friedenberg seems continually astonished that Canada is not the United States. It is more deferential, more secretive, quieter, less litigious, concerned more with good government than with the rights of individuals; above all it lacks a written constitution and a foundation document in which inalienable rights are inscribed. Sometimes it is almost as though he cannot credit that men and women with two eyes, a nose, and a mouth, and speaking North American English, can exist happily under such conditions. Rightly, he sees the sovereignty of Parliament, a doctrine derived from Britain, as the fundamental principle of Canadian law and politics; but he is a little scandalized by the principle according to which Parliament can do anything that is not naturally or logically impossible, that is, that it can do anything except change the laws of physics and what happened in the past.

There are thus in Canada no legal fences around any area of human life, no fences bearing the notice KEEP OUT; that is, in principle and in law there is no right of privacy. Friedenberg agrees that arbitrary action by the State to take away individual liberties can occur in both Canada and the United States, but “Americans, at least, are convinced they should not be…. Civil liberty remains a permanent and fundamental issue in American life.” Canadians lack the conviction, deep (so Friedenberg believes) in the American political consciousness, “that the state and its apparatus are the natural enemies of freedom.” He even believes that this Canadian defect is reflected in Canada’s preferences and achievements in the arts. He rightly picks out ballet as an art form in which Canada excels. But this is “the art that provides least opportunity for spontaneity or improvisation…. As a form…it is peculiarly unsuited to exploring the implications of human experience, just as it is peculiarly suited to expressing the feelings associated with such experience.”

This may be true, though the theory of art assumed strikes me as disputable. But when he goes on to state that as an art form ballet is “in its North American context…inherently counter-revolutionary,” this is surely an unnecessarily twiddly piece of decoration stuck onto his argument. It is a great question how far, in a society in which the kitsch and the manipulative forms of the mass media have such power and in which the serious practice of the arts is interesting for only a small minority, it makes any sense to speak of the revolutionary and the counter-revolutionary in the arts. Such subversions or opiates as painting, the theater, poetry, music, ballet, and the rest may have to offer are indirect and long-term in their effects.

Many years ago Daniel Halévy wrote a splendid analysis of the politics of the third French Republic, La République des Camarades. The title and the theme express one aspect of Canadian politics that fascinates Friedenberg. He refers to the exemplary anecdote of Francis Fox who left his job as solicitor general in 1978 because it came out that, in order to procure an abortion for his mistress, a married woman, he forged her husband’s signature on a hospital form. Fox is now a member of the new Trudeau cabinet. We seem a long way from Parnell or even Profumo. What is interesting about this case is not so much that Fox, along with two other Liberals who resigned on account of what seemed to be improprieties in their connections with the judiciary, is back in the Government along with his camarades—he is a Quebec Catholic and was returned with a splendid majority in the recent election—but that in general the Canadian press and television treated his action as a sexual peccadillo and not a case of forgery.

This is truly extraordinary and strengthens one of Friedenberg’s most powerful themes: the widespread Canadian habit of secrecy, defended up to the last possible moment by the law, and then, when the secret is no more, the acceptance of the immunity of authority from the consequence of its misdeeds. This is abundantly illustrated by the proceedings of the McDonald Commission of inquiry into the conduct of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, by the proceedings and by such of the evidence as has been published. It became known, and this led to the establishment of the commission, that the RCMP had for many years, and especially during the Quebec political crisis of 1970, engaged in illegal activities: opening letters, having improper access to and use of medical records, forging letters and political manifestoes to discredit left-wing and French nationalist political movements, burning a barn to discredit a suspect political movement (this is one of the more ludicrous of the episodes revealed), and so on.

Friedenberg argues, and I think he is right, that the point of the McDonald Commission was to shield delinquent members of the RCMP from the legal consequences of their acts, and that this confers on them a quite different status from that of private citizens who are without reluctance prosecuted for similar breaches of the law. The members of the commission are all of them camarades of the Liberal establishment. The commission has refused to allow legal representation to the Progressive-Conservative Party and to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association; but voted two to one to allow the RCMP’s counsel to cross-examine hostile witnesses about their personal backgrounds (to establish credibility). As Friedenberg notes, this caused one witness to protest that it seemed as though he, and not the members of the RCMP, was on trial.

But the most educative part of the commission’s proceedings has been the performance before it—and especially the performance of Francis Fox—of those who were members of the Government at the relevant times. There were, of course, the “to the best of my knowledge/recollection” statements that Watergate accustomed us to; but even more remarkable, and more impudent, “were the successive assurances that Solicitor General Fox passed on from his immediate subordinates that each incident brought to light…was an isolated example reflecting the political temper of the October [1970] crisis…rather than established policies, authorized or at least countenanced by the commissioner of the RCMP or the solicitor general.” The Canadian presumption, Friedenberg argues, is that public officials are concerned with the common good and may do with impunity what would get a private citizen into trouble with the law. The RCMP is, in fact, still a sacred and venerated institution in Canadian life; and it was striking that the Progressive Conservatives, in their short time of office, quite lost that concern for civil liberties the case of the RCMP had persuaded them to show while they were in opposition.

We may allow that Friedenberg has made a strong case (and he brings much other illustrative material, especially from economic life, before us) for his view that Canada is a deferential society, in which those in authority are presumed to have good intentions when they do something illegal or morally off-color, in which the proceedings of government are impenetrable by the common man, and in which the legal and constitutional arrangements are such that men lack or have a weak hold upon the notion of the inalienable rights of man. He repeatedly tells us that in practice the difference between Canada and the United States isn’t very great, but that somehow the social atmosphere of Canada is, as it were, thicker, more cloying, even perhaps relatively boring. I see what he means by this. But I think the case for a written constitution, rights expressed in legal formulas, and the rest, as against an unwritten constitution and parliamentary sovereignty, is less powerful than he wants it to be. At the end of his book he handsomely and engagingly says two things. First, that there is less sheer bigotry in Canada than in the United States: “English Canadians are not really into bigotry, but they are usually highly ethnocentric.” Admirably put. Then,

The ubiquitous Government of Canada does not merely restrict; it also establishes order, which is the fundamental precondition of freedom. You are not free to walk about the city if you have reason to fear being mugged or shot. You are not free to do anything much in your later years if you are continually dogged by threats of catastrophic illness. In these important respects Canadians enjoy far more freedom than Americans.

And he adds that “despite the enormous potential for oppression the Canadian system affords, I have not been and do not feel oppressed here; and the years I have spent in this country have been the happiest I have known.” This is good to hear and Canadians will wish him further happiness and a fruitful career in Canada. He has given them in his book something that combines the pleasure-giving properties of the most delicious confectionary with the cleansing properties of a purge.

George Woodcock’s handsome book is delightful and informative, the best introduction I have come across to the splendors and miseries of Canadian history, and it ends with a shrewd and balanced discussion of Canada’s social and political problems. Its tone is softer and gentler than Friedenberg would think appropriate; but Woodcock was born in Canada and returned to Canada after life and education in England; and despite his attachment to anarchism somewhat in the Kropotkin style, he is not a rancorously political character. The Canadians may be mistaken for a “coffee-table book.” It is that, and an attractive one with many fine illustrations; but it is also a book for the student and for anyone who wants to know more about Canada. Woodcock, followed by Friedenberg, and Arnopoulos and Clift, would leave the inquirer about matters Canadian more informed and perhaps wiser in his judgments.

This Issue

July 17, 1980