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My Images of Quebec

by David Millar
Edmonton Monthly Meeting (Quakers)
Edmonton, Alberta

My heart goes out in so many different directions that I am unable to give any "constitutional" pat answer. Teaching for the last seven years (in French) in one of the few university programs for francophone minorities, has given me a strong sense of the constant struggle that they must make. They have to struggle against the majority's attitudes that range from hatred and assimilation to benign neglect. In the prairies, this struggle has been going on since 1870. I know parents in several provinces who have worked for over 20 years just for the right to have a French school in their own town; in every case, they have had to go all the way to the Supreme Court, several times, to win the most unwilling, grudging, limited acceptance. Some have gone personally bankrupt, other burn out, and others' children abandon what they see as their parents' and grandparents' "lost cause". At the same time, I have been deeply touched by the joy, creativity, and persistence of several generations. There are artists, writers, creators of community theatre -- often intercultural. For instance, ""Le Travois" in St Norbert, Manitoba, "The Gathering" in Lebret, Saskatchewan, invited Cree, Sioux and Metis participants, as well as the descendants of white homesteaders. There are few students whose parentage is not mixed. Would you want this one to deny her Ukrainian pioneer grandmother, her Quebec-born father; or that one to deny a Breton, Belgian, Acadian or Metis parent? "Identity" is not simple, is often deliberately chosen, and it is defined by how you live.

I can remember growing up the Maritimes, where you could recognize Acadiens by the fact that they never spoke - not even in English, because their accent would give them away, their "refoulement" timidity) the result of more than 200 years of fear since the Deportation of 1755, their slow return -- see the book _Pelagie-la-Charette_ -- followed by generations of "illegality" as Roman Catholics. I'm glad to say it's changed -- there has been a cultural renaissance in the last generation, as among first nations people, and for some of the same reasons.

I worked for 10 years in Montreal, and will never forget the way Québécois took me into their circle of friends and family. I had associates who were deeply convinced federalists, and others who were equally sincere sovereignists -- in Québec this has been a long, bitter family quarrel.

I left a year before October 1970, the infamous month of the October crisis, the kidnappings by the Front de Libération Québécois (FLQ) and the proclamation by the Canadian government of the War Measures Act. I remember hearing that more than 400 people, among them teachers, artists, mothers of families of undoubted peaceful persuasion, were arrested as "suspects" simply on the strength of political blacklists (you will recall, the MacDonald Royal Commission later uncovered the "dirty tricks" squad and some 800,000 files on (mostly) anglophone "Canadian radicals", feminists, OFYers (Opportunities for Youth grants of the late 1960s, a bit like US Peace Corps) and peaceniks, so I think almost an entire generation could have been imprisoned under the terms of the War Measures Act. My wife Barbara remembers the Royal Canadian Mounted Police closing down a student meeting in British Columbia with threats -- and there sure weren't any FLQ members in Burnaby! The cartoon by Montreal Gazette political cartoonist Aislin, of a cabinet minister holding the Montreal telephone book and saying "We have lists of suspects" was not far off the mark. Some of my friends spent weeks in Montreal’s Parthenais jail, where habeus corpus was a dead letter. Others spent the next 10 years working in Committees for political prisoners and Amnesty groups -- the exact counterpart of Quakers' Meeting for Sufferings.

I remember dozens of my Toronto professors and philosophers, some of whom I had (till then) greatly admired, holding rallies to support the jailing of my friends. It happened in every city. I remember talk shows where callers threatened to "go out and kill us a frog". About the same time, Bob Altemeyer interviewed Manitoba university students, and found they would willingly obey official orders to shoot down a "mob" of any political stripe, from Communist Party to Progressive Conservative. Canadian authoritarianism can be as brutal as any other kind. Pastor Martin Niemoller's comments on German apathy as Nazi persecution grew, "They came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew. When they came for me, there was no one left to protest" could apply to us.

I guess I really can't distinguish my concern about Quebec from my concern about justice for francophone and other minorities, native peoples, and peace (by which I mean a secure and decent existence, with respect for each one as a child of God). Seeking for non-violent solutions led me into the Winnipeg peace movement, where I noticed that not all peace activists behaved peacefully towards each other -- and thence into Quakers. Even thee and me, I think, have a way to go. And since then our governments have twice renewed agreements to test atomic torpedoes and Cruise missiles, and to practice first-strike practice bombing over the unceded native lands of the Innu in Labrador; have continued to harass and lie to the Lubicon nation in Alberta, and to throw the unemployed and poor into the streets. Someone said about the Romans, "They made a desert, and called it peace". That's not the kind of peace I can believe in. Let me conclude on a more hopeful note by quoting a song from the 1948 Asbestos strike in J-J Richard's _Le Feu dans l'amiante_: "Va Québécois, sois solidaire / Ne laisse pas fléchir tes bras / Délivre-toi de la misère / La vérité t'attend là-bas".

David Millar
Prof. d'Humanités, Faculté Saint-Jean, U. of Alberta

la page WWW francophone universitaire "FRANCO"

la page "le Gymnase du francais"
la page "Franco pour momes 5-15 ans"