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My dinner with two sovereignist friends

by Carl Stieren

After riding the Unity Train to Quebec City, I took two sovereignist Friends to dinner, to balance my coverage of the Canada/Quebec question. Two days before, I had called my old friend Jacques, in Quebec City, and he promised to find a sovereignist intellectual of good will to interview. True to his word, Jacques brought his friend Hélène, and we met in the Cafe Aviatique in Quebec’s Gare Centrale. Hélène had received her bachelor’s degree in history and her master’s in sociology at l’Université de Laval. She became a teacher, and now taught French and history.

Jacques, a sovereignist himself, also joined in the discussion. To Hélène, the vision put forward in the Yes campaign in the recent referendum seemed “a bit empty”. She had supported the Yes side, but wanted more of a solid vision of a new society than then-Premier Jacques Parizeau had offered. We sat sipping beer and water at a round table in the dimly lit restaurant, completely at ease. It took every word of French I knew, but I was able to interview her. The atmosphere was soft, quiet, reflective; it seemed light years from the tension which had surrounded the second referendum in Quebec just a year ago.

Hélène said that the sovereignist movement among Québécois was an attempt to gain control of their society as a group, “as the Native People are doing”. She repeated that phrase later that evening. When I asked about the barrier that a border between Quebec and Canada would pose to people wishing to work elsewhere, Jacques suggested that common institutions could be built between Québec and Canada. He believed in the association part of the phrase soverainité-association, often used by the late Québec premier and founder of the Parti Québécois, Réné Lévesque.

Even though we had agreed to discuss sovereignty, it was hard not to talk about other issues, especially the economy. We all agreed that the fixation on the deficit was something that the banks had a hand in creating - along with their record profits. And we were all expecting greater things from a society electronically connected everywhere, but fearful of letting the Internet make everything we entered public, whether we wanted it so or not.

Language, of course, played a key role in our discussion of the sovereignist position. Hélène felt French was now stronger in Québec than in the ‘60s; Jacques felt French was now weaker in Québec. Both felt sovereignty for Québec was a solution necessary to keep from making Québécois a minority in their own province. The threat of minority status was real, they felt, if immigrants had the right to opt for English education, and use English at work. In such a case, many would not even bother to learn French, Hélène said.

Then Hélène asked me what were the fears of English Canadians about a sovereign Québec. I said that the fear was great of a country cut in two - not just with Québec gone, but with Canada’s maritime provinces cut off from the rest of Canada. Then there was the fear of failure for not having been able to come up with a solution for Canada that Québec could accept. And then there was the fear of the United States, lurking around the remaining Canadian provinces. I said that I sensed English Canadian intellectuals had a strong sense of their Canadian identity, but the man and the woman and the street saw few differences between Canada and the United States. Las Vegas, Hollywood, Wall Street and Disneyland were just great to most Canadians.

At 6:30, with my train about to depart, I had to leave abruptly. My discussion with Jacques and Hélène was still unfinished. It will continue again; whether we finish it or not may not matter.