Thursday, April 17, 2014

Three Conquests of Quebec

There are three events in Quebec’s history that have marked our collective consciousness as a nation more than any others: the Conquest of 1760; the Annexation of Lower Canada in 1840 following the defeat of the Patriotes in 1837-38 and the passage of the Act of Union by the Westminster Parliament in 1840, which combined Upper and Lower Canada into a united Province with a single legislature; and, finally, the Constitutional reform of 1982 to the exclusion of Quebec.

These, we may say, represent three major “defeats” in the history of a people whose name gradually changed from Canadiens to Canadiens français and most recently to Québécois. Moreover, these three defeats are defining events in our history — our political history of course but, clearly with regard to 1760 and 1840, in other dimensions as well: economic, social, and cultural. Today, the quest for the survival of a French identity in a majority English-speaking country and continent remains central to Quebecers’ identity and a reality inseparable from the Conquest. 

The first major defeat: 1759

After 1760, Canadiens not only lost their commercial empire in the West but most of their access to executive positions, to the detriment of individual socio-economic success and the capacity to shape their destiny as a people. Before 1760, Canadiens had access to most of the most important business, military, and political positions in the colony, as illustrated (toward the end of the regime) by Philippe de Rigaud Vaudreuil (1698-1778), the last governor general of New France, a Canadien born and raised in Canada.

After the Conquest, not only did the population lose some of their elites, who moved on to pursue their careers elsewhere in the French Empire, but those who remained in New France lost their handle on government, administration, big business, and the military. The Canadien gentry entered into decline. Gradually, the colony’s elites were overwhelmingly composed of the WASP minority, power residing in the hands of London and of men nominated by Britain. Later that overarching power shifted to Ottawa, an almost entirely English-speaking government before the 1970s, and one that from Quebec’s perspective remains today the expression of an English-Canadian majority, even if at times with strong Quebec contingents.

If the upper class and executive levels of Quebec society were, for the most part, inaccessible to French Canadians, the Quebec Act of 1774, resolving the status of French civil law and setting up a legislature, did leave a space for a French Canadian middle class to consolidate its position and eventually to lead a movement contesting inequalities in the colony, especially using the Legislature founded with the Constitutional Act of 1791 (for which some members of this class had petitioned in the 1780s). So much so that, having become overly optimistic, the leaders of what was first called the Parti canadien, later termed Parti patriote and led by Papineau, were for decades confident that self-determination would be obtained gradually without great difficulty, and at first within the Empire. They saw this as the natural course. If the American and French Revolutions were more radical, they believed Britain, with its liberal constitution, simply espoused the same ideals with a more moderate approach, and thus would accept the gradual and friendly emancipation of its colonies. They believed long before that they could obtain for Lower Canada the same things that in time the English-Canadian majority achieved for the Dominion in 1867.

Indeed, the North American colonial context had proven favourable toward alleviating the oppression of French Canadians. The legal exclusion of Catholics in 1763 with the Proclamation Act was reversed in 1774 with the Quebec Act. In 1791 the Constitutional Act went one step further with the creation of a Legislature to which the colony’s Catholics could be elected. Monsignor Plessis, in 1799, thanked Providence that the Conquest had saved Canada — French Canada — from the French Revolution (as well as the American one). 

The leaders of the Catholic Church were not the only ones to develop a positive outlook on the Conquest or on British rule. Even though the constitution of 1791 was gained at the expense of the loss of considerable fertile land to Upper Canada, the Canadiens’ new political leaders, after 1791, were generally optimistic. They believed British imperial policy would evolve positively, that democracy and self-determination, through gradual autonomy, were achievable for Lower Canada. London could even be an ally, they believed, against the more rabid representatives of British imperialism within the colony, hardline elements that had clashed with governors Murray and Carleton in the early days of the British regime. This proved to be wrong: the emancipation of Lower Canada garnered a strong and vehement opposition from British colonists. Lower Canadian independence, they argued, was not in Britain’s interest. Lord Durham would state this explicitly in his report in 1839, proposing  a plan that would ensure French-speakers were a minority in a merged province. Based on his report, the Union Act of 1840 placed the French in a minority. 

What had brought about Durham’s report and the Union Act? In the 1830s, after decades of political struggle with few substantial gains, the dominant leaders of the Patriote party, following Papineau, had begun to lose confidence in the peaceful path to democracy and self-determination. Increasingly, they believed London had to be challenged — especially given that the Governor’s powers remained little changed since 1791, while the colonization of new lands was being monopolized by the government to the exclusion of the Canadiens. The firm rebuttal they received in 1837 with the Russell Resolutions and the violent repression that ensued in the Rebellions of 1837-38 under General Colbourne, put an abrupt end to naive optimism. Canadiens would no longer envisage their independence as part of an easy and gradual evolution, in the natural course of things. As an immediate consequence of the failure of the Patriotes to overthrow British rule in 1837-38, Lower Canada was subordinated to the United Province. 

Ever since the Union Act, which took effect in 1841, Quebec has remained part of a larger jurisdiction in which the English-speaking element is a majority  in fact a majority that has increased along the way. This is largely due to the rapid pace of population growth through immigration when new Canadians integrate, culturally, to the English-Canadian majority in much greater numbers than to Quebec’s francophone majority.

For decades, most French Canadian leaders would either partake in pan-Canadian politics, adapting to the English majority’s vehicles, the federal Liberal or Conservative parties, or reverting to cultural nationalism and resistance to assimilation. The latter, the nationalists, attempted to find long-term solutions to their economic exclusion that came to fruition in the 1960s and 1970s.

The ‘second conquest’: 1840

The renewed “conquest” of 1840 was a defining event in Quebec history. It sealed, for more than a century, the destiny of the French-speaking nation, reducing it to minority status in a manner that shaped its national consciousness. French Canadians henceforth conceived of themselves as a national minority, developing complexes about disadvantages and the economic and political leadership set over them, to the extent that they became afraid to make claims for themselves. The governing elite pronounced them to be inferior, and French Canadians adapted to a world in which their exclusion from certain circles and executive positions was almost a given, to the point of interiorizing some of these complexes. This inferiority complex had not yet crystallized before the failure of the Rebellions and the ensuing annexation of 1840, which may therefore be regarded as a turning point. 

It might seem surprising, but confederation only furthered the sense of inferiority because even though a provincial “nation state” of Quebec was reinstated in 1867 with a capital and legislature at Quebec City, French Canadians continued to participate in its governance as if they were a “minority” in a British-dominated province. This is best illustrated by the fact that their political formations, Liberal and Conservative, were in every way incorporated and subordinate to the federal, Canada-wide party structures. In a province with 75% or 80% Catholic francophones since 1867, finance ministers were usually anglophone and Protestant, up to Maurice Duplessis’s return to power in 1944.

The only real exception before the advent of the Union Nationale movement was Honoré Mercier’s parti national coalition after the hanging of Riel in 1885. Mercier was elected in 1886 but the passing of the reins of power was delayed by the lieutenant-governor, who toppled the newly re-elected government in 1891. Indeed, Mercier’s government, which actively pursued national assertion and provincial autonomy, had already met with serious federal opposition. Apart from Mercier, most Quebec politicians did not rock the boat. After all, economic power still eluded the majority of Quebecers. 

Instead, nationalism found expression mainly in intellectual movements such as those founded by admirers of Henri Bourassa in the early twentieth century or in the influential network of movements around the priest-historian Fr. Lionel Groulx. His latter movement found a political expression in the Action Libérale Nationale whose reformist programme was popular in the 1935 and 1936 Quebec elections. They wanted to overthrow the “colonial order” in Quebec and make French Canadians “masters in our own house” through provincial legislation, such as by nationalizing hydro-electricity. Their alliance with Duplessis conservatives, though, which bore fruit in the Union Nationale under his leadership, resulted in the abandonment of all the more radical changes proposed in their programme after the 1936 election victory, in favour of a more restrained defense of provincial autonomy.

It is only with the Quiet Revolution that governments renewed a more aggressive programme, including the nationalization of hydro in 1962. This new dawn launched a fast-paced “emancipation” movement that had been advancing slowly, almost subterraneously, in the preceding decades, but which had for the most part been stalled or sidelined politically since confederation. 

Where was all this leading? The provincial Liberals under Jean Lesage and the more conservative Union Nationale under Daniel Johnson both believed that not only were they competing for a “national” government, but that Quebec’s status required a wide-ranging modification of the Canadian constitutional order which Johnson summarized in the slogan “Equality or Independence.” 

In its own way, René Lévesque’s Parti Québécois, established in 1968 and advocating “sovereignty-association,” proposed another version of this remodelling of the constitutional order. Short of outright independence, they seemed to espouse a form of national self-determination of Quebecers without breaking altogether from Canada, much like the status gradually achieved by the Dominion of Canada within the British Empire. 

A third ‘defeat’: 1980-82

At first, there even seemed to be openness to this in Ottawa. It is not impossible to imagine negotiations between Daniel Johnson and Robert Stanfield had they held power simultaneously in Quebec City and Ottawa — in contrast to the brick wall presented by Pierre Trudeau. For a brief moment, Quebec appeared to be confidently on the path toward freeing itself from two hundred years of subordination.

Instead Trudeau, ensconced as Prime Minister, emerged as the herald of those who staunchly opposed devolution. French Canadians voted both for Trudeau and Lévesque, seeming to believe that both could be their champions. Trudeau promised a “renewed” Canada. Rather than a negotiated association between two nations, he advocated one Canada, bilingual and multicultural, that would break away from its two national traditions (British and French) in favour of a new identity. 

The advent of Trudeau would lead Ottawa and Quebec City to clash, and Ottawa to enter into a long-lasting organizational mould of blocking as far as possible any devolution while at the same time always expanding the role of the federal government. Faced with the opposition of a French Canadian Prime Minister opposed to negotiation, and aptly pushing all the buttons of Quebec’s inferiority complexes since 1837, Lévesque’s strategy failed in the 1980 referendum. The prerequisite of Lévesque’s strategy was reciprocal English-Canadian goodwill, open to negotiation, which meant that the 1980 referendum was doomed to fail once Trudeau returned to power.  

This sealed the defeat of national affirmation, with Trudeau imposing a new constitution on Quebec that saw his vision triumph: bilingual (for individuals and services, but not truly bicultural or binational), multicultural, and centered on the federal government. In practice, this new constitution has been made very difficult to reform, blocked first by Trudeauists’ influence on public opinion during the Meech Lake fiasco, then by various laws limiting the possibility of constitutional reform under Chrétien, according to principles of regional veto that hadn’t been respected in 1981-82. 

Quebec now seems stuck, half-in, half-out in national terms, without any clear view of feasible solutions to this renewed subordination in an order that it does not really accept. As was the case after 1840, Quebecers seem resigned to having to evolve as an unwilling national minority. The persistence of a sovereigntist or separatist movement in Quebec leaves open the possibility of new movements in the future — but at present Quebecers seem not only divided but very hesitant as to what path to follow. 

Perhaps what is most striking though, in 2012, more than the election of the PQ with a small plurality of seats, is the overly aggressive reaction to the Quebec campaign and the PQ’s nationalist programme in much of the English-speaking media. Measures that are commonplace in many Western democracies are suddenly presented in serious editorials as the most viciously racist policies in the West. This surely is an indication that old colonial complexes and relationships between English and French Canada linger on.

In the 1950s, historian Maurice Séguin used to say that French Canada (or Quebec) was too strong to assimilate, but too feeble to break away. In the 1960s and 1970s, with the Quiet Revolution, increasing numbers of Quebecers — and even foreigners, notably De Gaulle of France — believed this to be no longer the case. Most strikingly, René Lévesque himself, in his 1967-68 essay Option Québec, claimed that sovereignty would be achieved easily and soon, as a natural process. The rise to power of Trudeau proved him wrong and, since the imposition of a new constitutional order in 1982, together with two referendum defeats and the electoral collapse of the Bloc Quebecois, Séguin’s conclusion would seem to enjoy a renewed resonance.

An excerpt from Three Conquests of Quebec by Charles-Philippe Courtois published in the Dorchester Review December 20, 2012

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