From Saint-Léonard to the Bouchard-Taylor Commission

This article was translated by Julian Olson.

Entre mes quatre murs de glace
Je mets mon temps et mon espace
À préparer le feu la place
Pour les humains de l’horizon
Et les humains sont de ma race.

— Gilles Vigneault, “Mon pays”

Who remembers Saint-Léonard? This former municipality, now just a Montreal borough, was the scene of one of the sorriest events in recent Quebec history. The only real interethnic confrontations in post–Quiet Revolution Quebec occurred in Saint-Léonard. Now, with the tiny municipality of Hérouxville’s humorous expression of its dissatisfaction with Islamic immigration (it adopted a regulation which forbade the stoning of women) and with numerous witnesses at the Bouchard-Taylor Commission’s public hearings describing the growing tension between the so-called “Québécois de souche” and some immigrant communities, it is important to remember this dramatic episode in Quebec history.

Is Quebec, in a sense, going back to square one? The current situation bears a strange resemblance to the time when Quebec nationalism could easily have given birth to a movement of the right, or even the far right, with immigration as one of its principal targets. We know that this did not happen, and that in spite of real frictions, Quebec nationalism quickly took the form of a liberal centre-left movement which aimed to provide a better welcome for newcomers than most other countries in the world. But this sort of choice is never final, and the testimony heard by the Bouchard-Taylor Commission shows that the question of what attitude to take toward immigration has come back to haunt the Quebec nationalist movement. To understand why this debate is happening now, we must go back in history.

Ethnic riots

On September 3, 1969, a riot broke out in Saint-Léonard between Italian Quebecers who wanted English education for their children and members of the Ligue pour l’Intégration Scolaire (LIS, founded the previous year as the Mouvement pour l’Intégration Scolaire), a group of French-speaking parents and nationalist activists who demanded that the children of immigrants be integrated into the francophone school system. At that time, immigrants to Quebec had the choice of their children’s language of instruction, with the result that the vast majority chose English.

That this conflict would take a really violent turn stretches our imagination. Following a decision of the school commission to impose French courses on children of immigrants who spoke other languages, the members of the Saint-Léonard Italian community refused to send their children to school. A first fracas broke out following an LIS meeting in the Jérôme-Le Royer School Commission building. There were four injured, including LIS president Raymond Lemieux. A week later, a new altercation took place in the streets of Saint-Léonard. It too resulted in several injured. The LIS was denied the right to demonstrate in Saint-Léonard, but Lemieux invited his members to defy the prohibition. A thousand showed up at Le Boulevard shopping centre. This new clash injured 18 people and caused extensive property damage. The riot act was read and more than 500 helmeted police, including 300 from the Sûreté du Québec, intervened with clubs and teargas to separate the belligerents.

Weeks later the National Assembly, unaware of the apprehensions of the francophone population, lit the fuse by passing Bill 63, giving parents free choice of their children’s language of instruction. This provoked some of the biggest demonstrations Quebec had ever known. After numerous twists and turns, these events eventually led to the passing of laws that were more in line with the people’s will and restored a certain linguistic peace: Bill 22 (1974) made French the official language of Quebec and Bill 101 (1977) required immigrants to attend French schools.

As with the current debate over the kirpan in school or the veil in the voting booth, the crisis that erupted in 1969 originated in an “accommodation” of the immigrant population that the francophone majority found unreasonable. The local school commission came to the conclusion that the experiment with bilingual classes had to be ended, to be replaced with classes given in French. The large Italian minority, which preferred to send its children to bilingual schools, denounced this decision.

The liberal and nationalist elites, then as now, didn’t see it coming – it was Jean-Jacques Bertrand’s Union Nationale government that introduced Bill 63. They were so poorly attuned as to side with the immigrant minority against the francophone majority, itself a minority in Canada. The effect of Bill 63 would be to hasten the trend toward making francophones a minority in their own province, since as everyone knows immigrant populations tend to choose the language of the majority in Canada and in North America for their children.

Quebecers are often accused of being suspicious of immigration and thus falling prey to a “minority complex.” However, they have good reason to be prudent. Are they not descendants of the Canadiens, later the French Canadians, reduced to a minority by massive immigration to Canada before and after Confederation? After having been the first to explore North America from the Appalachians to the Rockies, these descendants of the first French settlers saw assimilation continue full force even in the heart of what they considered their last bastion, the province of Quebec. This process even seems to be encouraged by a portion of their nationalist elite.

Looking back at the 1960s allows us to understand how the explosive situation in Quebec at the time held all the ingredients necessary for the development of a right-wing or even far-right nationalist movement, in reaction to immigration. Quebec had all the characteristics required for the appearance of an overtly xenophobic movement like the Vlams Belang in Flanders or the National Front in France. In retrospect, it is surprising that such movements did not develop in Quebec at the time. Credit is due to René Lévesque and the democratic independence movement, including organizations like the Rassemblement pour l’Indépendance Nationale, which instead of attacking immigrants invited them to participate in the growing Quebec national movement, learn French and take part in a truly pluralist society. The poet Gérald Godin, who became immigration minister in Lévesque’s government, symbolized more than anyone else this openness toward immigrants.

Instead of a xenophobic right-wing nationalist movement like the ones in Flanders, the Netherlands, France, Italy’s Piedmont region and so many other places, an atypical centre-left sovereignty movement, broadly inclusive and open to immigration, flourished in Quebec. The first black member of the National Assembly in Quebec’s history sat for the Parti Québécois. There aren’t many nationalist movements in the world whose cultural spokesperson could say, as did Gilles Vigneault, “Between my four walls of ice/I devote my time and space/To prepare a warm place/For the humans on the horizon/And the humans are my race.”

Forty years later

Today, a large part of francophone Quebec once again seems suspicious of immigration, regarding it as a threat to its survival. How have we come to this situation?

To understand what is happening today, it is necessary to understand the bargain that Quebec sovereigntists proposed to Quebecers and to immigrant populations in the 1970s. The francophone majority would be assured of its survival and fulfilment in a society where it would at last achieve the status of a majority people. In return for such an assurance, francophone Quebecers had every reason to be magnanimous and open to immigration. This guarantee was part of a movement that promised to reconquer Montreal linguistically and truly institutionalize the rights of the francophone minority by making it a majority in a Quebec on the march toward independence, or at least toward greater political autonomy. The leading figures in the Parti Québécois incorporated this idea so thoroughly that they regularly acted as if they already governed an independent country. Thus, the sovereigntist elites themselves were the main promoters of Quebec’s own form of ethnic pluralism, rebaptized “interculturalism.” The concept simply took Canada’s rhetoric of ethnic pluralism and adapted it a bit, notably by recalling the importance of the French language.

However, the promises of the sovereignty movement were not kept, and Quebecers are discovering today that what they believed to be unshakeable protections are much more fragile than they realized. Thus it is no surprise that the bargain made in the seventies no longer holds.

The failure of Bill 101

In the first place, the sovereignty movement lost two referendums, in 1980 and 1995. For a large number of nationalists, openness to immigration made sense to the degree that Quebec progressed, perhaps slowly but nonetheless surely, toward independence. This slow progress was brutally interrupted in 1995. Promises of a third referendum have so far convinced no one. Sovereigntists themselves are therefore today tempted by other solutions, such as the right-wing autonomy proposed by Mario Dumont and the ADQ.

Quebecers found that the barriers they had erected against assimilation did only half the job, especially in Montreal. Thirty years after Bill 101 was passed, we know that this legislation has given Quebec a francophone face. We know that it has slowed, but not stopped, the Canadian steamroller. In fact, all studies show that in spite of the law, fewer than half of new arrivals wind up integrating into the francophone majority. Forty years after Saint-Léonard, more than half of immigrants arriving in Quebec eventually choose to join the anglophone minority. The sovereigntists who erected Bill 101 as a symbol of identity still hesitate to recognize what one day will have to be called the failure of Bill 101, at least as concerns the integration of more than half of Quebec immigrants and the linguistic reconquest of Montreal.

A reader of the Montreal newspaper Le Devoir recently recounted the unfolding of annual festivities in Montreal’s Little Italy. Rather than French, or even Italian, the dominant language of the festivities in 2007 was English. And this right in the heart of one of the largest francophone cities in the world.

Certainly, new arrivals generally come out of school bilingual, but for most of them, French remains the language that they use in public whenever they must but still hesitate to adopt at home. When Quebecers braved the prejudices of the English-speaking world and the Canadian Charter of Rights to pass Bill 101, it was not to integrate 45 per cent of immigrants, but rather their fair share, which is to say close to 90 per cent. Neither was it to create a new organically bilingual population, able to answer politely in either language. It could be said that immigrants who choose English often do so to move to an English-speaking province. However, in so doing, they contribute to making Quebecers a minority in the whole of Canada, where they already represent no more than 23 per cent of the population. Recently, in another sign of insecurity about identity, the Quebec National Assembly unanimously opposed reduction of the proportion of Quebec members in the Canadian Parliament – a decline about which Canada couldn’t care less.

The agreement symbolized by Bill 101 implied that, on the one hand, Quebec francophones would be very open to new arrivals, but that on the other these new arrivals would integrate in a generation or two, making French their main language. This agreement was never kept. And today the francophone population is realizing it in a dramatic way. The populations surrounding Montreal, in what has become celebrated as the 450 region, are suddenly discovering, to their stupefaction, that under the impact of globalization and in spite of Bill 101, their metropolis is more and more bilingual. It’s not that francophones are becoming Anglicized, as in the past. Rather, large numbers of them are becoming bilingualized, not to say “Canadianized,” as Montrealers increasingly practise a sort of Catalan-style organic bilingualism. Moreover, hasn’t a segment of the Quebec nationalist movement already proposed a form of “Catalanization” of Quebec political life?

As in 1969, the nationalist political elites, anxious not to be seen as “ethnicist,” seem not to have seen anything coming. Like the Union Nationale at the time, with Bill 63, they were contributing to the feeling of insecurity and loss of linguistic and cultural bearings.

Think back to the outcry last year at the first version of the new high school history program, which said nothing about such important events as the battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Patriote uprisings in 1837 and 1838. Of course the program was revised, but it left a bitter taste in the mouths of Quebecers, who fear above all that Montreal’s cosmopolitan elites will let complete sections of their Quebec identity and national history slip away.

The new ethics and religious culture programs are in the same mould. Since the Quiet Revolution, Quebecers have been among the least churchgoing people in the world. When asked, most continue to say they are Catholic. They practise a “soft” religion which is a matter more of personal identity than public display. Eighty per cent continue to enrol their primary-school children in catechism courses instead of the moral teaching offered in all public schools. At a time of repeated pedagogical revolutions, they often choose this course because they simply wish to give their children an education like the one they had 30 years earlier. But now, following a Supreme Court judgment, some bureaucrats have gotten it into their heads to eliminate catechism courses entirely from schools and to replace them with a British-style secular program, presenting all beliefs from Hinduism to animism on a relatively equal footing. This is a step that has never been taken even in as secular a country as France, where Wednesday afternoon remains free for parents to give their children their choice of religious instruction. “Thus the religion of the majority is going down the drain … We should not be surprised that this causes a stir,” Jean-François Lisée, director of the Centre d’Études et de Recherches Internationales de l’Université de Montréal (CÉRIUM), quite rightly commented.

Add to this portrait of the causes of linguistic and cultural insecurity the recent judgement of the Quebec Court of Appeal, which struck down Bill 104, designed to close a loophole in Bill 101 that some parents used to send their children to English schools. Before Bill 104 was passed in 2002, it was enough to send a child to a private nonsubsidized English school for a year to make him or her immediately eligible for admission to an English public school. If this judgement is sustained, it will confirm the right of parents who have the means to pay for a year of private nonsubsidized English schooling to circumvent Bill 101.

Let us remember as well that all this debate is taking place in the context of a massive increase in immigration. Since 2002, the number of new arrivals in Quebec has risen by 40 per cent, a staggering increase that would bring on a debate in any country. And many propose increasing the quotas yet again. Clearly, there is no lack of reasons for the revival of Quebecers’ feeling of linguistic and cultural insecurity – reasons that can be traced to the worldwide undertow of globalization, which is arousing strong reactions even in Britain and France, where identity is neither fragile nor threatened.

At the crossroads

Nearly 40 years after the events in Saint-Léonard, Quebec is once again at the crossroads, and the elites seem to be just as unaware. Either the political forces find a way to renew the pact with the francophone majority, guaranteeing them that they may one day act as a true majority in a pluralistic, welcoming Quebec into which immigrants integrate, or we will see an understandable retreat into ethnic identity. The Quebec nationalist movement will then follow the path of similar movements in Flanders or Piedmont. Deprived of the prospect of being “masters in their own house,” conscious of Quebec’s continuing movement toward being a smaller minority in Canada, Quebecers will barricade themselves. This could open the door to xenophobic movements, or more simply to massive and radical opposition to immigration of the kind that exists even in left-wing parties in France and Germany.

Quebec will then have missed a unique chance to show the world that its nationalism can be open to diversity and welcoming to all. It is, however, not completely out of the question that, in the framework of the present constitution, nationalists may find the elements of a program that can give back to the population its confidence in its ability eventually to integrate 80 per cent of the immigrant population. Some have suggested recently that we examine the possibility of insisting that 100 per cent of future immigrants know French, along the lines of similar provisions in Britain and France. Many nationalist activists have also long asked that the requirement that immigrants’ children attend French schools be extended to the CEGEP (junior college) level. It is probably time to examine these proposals seriously, although they will sharpen the conflict between Quebec and Ottawa.

Instead of turning up our noses at what some have disparagingly called the aftertaste left by a number of statements heard at the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, instead of ridiculing Quebecers in the regions who are not in tune with the sophisticated cosmopolitanism of the Montreal elite, the Quebec left would do better to find concrete ways to renew its promise.