Quebec's Struggle: Culture as Identity

SYLVIE TOUCHETTE says controversy was the last thing she expected to find in this sleepy town when she, her husband, and their two children moved to Rosemere, Quebec, five years ago.

"What we wanted were the trees," she says. "Language never occurred to me as a political issue for this place."

But Mrs. Touchette and other residents were stunned when - after a town referendum in April approved keeping city services bilingual and having, for example, street signs in both French and English - provincial officials said no. Only French would do.

Canada's national press corps descended for the fight. So did TV crews, provincial language officials, and lawyers. Mayor Yvan Deschenes pales when he recalls the hubbub in normally quiet Rosemere and the bitter dispute over language and local history.

"We've always been a bilingual town, we've always functioned in two languages," the mayor says. "We've always lived in harmony with no problems." Now relations between Rosemere and the province are so strained that the issue will likely remain unresolved until after much bigger decisions have been made on the future of Quebec.

Rosemere is a surface explosion of the deeper internal conflict felt by millions of French and English Canadians over cultural and regional loyalties. After driving the national agenda for decades, the Anglophone-Francophone issue is coming to a head. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney is holding out the possibility of a national referendum in September if provinces cannot agree on a national-unity package of federal proposals to rewrite the Constitution, redistribute federal powers, and grant Quebec status a s a "distinct society."

Quebec will hold a provincial referendum on federal proposals by Oct. 26 to determine whether Quebeckers feel the revisions to the Constitution go far enough in granting powers over immigration, cultural affairs, job retraining, and other concerns.

Either referendum could split the country apart if the proposals are not accepted in Quebec or by the rest of the nation.

"It's so important for us to preserve our language, and to control our laws on that," says Lise Sarrazin, a mother of two and native of Quebec interviewed amid the crowds of Place de Jardin, a downtown Montreal shopping area. "If English Canada could just understand that. We don't want privilege, just to be distinct." Canadians wrestle

Beneath the language fight and the eye-glazing governmental debate over constitutional reform are the emotional and intellectual wrestlings of ordinary Canadians trying to reconcile regional loyalties and their cultural identity with a fading concept of Canadian nationhood.

"Part of our problem is distance and geography," says Michael Bliss, a University of Toronto historian. "We're overwhelmed by trying to have a single national government and sense of identity for a diverse people scattered over 5,000 miles. We are, in fact, a thinly populated country with people clustered near the border.

"There's an enormous sense of regionalism, along with a sense of ethnic identification, that makes it very hard for us to talk about those things Canadians have in common, values we have in common," he says. "Natives tend to stay on reserves. Young Canadians don't move as frequently as young Americans. French Canadians tend to confine themselves to Quebec."

The province of Quebec witnessed a "quiet revolution" starting in the early 1960s when French-speaking Quebecois took it upon themselves to become better educated and gain economic clout. "Maitres chez nous" ("Masters in our own house") became an enduring watchword.

The province's high-spirited cultural nationalism, so closely associated by so many Quebecois with their individual identity, is one reason a near majority of all Quebeckers say they would vote for sovereignty, a term taken to mean some continuing economic ties to Canada. Recent polls say 40 percent of Quebecois want outright independence; the figure is 34 percent for all Quebeckers.

"We are losing our identity - it's not my imagination," says Louise Gratton, a molecular biologist sitting on a bench in the sun at the University of Montreal. "We are the only French speakers now in North America. The reaction of the Anglo community here to the [French language preservation laws] has been negative.... They don't understand that we have to survive.

"So many Anglophones like to go in a cafe on the street and eat a croissant. But that's a very superficial view of French culture," says Ms. Gratton. "To be French is not just to eat a croissant, it's another way of thinking."

In Rosemere, Sylvie Touchette says the town's harmony and bilingual identity are important to her, but that Quebec's French culture is paramount. "I could not live anywhere but Quebec."

Francophones justify language preservation laws - which restrict the use of English in civic and commercial signs, business transactions, schooling, and services - by pointing to English dominance in Canada and the pressure of the English-speaking cultural juggernaut to the south - the United States.

Rosemere's experience hints at the degree to which gut-level emotionalism over language, culture, and identity has permeated the debate.

"I don't know if [enforcing the language law] will make [Anglophones] more happy or not," says Mireille Hardy, a Francophone resident of Rosemere who spearheaded the drive last year to have the province reverse the town's bilingual status.

"But it will be a sign of respect for Francophones," she says.

And if Rosemere is a microcosm of provincial unrest, the pulsing hub of 3 million Montrealers a few miles to the south is the center of the storm.

None in Canada are more attuned to global political winds than the members of Montreal's multiethnic community. None are more sensitive to, or weary of, Canada's constitutional debate. And few have as much to gain or lose in this fall's political climax.

But if opinion polls and Montreal newspapers are to be believed, what frequently preoccupies Montreal's 70-percent French-speaking populace is not so much the daily constitutional debate, but the day's insults, real or perceived, against their French heritage.

Outrages small and large are a regular occurrence in Montreal's French-language press.

"L'Affaire Lindros" involved a promising Ontario-born hockey player, Eric Lindros, who inadvertently snubbed an entire province last spring by refusing to sign a contract with a Quebec team. ``L'Affaire Richler" erupted when Montreal novelist Mordecai Richler criticized Quebec lan- guage laws and antisemitism in The New Yorker.

These flaps pale in comparison to what Quebecois say was the supreme slap by "English Canada": their failure to ratify the Meech Lake accord of June 1990.

Quebec never signed the 1982 Constitution "patriated" from England by former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, holding out for just the sort of recognition - as a "distinct society" - that Meech offered.

But a vote on the accord was blocked in Manitoba by an Indian legislator upset that Meech didn't address native concerns. Newfoundland refused to vote, too, following political opposition.

Quebecois like Ms. Sarrazin say they were radicalized following Meech, when polls said 64 percent of them favored separating from Canada. Her ardor for sovereignty, along with others, has cooled with growing economic pressures from recession and free trade. (See related story, right.)

Yet if Quebecois feelings still run strong, so does the anguish of Quebec's 25-percent Anglophone minority, about 600,000 of whom live within 25 miles of Montreal.

For these English-speakers, many of them bilingual and born in Quebec, the 50 pages and 215 articles of the provincial language law - Bill 101 - are a daily indignity at least the equal of the Meech debacle. Strict enforcement of the law, as in Rosemere, has Anglophone Quebeckers complaining that their rights are being violated.

"I consider myself a Quebecker, even though I'm an Anglophone," says Andrew Simons, a graduate student in biology at McGill University. "I do think the culture of Quebec is something that is precious and should be preserved. But I think the language laws are an infringement of my civil rights" to free expression.

Annie Boucher, a 26-year-old teacher and lifelong Montrealer whose father's family is traceable in Quebec back to the 17th century, says: "I can't speak French, and if I go into a store in the city's East End and ask for something they're abusive, cold, and rude."

Quebec and Canada are rapidly changing from the inside. And even language laws and control over who immigrates into the province may not be enough to preserve French culture, some analysts say. Many across Canada's vast expanse now respond that if Quebeckers are a distinct society, what about the regional and ethnic identities of other Canadians? Allophones everywhere

Montreal's Anglophones and Francophones are increasingly surrounded by allophones: a multiethnic stew of Vietnamese, Chinese, Greeks, Italians, Portuguese, and Germans.

"It's not a question of English against French anymore," says Raimondo Cichi, a 22-year-old Italian Montrealer sitting at a bus stop in the West End section of the city. "It's a question of English and French and everyone else in this city. These people are trying to seclude French and English with their laws, but it won't work - there are too many ethnic groups."

"What's happening now is that Canada is in many ways one of the most globalized countries," says Elaine Bernard, former leader of the provincial New Democratic Party in British Columbia. "Now all of a sudden people are asking what makes us different? What makes us a country?"

"This crisis of identity - the crisis of Quebec - has been ongoing since founding of Canada. Now we have the chance to redefine our relationships with institutions and each other," she says. "So many define it in such a sad way. Others say here's a chance to fix things that have been wrong a long time."

But the potential for Quebec's estrangement remains stark.

"Older people are a little bit afraid of separating from Canada," says Anny Levesque, a University of Montreal student.

"But for me and my generation," she adds, "we are less afraid. We don't really know what will happen. Separation is not for sure. But they will have to recognize we are different."

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