A Day for Quebec To Feel French

Holiday celebrates Francophone history and culture. But some English speakers say 'enough.'

With the school year winding down, this has been the season for trips to Quebec City. The streets of the provincial capital are full of visiting schoolchildren. They stream through the halls of the National Assembly, an elegant Beaux Arts structure built to refute Lord Durham's often-quoted dismissal of Quebeckers as a people "with no history, and no literature."

Then the students spill out onto the nearby Plains of Abraham. This is where British Gen. James Wolfe defeated French Gen. Louis de Montcalm in a battle in 1759 that in effect ended the involvement of France in North America.

But if France is no longer here, the French language and French culture certainly remain. So does the question: What constitutional construct can be developed to satisfy French Canadians' national aspirations and still preserve Canada's unity?

Today, June 24, is St. John the Baptist Day, and the blue-and-white fleur-de-lis flag will be flying. This is the day in the church calendar traditionally observed for the patron saint of French Canadians. But in recent years it has evolved into a "national day" for Quebeckers. During the early 1990s, as Canada struggled with the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Accord - two attempts at formulating a special status for Quebec - St. John the Baptist Day brought hundreds of thousands of people out onto the streets to demonstrate national pride.

The mood is quieter now, but tense. A few weeks ago, the English-language-rights group Alliance Quebec narrowly elected a new president, William Johnson, known as "Pit Bill." He promises a court challenge to the law that requires immigrants to Quebec to enroll their children in French, not English, schools.

He says Canadians are being too soft on Quebec separatists, who, in his view, would tear the country apart. "Concessions simply strengthen the separatists' hand," he says. He charges that "no one has produced a definitive list" of demands for a special status for Quebec.

He is focusing on Bill 101, a law that requires children to attend French rather than English schools unless they have a parent who attended an English school in Canada. This law, he says, contravenes international human-rights standards. "The birth or status of parents should not be a factor in access to public schools under the UN Convention on Rights of the Child," he says.

Although he claims strong grass-roots support for his aggressive stance, even many ardent federalists are quite happy to let the language law be. Stphane Dion, point man on the unity issue in the federal government, has called the plans for a court challenge "useless and probably doomed to failure."

Michel Venne, correspondent for the Montreal daily Le Devoir, sees Mr. Johnson's call for a court challenge as typical of an Anglophone tendency to turn to the courts rather than to parliaments to deal with problems. "If there's a problem with the democratically adopted law, let's fix it in the parliament," he says.

Johnson, although educated in French and fully bilingual, "has become a militant for the English way of seeing society," Mr. Venne says. This means an emphasis on individual rights, including rights to privacy, and less concern for solidarity and equity within the society.

June 24 is also the birthday of Jean Charest, the new leader of the Quebec Liberal Party. The fully bilingual son of a Francophone father who wanted to name him Jean-Baptiste - and an Irish mother who had other ideas - he was named John James Charest but is universally known as Jean. Until March he was the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, based in Ottawa.

But when the leader of the Quebec Liberals, who favor union with Canada, stepped down, Mr. Charest was drafted across party lines. The widespread feeling was that only he could stand up to the separatist government of Lucien Bouchard.

That such a jump would be possible shows how the issue of unity, rather than the usual notions of right and left, is the more important political fault line in Canada.

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