Why Quebec's Heartland Will Tell 'English' Canada: Vive la Difference!

Ardent French-speakers say they want respect for their culture as they prepare to vote 'oui' for sovereignty

LIKE his French-speaking father and grandfather before him, Gaston LaPointe is striving to make ends meet on his small farm in a region that is the passionate heart of Quebec nationalism.

Standing in gray 7 a.m. light near a barn full of hungry Holstein cows, Mr. LaPointe's hand rests on the shoulder of his main helper, eldest son Frederic, as they speak to a visitor. ''I'm proud to be a Quebecker,'' says the son. ''And if Quebec votes 'yes' to become a country, I will be more proud.''

Frederic expects to be the seventh generation to farm here - but on land he hopes will be part of a new Quebec nation. His fervently wishes that the Oct. 30 referendum on whether Quebec should secede from Canada results in a ''yes'' vote.

While polls show support for Quebec ''sovereignty'' slipping provincewide, the desire for nationhood is still powerful here in this almost-entirely French-speaking region bounded by Lake St. Jean and the Saguenay River, about 300 miles northeast of Montreal.

People here are proud that they are the hard core of Quebec's separatist movement, a bloc expected later this month to vote overwhelmingly for independence.

In interviews, families and residents of this unique region spoke of pride of language and culture, anger over wrongs done Quebec by ''English'' Canada, and their desire for nationhood.

Gaston, for example, echoes his son's hope despite concerns about the negative economic impact separation would have on his farm.

''It takes a great sacrifice to save our language,'' says the elder LaPointe, referring to the economic hardship many predict if Quebeckers vote for independence. ''But it will be worth it if they [English-speaking Canadians] finally respect us.''

Such feelings are deeply ingrained, harking back to the pivotal 1759 battle between the British and the French on the Plains of Abraham battlefield on the bluffs of Quebec City. The French defeat there led to Britain asserting its control over New France. It is still referred to as ''the conquest'' - forgotten by many, but not the separatist faithful of the Lake St. Jean-Saguenay area.

The 320-acre LaPointe dairy farm in the wide plain beyond the Laurentian Mountains is about a mile from Jonquiere. The region is a huddle of small farms buoyed economically by aluminum and paper manufacturing. Most residents are descendants of settlers who arrived in the 18th century from the French province of Normandy to inhabit the rugged New France.

Separatist sentiments have burned brightly here for at least three decades, the culmination of generations of resentment over economic and cultural domination by Anglophone (English speaking) society and business.

The flame of independence was ignited by former Quebec premier Rene Levesque in the 1960s - a period called the ''quiet revolution'' - when French-speaking Quebeckers began to reassert themselves politically. Since then, through thick and thin, the region has consistently supported Quebec nationhood and those who espouse it.

''Yes, I would be very proud if Quebec separates,'' says Anne, Gaston's wife. ''I admit that I don't think it will make things better for women. I'm not sure how things will work out. But I'm prepared to make sacrifices.''

Even within Quebec, which has tried and failed to gain recognition from Canada's other nine provinces as a ''distinct society,'' the people of Lake St. Jean-Saguenay see themselves as distinct.

Guy Laforest, a political scientist at Laval University in Quebec City, says there is no easy explanation why this region so unfailingly supports independence, but suggests geography could play a role.

''It's a rugged region ... separated from the rest of Canada and even the rest of Quebec by mountains and forest,'' he says. ''Its own sense of autonomy has given it a strong sense of identity - that and the fact that it is almost exclusively Francophone.''

''This region feels distinct,'' concurs Suzanne LaVoie, a sales clerk at a jewelry store in Jonquiere. ''It's a feeling - but it's true, too - that if something is going to happen in Quebec, it starts here.''

But why the desire for nationhood? Resentment over historical grievances passed down from generation to generation may be part of the answer.

Romeo Caron, a retired millwright, and his wife, Janine, live in a small, white clapboard home with blue trim in a tidy subdivision of Jonquiere known as ''Little France.'' Street signs here bear the names of regions of France.

''I grew up hearing my father curse the English,'' he says, rocking back in a kitchen chair. ''My father said to all six of us children that we must say to them [English-speaking Canadians] that they are a superior race if we are to get along with them.''

But those feelings of cultural inferiority and economic and cultural domination by ''English Canadians'' was a lesson ''I never forgot,'' says Mr. Caron. Caron's father labored in the nearby paper mill, struggling to read English notices. French Canadians, he says, were not considered intelligent enough to hold any job but that of a laborer.

''There's been an evolution since then,'' he says with a broad smile. ''We have no fear and no more inferiority complex here in Saguenay. And now we're ready.''

Romeo's wife, Janine, worries that Quebeckers, afraid of recession or bad economic effects, will vote against independence, as happened in a 1980 referendum. That, she says, will lead to a gradual loss of the French language. She, too, feels that English-speaking Canada looks down on Quebec.

''I'm not afraid of losing the French language here in this region,'' she says, ''but in Montreal - yes, it could happen.... I think the rest of Canada would be glad to see the back of Quebec.''

The feeling that the other provinces would be glad to see Quebec go has its foundations in recent history. First came the failed Meech Lake constitutional accords in 1990, which would have recognized Quebec as a ''distinct society.'' Then came the 1992 defeat of a national referendum, the Charlottetown accords, which tried a similar rapprochement. Now the prevailing attitude outside Quebec is that if Quebec wants to go, let it go.

Quebeckers, meanwhile, view these failed efforts at reconciliation as rejection, or ''slaps'' by the rest of Canada at Quebec. For those in Saguenay, the verdict on these failures is harsh: No room remains for a lasting accord with Canada.

''It's too late for Canada now, the status quo is finished,'' says Mrs. Caron. ''Declaring Quebec to be distinct isn't enough anymore. We want sovereignty. If [the Meech Lake accords] had gone through, Quebec would stay, but not now. There's only one thing left - and that is to accept Quebec as a nation.''

Quebec nationhood has never been a question for Xavier Fortin, a fifth-generation farmer in Alma, who fathered eight children - most of them now living in the Saguenay region.

On a recent night he and eight other family members gathered in his home to discuss the Oct. 30 referendum and their feelings about sovereignty. All agreed independence for Quebec was the only option they would choose.

''Nobody on this earth wants their culture to be assimilated,'' explains Xavier's son Robert. ''I live in a country [Canada] that is very rich - but which, in its politics, is against my culture, against my language. It is pressuring me politically and ghetto-izing me economically.''

Robert struggles a bit when asked why he feels this way when Quebec's controversial Bill 101 has safeguarded the French language, in part, by limiting the right to display English on public signs and in the course of everyday speech in many businesses.

There is also the fact that the vast majority of Canadian prime ministers in the past two decades have been from Quebec. And the separatist Bloc Quebecois is the official opposition party in the Canadian Parliament. Where is the oppression?

When Robert traveled from New Brunswick to British Columbia, he says, his hope was to learn about the other half of Canada, its point of view, its culture. What he found instead, he says, was a Canada that pigeonholed him based on his limited ability to speak English. At the hotel where he worked in Alberta, he says he noticed two categories of employees - Anglophones and Francophones.

''Francophones were always the ones who washed dishes. I washed dishes. They wouldn't even let me be a busboy. I went with a dream about learning about other cultures. When I came home, my dream was over,'' Robert says.

His brother Jocelyn says he sees in Quebec sovereignty the ''regaining of power we had lost.''

Another brother, Claude, offers: ''It's a big cultural fight. It's not that we hate English culture - it's just that we want our culture to survive, too.''

Leaning back in his chair, Xavier suggests that despite the prejudice he and his children had experienced in other parts of Canada, generations of his family have desired a Quebec nation for reasons other than resentment.

''I have nothing against English Canada or anyone,'' Xavier says, staring at the floor for a moment. ''I just want to live equally - then there won't be anymore mischief between the two solitudes [Canada and Quebec] - and there will finally, at long last, be peace.''

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