'Montreal shuffle': Why Quebeckers refuse to give up

In a country known for the 'two solitudes' of its French and Anglo traditions, Canadian Francophones still push for sovereignty.

'Are they still meeting?" the taxi driver asked after his passenger directed him to the congress center where Quebec's governing Parti Qubcois (PQ) was having its convention.

It is possible to impute too much wisdom to taxi drivers, but he clearly was suggesting that the party, and the government in Quebec City, were irrelevant to "real life."

The taxi driver got to this point with his passenger only after a couple of rounds of Montreal shuffle - wherein two Anglos speak to each other in French until one or the other realizes that the conversation would probably proceed more smoothly in English. Sometimes it is the other way round when conversations switch to French.

Either way, once he had ascertained that his passenger was not a Francophone, but a visitor from outside Quebec, he warmed to his topic. "The morning after [Quebec Premier Lucien] M. Bouchard has his next referendum, and wins, there are some guys in New York [who are] gonna give him a buzz. They're gonna call him up and say, "Remember, Lucien, you can't just do what you want, because we own 75 percent of that place."

It is fair to say that Bouchard is familiar with the idea that Wall Street exercises some influence on his government. Over the past few years, he and his team have made many visits to New York to try to shore up their credit rating by convincing market analysts that La Belle Province is still a good investment, within or without Canada.

Sovereignty - or separatism, to put it in terms Americans would recognize - is back as the main issue for the PQ. "It's time for us to go back on the offensive," Bouchard told the convention, whose theme was "Un pays pour le monde" or "a country for the world."

Reelected in November 1998 with a majority of seats, but fewer popular votes than the opposition Liberals, the PQ government seemed like the gang that couldn't shoot straight until just recently. But some labor contract successes and the new something-for-everyone budget in March, among other victories, have left Bouchard smelling like a rose. He won a 91 percent vote of confidence from his party over the weekend.

"We are really in good shape to try again on sovereignty," Louise Beaudoin, Bouchard's minister of international relations, told the Monitor.

The delegates reaffirmed their position that, in the case of a referendum in favor of sovereignty, Quebec should seek to negotiate a political and economic partnership with the rest of Canada - "a partnership that would have political elements," Ms. Beaudoin said - rather like the European Union. For a sovereign Quebec to seek both political and economic partnership suggests "a closer link to Canada" than a mere economic partnership would entail, Beaudoin says. "We want to be able to make this offer to Canada. As a sovereign Quebec, we'll be in the middle of Canada. They'll need to be able to cross our borders. So they'll need us."

None of this means that Bouchard is floating a timetable for another referendum on sovereignty, though. Outside the convention hall, there was no whiff of revolution in the air.

Canada is proverbially "two solitudes" - the separate traditions of two founding nations, the English and the French, continually talking past each other. But on a lovely spring day in the trendy Plateau neighborhood, for instance, when all humanity spills out of its narrow stone and brick houses and into the streets and parks and sidewalk cafes, Montreal seems to be about not duality but multiplicity. Signs are in French and in English, all right, but in Chinese, Arabic, and Ukrainian, too. It is a neighborhood where beautifully maintained 19th-century houses may abut houses apparently maintained hardly at all - and one can't escape the feeling that that heterogeneity is part of the strength and vibrancy, to say nothing of the funky charm of the neighborhood.

An African-American woman who spent some years here during the late 1960s, just as Quebec nationalism and political violence burst onto the scene, nonetheless remembers Montreal in those days as a humane, diverse community - long before "diversity" became a buzzword - where for the first time in her life, she felt free to be herself, to accept herself for what she was, without thinking of skin color.

Should Americans be concerned about Canada breaking up? Beaudoin was asked.

"They should not be concerned. We've been good friends since 1812," she said, referring to the last time Americans and Canadians came to blows. "Our links are much easier north-south than east-west," she says. "What we want is to be able to go on being Quebeckers, just as the rest of Canada wants to go on being Canadian."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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