Sunday, December 7, 2014

Getting Past Survival

For more than a century, survival was the principal theme of Quebec’s view of its own history. Beginning in the 1950s, Quebec intellectuals came to a different understanding of their past, one that demystified the ideology of survival and required a break with it. But now it seems they are returning to survivalist mode. This has a high social cost, which almost no one talks about. The way out of this trap is through independence, which would allow Quebecers, once having acquired political control of their own nation, to cease being nationalists.

What has happened to us? Where are we now in our history as survivors, we whose beginnings were so poorly assured, so badly rooted, in the political sense of the term, that to justify the paradox of our presence, and our French persistence, we had to manufacture mythical heroes and invent for ourselves a providential mission on this continent? To explain this crutch from the imagination, the sociologist Fernand Dumont even went so far as to speak of aborted origins, a “childhood trauma” that occurred long before the English conquest of New France. It’s hardly a recipe for stable kids.

And yet, here we still are, in the precarious equilibrium between the YES and the NO that history has given us, hanging on in our survivors’ way.

We came here 300 years ago and we stayed here. Those who brought us here could return without bitterness or sorrow, for even if it is true we have not learned much, one thing sure: we have forgotten nothing [ ... ]. Of ourselves and our destinies, we have clearly understood only the following duty: persist ... Keep on ... And we have kept on. So well that in a few more centuries the world may turn to us and say: This people belong to a race which does not know how to die ... What we are is a witness.

That’s the personification of the country in Maria Chapdelaine: I must admit I can never reread these lines, written in 1912 by a Frenchman visiting the “country of Québec,” without emotion. They evoke the long winter of our survival, the quiet resistance of those people who came from France during the 17th and 18th centuries and, following the Conquest, had to learn to survive as a distinct “race.” It was a hazardous apprenticeship, which went mostly unrecorded. We mustn’t believe that our ancestors (who in 1760 were no more than 70,000 people spread over a vast territory) came equipped with a collective survival plan. If survival was not the “miracle” that everyone claims, neither was it, at least not at the beginning, a national project (un projet de société). It was, rather, a second-best solution, a patchwork program: Survival was the response to an historic dead end. The French community in Canada faced both the threat of assimilation and the conqueror’s refusal to welcome it as an equal partner in new political arrangements. Powerless to use these arrangements to create a republic — as witness the failure of the Rebellion — it was reduced, after the Act of Union of 1840, to seeking its raison d’être in the preservation of its language, its religion and its lifestyle. The road to political freedom was impassable, but that to survival remained, and the community ended up making this its avocation: Survive and be witness.

But surviving is not living, as the historian Michel Brunet liked to say. This had been recognized by Lord Durham himself, a century before. In his famous report, he had argued that the French in Canada, if they survived, would become vulgarized, and he therefore recommended assimilation. As shocking as this conclusion is, we are forced to recognize the soundness of the argument on which his recommendation was based. When French Canadians left their farms and their parishes at the end of the 19th century to go and live in the cities, they effectively became, as Durham had warned, mostly unskilled workers employed by English capitalists — that is, a proletarian people, the same proletarian people whose docility Maurice Duplessis proclaimed to English and American capitalists, even when he had to impose it with his policemen’s clubs.

Michel Brunet, historian and essayist
We had to wait until the mid-1950s before we could start to see the real political causes of French Canadians’ economic inferiority. The names of three great historians of “the Montreal School,” Maurice Séguin, Guy Frégault and Michel Brunet, are associated with this new awareness. During the profound transformation then taking place, one that waylaid traditional ideologies, these three authors produced a complete reinterpretation of our history, based on the Conquest and on the crushing mortgage it still imposed on the future of the nation and the individuals who comprised it. The new historiography challenged the compensatory myths (equality of both founding peoples, the French mission in America, etc.) that until then had nurtured nationalism and survival, but despite that it did not conclude that nationalism should be jettisoned — as the intellectuals of Cité libre concluded during those years — but instead laid the foundations of an integrating nationalism that was economic, political and cultural at the same time, and to which a large proportion of Québec’s intelligentsia were to rally during the 1960s and 1970s.

Almost 50 years after the birth of this new type of nationalism, and nearly a quarter century after the election of the first Parti Québécois government, it seems to me that, contrary to what some would have us believe, not only are we not yet out of the survival period, but we may be in the process of forgetting why we had to undertake the Quiet Revolution to escape from it. This oblivion represents a collective memory crisis in which both the identity and the future of the nation are at stake.

Our former name of “French Canadians” provided a simple definition for us: Our language, our religion, our customs told us what we were. Anyone could recognize him or herself as a member of a nation whose distinctive characteristics were, above all else, crucial to preserve. Defined on the basis of strictly cultural criteria, this French Canadian identity allowed for a division between the cultural nation and the political nation. More precisely, it assumed that the French Canadian nation could survive as a minority cultural nation within a political nation over which it had no control. Pierre Trudeau — no more than Laurier or Saint-Laurent before him — did not challenge this assumption. His personal success had the effect of, once again, mystifying us by masking the political and collective reality of a problem which this success in itself claimed to solve. According to Trudeau, the problem was due more than anything else to an outdated way of thinking that had to be changed. In a Machiavellian way, Trudeauism thus exploited the French-Canadian voluntarism from which it had itself descended.

French Canadian.” During the 1950s intellectuals, especially poets, began to suspect that this name was only, and had always been, a decoy, a mirror used to attract larks (“Alouette, je te plumerai, etc.”). The agony of French communities outside Québec amply reveals that O Canada, whether sung in French or in English, is a bell that tolls for the French language and culture in America. The substitution of the word “Québécois” to replace “French Canadian” at the turn of the 1960s showed that people had woken up to this “velvet genocide” and resolved to put an end to it before it was too late. The new name involved the death of the old one, and of all things Canadian: The concept of country had to be less encompassing if it was to be understandable, if we were finally to become “masters in our own house,” as the political slogan of the Quiet Revolution claimed.

This control of self, this political independence, is taking a dangerously long time to come about. Forget for a moment the rather volatile results of the last referendum and consider the current state of Québec nationalism. What’s most striking is the growing indifference of those we now call “francophones Québécois” regarding the question of their national identity — as if the question was drifting further and further from common culture and political controversy, and floating off into the rarefied air of philosophical debate among university-specialists-in-the-national-question; as if, on the other hand, Québec intellectuals believed they could (finally) “ponder the Québec nation” in complete objectivity, setting aside the fact that they themselves belong to it. No doubt they can, but at what price? What is hidden behind this epistemological rupture whose consequences fill the shelves of our libraries? Shame of being ourselves? Shame of our past? Shame of the Groulx who may well still slumber inside us? Things were not always so.

Gaston Miron, poet and writer
The intellectuals of the previous generation (the Fernand Dumonts, the Gaston Mirons, the Pierre Vadeboncoeurs, etc.) never placed themselves above the throng, never set themselves apart from the collective adventure. They took up the unhappy conscience of their nation as if it were their own. (“I tie myself to everything, even to garbage, if I must,” wrote Miron the Magnificent). Their assumptions and their aims were ethical above all, even before being political. And so they never believed that to start thinking about the future of their nation, they had to make a clean sweep of the past. Nor did they believe that it was sufficient to dismiss “our master the past” no longer to be its prisoner. Instead, they backed the “future of memory,” hoping it was possible to cull new meanings from the past, meanings until then forgotten, repressed or censored. Paul Ricoeur wrote somewhere that “Memory has two functions. It ensures time-related continuity, allowing us to move along the time axis; and it lets us recognize ourselves, and say ‘me’ or ‘mine’.”

Does historical memory not fill analogous functions for a nation, by allowing those who are part of it to recognize themselves as such and to say, without shame, “we” or “us”? Denial and shame of the past also proceed from memory, but from a memory burdened by what Freud called “repetition compulsion,” a memory haunted by the remembrance of our past defeats and humiliations, a memory that is missing what the very same Ricoeur called “active forgetfulness” and the “work of remembering.” This work is not the exclusive jurisdiction of certified intellectuals. It relies on a collective education to which all those in charge of a soul are invited. Our identity has to be re-made. It is often said that this identity is now just a question of language. But language is not solely a tool of communication. It also carries memory, whose updating depends in turn, and in large part, on the mastery of language. We will only be masters in our own house when we have won our language back. This was well understood by the judges of the Supreme Court of Canada but also, in Québec itself, by the William Johnsons and Howard Galganovs.

Fernand Dumont, sociologist and philosopher
Fernand Dumont was roundly criticized when he wrote in Raisons communes that there is no Québec nation in the cultural sense of the term — which actually seems pretty obvious to me. What there is, he said, is a French nation, or a French-speaking nation, that constitutes the majority nation within a Québec society in which there are also other, minority nations. An independentist from the very first day, Dumont was also a humanist, and always deeply respectful of the other person in what makes him most “other”: his language and his culture. Moreover, Québec independence needn’t give birth to a new nation-state, but to a new political community (or nation, if you wish) based on the equality of all citizens, whether francophone, anglophone, allophone, or Native. In other words, the reconciliation of the cultural and political nation which Dumont wished for at the end of his Genèse de la société québécoise did not in his mind require them to be one. Dumont used to say that if he was a nationalist, it was from necessity, and that he would never have been one had he been born the citizen of a great nation sure of itself and its future. For him, nationalism was nothing but a means — the means, in this case, that our little nation needed first to survive and then to try to get past the survival in which it had vegetated for more than two centuries. Because survival has its price, a very high price. The fact that nobody talks about it, or at least not any longer, says a lot about the depth of our social failure and the censorship that our privileged cultural class exercises over our culture. Will they ever forgive Dumont for bypassing this censorship and brutally asking the question, “Is a nation such as ours worth continuing?

For me, to be a nationalist today in Québec means answering YES to this question — in the hope that one day our children will not have to ask it, will not have to be nationalists, and can finally, simply, belong to their own nation. As for what’s ahead for us: I am no better able than anyone else to guess the consequences of events taking place during my own life — in which I am participating fully, with my own biases, hopes and fears. To know the meaning of history, as so many 20th century intellectual oracles have boasted, begins with a more or less conscious willingness to escape to the darkness in which De Tocqueville saw “the man of the democratic centuries” advancing, when the past does not shed any light on the future. It is a pitch darkness indeed. Let us not search for new alibis to justify our old fears. Let us interpret it instead as a call for new challenges — the unavoidable challenges that confront small nations who want to go on living in the era of globalization. We will take on these challenges with the same courage we summoned before, during the darkest hours of our survival.

By Serge Cantin, lecturer in political philosophy at l’Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, 2000.

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