“Vive le Québec libre” explained to English Canada

“Vive le Québec libre”: a thunderbolt, flung from Montreal’s city hall to an elated crowd 50 years ago today, that jumpstarted Quebec’s independence movement; to a generation of English Canadians that had paid a price in blood for France's liberation, these same words smouldered. 

“Unacceptable to the Canadian people,” Pearson seethed in a rare televised appearance. “Get out,” was the tenor of Ottawa's message to the French president.

Passions can run high, even in the old-fashioned Anglo public sphere: are we any better positioned today, from a postmodernism flush with diversity and marginalized voices, to draw lessons from this clash between two relics of history (a proud Gaullist France vs. the homogeneous WASP English Canada)?

If so, the first irony to be noted about this saga is its sheer anachronism: De Gaulle's blow against the “British conquest” of 1759 arrived at a time when the Liberal policy elites in Ottawa were busy mothballing every relic of “Britishness” from Canadian cultural life, stripping the Dominion of its name, its monarchical honorifics (Royal Mail, Royal Canadian Air Force and Navy), and tossing its Red Ensign onto the trash heap of history. (See C.P. Champion, The Strange Death of English Canada).

Conquest, mon général, what conquest?

And De Gaulle, at 76, was himself a relic, having achieved ideological maturity under the Catholic monarchists of prewar France. The euphoric crowds acclaiming him in Montreal had more in common with those which, ten months later in Paris, rose up in revolt against his decaying regime: young, irreverent, flush with confidence in a utopian future and enthusiasm for all things modern. De Gaulle's romantic longing for a bygone feudal Quebec, captured in his symbolic trek up the “Chemin du Roy” (the old colonial road linking Quebec City and Montreal), would have seemed utterly alien and outmoded to the  people thronging this very road, hoping to catch a glimpse of the great man.

The question which then imposes itself is: fifty years on, in an unrecognizably transformed Quebec, how would De Gaulle assess the souvereigniste project he set in motion?

The “inconvenient truth” facing a French Canadian nationalist today is that French culture in Canada was finally uprooted and destroyed not by the “Anglo-Saxon colonizer,” but by our own technicians and modernizers of the Quiet Revolution — crushed under the heel of an American consumer culture welcomed as a “liberation” from our supposedly stifling and archaic Catholicism (“la grande noirceur”). This was the paradox which George Grant discerned at the heart of Quebec's nationalist aspirations: “Nationalism can only be asserted successfully by an identification with technological advance, but technological advance entails the disappearance of those indigenous differences that give substance to nationalism.” In other words, French Canadians were compelled to modernize if they wished to overcome their economic subordination, but to modernize was to give up their cultural distinctiveness — a prophecy verifiable today by driving along a highway stretch dwarfing the Chemin du Roy, now lined with the mammoth architecture of the Wal Mart, Best Buy, and fast-food chains which seem to have fallen from the sky, eradicating all that was there before. In one of history's cruel twists, the siren call of independence — bound to be fictitious anyway in an era of multinationals and superpower blocs — opened Quebec to a cultural dependence from which escape now seems impossible.

Speaking of George Grant, I have often wondered whether, as a patriot for Canada and tireless defender of its federal power, he ever found cause to retract his appraisal of De Gaulle as “the living politician I admire most.” (In private correspondence, Grant had expressed the desire to dedicate his magnum opus, Lament for a Nation, to the Frenchman in 1965.)

Somehow, I doubt Grant felt much sting from “Vive le Québec libre”; even when faced with the notorious Bill 101, widely viewed as an intolerable infringement of individual rights, he proved capable of remarkable sympathy for the French perspective: “They could make people speak their language. That may not be ‘independence,’ but it is something and any political goods are to be welcomed in such an era.” And, incredibly for an English Canadian patriot (a patriot, too often, being someone who not only denies his country’s flaws, but refuses to see them), Grant found the moral courage to turn the lens on his own culture, admitting that “southern Ontario is becoming such a poor, dim, American imitation that one admires the French [Canadians] to want to be their own,” even if “on the other hand one is sad for Canada as a whole.” (George Grant: Selected Letters)

This is the sense, I think, in which De Gaulle was well and truly entitled to ruffle English Canada's feathers. For what’s at stake in our understanding of this historical quarrel is ultimately the legacy of Gaullism itself as a rich and inspiring blueprint, not for Quebec, but for Canada’s independence. After all, De Gaulle's revolt against the American world system, against the “exorbitant privilege” of its dollar and the cruelty of its imperial wars, could not be more starkly contrasted with the eternal complacency and cowardice of Canada’s political elites.

Lester Pearson once mused whether Canada was especially vulnerable to Americanization because it took place through “seduction instead of rape.” “If the answer must be yes,” he concluded, “why not relax and enjoy it?” (Globe and Mail, July 29, 1969) This imagery reveals the mentality of the people entrusted with defending Canada’s higher interests. This was the man who, vaulted into power by Washington in what has been described as the most blatant U.S. meddling in any Canadian election, now declared foreign interference in Canada's political life “unacceptable.”

So instead of re-hashing all the old indignant clichés (“How dare this petulant Frenchman disrespect our...?!”), what if we acknowledged the radical truth (Canada is not free) contained within De Gaulle’s superficial half-truth (Quebec is not free)?

Was the potential loss of Quebec not, in a sense, the price to be paid for failing to establish a truly independent Canada in the window of opportunity between the Balfour Declaration and the immediate postwar?

Can we imagine how De Gaulle, champion and defender of non-aligned and insurgent nations, might have comported himself while visiting a different Canada — upright, self-respecting? If, instead of a “defrocked Priest of Peace” grovelling before his American masters (a tradition upheld today by Chrystia Freeland, odiously begging after the favour of “the Indispensable Nation”), Canada had produced political elite worthy of itself?

(John A. Macdonald’s legacy has taken considerable punishment recently for his settler-colonialist policies and racially supremacist views, but in fairness, he was also first to complain about “over-washed Englishmen” butting into Canadian affairs, and displayed supreme political courage in telling London to get stuffed when pressed to join the British-imperial war in Sudan.)

Then, and only then, would we be entitled to any respect from the old general, a respect I believe he would have been all too willing to extend: “Vive le Canada fort et libre?”

~Daniel Velarde