Letter from a “pure laine” Outremonter to a Hassidic friend

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About Guy Archambault: Guy’s ancestors arrived in Montreal from France in around 1645. He has spent part of his childhood in Outremont and returned to that neighborhood in 2011. From 1982 to 2010, he worked as a diplomat for the Canadian foreign service, with postings in Peru, Hungary and France. As a representative of the Canadian Foreign Department, he was deeply involved in the Bosnia and Kosovo peace processes from 1997 to 2002. He is a member of Outremont’s “comité sur les relations intercommunautaires”.

The debate over the “charter of Quebec values” has opened old wounds and driven a wedge between francophones and non-francophones. While I oppose the charter in its current form, I would like to give my Hassidic friends some background to help them understand what is in the mind of Quebec secularists and to provide some thoughts on francophone-Jewish relations.

Understanding the concerns of Quebec francophones

Many newcomers to Quebec are not fully aware of the state of inferiority in which francophones have lived in Quebec and throughout Canada until the mid 20th century. Before 1960, the rights of francophones had little weight. We felt like second-class citizens in our own country.

In 1890, for example, while francophones accounted for almost 50 percent of the population of Manitoba, the province instituted English as the only official language, suppressing French in the public school system. Ontario in turn suppressed French in public schools in 1912. A 1970s joke went like this: in Ottawa, if you want to get an answer in French at a government department, speak to the employee who is sweeping the floor or washing the toilet. That person is certain to be a francophone.

Even in Quebec and Montreal, where francophones were a strong majority, Anglophones reigned in the world of business and commerce. The vast majority of francophones had to work in English, in menial jobs. I still remember the humiliation I felt in the late 60s in downtown department stores: the display was English and I would be met with scornful reactions when I tried to speak to an Anglophone clerk in French.

Turning to religion for solace

During the long period before the 1960s, which we call “La Grande Noirceur ” (the dark ages), francophone Quebecers turned inwards and fell back on religion and the French language for solace and protection. While our Catholicism was originally a shield and a refuge, it became in itself a source of oppression. The ultraconservative Church fought against liberalism, voting rights of women and freedom of conscience. Priests pressured women to dedicate their lives to the welfare of their husbands and procreation. It was not uncommon for Quebecois women to give birth to more than 15 children. The Church also strived to control consciences. Great classics of literature were blacklisted and freethinkers were denied burial in cemeteries administered by the Church. The clergy controlled the school system and opposed the creation of a Ministry of Education and a public education system. It was out of question that a non-Catholic to attend our schools. For this reason, many immigrants integrated naturally with the more open Anglophone society.

The dominant ideology of the era was ethnic and conservative nationalism of which the most influential representatives were Henri Bourassa and Lionel Groulx. Inward looking, defensive and fiercely Catholic, it made francophone Quebecers wary of strangers, especially Protestants and Jews.

The Quiet Revolution

In the 1960s things changed suddenly. The advent of modern communications, particularly television, the organization of the World Exposition in 1967, and economic globalization opened Quebec to the World. The conservative, “Union Nationale” government lost the 1960 elections and was replaced by the then progressive Liberals. Quebec was modernizing at an incredibly fast pace, not only economically, but also socially and culturally. We call this period “The Quiet Revolution.” Among its great achievements, we can include the development of a modern state with strong economic institutions (such as Hydro Quebec and the Caisse de dépôts et de placement) and the creation of a public education system independent of the Church.

A central element of this revolution was the accession of the francophone majority to a central position in society. Enacted in 1977, Bill 101 imposed the language of the majority as the main language of communication, education, work and trade as in all democratic countries. It also granted extensive rights to the Anglophone minority in education and government services. The Bill provoked a strong negative reaction in English Canada. Some even tried to enlist the UN to condemn this law that imposed French as the dominant language in public life. Francophone Quebecers found these attacks unfair and hypocritical: they remembered well how their rights had been disregarded across Canada and Quebec throughout the early 20th century.

The emergence of progressive nationalism

Even though the conservative nationalism of “La Grande Noirceur ” had not completely disappeared, it was no longer in fashion. A new generation of nationalists, progressive, left-leaning and open to the world and to other cultures, had taken center stage. René Lévesque is the best known representative this new wave. The poet Gérald Godin must be mentioned too, as he made a tremendous effort to reach out to all ethnic communities when he entered politics. Lévesque and Godin, and many more, believed that an independent Quebec would be tolerant, pluralistic and inclusive. Their “we” was the opposite of the “we” of Jacques Parizeau in his infamous speech of 1995: it included all cultural communities in Quebec.

Progressive nationalists and the Jewish People

Many of these progressive nationalists felt a strong attachment to the Jewish people. They realized that the Jews, as the francophones in Quebec, had been the victims of segregation and forced into a status of inferiority. They had suffered like us, actually much more than us, and they, like us, resisted, sometimes retreating into isolation, finding solace in their religious and cultural values.

The progressive nationalists considered that a thriving Jewish community was a considerable asset for Quebec. The PQ government of René Lévesque (1976-1984) established strong friendly relations with the Jewish community.
Jewish-francophone relationships in 2013: a lost opportunity?

Where are we today? Many of us still think that there is much in common between Jews and francophone Quebecers. We believe that these two people should really understand each other better and develop a close friendship. However, the opportunity for reaching everlasting mutual understanding, which seemed to be opening during the “Quiet Revolution,” was missed. The wedding was never celebrated. Why? I think that the issues of language and religion have created a series of misunderstandings and resentments on both sides.

As I noted above, following their bitter historical experience, francophone Quebecers are extremely concerned that their language, the language of the majority, should be the natural language of communication in Quebec, as is the case in all democratic countries. Our oppressive experience during “La Grande Noirceur” also explains why the presence of religion in public space triggers bad memories for francophone Quebecers.

From my perspective, francophone Quebecers must stop seeing religious minorities through the prism of their past wounds. We must get rid of the stereotypes that all too often tinge our vision when it comes to religious minorities. But religious minorities must also make an effort. They must increase their mastery of the French language to be able to communicate with their fellow Quebecers. They must also accept the reasonable limits that secular society imposes on religion in the public sphere.

The “Charter of Quebec values” in all this?

Perhaps, with the above history, my Hassidic friends may understand why francophone Quebecers insist on living in a secular society where religion is a private matter, where the State is neutral, and where religious accommodations are managed carefully in order to ensure the equality of all before the law. These aspirations pertain to the progressive nationalism of the Quiet Revolution. There is nothing racist and xenophobic there.

Unfortunately, the charter does not only convey these progressive aspirations. It also includes features reminiscent of the conservative and xenophobic nationalism of the Grande Noirceur — in particular, the proposal to ban certain types of clothes that are worn mainly by religious minorities while keeping a conspicuous cross in the National Assembly. Nobody is fooled: this is hypocritical “Catholic – secularism.”

The debate on the charter is bitter and it exacerbates antagonistic positions. It divides Quebecers, with francophones mostly favorable and all others opposed. Journalists and politicians in English Canada pour oil onto the fire. Their contemptuous and paternalistic comments are reminiscent of bad memories. They arouse the indignation of francophones and thus strengthen extreme points of view.

I blame the Quebec government for creating this division. It was easy to predict and could have been easy to avoid.

Still, a reason for hope

But there is much reason for hope. Especially when one considers the large number of francophone Quebecers who oppose xenophobia and the stigmatization of religious minorities. Among them, many independentists who, in the tradition of progressive nationalism, want to establish an open, pluralistic and inclusive country and who have strongly criticized the Charter.

The proposed charter moves us away from the serene and friendly dialogue that we ought to establish. It takes us away from the understanding that should exist between Jews and francophone Quebecers. This relationship of solidarity and mutual respect is for a future day.

That day will come. Let’s work for it.

13 comments (7 comments in English, 6 comments in French)

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  1. Chaim D
    October 20, 2013

    great article!!! very informative.
    i just hope its true as you write that a “large number” of quebecois oppose the stigmatization of minorities. living in Outremont sometimes makes you feel otherwise…

  2. Richardson McPhillips
    October 20, 2013

    It’s time for Quebeckers to grow up. The “Grande Noirceur”, which is largely legendary, was ended over 50 years ago. Ukrainians in the prairies and Japanese in BC were imprisoned by the Canadian government, but they aren’t turning into fascist nationalists. You say “journalists and politicians in English Canada pour oil on the fire”, but maybe, just maybe, they are more progressive – and correct – than the “journalists and politicians” in Quebec who are deliberately stoking the fire.

    • Anon
      October 20, 2013

      Good for you! I agree! We even accepted the Bloc Quebecois a destructive separatist party as Canadian opposition in Ottawa. Mr. Archambault should inform all those elderly Quebecois filled with hatred that they are lucky to be living in Canada

      Had they lived in the USA they would have been swallowed up and their French culture would have disappeared!!

  3. Zvi H
    October 21, 2013

    Hi Guy,

    Thank you for this amazing and informative article. As a Chassidic Jew, my understanding of the other side was, as I now see, misinformed. I do have some questions though.

    You say most Quebecois today have bad memories of religion in public places and of “le grande noirceur.” What do they deem religion in public places? The crucifix in the National Assembly might be something many want out, but what is the general Quebecois’ stance on Christmas trees at city hall, Christmas lights across a thoroughfare, St Patrick’s day parades closing off streets, the fact that Montreal has no real skyscrapers because of the rule that nothing (save the large cross on Mt Royal) may be taller than the Oratoire?

    I ask this not to be nasty, and I actually find the Christmas decorations pretty, the parade doesn’t bother me, nor the Oratoire. I’m only wondering…

  4. isaac
    October 24, 2013

    Stop living in the past, move on with life. we live in the 21st century not in the 60′s. The Quebecois run the show in Quebec today, not the English anymore. The language of communication is French. In fact most WASPS left for Toronto after Rene Levesque was elected. Only the Jews and other Ethnic groups live in Quebec. Read all the English papers, most of the letters to the Gazette are by ethnics and Jews.
    Time is on your side. there is no need to vote for separation, as time passes the minorities especially the few Anglos left here will leave. Only the seniors who cannot move will remain. English schools will shut down slowly because we are discouraged to move to Quebec. Just wait another 25 years and Quebec will be independant without a vote.
    The greatest tragedy in modern times was the Holocaust. Nazis killed 6 million Jews and nearly eliminated the Jewish race. Yet we are still here in business, education, politics, we continue to build our lives, careers and families. So don’t blame all your problems on what happened 60 years ago. Learn from the Jews, they are a nation who adapt with the times.

  5. Chasidicmommy
    March 26, 2014

    Thank you for a great article. I do remember learning much of the historical information you present when I was in high school. If the charter of values goes through, every public worker who wears a religious head covering, will be forced to lose the careers that they worked so hard to get to. For a religious person, especially those who do NOT feel oppressed by their religion, taking off their religious head covering is not an option. the only option that will be left to these people will be to quit their careers or move out of Quebec. No historical grievances can make this fair or democratic in any way.

  6. lillian
    April 13, 2015

    Pure laine? Were you not also immigrants to this land? Who entitled you to all the land in Quebec? Who helped you rob the Indians of their rights and their self-respect? You helped yourselves with sinful blessings of The Church?