Québec! What Is Going On Up There?

1. Happy mobs are all alike; every unhappy mob is unhappy in its own way. This has been lost on a lot of journalists in the last few weeks as many Québécois1 have poured into the streets, banging casserole dishes and getting beaten up and arrested for the perceived threat they pose. Every American commentary I find on it is eager to relate this to Occupy Wall Street, conveniently excusing itself from learning about the culture of the place. Well, agitprop’s always been a lot quicker to write than history, I suppose, and maybe that is most of all true about a place like Québec, where people sing the national song—not “Oh Canada!” of course, but a little ditty called “Gens du pays” (Men of the country)—along with “Happy Birthday” on your blessed day. The Québécois readily lend themselves to mythologizing, which can be infectious to day-travellers. That is, until the visitors realize that they are absolutely not included in it.

I’m all in favor of drumming up support for the protesters—tonight they’ve called for a “Casseroles Night in Canada” that could be a lot of fun. But maybe you’re not quite sure what they’re banging on about (heh) beyond some vague notion that it’s about tuition fees. (No, having read Infinite Jest won’t help you out on this, or with Québec more generally.) And to be clear, it’s not only Americans who are unsure what this is about. Most English Canadians don’t know, either. Too often discussion of Québec in English Canada is either wholly abstract or reasoned largely from the first principle of that totally rude Montréal waitress who didn’t accept your order in garbled French, that one time. Let’s see if we can do better.

2. Conveniently, pop culture has recently blessed us with ahistorical nonsense about la belle province: If you watch “Mad Men” you’ve been introduced to their ostensible Québécoise, Megan Calvet. For all the show’s vaunted claims to authenticity this story thread is, I’m not really sorry to say, bullshit. Nevermind that the name Megan is virtually unpronounceable by a Québécois tongue, and nevermind that the actors portraying her parents did at best middling approximations of the French Canadian accent. (One was Belgian; the other, “French French,” as you’ll sometimes hear anglophones put it.) The period is all wrong, because “Mad Men” right now is in 1966, and in 1966 pretty young francophone girls from Québec were not perfectly bilingual liberated swingers playing sexy songs in go-go boots. In 1966 what is called Québec’s Quiet Revolution had just gotten underway and French Canadians were not singing “Zoobeezoobeeeezoo” to each other in go-go boots to pass the time. They were too busy digging themselves out of a cultural and economic hole.

Let’s back up a moment to explain why a revolution was even needed: before 1960, the province was basically run by the Catholic Church. Since the mid-30s, the Catholic anti-communist autocrat Maurice Duplessis—also known as le chef or “The Boss,” a title he embraced—had ruled with a few years’ interruption. He was a nationalist, an admirer of Franco in Spain and, worst of all, quite “religious.” One of his more amazing schemes was to save money by having orphans—who at the time were largely the children of unwed mothers—declared insane. This allowed Duplessis to get them off his tab; orphanages were a provincial funding responsibility but the feds covered the psychiatric hospitals. As a special bonus prize this put these children directly in the hands of the Catholic Church, as they often ran the orphanages and psychiatric institutions. I leave the rest to your imaginations.

By the end, even the bishops themselves were angry with him, but Duplessis clung to his office until the day he died in 1959. Today to speak of him in Québec (or even elsewhere in Canada) is to speak of the devil, unless you are Conrad Black, who wrote a simpering biography of Duplessis in the 1970s, the basic thesis of which was that Duplessis was totally amazing and misunderstood. Even today he’s still writing about Duplessis era’s “a unique blend of traditional Quebec faith-based spiritually inspired self-help, with what would 30 years later be called supply-side industrialization,” because he is Conrad Black and he has not even the tiniest pretense of shame.

Duplessis’ successor was a man named Jean Lesage. He inherited a deeply unhappy populace, obviously, and what was worse, one that had neither education nor money. Francophones were about 80% of Québec’s population but few of them finished high school and fewer owned businesses. Anglophones were on the whole richer and better educated. Lesage looked around and thought: well, I might not be able to force anglophones to literally write a check to the francophone population, but I can (a) increase taxes and (b) use that money to build schools and employ much of the populace. This, along with a few other schemes, became what Québec knew as its “projet de société.”

As the all-encompassing worldview of the Catholic Church was replaced by an all-encompassing secular and egalitarian political vision of an egalitarian society, one ruled by the people for the people, which somewhat naturally meant francophones. Anglophone Québec may quibble with this and yell about the various indignities they have suffered at the hands of francophones—and they always, always bring up the FLQ crisis2—but let’s face it: it’s not weird that a place where 80 percent of the populace speaks one language is consequently dominated by it. And so, for sheer demographic reasons, linguistic nationalism and an active, interventionist government became deeply entwined in the national consciousness. Policy objectives like cheap daycare and generous parental leave became identity markers. As did, by the way, tuition freezes, the first of which lasted from 1968 all the way to 1990. Low student tuition is a way of life.

3. When I arrived in Montréal some 14 years ago to attend university, I came as the daughter of two people born and raised in Québec. My father’s family never spoke a word of French, living in a small anglophone hamlet near Ottawa. My mother’s situation was more complicated, and easier than explaining it is pointing out that she and her sister have effectively lived linguistically different lives, my aunt (largely) francophone and my mother (near-entirely) anglophone. I spent summers and weekends in Québec visiting family. But I wasn’t born there myself, my dad having joined the Canadian Air Force and left several years before I came around. So I was greeted as an interloper.

The specific financial consequence of that was a higher tuition rate than my Québec-belonging peers. Back then they were charged—brace yourselves—$1,668 per annum to attend university. I, meanwhile, was charged the princely sum of about $2,800. For Americans this may not sound all that surprising; out-of-state tuition at public colleges has a long history here. But when this tiered system was introduced back in 1997, it was the first time any province had done it. It’s sometimes defended as a decision made because Québec taxpayers pay for those universities, but the numerous exemptions—“French French” students enjoy the benefit of a bilateral agreement allowing them to pay in-province tuition, for example, as do students studying French or Québec studies—give the lie to that, a little.3 So scandal and outrage erupted in what’s called the “Rest of Canada.” It was a backhanded slap, and we knew it. And, to an extent, deserved it, as we shall see.

See, the introduction of what we called “differential tuition” was one of many gestures Québec made in the mid-90s to indicate that the “projet de société” was still alive. In 1995, we had a little thing called a “referendum” on the question of Québec’s independence. The sovereignists (the polite word for Québec nationalism, since what they seek is sovereignty) lost by just over half a point, was of course another. It brought to a head a long-simmering conflict over Québec’s membership in whatever Canadian project might be said to exist. Now, Canadians are not particularly nationalistic, as far as investment beyond sewing that flag to your Mountain Equipment Co-op backpack goes, but the one symbol of a coherent country we have is (naturally) our constitution. Of course for a long time our Constitution was an Act of British Parliament and still is, though we do our level best not to think too hard about that. Pierre Trudeau led what we call the effort to “patriate” our Constitution back in 1982. Trudeau dreamed of adding a bill of rights to the Constitution, a move not actually all that popular among the premiers (think “governors”) of the time, who appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. The Court ruled that Trudeau only needed the support of a “substantial” number of provinces to achieve his ends, and he managed to get the premiers to agree, sans one: René Lévesque, then-premier of Québec, who was cut out of last minute negotiations.

Québec has never, as a result, ratified the Constitution, and that goes for the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms too. The day Queen Elizabeth came to Canada to sign it Lévesque flew the Québec flag at half-mast; for years afterwards, the Québec legislature added, to every single one of its bills, a so-called “notwithstanding” clause. A “notwithstanding” clause allows legislatures to get out from under certain Charter rights, including freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, whenever necessary. It’s rarely used but, when it is, it is magnificently controversial, as it should be. One of its most famous uses is in Québec’s Charter of the French Language, which decrees among other things that signs must be in French, and either contain no English at all or, in an accommodation of our imperfect world, English typeset half as big as the French. This gave rise to an immortal cartoon, sadly not available online, of a man sitting behind a desk adorned with a sign that said “FRENCH” in huge letters. Below it, in tiny ones: “fries.”

4. It was the notwithstanding clause that I thought of first when I heard of Loi 78 (“Bill 78”), which was introduced a few weeks ago in response to the protests. The bill is a sort of ersatz War Measures Act. It bans demonstrations on campus, forces anyone organizing a gathering of more than ten people to inform the police of where and when they will arrive, and gives student associations the obligation to “induce” its members to comply with the law. In other words, it’s a flagrant violation of the freedom to assemble, so much so that a bunch of lawyers actually got into their robes to protest the damn thing. (Now the government is threatening to prosecute one of the organizers, who works for the Québec equivalent of the DMV.)

In short, the whole idea of Bill 78 was so blatantly illegal I assumed it must contain a notwithstanding clause; that’s the only way the law would stand up in court. But it doesn’t, which, counterintuitively, tells you a lot about what’s at stake here. If Bill 78 did opt out of the civil rights regime by invoking the notwithstanding clause it could have styled itself as just another stand Québec was taking against the incursion of Canadian federalism. But it didn’t—and so set itself up as something different. Something that, instead of galvanizing everyone to fight the outside Canadian enemy, it’s set Québec up against itself in a way guaranteed to raise the specter of sovereignty, again.

The bill’s association with anti-sovereignty movements is more than symbolic. Jean Charest, the current premier of Québec who signed it, also happens to have made a name for himself as one of only two Progressive Conservative members of federal Parliament who survived the post-Mulroney (remember that horse’s ass of a person, who thought Ronald Reagan was the second coming?) bloodbath. Charest then achieved the dubious distinction of taking over as head of the Tories and became known as “Captain Canada” (oh god, so embarrassing but I seem to remember it involved a flag cape) during his vice-chairmanship of the 1995 referendum campaign for the “No” side. As is the custom in Canada for political megalomaniacs of middling talent, once Charest realized he’d never be Prime Minister, he jumped ship for a provincial party of a different name but better fortune. Today he leads the Québec Liberals, and he’s been the premier since 2003.

At the time we all thought: hooray! No more Parti Québécois, which had helmed the province for the eight years before, with their entertaining but ultimately unhelpful penchant for doddering-grandpapa encomia to “white race” reproduction and public drunkenness. We thought it would mean less focus on sovereignty, which as Québec got richer in the late 90s and early aughts became less attractive, shopping being more fun generally than political activity. We thought it would mean more time to sort out Québec’s social issues. And Charest, despite his political bed-hopping, still had the aura of a star—or at least, someone new.

Naturally, though, because it seems only complete knobs go into politics these days (that’s a cross-cultural judgment based on international statistical evidence I have compiled over many years of observation and eyerolling), he squandered his chances. Charest has been re-elected twice, but each time his popularity numbers have quickly fallen off. The reasons are too intricate to go into here, but suffice to say he’s been the beneficiary of a leadership vacuum in the Parti Québécois rather than any excess personal charisma or skill. He tends to make election promises he doesn’t keep, or are so impractical he eventually has to reverse himself, and now faces a giant corruption probe related to the province’s transparently corrupt construction industry. (I say transparent because, for example, the entire month of August is known as the “Construction holiday” in Québec, and almost no one works then and no one says a word. Seriously.)

The introduction of Loi 78 is his most recent act of political suicide, and it will likely be his last because, whatever the Québécois might have thought of the student strike, few are charmed by an attempt to keep them from complaining loudly about the government. Between Charest’s total mismanagement of the protests, the bill itself, and the corruption probe, it’s hard to imagine anyone thinking this guy should be kept in charge. Which means his eye will probably swivel those 180 degrees back to federal politics. And the Parti Québécois, currently the only viable alternative, will be back atop the heap.

But hey: let’s not dwell on that. There are greater things at stake.

5. So, yes, all the hullabaloo about tuition is pretty much exactly that. The Québec student does, now, pay a little more than they did when I started at McGill lo those many moons ago, though the number—$2,492—will not inspire much more sympathy among Americans. Though it’s true the increase projected will raise tuition by about 75%, it is to be stretched out over 7 years. That means your average student will pay an extra $254 per year, to a high end of $3,793.4 If this sounds utterly reasonable to you, rest assured it also does to most Québécois. Support for a tuition freeze, one of the protesters’ demands, is routinely reported to be somewhere in the low teens.

That’s the real change, by the way, the one more subtle and worrisome. It’s the sudden pervasiveness of the idea—widely held both within and outside Québec—that these students are whiners and freeloaders who have been so destructive and difficult that they don’t even deserve to win this fight. The Rest of Canada long ago drifted into this perspective, and while there’s still a lot of preening about how much cheaper education and health care are than in the States, those attitudes are usually just window dressing to a general trend of budget cuts and complacency. Québec has long been a holdout, but that era’s over. Which makes the students indisputedly right about one thing: the problem with “reforms” like these is that they constitute an abandonment of that old saw, the “projet de société.”

Maybe you have to have lived in Québec to understand why this is such a tragedy. In certain superficial ways, government interventionism has a flair for the absurd. I get a lot of mileage in American bars filling people in on some of Québec’s funnier rules. Yes, it’s true that a woman is actually prohibited from changing her last name upon marriage. And yes, it’s true that there’s an office that approves baby names. And yeah, through a byzantine legislative quirk, your children will not be able to attend English schools unless you did.

But these are only lightly annoying jurisdictional quirks. I assure you that the need to know a second language becomes rather unobjectionable if the trade-off is free access to health care and cheap education. (And actually, I would daringly suggest that knowing a second language can be valuable and enjoyable!) I don’t know what a Québec without those things will look like, and I wish I wasn’t about to find out. If I could I’d bang a pot for you tonight, la patrie, but my neighbours here in New York have children and a seriously annoying little yappy dog. I’ll have to make do with a salute to the moon and a dinner of pizza-ghetti. I hope you’ll understand.

1 Prophylactic note to pedantic anglophones: Yes. I put an accent aigu on Québec place names where warranted. My reason’s actually terribly simple: they are proper names. Spelling someone’s proper name is a sign of respect. That said, I’ve always understood the wide rejection of it elsewhere in Canada as keyboard-induced laziness. (Alt-130, people! There, I have solved the problem.)
2 I’ve resisted going into the FLQ crisis there because it came out of the confluence of a unique set of circumstances that I don’t think are reproduced here. Your mileage may vary on that, but you’d be wrong.
3 Another wrinkle is the existence of a terribly complicated funding system in Canada known as “transfer payments,” in which the federal governments allocates funds to so-called “have-not” provinces. I am loath to get into this because as you can imagine there are several layers of bad feelings involved. But yes, Québec traditionally has been a “have-not” province and received money from the others to pay for its social programs, is the short version.
4 By the by, all of this has virtually no bearing on out-of-province tuition, which has been steadily rising over the years, to the 2011-2012 level of $6,836.

Previously: Canada! How Does It Work?

Michelle Dean writes in a lot of places, now. Follow her on Twitter. Top photo by L’oeil_ — Lost; photo of Charest by Le Chibouki (beaucoup moins) frustré.