Polemics & Exchanges

On Quebec Separatism

The "Letter From Montreal: Qui Shall Overcome!" (Correspondence, December) by John O'Neill, who "writes from Detroit," is so riddled with errors that it makes this reader question the credibility of all your Correspondence.

1. "Jean Baptiste, the patron saint of Quebec." John the Baptist is the patron saint of French Canadians. Quebec has its quota of American-style symbols (e.g., an official flower, a flag, and even an official insect), but neither the provincial government nor the Roman Catholic Church has ever named a patron saint for the province.

2. "[T]he holiday is often referred to as La Fête Nationale." The Quebec government uses that designation, but the term (which even sounds stupid—imagine Americans attending a "National Holiday Picnic" on the Fourth of July) is virtually never used by ordinary people. Last June 24, my wife and I were caught up in die celebrating crowds in a town that votes heavily for the Parti Québécois and on the "Yes" side in separatist referendums, but we saw and heard only "la Saint-Jean" as the name of the holiday.

3. "[V]iolence and mass arrests were the norm [on Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day] until this year. The rioting in Quebec City was especially bad in 1996." This had nothing to do with politics. The "riots" have stopped because the police now apply a curfew and control the availability of beer.

4. "But more typical [of the federalist media] was the column by Josée Legault . . . " Miss Legault is a separatist, and on die extreme wing of die Parti Quebecois at that. A recent column of hers stated: "for the past four years, a handful of sovereignists—including this columnist —have steadfastly called upon [Premier] Bouchard to get back to promoting sovereignty."

American conservatives, from the Heritage neos to your paleo selves, don't understand that Quebec separatism is just another case of affirmative action. It ensures the flow of benefits—"to make them feel happy staying in Canada." The sad truth is that the proportion of French Canadians living directly or indirectly on federal handouts is comparable to that of America's black minority. While French Canadians, despite their ultramontane Catholic background, share some cultural traits with American Southern whites, their politicians are more like Al Sharpton, Maxine Waters, and Jesse Jackson.

        —Lionel Albert
Knowlton, Quebec

Mr. O'Neill Replies:

Mr. Albert might consider his own errors, which call into question his credibility.

Anyone familiar with Quebec knows the common and frequent reference to the Jean Baptiste holiday is La Fête Nationale. This term did not originate with the current separatist government, but has long been used in modern-day Quebec.

Of course, if Mr. Albert really believes that "picnic" is a good translation of "fete," he might just be unfamiliar with his province's history and holidays. The literal translation of "fête" is "festival," and a more nuanced translation would indicate that it is a festival of religious and/or nationalist significance.

Mr. Albert's contention that the term "is virtually never used by ordinary people" is a source of great irony. In an article in the November 1998 issue of Catholic World Report, in which I challenged the notion that Quebec nationalism no longer has religious significance, I was careful to point out that some secularization has occurred and that the holiday is now often called La Fête Nationale. An irate English-speaker from Montreal wrote a letter to the editor insisting the saint has nothing to do with the holiday and that it is now always referred to as La Fête Nationale. In reply to a letter of mine which was published in the November 1999 issue of First Things, Canadian scholar and journalist Preston Jones made a similar point.

Regarding my reference to John the Baptist as the patron saint of Quebec, Mr. Albert engages in hair-splitting. The feast day of St. John the Baptist is a legal holiday in Quebec, and it evokes far more nationalist pride throughout the province (even among French-speakers who wish to remain part of Canada) than does Canada Day (formerly known as Dominion Day) a week later.

No doubt, alcohol consumption and the lack of a curfew played an important role in the riots in Quebec City on Jean Baptiste Day in 1996. But this hardly precludes their political content. Rioting has not been a problem in either Quebec City or Montreal on the average Friday night or on other holidays, only on the holiday which is a source of both great pride and political tension throughout the province.

My humble apology to Miss Legault for assuming she is a federalist. But the article which I cited appeared in the Montreal Gazette, the primary federalist voice in Quebec, and it is typical of the federalist media's state of denial.

Mr. Albert makes a similar mistake in assuming that I am a paleoconservative simply because my article appeared in Chronicles. The main sentiment I share with Chronicles is its bold challenge of those forms of bigotry which are acceptable in elite intellectual circles.

Mr. Albert claims that "the proportion of French Canadians living directly or indirectly on federal handouts is comparable to that of America's black minority"; in fact, the percentage of French Canadians who rely on government assistance is greater than that of black Americans. But Mr. Albert's condemnation of French Canadians for accepting welfare indicates that English-speaking Canada applies a higher standard to French Canada. All of Canada—French and English—is reliant on a huge government bureaucracy.

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