Planet Québec

Québec is diverse and steeped in foreign influences and has become a model of openness and originality.

L’Actualité – September 15, 2001
By Jean-François Lisée

Let us first take a big swing at our inferiority complex, which fully deserves it: no society in North America is more open to foreign countries than Québec. The United States? Never has a superpower been more self-centred. It must be said that a lot is going on there and that the US is a big country. With a Texan as President and now that George W. Bush has made his first visit to Europe, it is worth quoting this revealing argument, exquisite in its authenticity, from another Texas politician, taking part in the debate to make English the only official language of his state: “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for Texas!”

What about English Canada? It is better than our neighbours to the south, of course, much better. However, remove its love/hate relationship with the US (18 of the 20 most widely watched television programs in English Canada are American) and you find a society in which most people know that Italy is not a Chicago neighbourhood but nonetheless does not break any records for openness to the world.

Québec, yes. The past 25 years have been the years of its accelerated modernization, a phenomenon that could be dated not from 1976, when Olympic youth invaded Montréal, but from 1967, the year of Expo 67. Note that , in both instances, the world came to Québec and altered its character, not the other way around.

How can we measure the degree of openness of a country or a people? To note Quebecers’ collective ability to sell their products outside their borders is not to stoop to economic zealotry, since Quebecers must adapt to other markets, regulations, cultures and languages. They manage to export 60% of everything they produce. Wood and iron? Yes, but even more extensively aeronautical and telecommunications products. Only four other Western nations, Luxembourg, Ireland, Belgium and the Czech Republic, depend as much as Québec does on their ability to penetrate foreign markets.

It is true that, by and large, we sell our products to our American neighbours on the wealthiest market in the world. However, we alone on the continent manufacture our products with so many European parts. We are the champions of the melding of European and American concepts, techniques and technologies. Twice as many Québec scientists as other Western researchers publish their findings jointly with a foreign colleague, one third of the time with an American, 40% of the time with a European. We absorb ideas, techniques and methods, combine them, then send them abroad where their attractiveness stems from their being strangely familiar yet strangely different. This is true of Bombardier, Ubi Soft or BioChem Pharma products, as it is of performances by the Cirque du Soleil and of François Girard’s films.

Québec in 2001 is simultaneously connected to Europe and the United States, and about time too. Historian Gérard Bouchard has noted that Québec was, for a long time, divided in two, i.e. the elite that looked solely to France and disdained an Americanness that was nonetheless essential to our identity, and the common people, who unabashedly integrated the culture, attitudes, methods and know-how of our American neighbours but were distrustful of diplomas and knowledge, attributes of the elite and the snobbish Frenchmen.

Our collective plunge into Americanness and knowledge are no longer in doubt. Quebecor and Jean Coutu are major employers south of the border (Québec firms directly employ 60 000 Americans). We rank seventh among the United States’ trade partners. In some quarters, it is fashionable to mourn the weakening of our ties with France. For many people, this is an optical illusion, due to the broadening of our ties with the US. Never before have so many Quebecers and French nationals crossed the Atlantic in either direction to study (100 000 in 30 years), visit (600 000 a year) and invest (350 businesses, 50 000 direct jobs). Find two other peoples separated by an ocean that engage in such intensive intermingling. For Quebecers, Gérard Depardieu and Robert De Niro, Patricia Kaas and Whitney Houston, the Sorbonne and MIT, Adibou and Super Mario, José Bové and Ralph Nader, Astérix and Superman are all part of the décor.

Little by little, in a thousand different ways, the junction of our American and French connections has occurred without our yet fully ascertaining the remarkable leverage that it offers us. Language is the indispensable tool in this linkage. Bill 101 is almost 25 years old. It has unquestionably taught non-French-speaking Quebecers to speak French and driven many unilingual Quebecers away. At the same time, French-speakers have increased their level of education, which is among the highest in the world, as well as their knowledge of English. Today, half of the Québec working population is bilingual (the proportion is two thirds in Montréal), as are 80% of managers and engineers.

What criterion is more revealing of openness to the world than a society’s ability to speak of, listen to and read about what is happening in a language other than its own? In the Québec of the 21st century, a significant proportion of Quebecers, ranging from Cegep teachers to mining engineers, fashion designers to computer programmers, and senior civil servants to proponents of anti-globalization or feminism, are partaking every day of both civilizations, French and American, and through them, keeping tabs on what is happening, being said, being criticized and being imagined. That is one of the main reasons Québec continues to distinguish itself from its Anglo-American neighbours in its social policy (day care centres, delinquency, the social economy), its economic policy (government intervention, record unionization) and its cultural policy. That is why Montréal is now more extensively engaged in the knowledge-based economy than the average North American urban centre and why the percentage of the Québec economy devoted to high technology exceeds that of all of the G7 countries, except Japan.

Given that Québec has remained French-speaking in a North America that it understands better than ever, it is now reaping the benefits of its originality. This is an asset and we must make a program out of it: bolster this twofold connection, increase the number of bridges, the number of training sessions and the integration of knowledge. We must ensure that a growing number of university graduates experience, both in their field of study and on the spot, the best there is to offer in English-speaking North America and French-speaking Europe. To this end, we must ensure that our Cegep graduates have a genuine, functional knowledge of French and English, which is not now the case with the graduates of either French-language or English-language Cegeps.

If Québec is steeped to such an extent in foreign influences, if it operates like a melting pot in which it melds what it borrows into its singular reality in order to create new matter and return it to the senders, what perception do others have of Québec? I will discuss the matter only briefly, since we generally pay too much attention to this question, which is symptomatic of a small nation uncertain of its identity or value.

Never before have Quebecers maintained such a broad presence elsewhere: singers, dancers, scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, ministers, mayors, trade unionists, aircraft, trains, software, Québec seasons in Paris, London and in the near future, in New York, numerous trade missions that are sought after and successful. We could hardly do much more while still taking care of things at home. For a people that numbers 7 million, we are doing a great deal and it is transforming us. For the planet, this is very little and it does not affect it appreciably, which is normal.

Not only have our singers invaded French radio stations, but the average Frenchman now has as much news of us as we do of New Brunswick. Quickly now: Who is the premier of New Brunswick? The answer doesn’t immediately comes to mind? Well, then, you understand. The knowledge is neither absent not omnipresent.

Political Québec exists for small nations that are seeking, as it is, to carve out a place in the world. Québec is a strong, positive reference, a source of inspiration and hope in Catalonia, surprisingly so. In Scotland or in Slovenia, it provides a useful point of comparison. In London, Daniel Audet, the newly appointed Québec Delegate General, has diagnosed a pernicious malady: uncontrolled designation of origin. “I asked British friends about Céline Dion, Jacques Villeneuve, Leonard Cohen, the Cirque du Soleil, Michel Tremblay, Notre-Dame de Paris, Mordecai Richler, Robert Lepage, Oscar Peterson and La La La Human Steps,” he noted during a recent speech. “They are familiar with a number of them. ‘They’re French,’ they told me, ‘Americans,’ ‘British’ or sometimes ‘Canadians.’ Never did they identify them as ‘Quebecers.’ Success alone does not suffice. Québec in London: no logo. It is one problem that sovereignty would help to solve. One among others–end of parenthesis.”

The situation is worse in North America. No other people is fed as much information on Québec as English Canadians, some of whom understand, respect and like us. Unfortunately, they are isolated in a sea of prejudice and resentment. The most widely read book of all time on Québec (80 000 copies sold in 1992) was the essay by the late Mordecai Richler that described us as a tribal, reactionary, corrupt, anti-Semitic society, but with good restaurants. The aggressiveness of the 1990s, exacerbated by Meech Lake and three referenda, has now turned into a quiet, integrated, accepted contempt. Today, beyond its borders, Québec is no longer worthy of interest, except as a foil. Its fate is sealed.

In the United States, there are certainly people who know and respect us. Wall Street perceives Québec, even sovereignist Québec, as a bizarre place but not dangerous and rather profitable, contrary to the prevailing wisdom 25 years ago. Certain cultural milieus on the east coast have sampled the charms of Québec theatre and dance. Every year, no fewer than 200 Québec cultural events of all kinds take place in the US. Everywhere the Cirque du Soleil (which is usually clearly identified with Québec) goes, praise is lavished on it. Céline has done a lot, both on Oprah’s and Rosie’s shows, to promote Québec. She alone, in 10 years, has done more than the Expos in 30 years to indicate to the average American that Québec exists, that it can be competent and professional, fill up concert halls and win awards. Yes, the American print media reported on the Michaud affair and Lucien Bouchard’s resignation, but mention should also be made of the excellent economic and tourism press coverage that Québec, Québec City and Montréal have enjoyed over the past three or four years. All of this is a drop in the American bucket and Americans will never understand why other peoples do not want to fully embrace English, which would be so much simpler and avoid so much affliction. That is the way it is, the problem is structural and will be so for the foreseeable future, and that is that.

Some people believe that to be accepted by our neighbours, we should more closely resemble them. This would be the worst possible policy. Our originality is our strength and we must also make it our calling card, without soul-searching and with no illusions. We are different, atypical, competent, dynamic, tolerant and usually good-humoured. Over time, this fact will draw the interest of some people, above all those who need to be aware of it, in very specific niches. However, not everyone or even most people will be interested in us, since we are not sufficiently numerous, powerful, important (or violent) to sustain their attention.

For the rest, you buy our products: fine. Your businesses (600 American firms and 600 European companies) are setting up operations in Québec and hiring Québec brainpower: bravo. You regard us as your “domestic market” while complying with our language legislation without approving of it: that’s all we ask. You find our Caisse de dépôt et placement socialist but applaud our family policy: very good. You attend our festivals and make your films in our streets: excellent. You find us charming but rather provincial: that’s your problem, dear, not ours.

Ultimately, Québec, a singular phenomenon in North America, will never be fully understood and accepted except by itself. We should admit it and get over it. We are condemned to being an enigma, which can be charming, provided that we accept the fact without hang-ups, at ease with ourselves and our originality.