In a column titled "Get Under the Desk" published by The Globe and Mail on Sept. 16, 2006, Jan Wong writes: "... pure laine, the argot for a 'pure' francophone. Elsewhere, to talk of racial 'purity' is repugnant. Not in Quebec."
Here you have it, a fine example of the great Canadian divide, the two solitudes. In French, "pure laine" is loosely used to label Québécois of French descent. In English, it becomes a rallying cry against the others, a rallying cry for racial purity.
Some linguists argue the expression is an adaptation of the words "pure line", as in pure line Irish. In reality, associating the expression "pure laine" with any kind of racial purity is misguided. The fact that early French settlers mixed with Natives and compatriots of other origins is well documented. I have a few Scottish ancestors and I'm a descendant of Jean Nicolet and Jeanne Gisis-Bahmahmaadjimiwin. In counterpart, many Québec Natives share some of my European genetic heritage.
Oh, I'm sure if you search enough, you'll find someone who insists today's Pure Laine is the result of some sort of superior racial mix. But there are eccentrics in all demographic groups.
Bluntly put, the expression "pure laine" mostly refers to culture. If this statement surprises you, think of the new-stock Québécois who arrived from France in the last ten years. Would you say they are Pure Laine yet? Think of the 900,000 Québécois who migrated to New England in the early 20th century and their offspring. Would you say they are Pure Laine still?
Here's a personal anecdote. When studying at Bishop's University, I made friends with a third generation Québécois of Syrian descent. He spent his early years in Rivière-Ouelle, a small village in Bas-du-Fleuve. In one of our classes, we teamed up for a presentation with a few other Francophones. Upon writing down team members, the professor asked if our "Syrian" friend, who was not attending, was also French Canadian. I gather he was puzzled by his Arabic name and he felt the team could benefit from an English contribution (which in retrospect was a good idea). Well... we all spontaneously answered: "Yes". Do you think he is Pure Laine? I know what he would say. And I'm in no position to argue with someone who's listened to Paul Piché, Harmonium and Jim et Bertrand [Google translation] in his teens more than I did.
There's no definite consensus on what defines a Pure Laine. There's some heredity to it, but that's certainly not the bulk of it. I always thought the expression referred to woolen undergarments Canadians made so popular in the 17th to 19th centuries. That's how I use it. There's no purity or superiority involved, simply a reference to the humble origins of those who contributed to the early development of the province (or the country if you wish). To me, somebody who claims that he's a "Québécois Pure Laine" is really saying he appreciates Québec's culture as a whole, with all its qualities and its flaws.