The Québécois form a Nation

On October 30, 2003, the Charest government and the members of the National Assembly unanimously state that the people of Québec form a nation: "Que l'Assemblée nationale réaffirme que le peuple québécois forme une nation." The motion doesn't stir much debate, it's a simple statement of what most residents in the province already acknowledge. For quite some time, Québec city has been known as the capital nationale and June 24th as the Fête nationale du Québec.

On June 23, 2006, while in Québec City for Saint-Jean-Baptiste celebrations, Harper gets grilled by journalists over his stance on Québec nationalism, particularly on the motion by the Québec National Assembly that calls the province a nation. The prime minister says the debate on whether Québec should be described as a nation is semantic and has no purpose: "I don't know, quite frankly, what its legal significance is."

In November 2006, the Bloc Québécois pushes its own motion at the House of Commons. It echoes the National Assembly's motion: "That this House recognize that Quebeckers form a nation." In an effort to save face, the Conservative government submits yet another motion: "That this House recognize that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada." The Conservative motion is adopted 266 to 16 on November 27. The Bloc's motion is rejected, mostly by the Conservatives and the Liberals.

The use of the word "Québécois" in the English version of the Conservative motion inspired many discussions. During the press briefing that followed its adoption, Lawrence Cannon, then Québec Lieutenant for the Conservatives, explained that being Québécois is a personal manner; the motion applies to those who feel Québécois. He also accused Gilles Duceppe of fostering a "pure laine" definition of Québécois. In contrast, Mr. Duceppe had clearly stated that the Bloc's motion encompassed all residents of the province. In the following days, Mr. Harper remained vague on the meaning of the word "Québécois" in the English version of the motion. He evaded the topic by stating that defining who is Québécois or not is up to the province. Neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals explained why they rejected the Bloc's motion. Prior to the vote, Conservative MP Michael Chong resigned from his post as the intergovernmental affairs minister so he could abstain. He argued it "is nothing else but the recognition of ethnic nationalism, and that is something I cannot support."

On November 30, 2006, an additional motion taking note of the Conservative motion is carried unanimously by the National Assembly of Québec. "That the National Assembly [...] recognize the positive nature of the motion carried by the House of Commons and that it proclaim that this motion in no way diminishes the inalienable rights, constitutional powers and privileges of the National Assembly and of the Québec nation." Provincial party leaders, Jean Charest, André Boisclair and Mario Dumont, all echo Duceppe's stance; the nation encompasses all residents of the province. Those who don't feel Québécois may question this, but most will admit they live in a distinct society they willingly chose.

With the ambivalence around the use of the word "Québécois", Harper stayed as far as possible from any interpretation that could be associated with the territory and could remotely help the sovereignty movement. Overall, Harper tactfully beat Duceppe. The Conservatives boast it as a great achievement, but at the end of the day, they simply acknowledged what most residents of Québec already knew and what a minority of Canadians still resent. Ironically, they wouldn't have done it if they hadn't been forced to by the Bloc.


Pure Laine is better

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.


What am I doing here?

I'm curious. I like it when things are balanced. I like being pushed in my convictions. I like to write.

I get most of my news from the Web. I'm sometimes surprised (more often than I'd like) by the shallow analysis and the stereotypes conveyed by English media on Québec related stories. Although I'm oblivious to it, I realize that the same can be said about Québec French media covering other provinces.

I've always liked exchanging political views with people of different backgrounds, but I don't get that chance very often. There aren't enough Canadians who have the opportunity to directly interact with the other solitude; too much of it gets lost in translation. Perhaps, there are Anglos and Allophones out there who share my interests and can appreciate the candid views and reactions of a moderate Québec nationalist on preconceived ideas, stereotypes and current events.