It’s come up again: that really annoying question about whether only a true blue French-speaking Quebecer has the right to criticize Quebec society. But the real question is about something else. It is about who is a Quebecer.
This essential question about Quebec society has no bearing on political affiliation. This is not about separatists. It is about a time honoured Quebec instinct to close ranks whenever identity issues are raised or appear to be raised. Quebecers see themselves as family and their bond is strong.
My introduction to French Quebec was as “pure laine” as it can get. Working in Quebec City between 1976 and 1980, I dove into complete immersion around the French fact. Back then, Quebec City was all white and all French. Any other skin colour or language raised eyebrows, not necessarily in a bad way, but certainly in a curious way.
Whenever I sought services in Quebec City, such as a dry cleaner or a garage, my name would always instantly lead to questions about where I was from and how I got there. There was no hostility. It was asked in the innocence of never having run into a name like Moscovitz before.
But, as innocent as such exchanges may have been, they left me with the distinctive feeling that I was somewhat of an alien. It never felt good, but it wasn’t a show stopper. I still liked Quebecers and just saw it as part of their survival mode. I must say that rationally I understood it.
So, last month, more than a quarter-century later, respected thinker Andrew Potter was tarred and feathered for criticizing Quebec society. He was not pilloried because he criticized Quebec, but because he used his finely tuned English brain to produce his conclusions in an English-language publication read primarily outside the province.
Questioning where a name like Moscovitz comes from in the 1970s may have been innocent, but condemning an accomplished thinker like Andrew Potter for thinking out loud in 2017 is really not worthy and not acceptable. It is the Quebec survival reflex disappointedly off kilter; the direct result of a reality Quebecers can’t escape. Tribalism runs deep. You see it in big ways and small ways. You can see it every day.
When pressed, Quebec elites will always go haywire when they’re assessed as being close-minded. They hate that because it is not how they see themselves. They see themselves as open. But, when push comes to shove on an identity matter, they stop moving forward. Instead, they move in protective circles.
A long time ago, René Lévesque, the founder of the separatist Parti Québécois (PQ), used to talk to Jewish Quebecers in a way he thought they would understand. He told them Quebecers wanted nothing more than what the Jews had accomplished when the State of Israel was established. He equated what he was trying to do in Quebec with Zionism.
Today, of course, no leader of the PQ would ever dare equate an independent Quebec at any level with Israel, but the larger picture remains the same. Despite all protestations, being a Quebecer, being a real Quebecer allowed to express opinions about Quebec, means being French-speaking and, in most cases, Quebec-born.
During the language law and referendum debates from 1976 to 1980, Lévesque – who was then the premier of Quebec – would say there was no French language requirement to being a Quebecer. He said that, if you live in Quebec, you were a Quebecer. He said it seriously, but, somehow, it never smelled right.
Paradoxically in Quebec there have always been many unilingual French speakers who have English, Scottish and Irish names. Names like O’Neil, Mackay and Burns. In these instances, funnily enough, there can sometimes be moments of truth about identity.
One day, Lévesque announced that the government’s crown jewel, Hydro Quebec, was getting a new president: a man named Robert Boyd.
As soon as the words came out of his mouth, Lévesque looked up and felt a need to reassure French-speaking reporters that despite his name, Robert Boyd was a Quebecer.
Indeed, he was. He just had a funny name.