“The English fact in Quebec” examined

By Yarema Kelebay & William Brooks

The following article review was published in the News and Chronicle, Montreal, Thursday, April 24, 1980.

An English edition of “le Fait Anglais au Quebec” by Sheila McLeod Arnopoulos and Dominic Clift was published by McGill-Queens University Press. On the eve of the Parti Quebecois independence referendum the book set out to define the Quebec Anglophone community in terms of its past, present and future perspectives.

According to reports Arnopoulos and Clift were to share the 1979 Governor Generals award for non-fiction in French. In the following review Kelebay and Brooks offer readers a second opinion on the book’s merits.

Under a timely title: “The English Fact in Quebec” Arnopoulos and Clift offer a rather tired thesis to Canadian readers.

Relying on highly tendentious sources, such as Canada’s senior Marxist historian, Stanley Ryerson and Montreal’s clever young iconoclast, Tom Naylor, they direct a steady stream of criticism at what they call “English economic behaviour.” For this read Canadian capitalism. Given sources of this tenor their version of history and economics is somewhat predictable.

The authors describe our past through somewhat murky allegations about the Anglophone community’s “club-like atmosphere …practice of secrecy …resolutely authoritarian institutions” and ever conspiratorial “collusion between political authorities and agents of economic growth.”

Premier Rene Levesque’s favourite image of Quebec as being “two scorpions fighting in a bottle” is solidly reinforced in a double-barrelled caricature of the English as having been exclusively “business oriented” and “individualistic” and the French as “culture oriented” and “collective minded.”

The authors also arrive at the very questionable conclusion that economics and culture are two fundamentally opposed realms. The implication is that to be businesslike is to be uncultured and to be cultured is to be unbusinesslike.

Their economic analysis relies heavily in the famous, but dated, “Faucher-Lamontagne thesis” which argues that Montreal’s decline can be explained by the natural shift of the economic center of gravity to the center of the continent and is unrelated to Quebec’s political conduct.

This interpretation, which presently flies in the face of common sense, is an integral part of the Parti Quebecois version of history contained in their white paper on “sovereignty-association.” On the campaign trail it is translated into the convenient PQ assertion that “business began to leave Montreal long before we were elected.”

The authors approach to the present political issues in Quebec is characterized by a state of mind that is constantly in fear of threats to liberty and justice from our so-called “federalist status-quo” but curiously unperturbed by similar threats coming from a chorus of Ottawa’s detractors.

Arnopoulos and Clift say that Anglo Quebeckers are worried. They are worried about losing control of their schools and their businesses; about the decline of their communities; the lack of opportunities for English graduates in Quebec and especially about the growth of a political ideology whose basic creed is the subordination of “private and individual interest” to “collective goals” as defined by unfriendly Quebec technocrats.

But while admitting that the Anglo community is in a state of anxiety, the authors stop short of saying that it has good reason to be. Rather, they imply that the Anglo predicament is a result of their having clung to an obsolete economic order and they are paying the normal price for having remained married to an unprogressive past.

Various images of a conspiratorial English community with inaccessible institutions and “close” between business and education blend to create the caricature of a “chateau clique” intended to induce a collective guilt complex among the historic offenders.

Whereas this may be a convenient view for those who desire an end to the Anglophone presence in Quebec; it is a rather distorted image of a community that has become as pluralistic as any other in North America.

Displaying what amounts to a “Jacobin” contempt for the “mere forms” of law, order and civility, the authors also refer to a “damaging attitude” on the part of Quebec Anglos created by their “narrow definition of democracy as pertaining solely to electoral processes.” Only the ideological left feels as free to redefine democracy when it suits their purposes.

In the light of all this, it is not surprising to note that the authors foresee a new breed of leader emerging in Quebec’s Anglophone community. Arnopoulos and Clift seem to be giving the nod to prominent socialist leaders such as teacher union President, Donald Peacock, City Councillor, Abe Limonchik and Henry Milner, President of the Committee of Anglophones for Sovereignty-Association to guide us into a new land of promise which they refer to as “Quebec life.”

The book’s tone suggests that those who would like to be considered “visionary” Anglophones should leave their positions in the tainted world of private enterprise and start knocking on the doors of Francophone universities and the Quebec civil service.

We are informed that Abe Limonchik, as President of the left-wing, Montéreal citizens Movement, has more credibility and political clout than the President of Domtar. In fact, Mr. Limonchik has become the prototype for a new Anglophone elite in Quebec – a status conferred by the authors more from ideological ascription than by any legitimate claim to a representative of the larger Anglophone community.

The implication that any Quebecer must abandon commercial interests to enter the mainstream of Quebec life is also somewhat absurd. The authors constantly resurrect the tired image of the Montreal business and industrial community as a tightly knit group of robber barons staunchly resisting the spirit of the times.

This corporate effigy is raised and burned so frequently that people are beginning to accept the practice as an act of faith. As a consequence, we forget that in spite of the growth of government bureaucracy referred to by the authors, the private sector is still the workplace of the majority of Quebecers who go about their business remote from the glare of publicity one acquires through leadership roles in avant-garde politics. All of us cannot get out of the business of producing wealth and into the business of redistributing it.

Actually the majority of Quebecers, French or English, do not require a spiritual transformation into something the authors call “Quebec life.” Most of them live full and active lives in Quebec and make a significant contribution to our general well-being through their day to day commercial and industrial activity. Their productive work produces the base for a standard of living that compares rather well beside other countries and other economic systems.

The fact is; liberal, commercial societies such as ours are organized for the security, comfort and fulfillment of ordinary men and women, not for the aggrandisement of would-be heroic figures like Messrs. Peacock, Limonchik and Milner. We live in a society in which most of us are interested in doing our best in this world, not in a secular transcendence to a dreamy, earthly paradise.

Perhaps most journalists are more easily misled about reality than ordinary people. Restrictive and prejudicial language legislation continues to enjoy support in the Quebec National Assembly, but Anglo intellectuals go on viewing the situation with an air of patient understanding. They pride themselves in seeing through the shams or flaws in “the system” and pointing them out to us “backward and unenlightened” readers. Thus, when radical Quebec nationalists cry for drastic measures to put the English community in its place, they regard it as normal and justifiable. After all, Anglo Quebec is connected to a repressive and exploitative political and economic system, which “real Quebecers” should agree requires transformational change.

Like most of their counterparts in Quebec’s “radical chic” establishment, the authors predict a “New Harmony” for the future. To cite their words: “It is apparent that new values will replace the economic rationality that played such a large role in Canadian history but which now seem incapable of coping with present needs – economic notions of progress and development will have to be subordinated to newer social ones.”

If “social values” is a euphemism for socialism and “economic values” for capitalism; and if the authors’ prescription for our problems is the displacement of capitalism by socialism; then their thesis is an old one which should summon up the eternal vigilance of free men and women.

Yarema Kelebay is a professor of history and education at McGill University. William Brooks teaches history at Lower Canada College.