Serious thinking needed on the real conflict in Quebec

By Yarema Kelebay and William Brooks

This article was first published in the News and Chronicle, Montreal, Thursday, March 13, 1980 under the headline: “Serious thinking needed on the real conflict in Quebec.” It was also published in the Ottawa Citizen on Wednesday, March 26, 1980 under the headline: “Canada’s a nation divided by ideology not culture” Translated into French as: “Conflit de peuples ou d’ideolgies?” it was published on the editorial page of Le Monde, Paris, Friday, May 6, 1980. Four articles from Canada where featured in Le Monde on the eve of the forthcoming Quebec referendum. Two were for and two against the Quebec independence movement.


Over the next few months Canadians will be doing some serious thinking about what our pundits call the “French – English conflict.”

Lord Durham’s description of “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state” has been kept alive by generations of authors, poets, playwrights and politicians. On the eve of the Quebec referendum most Canadians still accept this nineteenth century image of a struggle between two adversary peoples; the English and the French.

We continue to be preoccupied with a cultural dualism expressed as “two solitudes” and fundamentally grounded in language differences. There is, however, some doubt as to whether or not this is an accurate description of our predicament.

Undeniably, there are stylistic differences between French and English Canadians. The question is: Do they amount to insurmountable barriers which justify fracturing Canada?

With this question in mind, it may be important to stop and think about exactly what “culture” is. One could contend that “culture” is simply a common set of answers to the problems of living. A knife and fork is an incident of culture. They are answers to the problem of putting food in our mouths at the dinner table. In another culture the answer might be chopsticks. Christianity is one answer to the challenge of defining God. In another culture the answer might be Buddhism. Language is an answer to the problem of communicating. In this sense language too, language is an incident of culture but, as we can see, culture is a larger notion than just language.


Political system

In the same sense any political system is an incident of culture. It is an answer to the problem of governing. Western societies have developed liberal democracy. Others have monarchy, military dictatorship or totalitarianism.

An economic system is also an important cultural element. Our response to the problem of making a living has been free market capitalism while others have adopted socialism. Culture, then, is not the air we breathe, but something quite real and tangible. It is the aggregate of our answers to the problems of life.

From the bird’s eye view, French and English Canadians share more similarities than differences. Both are part of a modern, liberal, commercial, civilization which provides the basis for the high standard of living and political liberties we enjoy in this part of the world. In reality members of the French and English communities already use the same repertoire of answers that have been developed over the long course of the history of western civilization.



French and English Canadians are beginning to discover that they are not as different and incompatible as many of our politicians and intellectuals would have us believe. For example, in Quebec both French and English youngsters are as familiar with MacDonald’s and disco as their counterparts in Poughkeepsie, New York or, for that matter, in London or Paris.

As more and more of Quebec’s Anglophone community becomes comfortable speaking the French language the problems of communication and isolation are decreasing in importance. Some of us already intermarry and form close friendships. We have never institutionalized a condition of apartheid. Many of us have family members who originate in the other language group. We enjoy the same forms of recreation and leisure. Our children play on the same neighbourhood teams. In short, at most levels of culture we are totally compatible and even very similar.

The fact that some of us are predominantly French-speaking and others predominantly English-speaking and we do not share this one incident of culture is not a good enough reason to divide ourselves at other vital levels of society. Our way of life is strikingly similar and goes well beyond the confines of language.


Real conflict

Wherein, then, lies the real conflict in Quebec? The conflict is not between cultures. The conflict is between political elites in the political arena. It is fundamentally an ideological issue.

Since the late nineteen-fifties Quebec has witnessed the emergence of a new intelligentsia spawned under the guidance of such men as Pere George Henri Levesque, Dominican priest and sociologist at Laval University. Their pattern of perception and thought and their array of convictions amount to a fundamental antagonism toward our common, north-American, economic and political systems. They are our men of the Left. Their ideology is remarkably similar to Third World socialism. Using the vocabulary of anti-imperialism and decolonization they heap criticism on the present order. Not content with being a “loyal opposition” in an evolutionary, gradualist, political process they have inflated their complaints to systematic proportions. Their arguments amount to an attack on the fundamental structures of our economic and political system. They have both feet planted in what the late Lionel Trilling called the “adversary culture” of disaffected intellectuals who have an unfriendly attitude toward the ideals of western liberal democracy and capitalism.


New class

This “New Class” finds its organized expression in the Parti Quebecois. Although one often hears the Parti Quebecois described as “separatist” rarely are we reminded that it is also a socialist party. Making use of a nationalist or liberationist rhetoric, it pursues, over the long run, fundamentally socialist goals. This is apparent in the Party’s transparent tendency to collectivize, centralize and bureaucratize. Their model for de-Duplessifying Quebec is essentially borrowed from Third World opposition to developed nations.

This disposition is also evident in their political tactics and etiquette. When an opposition member provides evidence that there has been an exodus of business firms from Montreal; he is accused by a PQ minister of “political destabilization.” When the Leader of the Opposition speaks his mind on the subject of the economy during a by-election he is accused by the Premier of “intellectual terrorism.” When a private and long-respected Canadian company decides to move its head office to another province it is described as a “bad corporate citizen.” When English-speaking West Island voters express their free and independent opinions they are admonished for living in a “ghetto” and being a “captive vote.”

Citizens expressing peaceful and polite scepticism about the Parti Quebecois and its policies are lectured: They must enter the “mainstream” of Quebec life and stop sabotaging social change in Quebec. When minorities disagree with party policy a minister of the government characterizes them as being “abnormal.”

And perhaps worst of all, when it is suggested that the PQ Government may lose its independence referendum by a narrow vote, the leader of a democratically elected government, sworn to uphold the rule of law, menacingly reminds us that in such an eventuality he may not be able to control his disappointed followers.

On the eve of this referendum the real conflict in Quebec is between liberalism and radicalism or between the “New Right” and the “Old Left.” It is a conflict between two ideological dispositions not between two peoples.


Yarema Kelebay is a professor in the Faculty of Education at McGill University. William Brooks teaches history at Lower Canada College.