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Comment: Quebec is worth celebrating, in all its diversity

Suddenly, we were swept into the crowd surging toward the Plains of Abraham on a sunny afternoon on Saint Jean Baptiste Day, June 24, 1979.

Suddenly, we were swept into the crowd surging toward the Plains of Abraham on a sunny afternoon on Saint Jean Baptiste Day, June 24, 1979. We had been wandering through the cobbled lanes of old Quebec City, delighting in the funicular, the tiny shops and the expansive view of the St. Lawrence from the Chateau Frontenac, completely unaware of the importance of the day. But there we were, pressed into place on the plains.

Quebecers of all ages were having themselves a party, waving flags, chanting slogans, cheering the speeches and singers on a podium far away from where we stood. It was the Quebec holiday, the Parti Québécois was in power and separation was in the air. At some point everyone broke into song, Gens du Pays, a love song for life, family, culture and country. All around us, people joined together singing and swaying while large speakers rang out the chorus time after time. We remained silent, knowing full well that English chatter would not be de rigeur.

“This would never ever happen in Victoria,” I thought. A sky full of blue and white flags, the sun, the song, the significance of the very spot where Wolfe and Montcalm held their terrible battle; the memory is clear.

The recent loss of the Parti Québécois brought it to mind again. Pauline Marois stated in her concession speech: “I am worried for our language,” the preservation of French (and by extension, the francophone culture in Quebec) a central plank of the PQ.

I think there is still a passion for the protection and ongoing enhancement of the Québécois culture that I glimpsed that day. Sovereigntists like Marois are just proposing the wrong strategy.

They try to argue convincingly that the only way that the francophone culture can thrive is in a Quebec nation. Surrounded as it is by vast plains of Englishness, Quebec must build a corral and fasten the gate.

Trouble is, the futility of that approach is apparent everywhere, from the fall of the Berlin Wall, to the American struggle to catch Mexicans flooding their borders, to the Chinese trying to close down Google access, and on it goes. “Keep Out,” even if you deploy vast resources to police the boundaries, has little chance of succeeding.

There is another approach that, although haphazard and unrecognized, holds the most promise. It accepts that culture is not a fixed state but an ongoing process that has seeped out silently over the 300-plus years that we have lived in this country together, and then ebbs back, changed and having changed the culture it visited.

We in the rest of Canada have grown in different directions because of Quebec. We send our kids to French immersion in greater numbers than ever before so that they will be more Canadian than many of us are. We marvel at Quebec’s peaceful transformation to a secular society from one where the church held sway. We are influenced by the social programs that it has pioneered and now watch with interest as Quebecers tackle the issue of “right to die.” We are pleased to see our two official languages used at international events, putting us up there with most modern states.

And all of this makes us different from the U.S. Superficial-sounding perhaps, but altogether, they are woven into our identity as Canadians nonetheless.

Naming other Canadians as enemies of Quebec’s ongoing preservation is pointless. Creating a dichotomy between the sovereigntists and everyone else in Quebec is also divisive, because many Quebecers, regardless of their views on separation, treasure their francophone heritage.

However, they see a strong economy and an embracing, multicultural environment as the surest way to accomplish this aim. The Quebec francophone culture will wither as the economy falters. Quebec populated only with “pure laine” cannot survive.

There is a line in Gens du Pays: “Le temps de vivre nos espoirs” — time to live our hopes. Most of us within and outside Quebec hope for a Canada that includes Quebec, not just the territory, but also the rich legacy and ongoing vibrancy that it brings to our national identity.

Bribing and threatening Quebecers so that they stay in Canada has worked against that hope. It has created fierce resentments that block understanding. Quebec threatening to leave Canada on a periodic basis has exhausted everyone. Saying “good riddance” brings untold complications.

Enough already. Better to look at what does work, beginning with genuine respect, setting aside many of yesterday’s solutions that have exacerbated problems rather than addressing them.

Marilyn Callahan, a professor emeritus of the University of Victoria’s school of social work, is a long-time Victoria resident and (regretfully) a unilingual Canadian.