Recently I had the pleasure of reading A Short History of Quebec by Brian Young and John Dickinson. It’s a great introduction to the history of the region and is filled with social history (the role of women, first nations, labor movement, etc) that may be overlooked by books more focused on politics. Special thanks to Professor Young for granting me this interview:
1. If I’m correct, I believe both of you are anglophones. How does this background influence your understanding of the region’s history?
Being ‘anglophones’ is just one factor in our makeup as historians of Quebec. John and I are of a generation born in the 1940s, we are males from middle class families, are parents, and we studied in the particular intellectual ambiance of Toronto. English speakers by birth both of us have been deeply involved in francophone society. John is perfectly bilingual, his children have French as their first language, and he spent his career in French at the Université de Montréal. In retirement, John lives in Brest, France. I trained first as a political historian with my consciousness of Quebec dating from the Pierre-Elliot Trudeau phenomenon of the 1960s. I taught at McGill University in Montreal from 1976, an institution that can be seen as a sort of litmus test of linguistic relations in Montreal. After my PhD and teaching in the U.S. of post Vietnam for six years, I came to Quebec to participate in a progressive, social democratic society, unique in North America, and one in which French was the ‘official’ language. I have been less at ease with events in Quebec since the second referendum on independence in 1995 and the ‘ethnic’ and conservative turn in Quebec politics.
2. As an American, I came in with the stereotype that Quebec had a definitively more progressive history than ours. Yet in your book, you give a fascinating and nuanced picture of Quebecois society. For example, women could vote in the early 1800s, but were then disenfranchised mid-century. And taverns were restricted to men until 1979. What is the most common misconception people have about Quebec’s history?
Whether one is referring to women’s, legal, or political history, Quebec has a distinct history that most North Americans ignore royally. Certainly, Quebec, historically dominated by the Catholic Church and a traditional elite, was, until the mid twentieth century, behind other North American jurisdictions in its labor, educational and social policies. In the past half century, it has leapfrogged on social issues like the welfare state, the environment, gay rights, women’s equality, right to die, low university tuition etc. Deindustrialization, dependence on equalization payments from more prosperous parts of Canada, periodic bouts of ethnocentrism, and the decline of Montreal, have hurt Quebec’s reputation. Americans have profound misconceptions about Quebec and Canada. Their neighbors to the north are certainly not dull. On their very doorstep, Americans can experience Quebec’s linguistic, cultural, and social experiment.
3. Your book details many economic/social issues (which I had known less about) as well as the better-known linguistic ones. What is the relationship between language and the fight for social justice in Quebec history- how has one affected the other?
This question is at the very root of the Quebec question. Is a nationalist movement with a fixation on language inevitably conservative and prone to ethnic centrism? My own feeling is that Quebec vacillitates between a rich history of tolerance, ‘bonne ententism’, vibrant reception of immmigrants, and social justice and periodic episodes of nativism, fear, and mistrust of the ‘other’.
4. Your book reviews some of the pro-independence movements and politicians in Quebec. Has there ever been a movement to reunite Quebec with France? If not, why do you think an independence movement developed but not a reunification one?
The cession of New France to Britain in 1763 acted as a firewall isolating Quebec from the French Revolution, republicanism, and France’s vigorous assertion of laicitiy. As a result, Quebec developed in very different ways from France. Quebecers, although singularly secular, seem quite at ease with a crucifix over the speaker’s chair in the National Assembly and a dual educational and hospital system that reflects historic Catholic and Protestant communities. A strong independence movement has long existed in Quebec, Quebecers were enchanted with Charles de Gaulle’s ‘Vive le Québec libre’ declaration from the balcony of the Montreal City Hall in 1967, and sovereignty referendums were held in 1980 and 1995. In the latter, the ‘Yes’ received 49.2% of eligible votes and through the Parti Québécois independence remains a strong option. Visits to Paris and to the proverbial French ‘cousins’ remain a favorite destination. However, free trade with the United States, a ‘National’ Hockey League largely composed of American teams, Celine Dion who made her career in Las Vegas, and the attraction of Quebec ‘snowbirds’ to Florida rather than the Riviera, are indicative of Quebec’s integration as a North American society.
5. While the book focuses on Quebec, it also touches on the fate of francophones in the rest of Canada. Are you optimistic about the survival of French-Canadian culture outside Quebec?
The future of linguistic minorities is hard to predict. Of the 1,067,000 Canadians of French mother tongue outside Quebec, most live in Ontario and New Brunswick where they represent sizeable minorities. Although they benefit from various federal and provincial programs in the educational, social, and cultural sectors, their survival in an English world is perhaps precarious. Two of my grandchildren are in francophone schools in the Toronto region: their schools are well-funded and excellent and they will become part of a bilingual citizenry.
6. I’m headed to Quebec this summer with my partner for vacation. Besides this fantastic book, what other ones would you recommend I read to learn more about Quebec? And for our trip, what are some “must-see” historic sites we should include on our itinerary?
How about a novel or two to set the stage for your trip to Quebec. In English, the works of Mordecai Richler are probably the best known but for popular life in francophone Montreal try Michel Tremblay’s The Blue Notebook or for an historical classic try Anne Hébert’s Kamouraska. Quebec films are another useful introduction to Quebec. Why not sample, Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine (1971); Deny Arcand’s Decline of the American Empire (1986), or Xavier Dolan’s recent Mommy (2014). For more academic treatments of Quebec history, I enjoyed Jack Little and Peter Gossage, An Illustrated History of Quebec and Denyse Baillargeon’s A Brief HIstory of Women in Quebec. The museums, historic sites, restaurants, and night life of Montreal and Quebec City make them the principal tourist destinations. In addition, why not get off the beaten track (see the Quebec government’s web site http://www.bonjourquebec.com/qc-en/accueil0.html) and travel along the south shore of the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City visiting the quarantine station at Grosse Île and the Reford Gardens (Jardin de Métis) at Grand-Métis. Close to Vermont, the region of the Eastern Townships around Sherbrooke has hidden historical treasures, delightful inns, and good food.
A native of Winnipeg Manitoba, Brian Young taught the social and institutional history of Quebec at McGill University, Montreal. Retired, he now divides his time between Montreal and Nice. His most recent book, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press (2014), is Patrician Families and the Making of Quebec The Taschereaus and the McCords.