Canada 150

Nothing petty about many Quebecers’ aversion to Canada’s 150th celebrations

There are contradictions at the heart of this country, and we shouldn't try to sweep them under the rug
Photo: Scott Yano

As Canada prepares to celebrate its sesquicentennial year — marking that historic moment 150 years ago when the British colonies decided to unite and form the Dominion of Canada — some are perplexed and annoyed that many Quebecers are gearing up for a little event of their own.

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Seeking to counter all the patriotic flag-waving and sentimental Canadian Heritage Minutes, the Parti Québécois, a sovereigntist party, has announced plans for the “Other 150”, a campaign to remind Quebecers (as well as any Canadians willing to listen) why Confederation is not necessarily something to get all giddy about.

While some see it as a tacky, ill-timed political stunt, Quebec City’s recent 400th anniversary celebration and Montreal’s impending 375th should clue in the rest of Canada to the fact that some details of our 150th birthday may be missing from the national conversation.

For many Quebecers, Canada wasn’t founded in 1867, but in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain when he created a region called “le Canada.” Sound familiar? One can certainly argue that we didn’t become an official country until the union of the British colonies, but those colonies were initially part of New France. In the context of Quebec history, this matters.

Of course, one can also easily argue that neither the French nor the English discovered or founded anything, given that Canada’s Indigenous peoples were here long before either arrived. I expect that Quebecers won’t be the only ones standing up and challenging the one-sided national narrative of the 150 celebration.

There’s a Japanese adage that says “The opposite of a truth is another truth.”

Saying Canada is a wonderful country doesn’t negate the fact that it was founded on mass genocide and theft of Indigenous lands, and our belated acknowledgment of settler-colonial guilt seems to be doing very little for Indigenous communities.

Calling Canada a success that stands out in the world as a progressive, peace-loving, racially and culturally diverse country worth celebrating doesn’t negate that our distinctly different provinces and territories are often held together by a strange super glue of co-dependency, distrust, indifference, loyalty, and convenience.

For the next 12 months, Canadians will be inundated with government-sponsored propaganda aiming to reinforce the narrative that we live in the best country in the world.

But what’s so petty or disagreeable about a political party, which has as its aim to safeguard and promote the Quebec nation, standing up and reminding us that there are other points of view that have been minimized or brushed aside over the years as less important for the sake of national unity?

The Durham Report, the Quebec Patriots, “Speak White,” the Meech Lake Accord. Quebecers have many reasons to scoff at tone-deaf declarations that Canadians are one big, happy family.

The federal Liberal government is spending close to $500 million on the 150th anniversary celebrations (and close to $100 million of the bill will be paid by Quebecers), so why is it unreasonable for the Parti Québécois to spend some of its own money to remind people why Quebec may not be all that excited?

And why in the world are people surprised that the Parti Québécois wants to point out those reasons right now? Arguing that the timing is opportunistic is akin to blaming an environmental rights protester for showing up at a pipeline project approval. When else would they show up to grab people’s attention?

Presenting a different — and undoubtedly valid — point of view to the national narrative shouldn’t be perceived as petty, inconsiderate or ill-tempered, but rather an important addition to our collective history.

Whether we recognize it or not, much of Canada’s makeup (including our bilingualism and progressive values) and public image abroad (from Leonard Cohen to the Montreal Canadiens to Pierre Elliott Trudeau) has been determined and defined by Quebec.

Even hardcore Quebec separatists would be hard-pressed to deny that so much of what this very young country of 150 years is today is owed to the French culture and language.

Yet, despite the fact we pretend to be binational and bilingual, Canada outside of Quebec (and parts of New Brunswick) is hardly that at all, and most Canadians see themselves as a monolithic country with no asymmetrical relationship to Quebec.

It’s no wonder, then, that French Quebecers, eager to be valued as much as the English in founding this country, resent the backlash that often follows when they try to reassert themselves.

So, go ahead and party, but if the goal is to not only celebrate, but also evolve and grow as a country, perhaps it’s time to acknowledge why some won’t be attending the national shindig.

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