The October Crisis and the Destruction of the “Canayen” Culture

Par Graeme Decarie le 4 novembre 2010

The young professor snapped his pencil in half in an act of passionate drama. “We must define our culture,” he said. The heads of his colleagues nodded. They had to protect their culture, of course. And they were determined to do so. But first they had to figure out what it was.

‘Culture’ is one of those words that serves more to raise emotions than to mean anything. Nobody knows what any culture is because, roughly, the word means the sum total of all our habits and values and attitudes and – well – just everything. No two people on earth have the same culture in all respects. And all share much of their culture with the whole world. Within my own culture are many values that I shared with my francophone, working class neighbours. I admired Maurice Richard. I didn't like rich anglos. Why should I? 

What makes it tougher is that culture is always changing. Like all people, Quebecois are a mixture. They're German and Scots and English and Irish and native peoples – and some French. And the French of them are a mixture of German and Gaelic and Italian and even Norse. Ultimately, going back far enough, our traditional culture is that of a caveman.

The drive of the 1960s and ‘70s was to preserve a culture that nobody knew what it was made up of. So let's just deal with parts of it we do know about.  

What had been notable about Quebecois culture before the ‘60s? Well, it had been the high status of the Catholic Church: Political and economic privilege for it, the right for it to control its own system of education – which was one that left most francophones with terribly under-funded and inferior educations. 

What did the Liberals do in the ‘60s?  Well, they remodeled the Catholic public schools as secular schools to work along the more egalitarian lines of the Anglo public schools; they encouraged the shift away from classics in the universities; and created incentives to encourage francophone business. No ‘back to the farm’ stuff, here.  The PQ, as time would prove, followed very similar lines, destroying traditional culture rather than protecting it. Only two elements of traditional culture were slated for preservation.   

One was language, to be preserved most notably in Bill 101. Few noticed that when the author of Bill 101, Camille Laurin, prepared a charter of the Quebecois culture, it was mostly about changes to the culture, and trivial ones at that. (“Quebecois smoke too much,” it read.) On balance, Bill 101 was designed to benefit those middle class people who made a living with words (journalists, for example.) They, far more than bricklayers or factory hands, have been the beneficiaries of Bill 101.

The other cultural element preserved was the privileged status of private schools. This was actually more important than the language question. The Liberals and PQ were both dominated by a middle class and upper middle class (lawyers, doctors, professionals, inheritors of wealth). Their social and economic position rested on the foundation of private schooling. They had to protect that part of the culture that made them and their families the leaders of Quebec. The crisis was a class crisis, not a language one.

The Crisis really began in the ‘60s with Léandre Bergeron, a university teacher who wrote a best-seller, “Petit Manuel d'Histoire du Québec.”   He was not a teacher of history, which may explain why his book had at least one major error of fact in almost every paragraph. It was really much the same history that had been taught by the church for almost two centuries. The English were rich. Protestants were agents of the devil. The English exploited the French. 

But Bergeron wrote his Petit Manuel in the context of another church . The context was not Catholicism; it was Marxism.  Alas, his understanding of Marxism was even shabbier than his understanding of history. However, his Marxism opened a whole, new debate in Quebec. If the Quebecois were a people, almost a race, who were characterized as exploited, then where did all those rich lawyers and doctors and politicians come from? How come Parizeau was a millionaire? 

To turn that corner, Bergeron had to invent a new race, a race that was Quebecois – but not rich Quebecois. It was a race of factory workers, farmers, day labourers. All of these were French-speaking of course. All the Anglos of the Pointe and Griffintown and Rosemount were rich – because they were Anglos. This new race of poor Quebecois he called Les Canayens. 

Teachers and professors of the 1960s and ‘70s (as now) were not rich. But they were, both French and English, raised in a tradition of racial/religious caricatures and blame-seeking. This blended with their generational post-adolescent wisdom, so that Marxism and denunciation of all their parents believed in came in a package along with long hair, beards and flared jeans. 

Petit Manuel became a standard text in both English and French CEGEPs, and even in universities. Students learned that the Canayens had babies because the church told them to (nonsense); that capitalists in France made fortunes out of the fur trade (false. The fur trade was a loser for France.); that the English were all rich businessmen (wildly false throughout the history of the province). 

Essentially, it was a quasi-racist history along the lines of Lionel Groulx, but tarted up with a trendy dash of working class rebellion.  The Liberal leadership, excluded now from the Canayen “race,” were unhappy with the book. The Parti Quebecois was lucky to be still in its founding stages. Otherwise, its leadership would have had to deal with the challenge to Quebec's traditional social and economic structure. But Bourassa and Trudeau gave them the chance to sit back and be just-pretend rebels. 

James_Cross_in_captivity.jpgBoth Laporte and Cross were non-Canayens. That justified the murder of Laporte. (Yes, it was a murder. The self-proclaimed Patriotes announced it as an execution, and the autopsy showed a deliberate strangling. Radio Canada lied recently when claimed that the death was an accident. Lying on such an issue is not unusual for Radio Canada.) 

But the authorities went easy on the kidnappers and murderers. The PQ, as well, was gentle.  Le Petit Manuel had signaled a change in Quebecois thinking, a change that threatened to stimulate a passion for a Canayen state, a state that neither Liberal nor PQ leaders would fit into. It was better to let it die a natural death. Challenging it would only bring it back to life.  

After a passage of time, not much of it, the kidnappers were forgiven. One of them was allowed to return from exile because it was felt he had suffered enough. His exile had been to France.  Often , the “Patriotes” were invited as heroes to speak at schools. And so, they would be tromped into classrooms, ostentatiously garbed in the working class boots and thick suspenders of the working class labourer. Both Liberals and PQ were tender to the rebels; but none of the rebels was ever invited to the high councils of either party. The PQ covered its unCanayenness by somewhat beefing up its commitment to social legislation. But the old Quebec social structure, a structure that was old and traditional as long ago as the birth of Duplessis' great grandfather, had been saved.

The Liberals and the PQ both made sure of that as they cemented private schooling to its traditional mates, political, social and economic privilege. Within less than a decade, Le Petit Manuel went out of style, as a new generation bursting with post-adolescent wisdom entered the classrooms. The old wisdom was tossed into the wastebaskets, along with long hair and flared jeans. And so it was that Parizeau could one day assume his rightful seat as premier of all the Quebecois. 

Thanks to the October Crisis, the Canayens had shrunk back to the darkest shadows. Quebecois could now return to arguing passionately about problems that didn't exist, while ignoring the ones that did.


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