Over the past week, the media have taken us back to the referendum battles of 20 and 35 years ago. We are told that nothing has changed, that we have no projects and are confronted with a single choice: yes or no… always to the same question!
But do we really have only one choice? If we only look back, perhaps. But what if, for a second, we were to live in the present and look to the future?
On October 30, 2015, the day of the launch, in Québec City, of the Réseau des villes francophones et francophiles d’Amérique, the meeting room was full. First, an Aboriginal woman took the stage. Before Champlain, the land was already occupied, so it is only right and natural that an Aboriginal person should kick-start the day. She reminded us of the unacceptable gap that separates our nations. French spread across a huge territory, thanks to them. And let’s be honest: without them, we would not be here. How can we take stock of French in North America without feeling responsibility for digging ourselves out of this unacceptable chasm of forgetfulness, and—if we cannot erase the past, at least begin to change the present?
The presentations, one after another, repeated the same message: French is no longer on the defensive; it is advancing, it is proud and assertive. It is no longer whispered, but celebrated. It has found new legitimacy and is increasingly recognized and accepted. Of course, this is just the beginning, and there is some ways yet to go.
Some pointed out the fact that our ancestors named many locations in North America. We have unsung heroes, lost with the passage of time, and with it, the arrival of a huge English wave. Our French communities were isolated and gradually grew apart from each other. We know the battles that each of them waged and that marked them. They were many in the Prairies, in Ontario, essentially everywhere, including Québec. We know that there will be others.
But this morning, what we all were saying is this: we no longer want to be on the defensive. This morning, we discovered another perspective. The world has changed. Something happened that we missed.
The mayor of Moncton was in attendance. He spoke… in French; that’s one less indignity! The healed wounds perhaps explain this newfound confidence. The world is changing, and certain scars are fading. We need to acknowledge the fact that we are doing better.
In Québec, 50 years ago, French-speaking workers were not treated fairly, immigrants chose to learn English and trade was conducted in English. We quietly rebelled. “Québec Inc.” produced a cohort of French-speaking managers. Immigrants attended French schools, then businesses put up French signs. Our world has changed. Young anglos under 30 are bilingual.
French has established itself. Our English counterparts have recognized it, and we should thank them. Of course, in Québec, like elsewhere, we will always have to be vigilant about promoting French.
Manitoba has announced a law on services in French; as has Newfoundland and Labrador. Acadia unites the Atlantic provinces. Ontario is wrapping up a year of celebrating the 400th anniversary of the French presence there. Some 400 Franco-Ontarian flags have been raised province-wide. For the past 30 years, all across Canada, immersion classes and schools have been multiplying, and all provincial and territorial governments are seeking out French immigration.
And yet there is still so much progress to be made. We have the right to more French schools and immigrants to attend them.
But in this room, on this October 30, in Québec City, 20 years later, there was renewed French pride, a new confidence driven by a wind of change whose effects we are suddenly realizing.
We no longer want to be on the defensive. We no longer want a unique identity. The fear of seeing other identities overwhelm our own is receding. We no longer want to be caged by a single sense of belonging. Our allegiance to Québec is not weakened by our attachment to Canada. We still want to be “masters in our own home,” except now that we no longer fear the other; we are discovering a broader territory of attachment. We are at home in more than one place.
Our youth are rethinking our collective future. The recent federal election showed this. Reclaiming our place in Canada, reflecting on and advancing Québec’s vision and aspirations of Canada are now part of Quebecers’ new vision.
What values do Quebecers want for Canada? What vision will we propose in terms of the environment, the balance of opportunities for all, the gap that we must close between high- and low-income earners, our international role, respect for individuals and the communities they identify with?
Politicians must display Québec colours, of course. But our artists, intellectuals, youth, union and environmental representatives and our business people are free to put forth a Québec vision that promotes a common approach. Getting closer does not mean disappearing. Instead, the reverse is true: it means taking our place along with our vision and our aspirations.
We could begin our return, as Quebecers, into the French-speaking Canadian fold.
Our Franco-Ontarian, Franco-Albertan, Franco-Saskatchewanian and all our other fellow French speakers have held the fort. Their battles, insistence and persistence have kept a French echo alive across the country. Our French-speaking communities are our roots and the benchmarks guiding the way to the reappropriation of our Canadian attachment.
For 50 years, we have been told that Québec is our only home, and that everywhere else is “their” home. But what if their home were also a little bit ours too?
Along the way, we will perhaps discover not only a French-speaking Canada that is thriving with artists and economic and social players, but also—wait for it— an English-speaking Canada slowly warming up to the French-speaking advantage. Conversely, I believe and hope that we will learn the Canadian advantage.
In the transition, I hope we will concern ourselves with the young Aboriginal woman who reminded us, this morning, of the memory and presence of those who welcomed us here first. It is now our turn to welcome them.
There will come a time—now that we are no longer under the gun, and with reciprocal respect and newfound confidence—when we will formally sign an agreement welcoming Québec’s national community. It is not a question of deadlines, but of will.
On this October 30, 2015, twenty years later, there is perhaps another option: telling ourselves that we are Quebecers and that that is our way of being Canadian.
Member for Saint-Laurent, Government House Leader, Minister responsible for Canadian Intergovernmental Affairs and the Canadian Francophonie, and Minister responsible for Access to Information and the Reform of Democratic Institutions