I was a nerd in high school. I read everything I could get my hands on and I generally outscored my teachers on the monthly current events quizzes that the now long defunct Montreal Star sent around to the schools. I was also, of course, an exem- plary student. So when the CBC’s leg- endary Elwy Yost, ebullient and bow-tied, came by our school to talk to students for his adolescents’ radio show, our teachers naturally selected me as one of three or four student pan- elists. The subject? Yost was from Toronto. My school was in the Montreal suburb of Lachine. It was the 1960s. There had been bombs in Montreal’s mailboxes earlier in the decade. What else would we talk about? ”œWhat does Quebec want?” Or ”œCan Canada survive?” Or ”œHow do we save Confederation?” I can’t remember the exact title but the exact title doesn’t matter. In these parts there has been just one subject for the last 40 years and now, heaven help us, it’s back.
Apart from the fact that I had a ter- rible case of stage fright ”” the show was taped in front of the entire school assembled in the auditorium, an intim- idating arena for a nerd ”” I don’t remember much about the discussion. I do remember that during the ques- tion period one of my classmates, not the most refined intellectual but a rugged sort on the football field and quick with an elbow in the hallways, got up and said with the fearless con- viction that comes from having thought a thing through for 30 seconds that all these problems the country was having would vanish overnight if only all the French would speak English. This was met with boisterous, maybe even thunderous applause. In this my first brush with populism I made a fee- ble rebuttal about how Canada had not been ”œbuilt by the sword” ”” for some reason I remember the words exactly ”” and that we had to solve our problems with reason, discussion and compro- mise. Afterward this earned a rebuke from my best friend of the time, who said I should have lowered the boom on the intolerant lummox, presumably by calling him a bigot or idiot and say- ing people who had been here 200 years before us had the right to speak whatever language they wanted. My intervention was also, strictly, incor- rect. Canada has at times been built by the sword, as I was reminded recently while sitting in another high school auditorium listening to the vice-princi- pal of a French school we’re thinking of sending our 11-year-old to, who men- tioned casually that her institution had been founded just a few years after ”œthe Conquest.”
You don’t actually hear many refer- ences to the Conquest these days. And you almost never here anglo- phones, as we English now call our- selves, propose that Quebec solve its problems by having everyone speak our language. Most anglophones who have stayed in Quebec have embraced the idea that French is the common language of Quebec. Many of us send our kids to school in French so they will have the linguistic choices we didn’t have. Progress does occur.
But in other ways, it seems, nothing ever changes. Thus the Parti Québécois is entering what must be its three-dozenth debate on how to sell Quebecers on separatism. Hardliners are proposing that they simply run on an independence platform in the next election so that the sizeable number of Quebecers who want to turf Jean Charest’s Liberals will find that not only does their vote get rid of Mr. Charest, it jettisons the whole Canadian constitutional contraption.
It’s encouraging for federalists that the PQ seems to understand it still can’t win a referendum on separation. But what a dreary prospect this all is! There hasn’t been a new idea in the separatism file in four decades. Everyone knows all the arguments by heart. Currency. Economic relations with the United States. Reduced influ- ence at the G8 and the United Nations. Ethnocentrism. How to share the debt. (”œWe won’t share the debt!” ”œYou must share the debt!” ”œThe debt has your name on it, not ours.”) Are we really going to hash through all that again? Life is short ”” for many of us much shorter than it was when we first start- ed in on this subject 40 years ago. The temptation to sit this one out and enjoy what time remains to us aging boomers is almost overpowering.
And yet, conscience whispers, just because we’re bone-weary of it all do we have the right to sign away a coun- try, not just for us but for our children and their children, forever? In the end, do the separatists win just because they’re more stubborn?
Jacques Parizeau once told a Toronto audience how he understood that for them discussing ”œthe national question” was like a trip to the dentist. He was right. And a new separation debate will be like root canal. But sen- sible people do voluntarily go to the dentist, even sometimes for root canal. If they don’t, the consequences can be even more painful.
So (alas!) dust off all those old sepa- ratism dossiers and let’s have at it again.