Québécois Bloc Party
By A.D. Freudenheim  

16 August 2004

I have just returned from almost two weeks of travel in the Canadian province of Québec. With several days in both Montreal and Quéebec City, and then a journey along the St. Lawrence River out to the tip of the Gaspé peninsula, I was able to experience bits of urban and rural life in equal measure. The province is beautiful, clean, and clearly well-loved, and despite the harsh winters and rough roads, there is a sense that Québec’s history and natural beauty should and must be preserved and shared.

Yet my overall impressions of Québec have as much to do with the forced Francophone culture as the sights I saw throughout the trip. Where language is concerned, the Québécois seem to have understood its importance perfectly, and the decision to make French the sole official language of the province was one component of a broad set of changes that sought to preserve and enhance the culture of “Nouvelle-France” (and to put the English-speaking minority in its place at the same time). The result, from the perspective of the Anglophone visitor, is confusing and entirely inconsistent, not to mention very much an unsuccessful defiance against a world that is changing more rapidly than the Québécois themselves seem prepared to handle, or even realize.

For one thing, there is copious evidence that Québec is part of Canada after all – Francophone desires notwithstanding. The banks, and the bank networks, that represent outside, non-Québec firms may not be prominent, but are present. The American cars, which dominate the roads, are a reminder of Québec’s participation in the world’s largest cross-border trading relationship. (Notably, I saw not one Peugeot or Renault in Nouvelle-France.) There are many local gas station firms, but many – like Esso/Exxon, or Mobil – are clearly international. Although there are many local auberges, there are also a fair share of high-end and low-end chains, from Holiday Inns to Fairmont Hotels, and which are as visible as the locals. Even the rock music on the radio was often a French-speaking remake of an originally-English hit tune; they can change the words, but they can’t change the song’s history any more than The Beatles singing “Sie Liebt Dich” made the band German.

Then there are the globalizing absurdities: the obvious, constant, inescapable presence of places and products such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, and even Dunkin’ Donuts (competing with Canadian local chain Tim Horton’s), along with Coke and Pepsi, Gatorade, Budweiser and Coors, and even Dasani and AquaFina brands of bottled water (owned by Coke and Pepsi, respectively). These companies and their products are the great (American) equalizers, offering everyone around the world largely-consistent products and services, regardless of whether one likes the products or not. How do these things mesh with Québécois culture? Does putting a Burger King in a old (or old-looking) town house in Québec nullify the impact of the Burger King itself? Not a chance. Do people in Québec still eat at McDonald’s, instead of their local creperie or bistro? Based on my observations, absolutely. And will the influence on local cuisine be as strong in Québec as it has been in, say, New York? Inevitably, because those who seek fast food will find it, and those who want carefully prepared gourmet meals will go in search of it – and for those who want something in between, those options, like cafe culture itself, are being squeezed out of existence by the economic pressures from above and below. The factors affecting who eats fast food or who prefers local cuisines, traditions, or products (or even local fast foods) are as much about class and wealth as the language used to promote or sell a product.

So finally, there is the deployment of French itself as the most serious weapon in the Québécois arsenal. Although I encountered no one who spoke no English, there were many people whose facility with English was absolutely minimal (and in some cases, even more minimal than my abilities in French). I certainly do not expect every person everywhere I travel to speak English, but I was shocked by the degree to which English is resisted in a province that is (for now) part of a nation that speaks primarily English; shares a border with the largest English-speaking nation; and exists in a world where – again, like it or not – English is the new “lingua franca.” The Japanese and German tourists we saw in Quebéc were communicating in English, not French, and that is a trend that will surely continue. If language is important for trade transactions, hospitality, and other important elements of a tourist and service economy, Quebéc seems to have put itself at a disadvantage, not merely by officially disavowing bilingualism but by nurturing a perverse pride in speaking only French.


The preservation and protection of cultures requires a constant, careful balancing act. Lean too far towards preservation and it can become forcible protection, a cultural heritage police state that stifles innovation and natural growth under the guise of protecting all “true” traditions without distinction. The examples are many, and although the well known are usually the most murderous – e.g., Hitler’s Germany, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, or Milosevic and Karadzic’ two Serbian nations – genocide is not the only marker of this kind of social poverty. When non-offensive, non-victimizing individual speech, tastes, and preferences are made illegal – as with the wearing of head-scarves in France – it is not just diversity lost or cohesion preserved, but a forcible tamping down of the benefits that every individual brings to society, head-scarf-wearers included.

On the other hand, there is great value in tradition, and in the distinctions between the many different cultures and peoples around the world. Our psychological well-being is refreshed and renewed by the kind of diversity offered through different cuisines or spices, particular techniques in the visual and performing arts, technological inventions driven by necessity, and even the language used to describe the many things we all enjoy. Protecting the cultures and traditions that gave rise to each contribution is important; without this diversity we would be a much poorer world. Even the French desire to protect the French language and “prevent” certain foreign words from becoming used officially seems laughable at times, but it also marks an understanding of how much language can affect culture.


All of which leads me to my ultimate point about Québec: that in deciding to make French the official language, and in so doing to put the emphasis on Francophone culture, the folks of Québec seem to have missed a few things about the broader changes in the world – and about what the French-originated culture of Nouvelle-France truly is, and will become. This is not just about consistency, of being half in the world of French and half out of it. It is about cultural insecurities, and of recognizing what matters, what doesn’t, and how to strike the right balance in cultural preservation. The presence of global chains like McDonald’s are probably more damaging to any “traditional” culture or cuisine than the fight to keep a language pure; yet they cannot be excluded, either. (The Soviets tried keeping out Western cultural influences, food included, and look what happened.) Adopting a policy of official bilingualism would undoubtedly be better than only teaching and supporting one language, and provide the Québécois with the best opportunities. Even Québec’s motto, “Je me souviens,” visible on every license plate and tourist trinket, belies the official story that the phrase “I remember” is intended to call to mind: the history that unquestionably includes English-speaking peoples and cultural influences, as well as those of Native North Americans.

A French-first policy preserves the speaking of French, but cannot control much beyond that. And the irony of a French-first policy is stark: Québécois who are fluently bilingual are much more employable in a broader range of fields, in and outside of Québec – while those who speak only French (and the Québec dialect of it, more specifically) are much more suited to jobs where limitations in skills are acceptable and go unchallenged. Jobs at places like McDonald’s. It is difficult to believe that this is what the Bloc Québécois really had in mind for their beloved Nouvelle-France.

  Copyright 2004, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
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