Sunday, January 20, 2013

Guest post: The Trudeau Paradox (Part Two)

Part I of this essay discussed the origins of Quebec nationalism and the desire of Francophone Quebecers to have their province recognized as a “distinct society” within Canada. This desire was fiercely opposed by Quebec political thinker Pierre Trudeau, who became Prime Minister of Canada in 1968. Trudeau was seen as speaking for Francophone Quebecers, and his critics would claim that he was just the first Prime Minister from Quebec to impose that province’s agenda on the rest of Canada. However, in this part we’ll see that Trudeau’s agenda was quite different from what most Francophone Quebec thinkers were advocating.

The Trudeau Paradox, Part II: Trudeau, Mulroney and the Constitution

Trudeau’s reforms, including the way he implemented bilingualism across Canada and advocated for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, were meant to undercut any sort of claim by Quebec to its distinctiveness. He supported bilingualism on a strictly individual basis, believing that if French was further reinforced across Canada it would undermine Quebec’s claim to be a distinctly Francophone majority province. Similarly, multiculturalism would make Francophone Canadians just one of many communities of many different backgrounds that exist in Canada. Enshrining the rights of all Canadians in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms would further cement an overall Canadian identity, over and above any provincial identity.[1] He justified his support for government intervention such as social programs as being a way to help everyone get an equal chance to make the best use of their talents, as their circumstances were not all the same.[2]

These reforms proved controversial in many circles. However, by and large many Canadians outside Quebec came to accept them because they felt that it was what Francophone Quebecers wanted, as Pierre Trudeau claimed.[3] Many people outside Canada considered actions accepting bilingualism and French immersion as what journalist Paul Wells called the rest of the country “bending itself into pretzels” to accommodate Quebec.[4] When the Quebec government began passing legislation to enshrine French as Quebec’s official work and education language, and Quebecers voted the Parti Quebecois into office, people in other parts of Canada saw it as an action of bad faith. They were angered that, despite their willingness to accept official status for French in their provinces and enrolling their children in French immersion programs, Francophone Quebecers didn’t seem to respond to the rest of the country’s efforts to accommodate them.[5] They didn’t realize that Trudeau’s efforts were part of his attempt to undermine Quebec nationalism, particularly as advocated by the Quebec government.

The irony, as Richard Gwyn pointed out, was that Trudeau’s opposition to distinct status for Quebec put him more in line with his predecessor John Diefenbaker’s line of thinking, including Diefenbaker’s advocating the idea of “One Canada”, which was obviously far more popular outside than inside Quebec.[6] Gwyn noted that Trudeau’s individualist beliefs also meshed quite well in some respects with those of many Western Canadians,[7] as did the results of Trudeau’s 1982 constitutional reforms, including the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.[8] John Diefenbaker had also advanced his own Bill of Rights, which he considered an essential element of his ‘One Canada, One Nation’ philosophy.[9] Trudeau’s message came at an opportune time for many Anglophone Canadians, who had previously based much of their conception of Canada on its connection to Great Britain. With the decline of Canada’s British connections after World War II, these Anglophone Canadians were now looking for a new vision.[10]

Despite his ideas not meshing with those of most other Quebec thinkers, Quebec voters still steadily supported Trudeau throughout the 1970s, in no small part due to the fact that he was a native Quebecer, and ‘one of their own’, as former Le Devoir editor Lise Bissonnette put it.[11] However, the first referendum on Quebec separation, held in 1980, despite being decisively won by the federalists, had the Francophone vote nearly split down the middle.[12] During the referendum, Trudeau had promised Quebecers a “renewed federalism”, but patriating the Constitution without recognizing Quebec as a distinct society was seen by many Quebec Francophones as a breaking of that promise.[13] In many ways, the 1982 reforms fell short of the major suggestions for change, heavily influenced by Quebec Francophones, that Trudeau had mentioned during the campaign,[14] and were certainly not what many Francophone Quebecers were expecting.[15]

As Claude Ryan and Guy Laforest would later point out, the way in which Trudeau went about patriating the Constitution was fiercely opposed by many Quebec federalists and separatists alike, contrary to Trudeau’s claims that the majority of Quebec’s elected politicians supported what he’d done.[16] Francophone Quebecers turned against Trudeau after that, voting overwhelmingly for the Brian Mulroney Conservatives in 1984.[17] Historian Will Ferguson, who was living in small-town Quebec at the time, recounted just how strong the support for Mulroney was.[18] Several years later, at the height of the Meech Lake controversy, a long series of polls noted just how much Trudeau’s influence had diminished in Quebec, and just how little most Francophone Quebecers, including ordinary citizens, thought of him.[19]

Mulroney subsequently tried to address the anger many Francophone Quebecers felt by negotiating the Meech Lake Accord with the provincial premiers. It was fiercely opposed by Trudeau and his supporters outside Quebec, although most Francophone Quebec federalists, including many of Trudeau’s former political colleagues, supported it.[20] Trudeau’s opposition to Meech Lake helped rally the opposition of many other Canadians, such as then-Premier of Newfoundland & Labrador Clyde Wells, and proved instrumental in the Accord’s failure.[21]

In Quebec, Meech Lake’s failure was viewed with great disappointment[22] when it wasn’t seen as a rejection of the province altogether.[23] Of course, that was not what most opponents of Meech Lake meant to say. Clyde Wells, for example, was in fact quite supportive of bilingualism, although most of his supporters didn’t realize it.[24] As previously noted, many Francophone Quebecers who were Trudeau’s former colleagues had come out in favour of Meech Lake. Even a young Stéphane Dion declared that Trudeau’s defeat of Meech was “the worst constitutional error in the history of the country.”[25] As recently as 2007, as the leader of Trudeau’s former party, Dion would state that subsequent changes in Canada had given the country the “practical” advantages of Meech Lake, but without the “symbolic” advantage these changes would have had if they’d been passed as part of the Meech Lake Accord.[26]

In the Meech Lake debates, Trudeau and his supporters outside Quebec ran up against the desires of Francophone Quebecers.[27] The fallout from Meech Lake led to the 1995 referendum, and by that time most Canadians outside Quebec were fed up with the whole issue. Many Francophone Quebecers had also come to support separatism, because they felt like the rest of Canada opposed their efforts to maintain their Francophone character. It’s been suggested that Francophone Quebecers were duped by their provincial elites, but as Jeffrey Simpson pointed out that’s a dangerous argument to make when you consider the disputes other provinces, such as Alberta or Newfoundland & Labrador, have had with Ottawa.[28] Were the people of those provinces duped by their elites? Of course not!

Other factors played a role as well-many Western Canadians were frustrated by what they saw as the federal government’s exclusive concentration on Quebec’s issues, which led to the rise of the Reform Party. Quebec was also seen as greedy and spoiled, due to the belief that it was getting the most federal spending and transfer payments. The controversies over Quebec’s language laws, and the Oka crisis of 1990, furthered the image of Francophone Quebecers as racist and intolerant. Of course, as Jeffrey Simpson observed, not much was made of the fact that most of the rest of the country didn’t always do much to uphold the rights of their Francophone minorities.[29]

All of this created an ugly, self-perpetuating cycle. Francophone Quebecers saw the rest of the country’s opposition to Meech Lake, recognition of Quebec’s distinctiveness and its language laws as a rejection of Quebec itself. Meanwhile, many other Canadians who saw Trudeau’s and Mulroney’s reigns as part of an unbroken effort by Quebec to impose its agenda on the rest of the country. They also saw Quebec nationalism as tantamount to not wanting to be Canadian, or only staying in Canada for the financial benefits.

At the root of it all was the Trudeau Paradox, that perception that Pierre Trudeau’s ideas were what Francophone Quebecers were looking for, and that he was part of Quebec’s attempt to impose its own agenda on the entire country. In fact, Trudeau sought to impose his own agenda, one that he thought could defeat Quebec nationalism, and one that ended up being accepted far more outside Quebec than within it, except among perhaps the province’s Anglo-Quebec minority. Trudeau’s efforts to defeat Quebec nationalism only left many Francophone Quebecers alienated, and when Mulroney tried to change the situation with Meech Lake, Trudeau and his supporters outside Quebec rallied to defeat it. When support for separatism increased up until the 1995 referendum, many Canadians outside Quebec simply came to conclude that nothing would ever satisfy the province.

As I previously noted, the last few decades have made it clear that Trudeau’s efforts to turn Francophone Quebecers away from their nationalism, and by extension to wipe out the appeal of separatism, have not succeeded. While Trudeau claimed during the Meech Lake debates that the younger generation of Quebecers did not want or need any kind of distinct status in the Constitution,[30] the results of the 1995 referendum, as well as the continued support among Francophone Quebecers for the province’s language laws, show that Trudeau was probably wrong about Francophone Quebecers’ opinions on their province’s distinctiveness. Guy Laforest has pointed out that, while it might have been easy for someone like Trudeau to maintain his Francophone character no matter where he went, but many other Francophones might not have had such an easy time of it.[31] In his days as an academic, Stéphane Dion also raised this point in support of Quebec’s language laws.[32] Nor are Quebecers the only Francophones concerned about language. Justin Trudeau got into trouble with New Brunswick Acadians when he suggested that New Brunswick should abolish its separate English and French school systems and simply create one bilingual system.[33]

It’s not hard to understand why there’s been so much misinterpretation and confusion among other Canadians as to why Francophone Quebecers have acted and voted the way they do. In an extremely insightful observation, Alan Cairns noted that many Canadians outside Quebec, both then and now, have a hard time understanding the whole concept of “two founding peoples”, particularly when one of them is primarily based in Quebec. Anglophone Canadians are the majority in the nine other provinces, in addition to being a minority in Quebec itself. This makes it a lot harder for many Anglophones to accept the whole idea of Quebec as a distinct society, particularly since they tend to view the federal government as the only one capable of speaking for all Canadians.[34]

The contradictory elements of Trudeau’s policies, particularly the ones that tied into collective group rights, also make it easier to see him as supporting a collective rights agenda. While he supported bilingualism on a strictly individual basis, the very nature of Trudeau’s efforts to enshrine bilingualism meant that he was favouring the English and French languages over others. In building support for the Charter and the 1982 reforms, Trudeau also reached out to other groups that would have particular provisions for them in the Charter, including women’s groups, multicultural groups and Aboriginal peoples.[35] People from these groups opposed the Meech Lake Accord out of concern that any recognition of Quebec would diminish the recognitions they had gained in the Charter.[36]

One can also point out just how confused the Trudeau policy was regarding Francophones outside Quebec. Francophone minorities received a greater amount of federal funding for cultural activities than did other cultural groups, something that caused an understandable resentment among the latter, particularly when the expectation among immigrant groups would be that they would have to learn English and assimilate.[37] When Trudeau came up with the idea of multiculturalism as a way of undermining the idea of biculturalism so popular in Francophone Quebec, he had to fuse it with bilingualism so that it became “multiculturalism in a bilingual framework.” This was at odds with Trudeau’s efforts to establish bilingualism across Canada, and was criticized by Francophones both inside and outside Quebec.[38] On a more basic level, the poor job Trudeau did of explaining bilingualism to Canadians and his blunt indifference to Canadians’ concerns also undermined its acceptance by the rest of the country.[39]

Thus, the Trudeau Paradox emerged in full force. Many people thought that the differences between Quebec and the rest of the country were irreconcilable, and that there’s simply no way to resolve the impasse. In Part III of this essay, we’ll see that this is not necessarily the case, and in fact Francophone Quebecers have much more in common with other Canadians than most people realize.

[1] Laforest, pages 130-139. See also McRoberts, pages 176-177, and Russell, pages 80-81.
[2] Pierre Trudeau, The Essential Trudeau, edited by Ron Graham. Toronto, Ontario: McClelland and Stewart, 1998. Pages 15-16.
[3] Jeremy Webber, Reimagining Canada: Language, Culture, Community and the Canadian Constitution. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994. Page 160. See also Simpson, page 266, and McRoberts, page 112.
[4] Paul Wells, “Franchement: PM Stephen Harper and French Canadians.” Inkless Wells blog, December 20, 2012. Available online at
[5] McRoberts, page 112.
[6] Richard Gwyn, The Northern Magus: Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Canadians. Toronto, Ontario: McClelland and Stewart, 1980. Page 231. See also Cairns, page 51.
[7] Gwyn, page 277.
[8] Roger Gibbins and Loleen Berdahl, Western Visions, Western Futures: Perspectives on the West in Canada. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2003. Page 61.
[9] McRoberts, page 46.
[10] McRoberts, pages 111-112. See also Simpson, pages 265-266.
[11] Romney, page 285.
[12] Couture, Cardin and Allaire, page 184.
[13] Laforest, pages 15-37. See also Couture, Cardin and Allaire, page 185, and McRoberts, pages 174-175.
[14] McRoberts, pages 161-163. See also Russell, page 109.
[15] McRoberts, pages 174-175.
[16] Ryan, pages 134-138, and Laforest, pages 138-142.
[17] McRoberts, pages 178-179.
[18] Will Ferguson, Canadian History For Dummies. Mississauga, Ontario: John Wiley & Sons Limited, 2005. Page 386.
[19] Simpson, page 171.
[20] Ibid., page 170.
[21] Ibid., pages 159-162.
[22] Ryan, pages 147-148.
[23] Simpson, pages 294-296 and 302.  See also Webber, pages 179-180.
[24] Simpson, pages 169 and 173.
[25] Quoted in Robert Bourassa, Gouverner le Québec. Montreal, Québec : Fides, 1995. Page 277.
[26] Quoted in L. Ian Macdonald, “Interview With Stéphane Dion.” Policy Options Magazine, June 2010. Page 10.
[27] Laforest, pages 115-118. See also Ryan, pages 147-148.
[28] Simpson, pages 168-169.
[29] Simpson, page 166.
[30] Cited in Laforest, page 116.
[31] Laforest, pages 116-117.
[32] Stéphane Dion, “La nationalisme dans la convergence culturelle:  Le Québec contemporain et le paradoxe de Tocqueville,” in L’engagement intellectuel : Mélanges en honneur de Léon Dion, ed. by Raymond Hudon and Réjean Pelletier, pages 291-311. Sainte-Foy, Québec : Les Presses de L’Université Laval, 1991. Page 305.
[33] Alexander Panetta, “Trudeau Apologizes For Language Remarks.” Toronto Star, May 7, 2007. Available online at
[34] Cairns, pages 41-43.
[35] Couture, pages 90-95. See also Cairns, pages 79-81 and 110-115, and Russell, pages 113-115.
[36] Russell, pages 134 and 143.
[37] Simpson, pages 245, 246 and 257.
[38] McRoberts, pages 129-135.
[39] Charles Taylor, Radical Tories: The Conservative Tradition in Canada. Toronto, Ontario: House of Anansi Press, 2006. Page 187.

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