HOME HEARTSTRING 16: CONTINENTAL SOLIDARITY

Chew on this: the Quebec population is fully aware it has its problems with the North American environment yet it is still proud to be a part of it.

The many strangers that surround us help us feel safe. Joe uses we when talking about our continent:


We have never known war in North America (in our lifetimes). We are too powerful to have that problem. Everyone in the world seems to be fighting…Jews, Arabs, Cypriots and the Irish. But not us. We are more powerful than the Russians and the Chinese and they know it.

The same situation applies to the economy. We are rich countries. It’s true the Russians were the first in space, but they have to stand in line at the store to buy shoes. I mean, come on!”


Quebecers fully embrace their Americanness and much prefer the American way of life to the European way. How they act every day proves this point beyond a shadow of a doubt.

The mass exodus that led Quebecers to end up in Anglo-Saxon territories definitely contributed to our Americanness. The one million French Canadians who settled in a dozen communities in other provinces and the other million and more who landed in New England are all close relatives we share a collective memory with.

Who doesn’t have at least one distant cousin in Ontario or the US where many of their mayors, senators and even governors are French Canadian (or Canuck to use the derogatory term)?

In 1958 a Boston newspaper reported that Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy wanted to reassure Franco-Americans that, “The state’s French institutions will be maintained for as long as our fellow Americans wish to speak French. There is nothing anti-constitutional about the matter since these French Canadian descendants are considered by many as some of the best and bravest US soldiers.” Kennedy, an Irish Catholic New Englander, tugged at the Heartstrings of us Canucks in a major way when he uttered those words.

Another political incident of the Franco-American variety was highlighted by Harry Bruce in the November 1976 edition of Saturday Night magazine:


“The dirty politics handbill alleging that Maine Senator Edmund Muskie refers to Americans of French-Canadian descent as Canucks was so detrimental to his campaign that he didn’t pick up a single vote in any of the Franco-American communities, which inevitably led to his downfall.”


It looks like the French Canadians who left way back when took their Heartstrings with them and passed them down from generation to generation. And it looks like those generations je me souviens up to this day.

But beyond these petty feuds there will always be a few progressives in our province (like our forefathers in 1850 and, more recently, Gabriel Loubier’s Union Nationale party) pushing for Quebec to join the US. And many Quebecers believe this is a better option than blending in with the rest of Canada.

Because if you think about it, there was a time when the US was French. Close to 5000 American communities – a good 50 of them among the biggest cities in the country – bear French names. And 23 states were explored, colonized or founded by the French or French Canadians.

A Montrealer visiting the city of New Orleans is likely to be overwhelmed with pride when he stands before the statue of Jean-Baptiste de Bienville, Montreal-born explorer, four-time Governor of Louisiana and founder of The Big Easy. Not bad for a kid from the neighbourhood! Plucking Heartstring 31 and Heartstring 35 at the same time will lead you to consider the US as part of our heritage just as much as coureurs de bois, voyageurs, missionaries and settlers who came to our neck of the woods, and those who were deported here. Jacques Casanova’s book Une Amérique Française (French America) glorifies the Quebec presence and influence in the US to such a degree that we can’t help but let it go to our heads.

The deportation of our cousins the Acadians in 1755 led them to claim their own piece of the US pie. French is the second official language in the State of Louisiana – the core of the country’s melting pot – and it must be taught in primary schools on request, as it might someday be in all Canadian provinces. Most of the people who teach French to little Louisianans are Quebecers (as part of our Quebec-Louisiana agreements).

In an insightful article published in Le Devoir on March 9, 1974, Robert-Guy Scully writes:


“I can’t explain it, but up to now the greatest expressions of the French culture I’ve seen in North America, the ones that best showcase our myths and are the most artistic, all seem to have originated outside Quebec in the Franco-America of Canucks and Cajuns where their culture clashes with US culture in a losing battle yet persists under the watchful eye of their creative offspring among the familiar smells of our local cuisine. Wasn’t it Jack Kerouac, in Massachusetts, who wrote some of the most beautiful and moving prose on the missed destiny of New France in both joual and English?”


Our American overindulgences are making a lot of people angry. In L’isle verte (Green Island), Jacques Godbout complains about how:


“Today’s Quebecers tend to favour flashy colours, original reproductions of anything that shouldn’t even be reproduced, wallpaper that looks like brick or stonework, colourful hair curlers and super-sized meals smothered in cheese. Why am I so bitter, you ask? Because our grandchildren will probably end up speaking American and thinking like their first cousins over in New England.”


In Les Canadiens français et leurs voisins du Sud (French Canadians and their Southern Neighbours), Gustave Lanctôt explains that Americanization would most likely happen at the material level rather than at the moral level but that, “it wouldn’t take much for Quebecers who are already Americanized at the material level to Americanize themselves in a variety of social and moral ways.”

“Whether we like it or not,” writes Jacques Grand’ Maison, “we’re now part of the North American network. General Motors workers in Ste-Thérèse are striking with their counterparts in Oshawa and Detroit. Militant left-wing union members are opting for a suburban consumer lifestyle complete with all the latest US gadgets.” Quebecers advocate the American creed of a classless society.

Quebecers are not always the exception. This Root has created a paradox in all the people who’ve come here. “America is a mistake,” said Albert Einstein. “A giant mistake.”

If it wasn’t for Quebec, US multinational corporations would advertise in Canada just like they do in any other state. Quebec’s uniqueness is precisely what has led marketers to label it the “problem market.”

Our consumerism stems from our North American Root. The Americanness of Quebecers refers to our love of creature comforts and our standard of living. We cherish these things as though we’ve lived in misery for a long time and would do anything to avoid being put in that situation again.

Trendy US goods like mobile homes and CB radios take about a month to enter the Quebec market. In the case of cultural trends like dented rust buckets, bands and songs, it can take anywhere from two to three months depending on how far away the trend’s home state is.

Our intellectual elite, who aren’t exactly authentic Québécois, have a hard time deciding which is the better influence, Europe or America. This debate has divided our brightest minds into two camps: pro-French and pro-American. Professor Léon Dupré writes, “Quebec has fully embraced teaching the American version of historical facts. We believe pro-French supporters are the more disconnected of the two camps since they continue to give too much credit to the hivernants – the men who were sent by the powers that be to keep an eye on us poor habitants – just like the French did right after the birth of New France.”

While all of our teachers recommend French-speaking students learn from textbooks written in English and translated into French, they do take issue with some of the (European) terminology used. European translations of American books are adapted to the context of the target country, which often results in Quebecers getting the short end of the stick all over again.

Contrary to Europeans, Quebecers are neither jealous nor in awe of Americans. But then again, they have no reason to be. The Canadian gross national product per capita, which is somewhere around $8500, rivals that of our southern neighbours. Our reserves of natural resources far exceed our own needs. The standard of living in Quebec is often higher than in most other places. Our cities are far less polluted and much less dangerous than those in the US. Our healthcare system and wellness programs are better than anything available down there. In most cases, Quebec construction workers make more per hour than their American counterparts. And we almost always beat New York and Boston on the ice…where it really counts!

In his usual teasing tone, Joe Tremblay mocks his brother-in-law Jean-Paul for blaming all his troubles on Anglos:


“I told Jean-Paul we’re surrounded by English Canadians and Americans. I don’t want to discuss whether they’re a bunch of bastards or not right now, but I do want to say they’re the hardest working people in the world. And the harder they work, the better it is for us here in Quebec. Our standard of living automatically goes up when theirs does, just like water levels in a lake. Stop bothering Anglos with your complicated ideas and let them work. Those people like keeping busy. Jean-Paul was so mad…”


We can understand how an ad campaign promoting road safety would say, “In Quebec, we buckle up.” But we have a hard time even conceiving of a campaign that would try to keep us away from our beloved US. Remember the jingle: “We won’t be going to Old Orchard this summer…No waiting at Plattsburgh customs for us!” That little ditty was the first shot fired in the great tourism marketing war.

On July 25, 1977 La Presse published an Associated Press dispatch from Old Orchard that tried explaining how it would take more than just an ad campaign to keep Quebecers from soaking up the sun on Maine’s beautiful beaches. “Even with the Government of Quebec putting a lot of effort into stopping vacationers from heading south to our seaside towns, it seems Quebecers are growing fonder of these destinations.” Commenting on how the tourism campaign was misunderstood, Franco-American and Old Orchard city manager, Jérôme Plante, said that, “The radio commercial created the opposite reaction to what they were hoping for. It actually made a lot of people think about heading down to Old Orchard for their vacation. Many Quebecers are annoyed that their government would try to tell them where to spend their summer holidays.”

The city’s Chamber of Commerce manager, Mary Tousignant (another Canuck), adds that, “Maine officials could very well launch an ad campaign of their own telling people not to go to the Quebec Carnival this year because it’ll be freezing and restaurants will rob them blind with their outrageous prices.” Two years before this incident broke out, Joe made the following observation:


“We don’t have beaches in Quebec. If we had nicer ones than they do down in Plattsburgh, we’d stay home. And the Americans would come here for a dip as well.”


The State of Maine – where many Quebecers have close relatives in places like Saco or Biddeford – is well within our ethnocentric range which, as we know, extends all the way down to Miami.

Every year, Air Canada flies more than 150,000 Quebecers on its lone Miami-bound flight. And that figure doesn’t include passengers on other airlines. There are more of us flying to Miami than to all European destinations combined. It seems we are also fascinated by the same country that fascinates people in every other country in the world.

An article published in Perspectives magazine stated:


“In Quebec, the Canada-US border is a poorly marked drunkard’s path. Certain Quebecers have a kitchen in the US and a living room in Quebec. How confusing is that! Thanks to a surveyor’s flight of fancy, a car can crash in Vermont and in Quebec at the same time. The famous 45th parallel (the approximate border between Quebec and New York and Vermont) runs right through the Rock Island library. There’s a grocery store (half in the US and half in Quebec) that uses two different national telephone systems. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s the infamous family from one of these hybrid towns that includes a brother named Armand Boisvert and another named Larry Greenwood.”


The bonds between New England and Quebec have always been very solid, especially in the 19th century before the industrial centres of both regions ended up in the Eastern States and Ontario.

“Americans are no dummies and neither are we,” says Joe Tremblay.

At some point, we decided to develop alternatives to many of our beloved institutions based on the Anglo-Saxon model. French Canadian Catholic unions started to look more like American unions, just like the Order of Jacques-Cartier was a response to Freemasonry and the Orange Lodge. Le Publicité-Club modelled itself on the Advertising & Sales Club, the Knights of Columbus split into several non-denominational chapters and the Club St-Denis looked to the Saint James Club for inspiration. We Americanized close to everything that was dear to our hearts as part of the difficult compromises we have to make to survive as French-speaking North Americans.

It’s tough for us to coexist with English-speaking North America, to not be a little for and a little against it, and to not consider the continent as hostile as it is friendly.

We are totally a part of North America…except when we’re not. And that always remains at the discretion of our latest Nationalism.

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© 2014 – English translation and website by Lawrence Creaghan. Published online with the permission of Guérin Éditeur Ltée and the Fondation Jacques-Bouchard.