HOME HEARTSTRING 18: NATIONALISMS

The last five Heartstrings we analysed could completely Americanize just about anyone…except for nationalist Quebecers. The various strains of nationalism we embrace distinguish us from any other population on the planet.

As soon as New France was born, the people here divided into two camps: the French and the Canadians. In 1756, French army officer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville wrote, “It seems we are completely different nations…enemies, even.” Let’s take a look at what a couple of nationalists have to say about the matter.

“Sometimes I think that if we were to become a French colony for just one year we’d quickly be fighting our French cousins even though we love them, really,” wrote Edmond de Nevers in 1896. And in 1889, Sir Wilfrid Laurier clearly stated that if given the choice, he would not consent to go back to French rule.

We all agree that nationalism is not a Quebec-specific phenomenon, but there are certain types of nationalism at play in our province that are truly our own. Present throughout our history, they often stem from political battles fought in an attempt to have our rights recognized or to help our culture thrive. These quirks are self-defence mechanisms rather than any kind of weapons of mass liberation. They’re the product of both internal and external communications that resulted from our people reacting to something as opposed to simply coming to various realizations. Most types have a religious component to them – like the June 24 holiday that used to be about celebrating a saint – and have been widely promoted by the clergy and local life insurance companies who bridge the gap between Common Sense and Mysticism.

Without having to do much research I found at least 30 different definitions of Quebec nationalism in various works by writers, novelists and politicians. As one of many examples, here’s the one suggested by economist Jean-Luc Migué: “Nationalism is the pursuit of strengthening the institutions of a collectivity.” It’s as good a definition as any.

In Vocabulaire politique et socio-ethnique des anciens Québécois (Political and Socio-Ethnic Vocabulary of our Quebec Ancestors), Maurice Rabotin demonstrates just how flexible the connotations we attach to words linked to this abstract concept truly are. “A fellow countryman is always a French Canadian while a fellow citizen can only refer to an Englishman. We use subtleties of speech to express the differences in race, language, religion and cultural traditions that exist between the two people.”

Today we often talk about “our socialism,” which is a patriotic kind of socialism that will never be duplicated anywhere in the world, just like our former brand of Catholicism.

More than 100 references to our strains of nationalism can be found in the reference list for Les idéologies au Québec by political scientist Denis Monière and political science professor André Vachet (60 titles refer to unionism, 50 to socialism, 20 to ultramontanism and 3 to Voltairianism).

When you study Quebecers, you’re studying contrasts as well.

In a letter published on the front page of the Montreal Star in 1911, Rudyard Kipling warns Canadians about the dangers of selling their souls to the United States. As he was known to say, this is a topic we’ll discuss again later.

An Anglo adman at the McLaren agency told me about another kind of nationalism at play in Quebec that not many people know about, and that is the English-speaking Quebecer’s sense of belonging (despite the hundreds of years of silence we’re all responsible for). Try explaining that one to French-speaking Quebecers and English Canadians in other provinces! At the end of our discussion my colleague added, “You have a saying in French (is it by Voltaire?) about happy people having no history. That’s truly the case for English-speaking Quebecers.”

Cloaked in a long and rich history, Quebecers have a whole arsenal of different Nationalisms to choose from, including some they rarely use like L’achat chez nous (buy local).

We all know Quebecers favour the continental economy, which is why L’achat chez nous campaigns were never very successful. It seems that products made in Toronto and Chicago are also considered local. The economic nationalism of our consumers is really quite fickle.

We’ve been talking about this buy local stuff for quite some time now, with the first mention of the concept occurring in 1801 if not earlier. But get this: while the government poured over $1 million into the outrageous Québec sait faire! (Quebec know-how) propaganda campaign, Hydro-Québec was the only company adopting a nationalist sales policy. What’s worse is that our public and para-governmental institutions kept on spending their $2 billion in annual purchasing power outside the province. Let’s all hear it for Heartstring 36!

With the example set by the people in charge, Quebecers won’t feel a sense of conviction when they think of buying local. Instead, they’ll consider it a matter of dollars and cents.

The prolonged efforts Colonel Sarto Marchand made to try to convert Quebecers to products manufactured by Melchers (a local distillery) are nothing short of legendary. The die-hard nationalist opted to play the pure Quebecer card which often resulted in him alienating major markets in other provinces. Not surprisingly, Melchers went bankrupt in 1976.

In a thesis written for a non-academic audience, Université Laval professor Jean-M. Lefebvre took an in-depth look at the paradoxical reactions we have when it comes to buying local.


“Based on the different types of psychological reactions French Canadians (FC) have to being a minority we can predict that they will react differently to French Canadian and English Canadian (EC) ethnic symbols presented in a variety of Quebec marketing campaigns. The population can be divided into four types: pluralists, assimilationists, nationalists and outsiders. Assimilationists prefer EC symbols to FC ones and nationalists like it the other way around. Pluralists and outsiders don’t have a preference, but the first group responds equally to EC and FC symbols while the second group rejects them both. With these hypotheses in mind we can easily assume what kind of impact this will have on FC market segmentation.

Do these four types of FC really exist? A sample of 198 adult students at Université Laval seems to confirm the hypothesis. Most are either assimilationists or nationalists, but there are some pluralists as well. As for individuals who fit into the last type, they’re more indifferent than outsiders, which is really quite a harsh label.

It proved difficult to identify clear preferences by type for four categories of products (eight different hats sporting ethnic symbols such as a fleur-de-lis, a maple leaf, and so on; eight different brands of cigarettes such as Player’s and La Québécoise; and eight different brands of painkillers including a fictional one named Presto). While assimilationist and nationalist preferences for hats were completely in line with our hypothesis, no significant results emerged for any type in the cigarette department. As for painkillers, we were only able to marginally confirm our hypothesis and only for the nationalist type after gauging subject reactions to fictional radio ads for Calmine and Presto. In the spots the products were alternately presented as being manufactured by an EC or FC company using an announcer with a common FC accent or an international French accent (the EC accent was not perceived by subjects so it was dropped from the test). Even though we have convincingly confirmed our hypothesis regarding the four types of FC, we cannot justify segmenting the Quebec market based on our findings.”


Regardless of these observations, there are those who defend the concept of buying local. I’ve already shown that contradictions in marketing are not a rare occurrence in Quebec, and here’s more proof. In a survey conducted in 1977, a whopping 93% of the 400 Cooprix customers polled said they’d be happy to buy quality products made in Quebec over foreign merchandise if they were both the same price. An impressive 64% said they’d even be willing to pay more for local goods.

Because Cooprix stores, like other supermarkets, deserve their place in the sun, it would be better for them to forget about the results of this somewhat mystical survey and to rely on the evidence provided by two centuries of purchasing habits.

We’ve always reprimanded our poor religious congregations for keeping their millions in the vaults of well-established English Canadian banks. According to an answer given by a bank chairman during an annual general meeting, none of the French Canadian financial institutions had a “buy local” policy in place in 1973. In fact, two of them had even entrusted their advertising budgets to English agencies.

Joe Tremblay advocates his very own brand of nationalism:


“It’s pretty obvious that French Canadians are a breed of their own. We’ve got our flaws, but we’ve also got great qualities. We have everything we need right here in Quebec. And we are who we are. Why would we want to change? It’s a lot of fun being French. It makes us different from everyone else. And there’ll always be a bunch of Americans who like coming up here to see us. Remember Expo ‘67? Just wait for the Olympics! We’re different, and that’s something. No matter what, we’ll always have that.”


This kind of talk throws our universalists completely off.

But comedian Yvon Deschamps knows how to reconcile things for them: “A real Quebecer has the heart of a communist, the spirit of a socialist and the bank account of a capitalist. A real Quebecer wants an independent Quebec in a strong Canada.”

Try to get the Anglos in Toronto to wrap their heads around that one.

When the colony was first established, habitants proudly showed off their North Americanness and started baring their nationalist teeth to French hivernants. But soon after the conquest, they decided to display their French colours to their new English rulers and quickly put up their nationalist guard. Just like magicians have a variety of tricks up their sleeves, Quebecers have a variety of Nationalisms up theirs. Let’s listen to what Joe has to say about this and try to decipher the underlying messages he’s sending us.


“There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind we’re a unique race (Heartstring 18). We haven’t been as lucky as others (7 and 22), but most of us have been able to eat to our heart’s content (34) three times a day…even during the war. We joined the fight too, although we weren’t exactly thrilled to be there. But once we got to the front lines, we gave it our all (35). I’m not saying we couldn’t help each other out more (33), but like I mentioned earlier, we French Canadians are a different people (18). Our ancestors discovered this country (4). They were all missionaries, so to speak (20). And because we didn’t really like to learn things (36), there are more millionaires in Toronto than in Quebec. Everybody knows that (1). But Quebec City is the most beautiful city in the world (31 to 35). We’re happy people (25). Even when I was out of work, I was never out of beer. We’ve always had something to eat (34) and something to keep us warm (14). People in poor countries are really struggling, but that could never happen here. We’re way too advanced for that (16).”


Joe stumbled on a few Heartstrings during his spiel, but that’s only because he advocates a hardcore brand of nationalism instead of a milder watered-down version.

It’s a well-known fact the homo quebecensis politicus is a very different animal than homo quebecensis socialus, which makes him a strange bird indeed. Politically speaking, as is his right, he is hell-bent on achieving independence, something he associates with our survival at the historical level. However, at the social level, he fully blends in with North America without fear of being wiped off the map. Unless you’re from around here, this split personality is kind of hard to understand.

“Our seeming immobility,” wrote François-Xavier Garneau in his Histoire du Canada, “comes from our monarchical habits and our situation as a distinct race in North America with particular interests that fear foreign influence. These two powerful motives are what drove Quebecers to return home in 1776 after many of them had embraced the US cause for a while, take up arms in 1812 and stay here in 1837.”

Political scientist André D’Allemagne talks about how our different brands of nationalism have flip-flopped over the years. “Traditional Quebec nationalism has usually been reactionary and asocial,” he says, “which is the opposite of the neo-nationalism now in place.”

Maurice Duplessis was elected thanks to “Duplessis gives to his province, Liberals give to strangers.” And twenty years later, Jean Lesage won his election with “Masters in our own home.” Premiers come and go, but our Nationalisms stay the same. Except for their presentation, which varies based on the era and how politicians – and now commercial advertising – choose to exploit them.

In 1953, journalist Jean Paré noted that, “not a single nationalist party has ever survived the French Canadian environment.” But this never prevented any party from coming to power using different strains of nationalism like the violent Quebecer brand (Heartstring 7), the church-loving type (Heartstring 20), the local kind (Heartstring 31), as well as the many other varieties that strum Heartstrings 4, 16, 24 and the rest of the orchestra’s string section.

Léon Dion clears things up for us in Nationalismes et politique au Québec (Quebec Nationalisms and Politics). The political scientist writes, “There is not one but several kinds of French Canadian nationalism that correspond to the various conceptions we have of our national identity, much in the same fashion as there are many different ways for today’s Quebecers to access their collective past. Just like us, our ancestors could never agree on what Quebec nationalism is in spite of the desire they all shared to achieve common solidarity.”

Dion has identified four different manifestations of Quebec nationalism.


“There’s conservative nationalism which, in most of its forms, is defined by its moderate acceptance of the Canadian political community and references a pre-industrial type of society that injects a strong dose of corporatism into their political ideals. Liberal nationalism also moderately accepts the Canadian political community but totally commits to the idea of a welfare state and fully embraces living in a modern, urban and industrial society. Social-democratic nationalism advocates the independence movement through its national ideology, consequently rejecting the Canadian political community, and promotes the socio-economic welfare of the entire Quebec population through its social ideology. Finally, socialist nationalism has a very similar agenda to social-democratic nationalism (in Marxist-Leninist form) but calls for a radical revolution.”


Quebecers would be lost without English Canadians and Americans to compare themselves to. (The us and the them are always clearly identified or, at the very least, polar opposites.) They know how interesting their differences make them and they’ll never pass up an opportunity to make their national presence known in an often very loud manner, and usually abroad, on a plane, in a restaurant, or even on a beach.

“We were vacationing in Maine with three other Quebec families,” says Joe. “We were just relaxing on the beach, drinking some beer (large Carling and IPA bottles we’d brought with us from Montreal) when these three American guys show up and start laughing at us because we’re drinking Quebec beer. They called it real piss and farmers’ beer. It only took us a minute to show them we don’t drink sissy beer like they do. We all started throwing punches left and right. The cops showed up and we each had to pay a $35 fine.”

Quebecers are not anti-American (remember Heartstring 16), especially not in the political sense of the word, but those Yankees better not insult our beer, our women, our language or our country! And they’d be wise to remember we often settle scores in blood, as we saw in Heartstring 7.

“I don’t know if the Parti Québécois will ever be elected in Quebec,” says Joe Tremblay, “but one thing’s for sure, and that is that the PQ and René Lévesque have given English Quebecers quite the national pride. It’s almost as though they didn’t need it until now. But now our English friends have become nationalists and my guess is they’ll be waging war on the US in less than 10 years. Who would’ve ever imagined that could happen?”

Quebecers are quick to make fun of the weak national pride of their fellow Canadians. There’s no doubt Canada would not have celebrated its 110th anniversary with such pomp and circumstance had Quebec not opted for loud and extravagant festivities to showcase its Semaine du patrimoine (Heritage Week) just a few days earlier.

In a bold article entitled “English Canada lacks a national myth to match Quebec’s” published in The Gazette (October 21, 1977), Toronto professor Desmond Morton scolds English Canadian historians, especially Donald Creighton (the reincarnation of Lord Durham), for not being able to properly piece together a history of Canada that is not boring, incoherent and without heroes.

Angèle Dagenais discusses the frustration felt by English Canadian artists in the July 11, 1977 edition of Le Devoir:


“It’s ironic that the organizers of the Arts and Media conference asked a Brit to attend and draw conclusions from the event. It’s almost as if English Canadians have a tendency to overestimate how well Quebec culture is doing. They can tell Quebecers are in better cultural health than they are. They say that the greatest tragedy in this country is that we have no pride and we don’t know how to recognize success. A stunned American filmmaker attending the conference said he had never seen people belittle themselves to such an extent.”


But let’s get back to the Quebecers who advocate a nationalism that is sometimes circumstantial, sometimes dogmatic or even sometimes ethnocentric like the one promoted by Henri Bourassa. Depending on their location or the event they’re attending, these Quebecers are American, Canadian or Quebec nationalists. While in Paris in 1969 I heard a senior Quebec civil servant talk about “We, in America.” A sports journalist in Montréal-Matin wrote that, “We Canadians could crush the Russian team using our best players.” A columnist for La Terre de Chez Nous (Our Land) said, “We all know the world agrees that Quebec maple syrup is the best there is. The stuff they manufacture down in Vermont just doesn’t taste the same.” Our nationalism has three different speeds, and the one we end up using depends on the type of hill we have to climb.

In the April 1977 edition of Possibles magazine, Marcel Fournier talks about other types of Quebec nationalism.


“It’s obvious that for the last few decades nationalism has been a consistent component of the ideology adopted by the lower middle class as well as certain groups in the French-speaking Quebec middle class.

While still undecided on the question of independence, people working in liberal professions (doctors, lawyers, notaries, dentists, priests and the like) – with most of the high-profile and high-income occupations being held by French-speaking Quebecers – have been known to publicly express their nationalist views since the 1920s.

At different times throughout Quebec history, our merchants, artisans and small business owners have also been part of the nationalist movement by attempting to have policies put in place to encourage people to buy local and require the provincial government to support small and medium-size business.

As for Quebec intellectuals, they emerged like all other intellectuals in minority or oppressed national communities have always done. They became nationalists from the get-go and played an active part in building a national identity while consistently reigning in their fellow Quebecers whose nationalist tendencies were waning. (This is a reference to Action française magazine published by Lionel Groulx. As early as the 1920s, the priest, historian and nationalist started calling out the French Canadian elite for being too aristocratic, reprimanding politicians for their idle gossip and mixed marriages that will lead to assimilation.)

Writers, artists and singers became intimate with the independence movement, as did teachers at the elementary, high school, CEGEP and university levels. Researchers, especially those specializing in the humanities and social sciences, were part of the movement as well.

More than any other group or social class, the Quebec middle class – especially its intellectuals – has a clear interest in maintaining and consolidating our national identity since its main product is cultural (mastery of the language and knowledge of our political, social and literary history) and can only easily be sold on the national market. For Quebec intellectuals, defending our language and our culture goes hand in hand with defending jobs and markets. And to a certain extent, the same applies to those who want to preserve an ethnic clientele and who fear that losing our national market may cause them to lose a certain monopoly.”


Our being nationalist translates into big bucks for Quebecers.

Quebecers use their different kinds of nationalism like tools, wielding them wisely, instinctively and usually to highlight their differences (they don’t want to be like anyone else) rather than to glorify their national feelings. The anti-metropolitan nationalism that emerged during the first days of the colony grew into anti-French nationalism out of fear of the free thinkers from the old country. Anti-Toronto nationalism developed within the business community because of rivalry. And anti-Ottawa nationalism evolved among our politicians who were trying to better position themselves. In Quebec, there are endless Nationalisms of the anti kind.

Despite everything that might’ve been said about it since 1608, Quebec nationalism is meant to be more than the glorification of our population and remains an intuitive search for our own people in the grand tradition of Heartstring 30.

Communicators looking to pluck this Heartstring must be careful not to get stuck between a rock and a hard place. Joe serves us a warning.


“What? What do you mean by saying I live like an American? I live like a Canadian! But Canada is part of America. Do you want me to live like the Polish? You think they don’t eat hot dogs in Europe? I had some there myself, but they weren’t very good. Aren’t there Howard Johnson’s hotels in 100 different countries around the world? Why don’t you ask the government to ban hot dogs and hamburgers here in Quebec? They can always create new laws. Come on, man…get with the program. Let’s not make such a big deal out of this!”


Although born on North American soil, Heartstring 18 is what differentiates Quebecers from all the other North Americans.

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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.