HOME HEARTSTRING 23: CONSERVATISM

Quebecers were not born conservatives. They became conservatives out of necessity due to their contact with the British regime.

As soon as they got here, French settlers were already looking to expand their territory, having set their sights on taking over the entire continent. They implemented a method of tiered management still in use today, set up blast furnaces, a brewery and trading posts. Simply put, they put their skills in all types of businesses to good use.

Once the British took over, our mindset changed and any unmet business challenges were relegated to the backburner. And Quebec entrepreneurs went into hiding.

In La Société canadienne-française (French Canadian Society), anthropologist Horace Miner writes, “Habitants achieved financial independence by mastering all the economic factors that influenced their lives.” As long as there was enough wind to power the mill and strong, sturdy horses to help with the farm work, everything worked out for the best in this best of all possible worlds. “Their approach was so conservative,” adds Miner, “that it took them forever to start using the latest farming techniques. In fact, once they finally decided to get with the times they were often able to skip entire phases of the modernization process.”

By going against their culture and the times, and holding on to their pseudo-conservatism, habitants became the hippies of their generation in North America.

To an outsider looking in, Quebecers seem to evolve quickly. They get excited about things and follow all major global trends like the hippie movement, drugs, protesting, violence and counterculture. As for their personal values, those evolve at a glacial pace.

Our taxi drivers say the more things change, the more they stay the same. While our Conservatism towards consumerism is well-known, our political Conservatism isn’t so much.

In Nationalismes et politique au Québec, political scientist Léon Dion gives us the most detailed and accurate pages ever written about our conservative ideologies.


“Somewhat convinced that any concerted attempt by French Canadians to step into modern times would be suicidal, advocates of conservative nationalism tried to get them to follow traditional, agricultural and rustic society guidelines. French Canadians were told they could solve their biggest problems by returning to the soil, colonizing parishes built on rocky (and mostly infertile) public land and buying locally. Popular slogans and anathemas tied to conservative nationalism, such as the hope of our race and the past is our master, increasingly revealed our schizophrenic tendencies when it came to our inevitable passage into modern times. Left to their own devices, the masses (a word our various elites never use; they prefer to talk about the faithful, the people and the habitants) entered industrialized urban life through the service door as hewers of wood and drawers of water. There was nothing before them but a great big void.”


With a hint of emotion that rarely shines through in his Germanic style, Dion adds that:


“Based on a certain interpretation of a situation for achieving the greatest economy of means, the main political role of conservative nationalism was to firmly support the status quo, which would help explain why so many English speakers were quick to boast the merits of this type of nationalism. By having things stay the same, their ongoing domination of French Canadians was ensured at little cost to them. An ideology lacking any kind of sophistication, conservative nationalism could easily be used to anyone’s advantage. And that’s exactly what Americans and Canadians did, with or without malicious intent.”


A different thesis, as idealistic as it is ethnocentric, plagues some of our great minds. Sheltered from US influence as if protected by a glass dome, Quebecers seem to have completely avoided falling prey to the hard-core materialism that has been around for the last 100 years. Caught in a time warp, some 10,000 French men and women immaculately conceived this Aryan race (yes, those are the words they use!), pure and unblemished by crossbreeding save for a handful of Scots and a few Irish. It appears we truly believe we are at the centre of the universe.

Travellers who have chronicled their trips to New France and Lower Canada will paint us in a totally different light…making sure to expose our flaws. After sifting through their seemingly endless accounts – a most tedious exercise – I was able to determine that these old gossips made mention of 20 of our modern Heartstrings in their journals (the numbers in parentheses refer to our Heartstrings): common sense (1), love of the land (2), simplicity in lifestyle and moral standards (3), finesse and craftiness (5), dexterity (6), thriftiness (8), envy (9), love of words and satire (12), continental presence (16), nationalism (18), little interest in business and industry (19), religious and superstitious (20), conservatism (23), cheerful, optimistic and sociable (25), vain (27), more literary than scientifically inclined (28), clannish (31), affinity for logic and abstract or vague concepts (32), gluttony (34) and tooting our own horns (35).

As you can see, almost all of our Heartstrings stemming from the Earth and French Roots are on the list.

Other collective characteristics or adaptable Heartstrings mentioned by these authors seem to have disappeared over time. These include: practicality, politeness, appetite for travel and adventure (which is making a comeback), respect for authority (which seems to be decreasing these days) and a propensity for laziness (habitants).

Looking ahead to the year 2000, which isn’t that far off, is it possible we’ll still be driven by the same 36 Heartstrings while their relative importance will be the only thing to have changed? Will new influences magnify or lessen certain hereditary tendencies without eradicating them completely? The answers to these questions are in the hands of Quebecers. We shouldn’t rule out the possibility of a so-called collective flaw becoming a good quality due to certain events or circumstances. We’ve already seen how an individual quality can become a collective flaw, so why couldn’t the opposite happen? And let’s not forget our Heartstrings are adaptable, too.

In the BCP lab, Quebec consumers show tremendous loyalty to their favourite brands of products. A brand that only lasts five to ten years in other provinces will last two to three times as long in Quebec.

As a result of their lasting so long, certain types of products are now almost exclusively Quebecer, like molasses and juniper gin, for example. However, Quebecers still snub lager-type beers, colour TVs and, as we’ve already discussed, frozen foods (there are twice as many freezers in Ontario as there are in Quebec).

The summary of Bruce Mallen’s 54 market studies I was referring to is (almost) undeniable proof this Heartstring exists even if it boils down to a long list of well-known clichés used by Canadian marketers. Quebec women are more conservative (read traditional) than their English-speaking counterparts when it comes to home cooking, so they spend a lot on ingredients needed for making baked beans, (tomato) macaroni, soups, pancakes, as well as cakes and frostings. Consequently, they spend a lot less on frozen foods and sliced deli meats. They prefer fast-cooking items to the easy-to-prepare kind. And their loyalty to certain cooking utensils, institutions, gas stations, banks and resort hotels is beyond comprehension.

In 1976, independent grocery stores were still sticking it to the major chains in Quebec. Mom-and-pop shops racked up 57% in sales volume while food giants had to settle for 43%, a far cry from the 74% market share they held in the other nine provinces.

But, as we’ve already discussed, there is one exception to Quebec consumer Conservatism, and that’s fashion. This extravagant manifestation of Heartstring 27 is a close relative of Heartstring 7. An observer (whose extremely neat calligraphy reminds me of the penmanship of one of my religious aunts) writes, “Doesn’t Conservatism stem from the Earth and Minority Roots more than the Catholic one? Why are you so angry at the clergy?”

Me, angry at the clergy?! If anything, my education would predispose me to being at the other extreme. (Men in the Bouchard clan of St-Hyacinthe were anti-clerical. To even things out, Bouchard women were extremely religious.) Not a single political party, not even the one led by Duplessis, has been able to pull off the amazing feat that Quebec priests have. The clergy achieved its uniquely privileged position in our society thanks to their entrepreneurship, Conservatism of structures and a level of consistency our smartest non-religious entities seem unable to replicate. Our priests and nuns are fast learners.

Put on the spot during André Payette’s April 12, 1977 Le 60 news show, the treasurers of our largest religious communities, the same priests and nuns who took a vow of poverty, adamantly defended the Quebec clergy’s conservative inclinations. Even after displaying tremendous effort and relentlessly pushing the issue for some 30 minutes, the interviewer didn’t get the pillars of our religious community to budge one bit.

“Are Quebec’s 146 religious congregations wealthy?” asks Payette. (Don’t the ones in Montreal own 4 square miles of prime real estate in the city’s downtown core?) Making good use of Heartstring 5 and demonstrating the business savvy of top CFOs, the guests don’t come right out and say it but they imply that the prosperity and the future of the Quebec clergy is assured. The interviewer keeps probing, “What about your Canada Steamship stock?” “As far as that story is concerned, I’m afraid you’ve been taken for a (boat) ride,” replies the mother superior of the Grey Nuns.

Conservatism gambled and won.

If there have been any mergers, none of the religious communities have disappeared. Missionary work still exists (the last investment made was $5 million), recruiting continues among the contemplative and there is a whole slew of poor folk out there neglected by the government that the Church wants to help. “We’ve started helping others out in ways we used to 100, even 200 years ago,” says one of the nuns. “We help the homeless, those who can’t read or write, the displaced, ex-convicts and the League of Human Rights. We help with low-cost housing, too.”

Despite being taken down a peg by the Quiet Revolution, the Parent Report and Vatican II, dropping from 75,000 to 35,000 clerics (50% of them old and retired) in a few short years and having the rug pulled out from under them in education and healthcare matters, the religious communities of Quebec will only have a little bit of a hard time because the Conservatism of Quebecers enables them to last. And lasting, like beauty, is a form of genius.

Nothing stays new for long. “Power is always available,” said Conservative British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. “You just have to take it.”

Some of the students and teachers I presented the Heartstrings to did not agree with my theory that Conservatism is still alive and well on the shores of the St. Lawrence River even after post-war babies, the Quiet Revolution, the FLQ and the PQ’s rise to power. Hogwash, you say? Quick, to the lab!

With the approval of some clients back in 1974, I resurrected two 1940s ad campaigns. The goal of the exercise was to see if young men 20 to 25 would react the same way their fathers did 30 years ago to two very effective commercials that spelled success for different brands.

T’as pas? Quand t’as pas de t’as pas, t’as pas de Colts! (If you haven’t got it…then you haven’t got Colts!) was an exact copy of a 1940 ad campaign (except for the name of the brand) that tripled sales of Colts cigarillos in one year. And that was after the Quiet Revolution and the Berkeley riots!

With this first success safely tucked under my belt, I decided to resurrect another Quebec campaign in the BCP lab a few months later. The Where’s Gaston? campaign we created for Bovril was an exact duplicate of the Where’s Joe? campaign launched for Dow beer in the 1940s. And according to CEO Maurice Brizard’s numbers, the campaign increased sales by 19% in less than a year.

With just a hint of bitterness, Premier Jean Lesage used to say, “Never go faster than the people.” But by then the people were already used to saying, “Never go faster than the leader.”

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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.