HOME HEARTSTRING 33: INDIVIDUALISM

Madeleine de Verchères – the young girl whose ingenuity is credited with repelling a raid on her parents’ fort when she was only 14 – is said to have had endless legal disputes with her neighbours, confirming what historians have been writing about our women and how they love to get into fights and not let anything get in their way. It looks like many descendants of Themis – the ancient Greek titaness who embodies divine order, law and custom – have ended up right here in our province. We argue over anything and everything, like common boundary fences, contractual loopholes, rental agreements, and a black mark on our reputation or our Cadillac. Quebec quarrels are excessively complicated and often involve a great deal of administrative detail.

Quebec notary, editor, historian and political figure Joseph-Edmond Roy provides us with baffling statistics on the subject. “There were no less than 424 cases brought to court in the jurisdiction of Quebec City alone between September 26, 1663 and August 23, 1664,” he writes. “Considering the population was only about 1500 (including children), that’s almost one trial for every four residents.”

Knowledgeable about church and civil law, our ancestors were always quick to turn to the courts for a decision on who was the rightful owner of a pea pod, piece of straw or even a blade of grass.

In this beautiful and free country of ours, anyone who shows up at an assembly can get on television and hurl insults at the prime minister without worrying about the consequences, leading them to confuse their rights with their freedoms, and what is individual with what is collective. A highly sensitive breed, Quebecers immediately see red if prevented in the slightest from asserting their right to be sensitive, meaning their right to just about anything.

As we’ve seen previously, Quebecers are of Norman and French descent, which leads Wilfrid Bovey to write the following in the 1940 book entitled The French Canadians To-day: “The French-Canadian political ideology is more the product of Norman culture, which is built on Scandinavian theories of liberty.”

The method of tiered management implemented by the first settlers was born of our collective need to protect and help each other, which explains the importance of first neighbours. When I was growing up in Saint-Hyacinthe, my mother would naturally form an alliance with our first neighbours (we moved often – Heartstring 2) from whom she’d borrow, or gladly lend, cups of sugar and flour. Since the other neighbours never made it into this sacred circle, it was okay to gossip about them all you wanted.

From the very beginning of the colony, habitants built fences everywhere (something they didn’t do in France), which led to the first neighbourly disputes.

“The many spiral staircases we find in the city reveal how independent Quebecers really are,” notes sociologist Everett C. Hugues. “Private entrances ensure that no one has to share a lobby, and that each tenant can take care of only removing the snow from their own staircase.” In Outremont, Italian gardeners grow cedar hedges.

In his book La société canadienne-française (French-Canadian Society), sociologist Jean-Charles Falardeau writes, “Starting in 1663, King Louis XIV ordered the leaders of the new colony to stop people from settling in ‘ranks’ and to group residents in circular villages as was the custom in France.” But that didn’t happen. Quebecers had already established their preference for individualism, treason and unruly behaviour. Apologies to the Sun King.

French Commander Montcalm noted that, “the population has a highly independent spirit and knows no rules or regulations.” In 1736, Intendant Gilles Hocquart writes, “They tend to be quite flexible when treated with kindness and ruled with fairness, but they are naturally rebellious.” When commenting on some of Hocquart’s other opinions, Quebec historian and archivist Pierre-Georges Roy added, “The portrait painted of French Canadians in 1736 still applies to those living in 1922.” And what about 50 years after that?

In 1707, Intendant Antoine-Denis Raudot talks about, “the preference for dispersing and the spirit of insubordination that resides among young people.” French historian Georges Vattier uses a more polite approach in describing us, writing, “Certain people have concluded that Quebecers lack discipline, but to my sense this was their Gallic pride shining through.” He goes on to quote French explorer Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix who said, “They make lousy servants because they have too much pride and enjoy their freedom too much.” To round out the portrait of Quebecers back in the day, Hocquart concluded, “They take great offence at the slightest insult and punishment.” A missionary states, “They make good masters but terrible servants.”

While it’s a miracle they ever survived here, habitants are used to being self-sufficient. What is a great quality in an individual can quickly turn into a flaw from a societal point of view, and one that can be bad for doing business with others. We are naturally solitary individuals. We drive alone, do business alone, and stand alone on stage, which is good because one-man shows are always huge hits here.

Anglo-Saxons, who are usually more philanthropic and inclined to rally to various causes, will arrive at a social compromise between their independence and collective discipline. Much like the French, Quebecers start to question rules as soon as they set them, often amending them quickly. By definition, a constitution is always temporary. By continuously amending and tweaking it, we soon end up with a way of doing things that doesn’t accomplish anything.

Cold, stern and very British, the parliamentary tradition in our House of Commons isn’t right for everyone. After leaving the Department of Labour “with admitted relief,” (La Presse, July 9, 1977), former Minister Jacques Couture started to relax a little. “In the beginning, I was very suspicious of the House because I felt something wasn’t quite right…and I never fully integrated myself. My mistake was refusing to play the game by not hiding behind a persona. I think that real people tend to lean much more to the left than others.”

French Prime Minister Raymond Barre, who also fell victim to this French Root Heartstring, had the following to say about the hoops one must jump through in parliament: “I’ll never be able to perform all the tricks required to ensure a successful career in politics.” (L’Express, October 23, 1977)

Before the PQ came to power, politician Guy Joron wrote, “No collective project is unanimous. It’s all about disruption and the triumph of selfishness, whether individual or of small groups. Each person invents their own values so they can turn around and change other ones elsewhere. Everyone has their own set of rules.” We definitely did not invent discipline, neither personal nor civic.

Individualism is not on the decline in Quebec. It has happened before that not a single student at the Université de Montréal bothered applying for the position of student council president. Solitary freelancers abound in advertising. And there are more single people here than ever before.

Joe says, “I didn’t want to hear about it. I couldn’t care less.” To which Quebecers add I did it my way, Me, myself and I, It’s all about me and Everyone feels his own pain.

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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.