Michel Brunet, a historian at the University of Montreal, remembers the winter of 1957 as the time when members of his family first began dreaming of an independent Quebec. First it was his brother-in-law, Emery Lusigan.
"It was the period in the aftermath of the Hungarian revolution when Canada accepted thousands of refugees," Brunet says. "Emery was working at the time for Pratt & Whitney near here as a mechanic. He was almost the prototype of an average Quebecer -- little formal education, no property and the minimum knowledge of English required to hold the job.
"Several Hungarian mechanics were brought to his plant and given jobs. But these men didn't speak any foreign language, and the management had to find someone to explain in Hungarian what they were supposed to do.
"Emery and his friends were perplexed. They were born and raised here and yet they were never taught to work in their own language. He may be a simple man, but he knows his genealogy in great detail. Emery's forebears settled in Quebec in the 1660s. So he was upset and wanted to talk to me -- you see, I'm the only educated person in the family and I was supposed to have the answers. So he asked questions he had never asked before. Why should we be forced to speak English in the province where the French comprise 80 percent of the population? Why have we, French Canadians, acquiesced to English domination over our lives?"
Such questions began to prey on the collective consciences of 5 million French-speaking Quebecers. Their snowballing effect led to the establishment of the separatist Parti Quebecois in 1968, swept it into power in 1976 and brought Quebec to next Tuesday's referendum, in which the provincial government is asking for a mandate to negotiate sovereignty for Quebec and economic association with the rest of Canada.
The nationalist surge in such a relatively short time suggests that -- regardless of the outcome of the referendum -- Canada in the 1980s will at the least have to face up to a major constitutional rearrangement to accommodate the assertiveness of what only three decades ago was a largely forgotten North American tribe -- a semiliterate village society speaking French almost incomprehensible to Parisians and dominated by priests, notaries and doctors.
Before the separatist drive made English-French relations an inappropriate subject for jokes, Vancouver humorist Eric Nicol used to say that the Canadian Federation reminded him of a mail order bra -- "intended to contain and uplift, but instead drawing attention to the cleavage."
The cleavage has existed ever since the British took over Quebec City in 1759 and New France was formally ceded to the British crown by the 1763 Treaty of Paris. A French life in Quebec, Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the 1830s, was the life of a "conquered race." Quebec's standard of living has always been lower, unemployment rate higher, wages much lower than in English-speaking Canada.
On three occasions in the past 100 years men from Quebec became players on the national stage, including the current prime minister, Pierre Trudeau. But most French Quebecers lived a life of their own, representing a stymied French civilization in miniature and abandoning downtown Montreal to the English, who monopolized the wealth, trade, technology and political power. A number of Quebecers recall that their wives, if they spoke only French, never went shopping at the fancy Montreal shops until 1977 for fear of suffering indignities at the hands of English-speaking sales clerks. In 1977, the separatist government passed legislation making French the only language in the province.
But the upper layer of Quebecois society became over the years a part of the elite, sharing privileges with the "Anglophones" and apparently content with the passivity of the majority of Quebecois in their role as the hewers of wood and drawers of water. This has produced a schizophrenic aspect in the soul of French Canada.
Under the veneer of confidence, most French Canadians (with the possible exception of about 20 percent who are diehard separatists) are perplexed, worried and uncertain. They know that Canada and Quebec are undergoing dramatic change, but that its course is poorly understood at home as well as abroad. They also sense that what originally has been a practical policy aimed at securring greater autonomy for Quebec has developed into a grand nationalist movement with a political momentum of its own and with unforeseen consequences.
Yet the self-intoxicating rhetoric of the movement and the temptation to whack English Canada seem attractive to them. Many French Canadians would like to administer the blow without destroying the confederation, only to force English Canada to accept the concept of two nations and then begin constitutional negotiations.
However, the rest of the country has been insensitive toward Quebec's desires, viewing the "frogs" as a peculiar and bothersome segment whose antics have prevented the country from becoming another Australia or United States. An illuminating story is told by Stanley Meisler, the Toronto-based correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, and it illustrates the prevailing attitude in English Canada.
Following the 1979 general election, in which Trudeau was defeated by Joe Clark, Meisler was riding in a cab in Toronto. "Trudeau sure got thumped," the driver boasted. But Trudeau had led in the national popular vote, Meisler pointed out. "Oh, yeah," said the driver, "but that's only if you count the French."
It is this attitude of English Canada that has thwarted the implementation of much of the legislation passed during the past decade to redress French grievances.
William Johnson, a columnist for the Toronto Globe and Mail, tells a poignant tale that took place in May 1979, long after Canada adopted its Official Languages Act that theoretically guarantees French language rights throughout the country. The legislation had a special section under rights of the traveling public to be served in either French or English.
Returning from a trip to the United States, Johnson, who is bilingual, decided to speak French at Toronto International Airport. The immigration officer would not recognize that right. There were no few words of French as a courtesy, Johnson recalled.
"She just said peremptorily that she did not speak French, as though that settled the matter, and went on with her questioning in English." Johnson, however, insisted on French, and the customs officer then directed him to take his luggage into a separate room, where suspicious travelers are searched.
Johnson felt angry. He had been put, he said, "through inconvenience that would have been sheer humiliation had I really been unable to speak English -- as a majority of French Canadians from Quebec are unable to speak English." And why? "Because I insisted in exercising a right I'm guaranteed by law."
Quebec's reaction has been baffling and paradoxical, especially since English Canada has made halting steps towards the acceptance of French as the second language and had done much to redress past injustices. The French Canadians are surging ahead in income, in power, in education and in cultural expression. For the first time in Canadian history, French speakers are making their presence felt in federal politics. Yet French Canadian films, plays, novels and songs still leave one with the impression that things are terrible.
Francoise Loranger's play, "Medium Saignant," for example, includes such lines as: "I hate them, the English. I hate them, from the verb to hate, a verb just invented for them. I hate them because I'm afraid that the Quebecois might disappear because of them. . . I hate them because I feel like their slave when they give me orders on the job. . . I hate them because they force me to speak their language."
Such deep emotional cleavage is in part due to the political and economic situation following the British conquest of Quebec. Far from disappearing over the years, the gulf grew wider.
After they were conquered by the British, the French of Quebec decided to insulate themselves entirely from the English-speaking world -- to the extent of refusing to join the Americans in 1776. A year earlier, the Continental Congress sent Benjamin Franklin to Montreal to persuade Quebec leaders to join the 13 colonies. But the effort foundered because Franklin would not give them assurances of cultural autonomy if they accepted. (Many years later, also as part of their resistance to the Enlish world, French Canadians refused to be drafted for overseas duty in both World War i and World War ii.)
English Canada, meanwhile, acted with uncanny consistency in reinforcing French fears. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, questioned before a Montreal audience as late as 1959 about language discrimination that precluded French Canadians from holdin federal jobs, responded with a statement that is still recalled here. "But it is very simple," he said, "you just have to learn English."
There was no revolution, no Declaration of Independence to set common goals, no common experience to put these varying strains together. Before Trudeau first came to power in 1968, Canada was a sad geographical expression as far as most French Canadians are concerned. What Prime Minister Lester Pearson in the 1960s and then Trudeau offered Canadians was a vision of the future, a bilingual and bicultural Canada, that in the absence of political myths seemed to provide the means for pulling together the contradictory evidence of Canadian life. In an important way, the May 20 referendum will weigh this vision of hope against two centuries of discrimination and self-imposed apartheid.
For most of the country, including a large segment of the Quebec population, the question is why break a wealthy, tolerant and civilized Canada? Or, as the English headlines put it, what does Quebec want? Comments by a Montreal teacher, Angelo Montini, who immigrated to Canada from his native Italy, are typical of those who oppose separation. "We live in an industrialized world, not in a world where you live only by ideas or culture," he said. "I think food and machines come before culture, and this is why I cannot conceive of us becoming unilingual in Quebec."
For the separatists, that question is false. They are not trying to destroy anything, they say; they are merely trying to become "masters in their own house." It is a deep impulse, like the pressure from an old wound, or, as one put it, "a response to a pain which we have carried with us for so long." Almost four centuries after Champlain founded Quebec, they view themselves as "the richest colonized people in the world."
Ottawa has taken a number of measures to eliminate the discrimination the French had suffered in Canada. But, ironically, the closer Quebec came to its professed goal within the federation, the more insistent the voices of separatism became.
For the federalists, as the supporters of Quebec's continued role in Canada are called, the province's problem in part is one of regional economic disparity, Quebec having been at a disadvantage for a long time. But remedies have been applied to correct that, and other means remain available to secure its unique life within Canada. Led by Claude Ryan, former editor of the Montreal daily Le Devoir, the federalists insist on a major restructuring of the confederation that would offer specific legal guarantees for Quebec's status as one of the two founding nations of Canada.
In contrast, the separatists led by Rene Levesque believe that political sovereignty is the only way possible to maintain their national existence, and that the question of catching up with the wealthier parts of Canada is misleading.
I asked sociolgist Marcel Rioux, an affable University of Montreal professor and one of the original spiritual leaders of separatism, why this was so. The federalists' argument, he said, is, "Why demand your national rights, why dream of a free Quebec, when each of you can become rich and successful for himself?" But Rioux's view is that securing linguistic rights is not enough, that that would reduce French Quebec's identitiy to "the folkloric," that "a culture in a nation whose only distinctive trait was language would soon cease to be a culture and a nation -- it would soon lose even its language."
Despite the carefully structured ambiguity of the question before them, the Quebecois know that May 20 will be a fateful day. Their tribalism and their language that sustained them for centuries and gave them a "survivalist" approach to life are now threatening the known patterns of life. For, however they may have been discriminated against the "English," the Quebecois have benefited enormously from their Canadian experience. As in all conflicts between the heart and the head, the choice is an agonizing one. CAPTION: Illustration; If I Keep On Ignoring Him, Maybe He'll Go Away . . .; Aislin in The Montreal Gazette