It is the evening of March 11, 1996. Four months earlier, Quebec had passed tens of thousands of votes to say yes to sovereignty.
Posted at 5:00 am
Political passions are still at their peak. Lucien Bouchard became Premier of Quebec on January 29. He believes he will succeed where his predecessor Jacques Parizeau narrowly failed. He doesn’t know when and how. But that is his job.
That evening, when he took the stage at the Théâtre du Centaur, the former Montreal Stock Exchange, he did not come to plead for independence. He comes to reassure Montreal’s English-speaking community, still traumatized by Canada’s virtual dissolution.
Also reassure the rest of Canada, Americans and investors. What will be the place of the English-speaking community in an independent Quebec?
They are 400 leaders selected in partnership with the Quebec Alliance who have come to listen to the Prime Minister. English-language television and “Radio-Québec” will broadcast the “historic” speech live.
I listened again1 this remarkable 45-minute speech, 26 years later. Most notably, the leader’s solemn pledge to guarantee the rights of the English-speaking minority in a future sovereign Québec. This is his vision of nationalism: pluralistic and inclusive.
On the other hand, it is also striking how little François Legault has yet taken the trouble to clearly articulate a vision of nationalism in which this minority finds its place.
Is it just for the CAQ or potential CAQ voters?
Rejecting the election debate in English in the current context is another way of saying: I’m not talking to you.
As one eminent Péquiste whispered to me recently, it’s about time François Legault delivered his own “speech of the centaur.”
Back to March 1996, in this room full of people with their arms crossed, attentive but doubtful, interested but concerned.
Lucien Bouchard, who speaks almost exclusively English, initially takes note of this concern. “The unthinkable,” meaning Quebec’s independence, could still happen, and he’s working on it, he says bluntly. But the fact that some Anglophones, and especially the younger generation, are so concerned that they are considering leaving Quebec is “a concern for me,” he says.
He tells them that he’s from Saguenay, has only lived in Montreal for six years, and better understands how much the English-speaking community is part of the city’s and Quebec’s “fibre.”
He insists on the “common values” of Montreal’s two main cultures: “pluralism and this shared taste for each other’s cultures”. It emphasizes Anglo-Montrealers’ bond with Quebec, with this totally original meeting point, a “blessed” place.
During his defense of the Meech Lake Agreement, which was designed to recognize Quebec’s distinctive character in the constitution, he encountered much hostility in Canada – alongside Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Jean Chrétien. But he always had the massive support of Anglo-Quebecians for this “beautiful risk,” he says.
Like his predecessors, he made a “solemn pledge” to uphold the rights of the English-speaking community: control over educational institutions, access to health and social services, the courts, and government in English. He intends to include them in an eventual Quebec constitution. For him, minority rights are not exorbitant, but a model to follow.
When he was in charge of official languages in the federal government, he resented the meager services offered to Francophones in the West, some of whom end their day without even having access to care in their language.
“Never, ever will something like this happen in Quebec,” he says. Because the government of Quebec wants to be a role model for “all minorities in North America”.
“If you go to the hospital and you are in pain you may need a blood test but certainly not a speech test. »
I come back to Bouchar’s vision of nationalism.
“We all know that the nationalism we defend is no longer defined as that of French Canadians, but that of all Quebecers. It no longer strives for homogeneity, but instead welcomes plurality and diversity. »
He even attacked the federal government, which wanted to make June 24 a holiday “for French Canadians only,” even though it applied to all Quebecers. “Welcome to the 1990s,” he says.
We have an official and common language, French, but it is not the only one. “Nothing pleases me more than that many bilingual Quebecers have access to at least two great cultures in their original versions,” he adds, urging audiences “to leave old notions behind.”
Because it’s now “difficult to find an English speaker who thinks it’s impossible to learn French” just as it’s “difficult to find a bilingual French-speaking nationalist who doesn’t like practicing his English”.
Linguistic tolerance took root in us, but we were too busy [par nos débats politiques] to celebrate it.
Lucien Bouchard, in a speech in March 1996
It then heralds the birth of an era of mutual interest. The end of the era in which French won what English lost and vice versa.
The English-speaking community is an “essential part” of our metropolis, shaping its culture and history, and we should be proud of this crossroads city, one of the most pristine in the world.
Seems to me that this is just as true in 2022…
Not everyone applauded the speech equally that evening. Bouchard was still the man through whom sovereignty could come. The more radical nationalists didn’t like this “establishment seduction enterprise”. National action.
A few months later, speaking to activists in the National Council of the Parti Québécois, Bouchard was clear: “Don’t count on me… to violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms or to have recourse to the devaluation clause, which regardless of the clause!” I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror when I get up in the morning. »
To see his immoderate use of the “exceptions” of the Canada and Quebec charters, Simon Jolin-Barrette clearly doesn’t share the same philosophy of morning shaving.
With Bill 96 imminent, we are at a turning point in the political debate. The Prime Minister dismisses the Anglophone community’s concerns as unfounded. However, they are well documented on several subjects. In my opinion, these are not purely theoretical fears.
But whether this is the case or not, it is time for François Legault to articulate his vision of linguistic coexistence. To give his centaur speech.