Lisée, Drapeau and Montreal`s special status

By Beryl Wajsman on October 15, 2013

One of the reasons that the nationalist narrative in Quebec gained currency over the past forty years – particularly with young Francophones – is that our history is not known. People buy into whatever version of history the nationalists sell, particularly the skewed version of Francophones  having been victims of imperialists in their own native land when in fact their very presence here is as much the product of European imperialism as the Anglophone presence. History matters. And not just because, as Santayana wrote, `Those who forget it are bound to repeat it.” It matters because Its perversion is used as a political tool. Particularly in a jurisdiction with North America`s highest high school dropout rate.

That’s why Minister Jean-Francois Lisee’s comments last week professing the view that our current mayoral candidates should follow the lead of former Mayor Jean Drapeau - who according to Lisee, remained neutral and mute in the debate on Bill 101 - and remain neutral in the Charter debate. Well Drapeau did no such thing. What he had to say in the October 1983 hearings on reforming Bill 101 mirrors what civil rights advocates have said for years and what has been most vociferously re-stated by opponents of Bill 14 just this past year. They are worth reflecting on and all Montrealers owe a debt to CBC Radio`s Bernard St-Laurent and his assistant Loreen Pindera for digging out the entire presentation and making it an issue this past week. We will go into some of Drapeau salient points later in this column. But we must first examine Lisee`s comments.

To begin with, no government official has any right to tell any citizen – candidate or nor – what to think, say or write. It is reprehensible for anyone, particularly a Minister, to make such a thoroughly illiberal and undemocratic intervention. But more than that, we have to examine the man who made them, and why. M. Lisee is not your ordinary Quebec-centric politician. This is an extremely well-educated and cosmopolitan politician. Post-graduate studies abroad; over a dozen years as a Washington-based correspondent; author of “ In the Eye of the Eagle” and winner of the Governor-General’s Prize. This is a man who knows his history.

Drapeau’s comments not only made headline news, but the political events around the October 1983 hearings on the then Bill 57 “assouplissement” of Bill 101 did as well.  Rene Levesque had just replaced Camille Laurin as Minister responsible for the French Language Charter with Gerald Godin who was considered a moderate on language. Godin`s opening statement at the hearings already made everybody sit up and take notice. After explaining the need to protect French in a “sea of English” not only in North America but from global “assimilation”, he then made the “radical” statement for those times that “Let us be clear. Anglo-Quebecers have very  little to do with this assimilation and it is not them that we should consider responsible, or their institutions.” 

The background to the 1983 reforms have been widely written about. Marc Levine’s “The Reconquest of Montreal” and Andrew Sancton’s “Governing Montreal” are just two of the works that examined those events. Lisee is a student of history. He lived those times. He was senior aide to Premier Bouchard. For him to say what he did evidenced that either he thought no Quebecer would remember or that they would be too intimidated to reply. He was wrong on both counts.

But now that Lisee has opened this Pandora`s Box, let us repeat – again and again – what Drapeau said in his testimony. He called for special status for Montreal exempting it from aspects of 101 because he felt the language laws were irreparably hurting the Montreal economy. He said that the most negative effects of Bill 101 were being felt not so much because of the words in the legislation as by the manner of their enforcement. He called for exemptions for English-speaking executives bringing their children to Montreal  so that they could send them to schools of their choice. And perhaps most poignantly, he made the point – thirty years ago next week – that many areas of Montreal have non-francophone majorities and these citizens should not be estranged from their own city because of an insistence on unilingual signs. He called for bilingual and even trilingual signs as long as French was included. Today the City of Montreal has a non-francophone majority.

History matters! And quite inadvertently, Lisee has made many re-examine our own recent past. It`s lessons are important for today. Let`s hope everyone learns them. 

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Beryl P. Wajsman

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