By Graeme Decarie on June 10, 2010

When Quebec was conquered by the British in 1763, most of its secular leaders – those around the Governor, the military, and many of the wealthy - returned to France. And very reasonably so. Their futures and their connections were in France, not in a British colony. The only French institution remaining was the Roman Catholic Church.

The people of the colony, until then pretty casual in their religion, now turned to the Church with an enthusiasm born of uncertainty as much as faith that would only intensify for the next two centuries. The various leaderships of the Church, of Francophone politicians, and of English business leaders were left free to rule in partnership for their own benefit. The majorities among both English and French had no role in this except to obey orders.

Long before 1960, this ruling triumvirate had held Quebec far behind much of North America. The French Catholic public education system, in particular, was sinfully behind the times, designed to produce nothing more than obedient labour that would accept low wages. For the wealthy French, there were excellent private schools designed to produce an upper class of lawyers and doctors and Premiers who would also control the public school boards to make sure the school taxes were kept low. 

The revolution of 1960, and the liberating role of Paul Gérin-Lajoie as Quebec’s first Minister of Education in a century, can never be mentioned enough in the remedies they produced and the hopes they inspired.

The Villeray district, where I lived, was pretty poor. With Park Extension on one side, and the city dump on the other, there wasn't a whole lot to look at. Housing ran to cramped flats, mostly of two rooms (or make pretend they were four). All us kids of Villeray had much the same culture. We cheered for the Canadiens. We hated Toronto (which we had never seen). We didn't like Westmount kids (though we had never met any).

My English school classmates actually came as much from Syria, Italy and Eastern Europe as from Britain. Most of them were as poor as I was. But to our French neighbours, we were all the same, les riches anglais. We were, of course, a minority, but numerous enough so that at least five English schools – Crystal Springs, Peace Centennial, Barclay, Ahuntsic, Holy Family – were within walking distance of home, with another, William Dawson, within long walking distance.

We welcomed the Quiet Revolution. It had become an embarrassment to live in a province that labelled mentally healthy people as insane so the Catholic Church could bill the federal government for their care. And even as kids we knew the stories of abuse in the church orphanages. As for the decline of the English business elite we didn't care. We had no reason to love the English business elite.

But as much as the Quiet Revolution liberated in education, justice and politics, there was one aspect on the agenda that was hijacked.  That was culture. And Gerin-Lajoie and the other leaders of the Quiet Revolution did not merit the base culture wars that have plagued us for forty years. This was not the legacy they intended.

In 1763, the only French institution was the Church. By the early 1970s, the State replaced the Church as the shelter of choice. "Culture" was the high mass of the new church of the state. Like the high mass, it evoked feelings of passionate attachment to tradition and heritage. And, like the high mass in Latin, nobody really understood what it meant.

What is culture? It's the sum of the million and one ways we react to the world around us. We, all of us all over the world, have a fundamentally similar culture. If we didn't, we would not be able to survive on the same planet. 

In the north end, we weren't much different culturally from our French neighbours, except in language. I could live comfortably amid the French and English and Italians and Syrians of Villeray. But parts of my culture would never fit it in with the English kids of Westmount.

Did Camille Laurin share all the culture of a farmer in the Beauce? Is Jean Charest's culture just like that of a garbage collector in Montreal? People don't even have a culture identical to that of their parents. How could any group of millions of people have the same culture?

Culture is our reaction to the world around us. That world changes; and those things we call cultures change with it. Your culture is a living thing. It changes even as you try to define it. If you were to define a million or so facets of your culture, they would have changed long before you could finish the definition. A culture, any culture, stops changing only in the grave.

And so the noble aspirations of inclusion and universality of the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s were hijacked into the politicized culture wars that have marked so much of our recent history.

I was sorry to see the cultural richness of Montreal fade. And, no, I don't mean visiting troupes of Guatemalan dancers and visiting symphonies. I mean the richness of variety between and within communities. 

I was astonished at values I had never known, but found in their communities, values of self-improvement, of caring, of service, of welcome. It changed the life of this kid from Villeray, and made it much richer than I could have imagined. But, toward the end, I could see all those communities scampering for the shelter of conformity. They sought it as much as the nationalists did on the French side. That, after all, is what the nationalist use of "culture" really meant. It meant conformity, as school children pretend to like exactly the same pop music and sports teams and fashions as their classmates - so the other kids will like them. 

For thirty years, I had given talks or led discussions for groups all over the city. There must have been some sixty a year; and controversy and debate were not only welcome but expected. The last group was one I had met with many, many times. The chairman, though, was new. And I had already pegged her as one of the new breed. She stepped up to the microphone. I waited at the side for the usual words of farewell.

She tapped the microphone. It coughed. I looked out over the sea of old friends in the audience. Then she spoke her opening words:

“Just wait till you hear who we have for a replacement. You're going to forget all about Graeme Decarie.”

When I got home, I looked at the packed boxes of clothes and books and dishes. I had made the right decision. The hopes of the Quiet Revolution are still unfulfilled. I leave it to a younger generation to remember the promise. 


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