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Why Quebec drives liberals bonkers

Most English Canadians find aspects of Quebec’s political culture to be tribalist. Here I would like to insinuate a subversive thought. Maybe Quebec is on its way to solving problems of identity and belonging in a way that is direct and effective. Moreover I think its policies are designed to establish a state based on values rather than ethnic identification. In a curious way, Quebec may be handling its problems of declining birthrate by telling people who wish to immigrate that democratic behaviour and attitudes is part of the deal.

Quebec’s decision to impose a values test on immigrants is a sign that intends to ensure that every immigrant is on notice that democratic and peaceful behaviour is expected. Sure, people can cheat on the test. They can fake attitudes they do not have. Any such test is open to guessing the right answer and giving what the immigrant thinks the government wants to hear. But what is so bad about that?

Denmark has tests for immigrants. The United States has tests for immigrants. Moreover, as states move way from unity through ethnic uniformity to unity through shared values, there is no way to escape the question of values. The United States is a country founded on shared values, not shared ethnicity. As other societies move from kinship to common values as the basis of adhesion, they too have to start talking about a language of values, rather than assume belonging through kinship.

And then the old Quebec rears its ugly head. “Bonjour- hi”, which is the practical response to serving the customer in his language, is condemned by politicians. Quebec is open and tolerant, as long as the issue is not about the use of English. The shared values are expected to include a measure of adhesion to the French language. This is the source of English Canada’s eternal disagreement with Quebec, because it does not respect Quebec’s pretensions to control the language of public discourse. Quebec has won every legal battle in its drive to suppress the use of English and, by inevitable consequence, the number of people living in Quebec who identify as English-speaking Quebecers. While Quebec is right to insist on a values test, the language conflict colours English Canada’s interpretation of what Quebec does.

How to create animosity by government fiat

This is a sign found at the entrance to a trail in the Gatineau Park. The entrance to the trail is an hour’s drive away from Ottawa. Few use it, maybe several dozen a weekend. The trail leads into a ski trail and a set of snow shoe trails. They are called “ski” trails because the National Capital Commission occasionally maintains them from falling trees, and repairs bridges across streams. They are called “snowshoe trails” because they scarcely exist except in the minds of dedicated snow-shoers who maintain them by hand. These trails take one into the deep woods and places unseen by the skiers, whose trails more closely approximate narrow highways.

What does this sign mean?

  • You cannot reach the snow shoe trails by means of the common access trail? or
  • You can reach the snow shoe trails but as a snow-shoer you have to create your own path beside the ski trails?

Supposing it means the latter, why create two classes of user of the Park? One class, the skier, has superior rights. Why?

  • Most of the time the snow showers create the path for the skiers by being the first out on the trail after the snow has fallen.
  • Does a skier have the right to push off a snowshoer, or claim priority, for using his ski-trail?
  • Does the skier have the right to claim a trail as a “ski” trail by going over a previously-made snow shoe trail and thus forcing the snowshoer to make a new trail – at great effort I assure you – so that the higher class Brahmin skier can ski without his shadow falling on the unclean Dalit snowshoer?

I can see the logic of keeping the two classes of trail user apart where the NCC grooms the trails mechanically, but where all the effort to make trail is human, and the labour is shared, then I am ready to tell the skiers to go around me if they get stroppy.

95% of those who get rude or aggressive are French Canadian, in case you wonder.

We snow-shoers get to places seen maybe by a score of people a year, we happy few.

Parkman on New France and the French Canadians

With the Peace of Paris (1783) ended the checkered story of New France; a story which would have been a history if faults of constitution and the bigotry and folly of rulers had not dwarfed it to an episode. Yet it is a noteworthy one in both its lights and its shadows: in the disinterested zeal of the founder of Quebec [Champlain], the self-devotion of the early missionary-martyrs, and the daring enterprise of explorers; in the spiritual and temporal vassalage from which the only escape was to the savagery of the wilderness; and in the swarming corruptions which were the natural result  of an attempt to rule, by the absolute hand of a master beyond the Atlantic, a people bereft of every vestige of civil liberty. Civil liberty was given them by the British sword, but the conqueror left their religious system untouched, and through it they have imposed upon themselves a weight of ecclesiastical tutelage that finds few equals in the most Catholic countries of Europe. Such guardianship is not without certain advantages. When faithfully exercised it aids to uphold some of the tamer virtues, if that can be called a virtue which needs the constant presence of a sentinel to keep it from escaping: but it is fatal to mental robustness and moral courage; and if French Canada would fulfil its aspirations it must cease to be one of the most priest-ridden communities of the modern world.

Francis Parkman, writing in 1884, in Montcalm and Wolfe.

While the French Canadians may possibly have exchanged the rule of priests for that of sociologists, environmentalists and new-age gurus, they seem to have escaped the priestly regime that governed until 1960. Indeed so thoroughly have they fled the Church that formerly gave them their self-definition that attendance in Quebec hovers around 2 or 3% of the population.

Highway 13

Much has been made of the fact that, during a recent snow storm,  Highway 13, a major artery running through Montreal, was blocked by two truckers who refused to allow tow-truck drivers to remove the blockage their accident had created. The result was that some 300 citizens had to spend the night in a snow storm in a major urban artery, unable to leave, unable to seek help. The cops claim that they could not reach the blockage so that they could not sort out the truckers who had refused to be towed. The truckers claimed they would not move for reasons related to insurance. And all of Quebec society thinks the government failed to respond adequately that night.

The CBC reports that:

Two trucks were involved in the accident that created the blockage near the Hickmore Street exit of Highway 13 shortly after 6 p.m., he said.

One of the trucks had jackknifed across the southbound lanes, leaving no way for traffic behind it to pass — and leaving police unable to get to the scene immediately.

[QPP Police captain] Lapointe said the truck drivers did not co-operate when authorities tried to tow their vehicles, and they could face criminal charges.

“An investigation is ongoing, in the sense that they did not respect the work of police,” he said.




It interests me that this is one of those issues which has galvanized both the people and the government of Quebec. The Premier of Quebec, Philippe Couillard, has fired managers of the Highway 13 and appointed a senior investigator to find out what went on.

Anyone acquainted with Quebec will know there is a tendency to not cooperate for the general good. The lack of social cohesion should not be mistaken for individualism, however. Quebec is a low-trust society, which resulted  from three hundred years of people being organized from the top-down rather than being allowed or encouraged to organize from the bottom-up. [You are invited to read Francis Fukuyama’s book, Trust, if you want to learn more about the relationship between political centralization and lack of social trust.]

What strikes me as hopeful in this situation has been the unanimous opinion of French Quebec that this was an unacceptable situation, and that something had to be done. The Premier, Philippe Couillard, had to be seen to do something, and did.

Andrew Potter wrote in McLean’s magazine that the incident exposed the profound lack of social cohesion in Quebec. Then he had to pull back some of his statements in the article, by way of a Facebook posting. French Canadians  (should I be careful and say “many French Canadians?”)  reacted with fury at being observed in anything less than favourable light, and many English Quebecers thought his portrait overdrawn.

Yet there remains a good deal of truth in what Potter observed in general about Quebec society. It prides itself on its collective or communitarian impulses, while having the smallest networks of personal friends , the lowest levels of vulunteerism, the lowest levels of charitable giving, and the least trust in public institutions or other people,compared to other Canadian provinces.

More particularly:

What exactly went on in the minds of the two truck drivers who refused to let the tow trucks move them off the highway? Why were the tow truck drivers unable to move the trucks? Were they threatened with lawsuits or with violence? Why could the cops have not walked through the blocked cars to the scene, or driven up the other side of the road and crossed the median on foot? My concern is not with systems that failed, although there was no lack of that, my concern is with humans on the spot who failed.

There are other questions that will be asked and answered about why the Provincial Police could not reach the Ministry of Transport. I do not doubt their importance, but for me the really important question is why two truck drivers were able to cause a major urban highway to be blocked for 12 hours, and no one in authority to straighten them out.

Says Andrew Potter:

And then a serious winter storm hits, and there is social breakdown at every stage. In the end, a few truckers refuse to let the towers move them off the highway, and there’s no one in charge to force them to move. The road is blocked, hundreds of cars are abandoned, and some people spend the entire night in their cars, out of gas with no one coming to help. Forget bowling alone. In this instance, Quebecers were freezing, alone.

I thought the reaction of Quebec society to this minor disaster was telling: it was unanimous that something should be done; that some line had been crossed and that government had to be seen to do something, and actually remedy the problem. Yet it remains extremely sensitive to criticism from outsiders. Its inability – or the inability of a large proportion of its people – to endure honest observations from outsiders is not the symptom of a healthy society.

P.S Andrew Potter has resigned from his position as head of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (March 23, 2017)