Canada 150: Growing older — and more united?

Canada 150: Growing older — and more united?
Canada 150: Growing older — and more united?

An oversize Maple Leaf dominates a rally at Place du Canada in Montreal in support of Canadian unity in the days before the 1995 Quebec referendum. Today, Quebecers "have made tremendous strides in Canada and the rationale for sovereignty is hard to find,” says Jack Jedwab of the Association for Canadian Studies. Gordon Beck / Montreal Gazette

From the giddy euphoria of Expo 67 to the giant birthday cake on Parliament Hill cut by Queen Elizabeth II 50 years ago today, 1967 is remembered as Canada’s golden age.

It was, as the title of Pierre Burton’s book on the Centennial suggests, “The Last Good Year.”

Montreal — then Canada’s biggest city — basked in pride and optimism, with its sparkling new métro, wealth of corporate head offices and a hockey team that won the Stanley Cup in six out of nine seasons from 1965 to 1973.

All was sunshine, lollipops and rainbows, with no premonition of the language quarrels, constitutional debates and “neverendum referendums” that lay ahead.

Or was it?

It’s time to take off those rose-coloured glasses when looking back at the centennial era, says Jack Jedwab, president of the Association for Canadian Studies (ACS).

Behind the picture-perfect façade Canada presented to more than 50 million visitors at Expo, there were signs the 100-year marriage between Quebec and the rest of Canada was on the rocks in the Summer of Love.Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson ride the Minirail at Expo 67 during centennial celebrations, widely remembered as Canada's golden age.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson ride the Minirail at Expo 67 during centennial celebrations, widely remembered as Canada’s golden age. Library and Archives Canada

Anyone remember the top news story of 1967? It was not Expo, but French president Charles de Gaulle’s shout of “Vive le Québec libre!” from the balcony at Montreal city hall on July 24, 1967.

Expo organizers worried about the possibility of a terrorist attack by the separatist Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), which had planted dozens of bombs in mailboxes and federal buildings since 1963.

And that giant birthday cake? The same day Queen Elizabeth cut it, she spoke of the need to heal the growing rift between French and English Canada.

Canada’s “power and authority derives from the internal national unity and it can only be sustained and flourish if that national unity prospers,” the Queen warned in a speech to the Canadian Parliament.

Opinion polls from 1967 reveal many Canadians shared those concerns about linguistic tensions and the threat of separation, Jedwab noted.

What is the state of the union 50 years later?

To mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation this year, the ACS asked Canadians the same questions pollster Gallup Inc. asked in 1967.

Their answers — provided exclusively to the Montreal Gazette and Ottawa Citizen — might surprise you.Montreal — then Canada’s biggest city — basked in pride and optimism 50 years ago. Above, Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger and mayor Jean Drapeau, centre, at the inauguration of the métro's first car in August 1965.

Montreal — then Canada’s biggest city — basked in pride and optimism 50 years ago. Above, Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger and mayor Jean Drapeau, centre, at the inauguration of the métro’s first car in August 1965. City of Montreal Archives

After decades of constitutional angst — including the 1995 referendum, which came within a whisker of breaking up the country — Canadians today view French-English relations and the prospects of Canada surviving in its present form more positively than in the Centennial Year, Jedwab said.

“I think what it says about Canada is that we’ve overcome some pretty stormy waters and that the nature of conflict that we saw in the 1960s has evolved quite significantly,” he said.

“French Canadians, who now identify themselves as Québécois, have made tremendous strides in Canada and the rationale for sovereignty is hard to find,” he said.

The poll by Léger surveyed 1,700 Canadians by Internet panel June 16-20. Results are considered accurate within a 3.9-per-cent margin of error, 19 times out of 20.

In 1967, the Gallup polls were conducted by telephone among 700 respondents across Canada. The margin of error is not known and breakdowns by province or language are not available.

The snapshots of Canada on its centennial and sesquicentennial show Canadians today are almost twice as likely to think relations between francophones and anglophones are improving.

They are also less likely to believe that Quebecers have a very strong desire for separation.

Today, 46 per cent of Canadians think English-French relations are better than five years ago, 18 per cent say they are worse and 37 per cent don’t know.

In 1967, only 26 per cent of Canadians said English-French relations were better than five years earlier, 32 per cent said they were worse, and 42 per cent did not know.In Quebec, 49.3 per cent of residents say English-French relations have improved, while 19.2 per cent say they have worsened.

In Quebec, 49.3 per cent of residents say English-French relations have improved, while 19.2 per cent say they have worsened. Dario Ayala / Montreal Gazette

The perception of increased linguistic harmony is strongest in Quebec, where 49.3 per cent of residents say English-French relations have improved, 19.2 per cent say they have worsened and 31.6 per cent don’t know.

The province where the fewest people have noticed an improvement in English-French relations is British Columbia, where 30.8 per cent of residents think language relations have improved, 19.6 per cent think they have worsened and half don’t know.

What’s driving the more cordial feelings is not so much a rekindled passion for Canada as Quebecers’ sense that they have little to gain from separation, Jedwab said.

In the 1960s, economic inequality fuelled Quebecers’ perception of being unjustly treated, but those disparities have largely disappeared, he said.

“What we’re seeing is that the sense of grievance has really diminished since the 1960s,” he said.

That is reflected in the poll, which shows fewer Canadians think Quebecers fervently desire separation than in 1967.

Nine per cent of Canadians today think the wish for separatism is very strong among Quebecers, 35 per cent think it is fairly strong and 56 per cent think it is not very strong.

In 1967, 20 per cent of Canadians thought support for separatism was very strong in Quebec, another 20 per cent thought it was fairly strong and 59 per cent thought it was not very strong.Soldiers line a Montreal street in 1970 at the time of the October Crisis. The rise of separatism coincided with a wave of protest sweeping the western world, including the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, Jack Jedwab says.

Soldiers line a Montreal street in 1970 at the time of the October Crisis. The rise of separatism coincided with a wave of protest sweeping the western world, including the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, Jack Jedwab says. Aussie Whiting / Montreal Gazette

The new poll shows Quebecers are most likely to dismiss separatism as a political force. Only 2.9 per cent of Quebec francophones think the wish for separatism is very strong, 19.1 per cent think it is fairly strong, 71.7 per cent say it is not very strong and 6.4 per cent can’t say.

Those numbers confirm the continued decline of the fiery nationalism that took Quebec to the brink of separation in the 1980s and ’90s, Jedwab said.

It was already roiling the political landscape in October 1967, when future premier René Lévesque quit the Quebec Liberal Party to found the Mouvement souveraineté-association, a precursor to the Parti Québécois.

Fifty years later, with the PQ in third place behind the Liberals and the Coalition Avenir Québec, according to recent polls, the sovereignist option has faded, Jedwab said.

“There’s a pocket of people who badly want separation, who dream about it and would desire it imminently, but for the most part, Quebecers have adjusted to the relationship as it is,” he said.

That’s not to say Quebec nationalism is dead, but rather that it’s a softer version that no longer mobilizes deep-seated grievances to the same extent, Jedwab said.

The rise of separatism coincided with a wave of protest sweeping the western world, including the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, he noted.

“You have to remember going back to the 1960s, a lot of Quebecers saw themselves very much in line with what was happening in North America elsewhere,” he said.French president Charles de Gaulle stirred up nationalist sentiments in Quebec with his cry of “Vive le Québec libre!” from the balcony at Montreal city hall on July 24, 1967.

French president Charles de Gaulle stirred up nationalist sentiments in Quebec with his cry of “Vive le Québec libre!” from the balcony at Montreal city hall on July 24, 1967. Montreal Gazette

Separatists like FLQ member Pierre Vallières, author of Nègres blancs d’Amérique, published from prison in 1968, and poet Michèle Lalonde, who wrote Speak White the same year, did not hesitate to compare their plight to that of African Americans in the southern states.

“Economic and cultural inequality are interconnected,” Jedwab said. “There’s a strong relationship between the two, which is very potent.” 

At the time, francophones lagged behind anglophones in terms of income, education and access to management positions.

“So those are powerful agents of mobilization and they were contributing factors to why Canada was facing this great crisis that intellectuals and politicians deliberated about to the point that they created a royal commission,” he said.

The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was established in 1963 to make recommendations on “an equal partnership between the two founding races (French and English).”

After holding hearings across Canada, commissioners André Laurendeau and Davidson Dunton warned: “Everything that we have seen and heard has convinced us that Canada is going through the most critical period in its history since Confederation.”

Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, which ended religious control of education, health and social services and greatly expanded the role of the state, dramatically improved opportunities for francophones, as did the federal government’s 1969 Official Languages Act.

Their position was further consolidated by Bill 101 in 1977, which made French Quebec’s only official language.

“Here we are 50 years later,” Jedwab said.

“Now what we’re seeing is that the economic inequality thesis has really been taken off the table.”Attorney general Jean Chrétien signs the proclamation repatriating Canada's constitution while Queen Elizabeth II watches in Ottawa on April 17, 1982.

Attorney general Jean Chrétien signs the proclamation repatriating Canada’s constitution while Queen Elizabeth II watches in Ottawa on April 17, 1982. Ron Poling / The Canadian Press

However, even though Quebecers’ attachment to Canada seems more secure, Jedwab said Premier Philippe Couillard’s recent initiative to reopen the constitutional issue could backfire.

“I think that there’s a concern that these types of debates that involve the C-word risk reviving those grievances,” he said.

Meanwhile, only a quarter of Canadians are very interested in the sesquicentennial, the poll shows, compared to a third of Canadians who were very interested in the centennial celebrations in 1967.

Quebecers are even less enthusiastic, with only 8.7 per saying they are very interested.

“It’s not a love affair,” Jedwab noted. “It’s not that this removal of the grievances translated into a passionate attachment  to Canada. It’s more that people are comfortable with it.” 

And what of the next 50 years?

Quebec status aside, the Léger poll points to what could shape up as the next major challenge for Canada: its relationship with indigenous peoples.

Only 21 per cent of Canadians today think indigenous people have been well treated, down from 28 per cent in 1967.

Forty-one per cent think indigenous people have been badly treated, compared to 33 per cent in 1967. The portion who think indigenous people have been treated fairly remained stable at 26 per cent.

“It’s going to be a long-term process to address the cultural and economic inequalities that aboriginals have been encountering. It’s existed for centuries but we haven’t paid attention to it in any meaningful way until the last two or three decades,” Jedwab said.

“This is going to be a long-term process and it’s going to be more top of the agenda.”

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