Thursday, October 27, 2005

"A Sophisticated Waitress"

I was going to talk about the mayoral race here in Montreal on this post, but I'm too pissed off by the separatist reaction to the appointment of Michaëlle Jean to the position of Governor-General of Canada.

The Governor-General is the symbolic head of state of Canada, representing the link between the Prime Minister and the Head of England. Originally, the Governor actually was the head of state, first of Québec after the British won it from France, then of both Upper and Lower Canada in the Constitutional Act of 1791 (which can be seen as the political birth of Canada as a nation). The Governor ruled over all the British holdings in North America, ran the military and was responsible for calling the assemblies into session. He also had a supreme veto power. This lasted until the British North America Act in 1867, when Canada became an independent nation and the position of Governor-General only symbolic. The Governor-General still gives final approval to laws, but it is a ceremonial gesture today.

During the period between the Treaty of Paris (when France gave up Canada) and the BNA Act, the Governor did a lot of things to oppress the French (who increasingly became a minority as Canada grew west and waves of english immigration arrived). Very generally, as you look at the evolution of the Canadian political structure, you can see how it slowly worked to take or hold power from the french (this is 150 years of political history right there, so I won't go into it, but it's pretty interesting). Specifically, there were several acts of violent repression, such as the hanging of 12 patriotes after the rebellions of 1837-38. I point this out to show that there is a real history behind the french-canadian resistance to the continued existence of the Governor-General's position.

Today, the job has morphed into a de facto Canadian ambassador to the world. The previous Governor-General, Adrienne Clarkson was a big promoter of the arts, though she got into some trouble for accusations of excessive spending. The new Governor-General, Michaëlle Jean, was appointed several months ago. She's Haitian-born, who came to Québec as a young girl and had a succesful career as a newscaster for Radio-Canada. She also has a long C.V. of doing good things for the world.

Her appointment caused some minor furor here in Québec, a furor that has still not yet died down. First of all, she was seen in a documentary from the 80s, at a dinner party with a bunch of separatists, toasting to their success. She responded to that saying she didn't believe in nationalism of any kind. Now that that has settled down, all different francophone editorialists are attacking her. Her husband was interviewed on the radio show Indicatif Présent and the following guest, Denise Bombardier, a writer and journalist, attacked his position and called Jean a "sophisticated waitress". There have been similar editorials in the papers, calling the couple traitors and accusing them of capitulating their views for status and power.

Clearly, I recognize the historical significance of the role to the French. But that part of history is over. The french lost the war. They were oppressed by the victors. This is normal, though not good. The oppression went too far and since we live in a democracy, was forced to bounce back. Today, Québec is freed from the bounds of english oppression. One may argue that it suffers (very loose use of the word "suffer" here) under the federal government, but within the province, the french are a powerful and succesful majority, with a thriving culture and economy. This is all good.

What the french need to do now, especially the bitter old-school separatists, is to throw off the chains of resentment and bitterness. They should be proud of Michaëlle Jean. She's a daughter of Québec's succesful social structure. She came here as a poor immigrant and through her own talents and will and the support of the province, has done extremely well. She's hot, sophisticated and stylish. She speaks 5 languages and makes Canada and Québec look super cool. She went to a high school in inner-city Winnipeg and talked straight to the students, actually getting them to listen. She also makes the many Haitian immigrants to Canada extremely proud and it is an insult to them for her to be disparaged. Fight for your independence if you still feel it's necessary, but don't vent your personal angers on someone who is going to do good for the world, for Canada and for Québec.

[Aside: I really appreciate the positive comments from the few readers who don't actually know me. I will try to answer your specific questions as they arise. There are some great Canadian blogs out there, that I'm just starting to discover and I'd love to be a part of that community, so spread the word!]

1 comment:

Olivier said...


"There have been similar editorials in the papers, calling the couple traitors and accusing them of capitulating their views for status and power."

Yes and no. I think you are confusing three very different reactions into one, the most marginal of those.

The first reaction was the one channeled and fueled from the very "pure laine" ("dyed in the wool"?) paper "Le Québécois", wich was then reported in Le Devoir. It goes the way you say: these guys (don't forget Jean-Daniel Laffond; he's pretty well known by himself) are traitors to the cause, turncoats, etc etc etc... Tarp and feathers and out of here...

The second reaction is making a point of saying that, altough they certainly have no problems with Michaëlle Jean, they do have trouble with the Governor General function, here presented as a bona fide reigning party boombox. That function, with its monarchic roots, is deemed incompatible with a modern democracy and certainly permeable to partisan politics trough an unelected position of prestige.

The third rection is one of pure pragmatism: sure the position is not very democratic at its core, but with good people manning it, much good can come out of it. Adrienne Clarkson showed how true it was, Michaëlle Jean certainly can do at least as much as her predecessor. It is, tough, still noted that the GG has been recently used less as a diplomatic function (wich is what it was up to Roméo Leblanc, I think), and more of a representative of canadianeness to canadians. On these premises, it certainly isn't acceptable to attack Jean and her husband the way they were.

Those last two are, I think, covering the vast majority if Quebecers understanding of the whole situation. I think there is also a couple of other things to be said, but I'll go schematic (I should start my own blog and post an essay...):

-Laffond had it coming. He's been a regular at "Indicatif Présent" (a very popular radio show on the french CBC radio) and he wasn't exactly an energetic promoter of cultural sovereignty and canadian unity. His explanations are certainly credible and wholly acceptable, but he's going overboard when he carps about how horrendous an experience it was; those mud slingers were widely frowned upon.

-Denise Bombardier is a pretty controversial figure, but I think you are overreaching with the whole historical aspect. It really is about the way things are working here and now, anyway, for the vast majority of Quebecers.

-Michaëlle Jean, as respected as she is, already went pretty far when talking about the canadian "solitudes" and stuff like that. In Québec politics, if you go out and wax poetics on how every body should work together for the greater good of humanity (or Canada, or Québec), you are in for a ride. Immediatly, commentators, analyst and everyone else will try to see which agenda you are trying to push. I see that as a good thing; It keeps the rhetorics at a sane level.