Quebec is the Canada We Should Want

A French translation of this post may be found here.

Une traduction française de ce poste peut être trouvé ici.

When I was a kid I loved maps. I loved the element of the unknown, physical and tangible representations of places I could only imagine. When I was about 8 or 9 my parents bought me a map of the world for my wall. Each country on the map was coloured to represent the official language of each nation. I have this fond recollection of an affection I had for the Canada of that map, bold in its red and blue stripes representing French and English. It might be my first memory of pride, especially as the big red blotch below us, the USA, was simply red. It wasn’t just about language, it was about unity, and diversity, and being Canadian.

As I grew up, and visited much of the country, living for many years in a few of its corners, those feelings reconciled. But in the past few months, having left Quebec after seven years and relocating to Toronto, and after being witness to the protests of Quebec students and the offensive manner in which the mainstream media has treated them as spoiled children, that notion I had of Canada as a child has dwindled a bit. And it has led me to think that Quebec, a province so often concerned with what makes it distinct from Canada, is in fact the last bastion of what I believe Canada to be, what I was raised understanding it to be, and what I saw in my reverie as I stared into the heart of those maps as a child.

The student protest is just one element of the Canada I see in Quebec. The Globe and Mail’s editorial board wrote this morning that Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s compromise with the students was “sending a message that Quebec’s social entitlements will not last forever.” They went on to describe these entitlements: $7-a-day daycare, lowest tuition in Canada, subsidized hydro-electricity, and reasonably priced pharmaceuticals. The use of the word “entitlements” was a poor choice, but one the Globe obviously choose as a slight of those who believe that such “entitlements” are an essential part of the fabric of this nation. Here, it has a negative connotation that suggests that Quebec is Canada’s petulant child. Instead, I see these as the social necessities that are fundamental to not only the human condition, but also the success of a social democracy.

The unique quality of Quebec is something that arguably grown and evolved in the past quarter decade, ironic in that the separatist movement’s greatest fear is a bastardized and assimilated Quebec. But it is a distinct society, and no Meech Lake agreement or referendum is needed to affirm that notion. Is there another part of Canada with such a distinct cuisine (I know, I know, Atlantic Canada has its seafood, and Newfoundland is full of screech soaked crazies eating ten kinds of cod. But, like, six people live down there. And they don’t have an NHL team) as Quebec’s? Tortiere, cretons, baked beans, pea soup, maple dishes, rotisserie chicken, cabanes à sucre, and bagels. Bagels! I’ve lived in Toronto for six months, and I miss bagels like the drowning miss oxygen. And don’t even get me started on poutine. Oh, La Banquise, je t’aime. Et tu me manques.

There is progression in Quebec, both socially and culturally, that is noticeably absent in the rest of Canada. Not that I don’t love the rest of this country, but in the past decade it seems to have assimilated, gentrified, and not just in adding Starbucks and Timmy’s everywhere. I believe a lot of it has to do with the ideological shift to the right, an affection for capitalism over socialism. Perhaps it’s simply the mix of French and English that give Quebec a false notion of progress. Either way, Canada was built on a foundation of social programs and nationalism, and it’s odd to me that Quebec is the one province that continues to aspire to those ideals.

In Toronto, it always seems like we’re all schmoozing, like we should go to the pub wearing our mortgages and T4s printed on our Gap tees, and that the rest of Canada is simply details. And they elected Rob Ford. Have you ever been to Calgary? It’s horrible. It’s like Houston but without good Mexican food. It’s dripping in oil and money and right-wing sensibilities. It’s whiter than a John Mayer Unplugged concert. Everybody is related to the Sutters. It’s where Stephen Harper is most comfortable. The rest of Alberta actually considered the Wildrose party, so they’re a write-off. Vancouver doesn’t count, because there’s no snow, they hockey-riot wrong, and it kind of feels like a giant outdoor mall. Manitoba has too many black flies. I don’t even know where Saskatchewan is. Twelve people live in the Northwest and Yukon, and I still have to consult a map to remind myself of which territory Whitehorse is in and which one Yellowknife is in.

I make these claims about the rest of Canada with my bilingual tongue firmly implanted in my left cheek, but in a time when newspapers and much of the rest of the country are condemning students for standing up for their “entitlements,” shouldn’t the rest of us be doing the same? And by simply stating these entitlements “are on a European model that Europe can no longer afford, and that have tipped Quebec’s finances dangerously out of balance” is taking the easy way out, as well as ignoring the many countries (Germany, Denmark, Sweden) where social values thrive within their system.

There is a richness, a depth to Quebec that is evidence of not a culture of entitlement, but rather enlightenment. A lower drinking age, dépanneurs, a Francophone celebrity culture, successful indigenous film and television industries, cheese curds in gas stations, topless lunch buffets, a uniting affection for Les Canadiens, and, yes, a long history of social protest. All of these entities are elements of a people who make demands of their government and state, not for the Quebec they believe they deserve, but rather for the Canada we need.

Instead of condemning the students for wanting their tuition to remain reasonable, why doesn’t the rest of the country stand up and demand the same thing? Instead of questioning the validity of $7-a-day daycare, why not ask why daycare in Toronto, in Edmonton, in Victoria, and in Dawson City isn’t equally affordable? The simple answer, the answer that lacks ambition or ingenuity, is that it’s an impossibility. That we live in a world where social programs are the first to be cut, because they’re the least essential. Because someone making $150K-a-year in Calgary, doesn’t give a damn about someone making $30K in Montreal. And frankly, that’s straight up bullshit. And it’s lazy. Canada was built on ambitious notions, on the steadfast belief that a country could be all things. Waving our collective finger in the nose of the Quebec students, the Quebec people, and telling them they can’t have their “entitlements” because the rest of Canada is afraid to ask for them, makes Canada the petulant child.

I always pictured Canada as this great meeting of cultures, brought together by hockey and a belief in simple social values, that a basic tenet of being Canadian was in that we believed in taking care of one another, and how we valued contributions to our culture from all corners of our society, no matter the collective expense. This is why we have universal healthcare, why tuition is subsidized, why arts funding exists, why EI exists. It’s what separates us from the animals, or at least separates us from the Americans. And as the students battle on in Quebec, I hope that the rest of the country takes notice. Like the students, we shouldn’t be afraid of asking for what we believe in, and in doing so reminding the rest of the country of how we got here in the first place.