Friday, September 13, 2013

History of the national and the social

In his thinking about Quebec history from New France to recent decades, my old professor Fernand Ouellet used to come back to what he referred to as "the social" and "the national."

The social, broadly speaking, referred to the tensions and conflicts between various socio-economic groups in Quebec: the seigneurs versus the peasants, the merchants and professionals versus the workers and farmers, and so on.  The national, broadly speaking, was French versus English.  Ouellet thought the social was the important conflict, but often obscured by the national.  So in the tensions running up to the rebellions of 1837-38, the profound grievances were social: peasants oppressed by overcrowding, declining yields, high rents, obsolescent practices... but the political leadership, mostly professionals and seigneurs none too keen to address those problems, focussed attention on the national:  the maudit anglais.

The Parti Québécois has had a long run balancing the social and the national, keeping progressives and conservatives behind it by an emphasis on both. With some notable lapses:  Lucien Bouchard's demogogic nous sommes opprimés, nous sommes humiliés. Successful enough, however, that until recently, despite the progressive side of Quebec politics, it never had a social democratic party other than the PQ/BQ.

Premier Marois's new Charter of Values seems like the triumph of the national within the PQ ("We cannot have a country if there are all sorts of Québécois." one of her aides is quoted as saying).  But it is fascinating to see the profound and principled opposition coming from the progressive elements that survive in the PQ and the BQ, from old separatists who don't want to live in Pauline Marois's country.

Update, September 16:  Molly Ungar recalls more of the Ouellet analysis, from his time teaching at York in Toronto:
His observation that “Montreal was and is where all the action is” has proved to be accurate many times over the years, and is just as correct today in the wake of the Charter of Values as it was in the mid-19th century. The Quebec Catholic Church was unable to neutralize the continually modernizing culture of Montreal, and the PQ has never been able to neutralize the continuing diversification of Montreal’s culture. As Montreal goes, so goes the province, and what we’re seeing unfold in Quebec is yet another attempt to reverse this process.
 Professor Ouellet’s fascination with the economic implication of food culture also led to months of confusion, as his discussion of “politos” remained a mystery to me until I realized that he was explaining one of his favourite historical paradoxes – the habitants’ aversion to eating potatoes.

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