Monday, September 01, 2014

George-Etienne Cartier's 200th birthday 1

George-Etienne Cartier does not have the bicentennial industry that has grown up around John A. Macdonald. In Quebec he lacks nationalist cachet. In English-Canada he's often assumed to be merely the useful sidekick to the boss.

In anticipation of his bicentenary anniversary, September 6, 1814, six things about Cartier over the next six days.

1.  "A French-Canadian is an Englishman who speaks French"

It sounds like the most cringing, self-abnegating thing a Quebecker could say. Surely identity begins with the understanding that a French-Canadian is not an Englishmen.

But Cartier like to say this in England, in the presence of the Queen, of British aristocrats and gentlemen, and he surely intended the saying to discomfit them, not his own compatriots.

In 19th century Britain, British statesmen like to speak of the "rights of Englishmen."  There was not a lot of belief in universal human rights (Look where they got the French Revolutionaries, egad!). Instead, there was a comfortable understanding that the common law, parliamentary democracy, and most of the essential freedoms were peculiarly English achievements, more or less unavailable to Europeans and other breeds. There was some understanding that English colonists in British North America (and elsewhere) had carried the rights of Englishmen with them, but surely it hardly applied to colonized Frenchmen.

Here lay the radical challenge in Cartier's aphorism. He was asserting that as a Canadian, as a British North American, he (and all his fellow French-Canadians) enjoyed all the same rights of Englishmen enjoyed by anglophone British North Americans -- and by the English themselves. Among a crowd of snobbish bigoted English gentlemen, he was announcing he was their equal, with political rights equal to theirs.

Quoted in 21st century Quebec, Cartier's phrase is not likely to be well received.  Quoted in a London salon in the 1860s, it must have been confrontational to the point of being revolutionary.
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