We had both been late getting to the food court, and the lunch crowd had thinned out considerably. A good thing too, as our conversation turned out to be longer than usual, probably because we weren't feeling the subtle but persistent pressure of people standing around with trays in their hands, waiting for us to finish our lunch and get out so that they could have a place to sit down.
Just what we had to eat I can't remember -- we were too busy talking. Actually, in my case, mostly listening. Jack had done most of the talking.
It'd been a week in which Quebec politics had been in the news. So I asked him: "You're a Quebecois, Jack, give me the low-down."
"First of all," replied Jack, "let me set you straight: I'm a Quebecker, not a Quebecois."
I said "But you were born in Quebec!"
"Yes," said Jack, "but that doesn't make me a Quebecois. A Quebecois is someone with long time roots in Quebec. My parents came from France. So I'm just a Quebecker."
I said "That seems a small point."
"Maybe," said Jack, "but to the dyed-in-the-wool separatist, it makes all the difference in the world. To be a real Quebecois, you have to be pure-laine -- you have to be of French descent and your family has had to live here for many generations."
"How many generations?" I asked.
"I don't think they've decided on a precise number," said Jack. "Actually, there's something funny about that pure-laine business."
"How so?" I asked.
"Don't quote me on this," said Jack, although he should know better, "but I have it on good authority that there was a lot of marriage and cohabitation as well as begetting, by the early French settlers and the native population. According to my source most French-Canadians have some Indian blood in them. If that's so, there aren't too many pure-laine Quebecois around."
"Now that you've set me straight on that point," I said, "tell me about the current state of tension between Ottawa and Quebec." Jack knows I gave up reading newspapers and watching or listening to TV or radio newscasts on my 70th birthday. He was ready to fill me in.
"If I can put your mind at rest," said Jack, "Quebec will never separate."
I asked "How can you be sure?"
"Actually, let me rephrase that: if Ottawa plays its cards right, and isn't afraid to step on a few toes, Quebec won't want to separate, won't be able to separate, or if it does, it won't be much of a country."
I said "You speak in mysteries, Jack. Please expatiate."
Jack did. At length. "What do you know about the history of Canada?" Jack asked.
I replied that I'd landed in Canada just before my 16th birthday, and that I'd missed quite a bit of high school history.
"Let me educate you," said Jack. "Let's just focus on Quebec. Originally the province was only a small strip along the St Lawrence. At various times Quebec was granted more territory. The last acreage it got was in the 1920s, I think, when the government gave it what amounts to the upper half of what is now the province of Quebec. The interesting thing is that the legislation states that Quebec gets this territory 'AS A PROVINCE OF CANADA.'"
I said "You mean, that Quebec would have to give it back if it was no longer a province?"
"That's only reasonable, don't you think?" said Jack. "There's another aspect to this: If Quebec can separate from Canada, the Cree and Inuit should be able to separate too: they've been in that part of Quebec a lot longer than the Quebec government, and no one can deny that they have their own cultures and languages and that they are 'nations.'"
"Another thing," continued Jack, "Harper, a while back, called the 'Quebecois' a 'nation' but didn't bother to spell out what he meant. It certainly doesn't apply to all Quebeckers -- the English, the Italians, Chinese, all the earlier or later immigrant groups -- pink, yellow or black -- for instance. And what about the Francophone populations of New Brunswick, Ontario, and Manitoba, for instance, don't they belong to that nation, even if they aren't in living in Quebec? Harper only muddied the waters, in my opinion."
I said "One more nation or less won't make much difference."
Jack got a puzzled look in his eyes.
I said "At last count I think there are about 50 Indian 'nations' in Canada, so adding another nation to the mix shouldn't trouble anyone."
"Hmm," was Jack's only response.
I said "If the northern part of Quebec stays with Canada, at least there would be a geographic continuity between the various parts of the true north strong and free. It's impossible to hold a country together if parts of it are separated by another country. Just look at what happened to Pakistan: it didn't take long for Bangladesh to go its own way. I suppose the Atlantic provinces would join the US. I know there was talk of that in the last century. And similar noises have been heard from Alberta and B.C."
"Trust me," said Jack, "it won't come to that. The federal government has a lot of arrows in its quiver that it hasn't shown yet. For one thing, the feds have said they won't accept the results of just any wishy-washy question on a possible referendum, unlike the previous one which you could interpret anyway you wanted to. It will insist on a clearly worded one: none of this sovereignty-association -- nobody, not even the PQ -- knew what that meant.
"Moreover no country with any sense and self-respect would allow a referendum where 50% plus one vote could decide the result. That's placing the outcome in the foolish hands of chance: someone forgetting to set his or her alarm clock could decide whether Quebec separates or not. Most countries that have a workable democracy require at least a two-thirds vote for any major change, like overcoming a presidential veto, or a constitutional amendment. And separatists would never garner 66.6% of the popular vote."
"What about the point that Quebec has never signed on to the Constitution?" I asked.
"What about it? Did anyone seriously think that Levesque's separatist government would sign on the dotted line when that document was ratified? Besides, just because one of the parties doesn't sign, that doesn't mean it has to separate. If I remember correctly, one of the Swiss Cantons has never accepted the Swiss constitution. And Bavaria that has never signed the German constitution. Yet neither has made any noise about separating."
"So according to you it looks as if Canada is going to stay together for a while yet," I said.
"Hold on," said Jack, "I'm not through yet. If I were the federal government, I'd want to make sure I had all exits covered. For one thing, a corridor through the Ungava linking Ontario to Labrador might be good, but it would be a costly proposition to build roads and railways and to keep them open in winter. Much better to have a connection in the south." Jack paused, expecting an interjection.
I didn't disappoint him: "Just what do you have in mind?" asked.
Jack replied with a rhetorical question "Who has the power to make provinces? Only the federal government!"
I said "Jack, you can't just go around making provinces."
Jack said "I can tell you haven't been following the news. Ever hear of Nunavut? That was created a few years ago from the Northwest Territories. So, why not chop up Quebec into several clearly identifiable regions. For instance the Outaouais, the South Shore including the Eastern Townships, Montreal Island, the Ungava, and the North Shore including Quebec City and the Saguenay-Lac St Jean area all the way to Labrador. Five new provinces instead of the old one."
I objected again: "You can't go making Montreal Island a province. It isn't big enough!"
"Oh," said Jack, "is there a minimum size for a province now? What about Prince Edward Island? That's small, and besides, it has a population of only about one-tenth of that of Montreal Island. The Outaouais would never vote separatist, and neither would the Eastern Townships, so you'd pretty well have your Southern corridor to the Atlantic provinces. Mind you, the Cree and Inuit might vote to separate, but that's another matter."
I said "I notice that you don't say what would happen to the Saguenay-Lac St Jean area. That's the heartland of separatism. Surely they'd vote all the harder FOR an independent Quebec."
"You're probably right. On the other hand, considering the breakup of Quebec, it might give them pause to reconsider. Still, it might be nice to have a small, picturesque, independent country close by. A nice place to visit to absorb pure Quebecois culture. Think of it as an equivalent to St Pierre-Miquelon's French culture."
I said "But what about Santa Claus?"
"What about Santa Claus?" asked Jack.
I said "Santa lives in Quebec ... check his postal code: H0H 0H0. That's in Quebec."
"I never thought about that," said Jack. "Instead of HO HO HO, we'll have to come up with something that starts with an X -- that's the Nunavut postal region that includes the North Pole. Now if we used Spanish, we could write X0X 0X0, which sounds almost the same as Ho Ho Ho. Let me think about that and get back to you. Where were we?"
I said "You were chopping up Quebec. Don't you think that this would appear to be a rather cynical approach to the problem? What about the other provinces, just to show that it wasn't only Quebec separatists you were gunning for?"
"I don't think you could avoid that impression," said Jack. "On the other hand, I think the federal government could do a little more geographical surgery. For instance, I think Northern Ontario has always got a raw deal. Make it a new province, with Thunder Bay as its capital. You could also make Vancouver island a province and keep Victoria as the capital. And just to spite Vancouver, make Prince George the Mainland's capital. I haven't thought about Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Leave them as is, I suppose, for the time being."
"So, all in all you say we don't have anything to worry about?" I asked.
"Yes we do," said Jack. "I'm afraid the federal government is too chicken shit to talk about these things. Even Trudeau never challenged de Gaulle about his "Vive Le Quebec Libre." Trudeau should have gone to France and shouted 'Vive La Bretagne Libre!, Vive les Basques Libres!, Vive la Corse Libre!, Vive la Catalagne Libre!' Hell there are more separatist groups in France than you can shake a baguette at! I wonder how de Gaulle would have liked that!"
"No, the folks in power nowadays in Ottawa prefer to hope that the problem will just go away. Well, it won't ... at least not in my lifetime."
I said: "That gives us another maybe twenty, thirty years in our lifetimes -- mine and yours, respectively."
"By then," said Jack, "I'd expect there to be other problems to worry about."
I said "And of course, there's always the chance that we won't have any problems at all ... ever," I said.
"Or some VERY, VERY big ones," said Jack, making the sign of the cross.
Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.
Click above to tell a friend about this article.