Charles J. Balesi

Charles J. Balesi

In 1976, the Parti Québécois won the elections and Rene Levesque became premier. Quebec nationalism now had found its voice. The following year Bill 101, “The Charter of the French Language” became law, making French Quebec’s official language. The law introduced a series of measures eliminating or considerably restricting the use of English which, infiltrating like weeds in a garden too long neglected, had invaded and threatened to destroy Quebec’s uniqueness.

In 1980, the Quebec government submitted to referendum a plan for sovereignty-association with Canada; it was rejected. The defeat led to an eventual return to power of the Parti Liberal. It tried to maintain some sort of compromise between nationalists and federalists attempting negotiations for some devolution of power from Ottawa with no success.

Back in power in 1995, the Parti Québécois held a second referendum on sovereignty. It lost but only by a slim margin. And, once again, the Liberal Party returned to power; although still against all degrees of separation it found itself in several instances crossing swords with the federal government. In 2017, In a timid way to endorse the long existing aspiration of a sizable part of the people of Quebec, the Liberal Prime Minister of Quebec proposed a document with the ambivalent title of “Quebecois, our way of being Canadians”. His proposal was “dead on arrival,” in Ottawa and, once again on Oct. 1, 2018, the electorate returned to power that stubborn opposition to the status quo with the victory of a new movement, the Coalition Avenir Québec, or CAQ.

Founded in 2012 by a Francois Legault, a former member of the Nationalist Parti Québécois, CAQ while adopting a more gradual approach still hardly hides its goal for increased autonomy. In three years since becoming Quebec Premier, François Legault political acumen has scored a series of victories making of the original 1960’s slogan “Masters in their own House” an increasing reality…

Like Jack Webb in the 1950s and ‘60s Television series Dragnet, let “Just the facts…” speak for themselves, Premier Legault had Quebec National Assembly passed bills which deeply modified the political landscape.

Bill 21, which became law in Quebec on March 29, 2019, was the first to affirm that the “State of Quebec is a lay [secular] State.” As in France where secularism has been a fundamental law since 1905, it bans wearing religious garb (such as turban or veil) or religious symbols by public employees, and affirms “the State religious neutrality.” It is in complete contradiction about the laissez-faire in the Canadian provinces. Bill 9, which became law on June 18, 2019, wrestled more power from Ottawa in the domain of immigration, favoring applicants who speak French.

Out of a National Assembly of 125, the CAQ is in a position of strength, enjoying a solid majority with 74 seats, plus the support of 10 seats held by the PQ and 10 others by Quebec Solidaire, a socialist and also nationalist political faction. Rather than confronting Ottawa head-on with the non-starter of sovereignty, it slowly but surely increases, for Quebec’s 8.5 million people, a legal framework proper and unique. Added all together, the new laws provide the stepping stones for an eventual self-governing status.

Adding Bill 96 with the wording which recognizes Quebec as a nation with French as its only language to the Canadian Constitution, Premier Legault used one of the constitution’s provisions which states that “each provincial legislature has the legal power to unilaterally amend parts of the Constitution, namely those touching on certain issues affecting only their province.” Trudeau agreed, no doubt hoping that by finally giving up longstanding opposition to such an amendment will only have a symbolic effect while once and for all, satisfying Quebecois ego, with absolutely no legal consequence. Hopefully to Trudeau, this amendment will not turn out to be a Trojan horse.

For most Americans, this confrontation between two cultures, two histories, two people seem quite arcane. Quebec is part of North America and many Americans cannot understand while in that corner, on the northeast, people insist on being different, on cherishing the heritage from a France that long ago, after defeat abandoned them. Why they don’t they give up and switch to English?

Yet the Quebecois are not the only ones who refuse to let their own heritage die. Ireland conquered by England in the 16th century rose again in the 20th. Scotland crushed at Culloden in 1746 is poised to reclaim her independence.

And we could cite many more: my own fellow Corsicans, conquered by France in 1759, six months before Napoleon was born, who after forty years of fruitless armed struggle, turned to the ballot box with much more success; the Catalans, the Basques, the Walloons and the people of Flanders unhappily sharing the same Belgium. The list is long of these “Nations without a State” aspiring recognition, perhaps a reaction to globalization.

For Quebec and Canada, in the long run, an association of sorts, two nations being on equal terms, could be the best of solutions. One does not re-write history, but modifying its impact is always possible.

On June 24, Quebec will celebrate Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day its national holiday since 1977; outside its borders, it will be an opportunity for its large diaspora to rekindle its ties with the land that their ancestors had to leave.

In the area where resides most of The Journal readership, thousands are descended from these hardy who came by boat and wagon to the banks of the Kankakee River. They are our friends, our neighbors. Some are named Trudeau, Arseneau, Menard, Blanchette, Ponton, Duschene, Benoit. The mayor of Bourbonnais, Paul Shore, is a Gregoire by his mother.

For them, and for all of our fellow citizens who, like myself, do not trace their ancestry to Quebec but share an identical passion for history, I hope that this year celebration of Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day will have a special meaning.

Dr. Charles J. Balesi is the author of “The Time of The French in the Heart of North America, 1671-1818.” He served as elected representative of the French expatriates for the 13 states of the Midwest within the French legislative system. He is now promotes the French Heritage Corridor from the banks of the Mississippi to the Great Lakes.