Backgrounder for Maîtres Chez Nous

With my play opening soon, I thought it might be useful to provide some background for those who need more to understand what motivated the desire among the francophone community in Quebec to consider separating from Canada.

Conflicts between English and French have been part of Canada’s history since well before confederation. In the 20th century, the forced conscription of French Canadians was a flashpoint that erupted in violent demonstrations in Montreal and elsewhere. Francophones saw little reason to support England in a war thousands of miles away. Technically, they were in fact subjects of the crown, but emotionally, had no ties to the monarchy or England itself. The war fever that gripped English Canada with a sense of duty and honour completely escaped the majority of French-speaking citizens. When conscription forced them to join the army and fight in miserable conditions, they were often openly hostile to their commanders, and the growing list of casualties prompted their family members at home to protest, sometimes violently.

In the second world war, the Canadian Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, remembering the problems caused by conscription, managed to hold off introducing it until the very end, when the war was all but over.

Beginning in the 1960’s, large numbers of Quebec francophones we’re moving to Montreal for an education and better jobs. They could see that the majority of high paying jobs were held by Anglophones, who for the most part could not communicate effectively in French. They started to assert themselves. The Quebec government of the day was committed to improving the lot of the Francophone majority. One of the prominent ministers in that government, René Lévesque, took the bold step of nationalizing Hydro Quebec, a precursor of things to come. This government, in spite of such actions was still considered too moderate by a small minority of Francophones, who wanted nothing short of a revolution, and were prepared to resort to violence. Their actions eventually led them, in the autumn of 1970, to kidnap a British diplomat and a Quebec cabinet minister. The latter was eventually killed, which led the federal government to declare the War Measures Act, an extraordinary move in peacetime, one that is still seen by many as excessive. This whole affair was known as the October Crisis, and the shock of the assassination antagonized most Canadians to such a degree, that even committed sovereignists realized they needed to back off pushing their agenda of separation from Canada. For a while, at least.

René Lévesque continued to work quietly behind the scenes to build a new Parti Québécois, with the intention of persuading a doubtful population that they could form a responsible government that would not, upon being elected, push hard for independence from Canada. Eventually the strategy worked, and in 1976, where our play begins, they were elected with a majority of seats in the Quebec legislature. And they were good on their promise, managing the province with a sound economic policy. Towards the end of their first mandate, however, they realized this was not enough to keep them in power. Separatist sentiment continued to grow, and so Lévesque told the voters that, if re-elected, he would put the issue to a vote in a referendum. Again, he made good on his word, the referendum date being announced shortly after the election.

What happened as a result of the ongoing conflict is encapsulated by the play’s narrator as the action progresses. The profiles provided here, along with additional materials provided by teachers, should serve well to prepare students for an enjoyable and memorable live theatre experience.

Key politicians

René Levesque – Considered one of Quebec’s most influential politicians. He sought better living and working conditions for all Quebeckers, but especially wanted to elevate the status of Francophones. He believed sovereignty to be the best way to achieve this, and was widely respected for his commitment to this ideal, even by many of those who opposed him. He retained his humility, even as he attained more power, and could be as comfortable discussing issues with ordinary working class people as with businessmen and politicians. This, in addition with his passion for Quebec, endeared him to the public.

Jean Lesage – Premier of Quebec 1960-1966. He appointed René Levesque and Pierre Laporte, both journalists who had been harsh critics of the previous regime, to his cabinet. Credited with empowering the so-called Quiet Revolution, whereby Quebec francophones came to demand more privileges in a province where they made up an overwhelming majority. Laporte, widely respected, was eventually kidnapped and killed by radical separatists during the 1970 October Crisis.

Lo Pierre Trudeau – Throughout most of his 16 years as Prime Minister, from 1968-1984, depended heavily on votes from Quebec to hold onto power. Recognizing growing discontent among francophones, he introduced official bilingualism, requiring all federal institutions to provide services in both official languages across Canada. Sovereignists in Quebec regarded this as window dressing, and mocked the half-hearted efforts of many anglos, who were sent on language training for weeks or months with marginal improvement in ability to communicate in French. Meanwhile, Quebec introduced Bill 101 to ensure French would be promoted above English in business and commerce. Many regard Trudeau’s efforts to defend Canada during the first referendum campaign as his finest hour. Sadly, his repatriation of the constitution without Quebec, less than two years after the referendum, reinvigorated the push for sovereignty.

Brian Mulroney – Canadian Prime minister 1984 – 1993. Mulroney came to power with one of the largest majorities in history, but his party was reduced to two seats after his resignation, reflecting widespread disappointment among English and French voters with his government. One of his major failings was the Meech Lake accord, an attempt to win Quebec approval for the repatriated constitution. Initially signed onto by all the provinces, it crumbled during the ratification process and was never instituted, increasing a sense of disenfranchisement among francophones in Quebec, and thus providing the momentum for a second referendum.

Jacques Parizeau – Appointed as Finance Minister in the first PQ government, established himself as an able administrator and intellectual. He pushed hard for the first referendum, and resigned after its defeat and Levesque’s failure to sufficiently promote sovereignty in the aftermath. He became Premier in time to lead Quebec into the second referendum campaign. He reacted bitterly to the second defeat, blaming the loss on “money and the ethnic vote”, referring to large corporations and new immigrants who could see no value to them personally in having Quebec separate from Canada.

Lucien Bouchard- Appointed to Brian Mulroney’s cabinet, he supported the Meech Lake accord initially, then opposed it after the provinces demanded significant changes. He resigned from the party and formed the Bloc Québécois , a federal party aligned the the Quebec Parti Québécois. He entered the campaign for the Yes side in the second referendum, quickly becoming the chief spokesman. In this, he demonstrated impressive oratorical skills, bringing new life and enthusiasm to the sovereignists. After the vote, he became Premier of Quebec, promising another referendum when he could foresee an opportunity. This never happened, largely because most politicians and the voting public had tired of constitutional wrangling, and just wanted to get back to business as usual. With little incentive to stay on, Bouchard resigned to take up a successful business career.

Additional notes that could be used in class discussion :

The term “Yvette” was used by the Parti Québécois in an attempt to gain support among female voters. The term caught on, but in time worked against the party, as many women were proud of their more traditional roles as homemaker and mothers, and started proudly declaring themselves to be Yvettes.

René Levesque started out as a journalist, and a very good one at that. Many believe his commitment to sovereignty had its roots in the stories of corruption that he uncovered involving politicians, the Catholic Church, and the business establishment, which, until the Quiet Revolution of the 60’s, was dominated by Anglos from Upper Canada and the U.S.

Montreal had its finest hour in 1967, hosting Expo 67, one of the most celebrated world’s fairs ever. It also brought a lot of tourism and other business to the city, which was seen as a modern and progressive place to live and work, with a spanking new Métro, dozens of first class restaurants and a vibrant culture, with roots in French Canada. The afterglow of Expo continued for several years, bringing a burgeoning sense of pride to Montreal and its citizenry. What happened after the election of the Parti Québécois is an example of how a fear of the unknown tore at the fabric of unity between English and French. The city declined rapidly as a centre of business and culture. Politicians of both federalist and national persuasion used this fear as a catalyst to support their cause. Several desperate attempts to bridge the gap simply worsened the situation, making the 1995 referendum a pivotal moment in Canadian history.

There is reference in the play to the “language law”, more formally known as Bill 101. This law was another wedge pitting English against French. Many largely Anglo communities were forced to change their signage to emphasize French literally above English. In the Ottawa-Hull region, for many years, real estate was cheaper on the Quebec side because of the political instability centred around whether Quebec would separate. This led to painfully long commutes across the Ottawa river, which is still the case today.

Published by rstoltz48

Playwright living in Ottawa, Canada. My first play was produced November 2019 in Wakefield (La Pêche), Quebec

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