Seems like a simple question, answerable with a quick peek at a map. Yet each time I return and my friends at home ask me how my trip to "Canada" was, I always hesitate for a moment and have to ask myself, "what trip to Canada?" Then I remember the map, and I mutter a colloquial reply of some sort.
But the fact is, when I'm in the province of Québec, I never really feel like I'm in Canada. When I travel to Vancouver, or Toronto, or Ottawa - yes - I know I'm in Canada. But Montréal, Québec City, Baie St. Paul? Then I'm no longer quite so sure.
And it's much more than a geographical, or 'east versus west' issue. For example, I've recently been to Texas, New York, Washington state and Arizona. Each quite different, yet each completely American. But Calgary and Trois Rivieres? Now things aren't quite so matter of fact.
I realize that I tread on a touchy subject here. After all, twice in the last 30ish years the question of Québec sovereignty has been voted on in the province; bitterly contested and narrowly defeated both times. Raise the issue in north of the border social gatherings today and faces are quick to flush, tempers flare - and a hasty change of subject is usually the result. But I've been to Canada and its province of Québec a lot, and I'd like to share some of my experiences and impressions on the subject.
The biggest difference is, of course, language. English is spoken throughout most of Canada. For Americans, a trip to Canada is more like crossing a state line than an international border. Vancouver is so like Seattle in some ways that it's easy to get momentarily confused as to which one you're actually in.
But cross the border into Québec, and suddenly it becomes very clear that you are indeed in a foreign country. The signs are in French. The newspapers, TV, radio - French. The people around you as you arrive are all (or mostly) speaking French. And suddenly, Vermont seems a million miles away instead of its actual one-hour drive from Montréal.
Officially, Canada is a bi-lingual country. 1969 saw the passing of the Official Languages Act insuring for the first time that all government services be provided in both French and English. And the Law 101 makes French the official language of the province of Québec. But the bi-lingualism only goes so far.
Ask a question in English anywhere in Montreal and you are 99% certain to receive a response in French-accented English. But ask a question in French anywhere in Calgary, or Regina, or Winnipeg - and you are 99% certain to be met with a blank stare.
So is Canada really bi-lingual? Well - a large percentage of the citizens of Québec do speak, at the very least, functional English. Indeed, in public areas of Montréal you can expect fluency. But very, very few Canadians living in the other provinces speak any French whatsoever. Rien. So, in my experience, the answer is - it depends on where you are. As I heard someone say at a francophone dinner party in Montréal once - Yeah, Canada is bi-lingual - because we have to speak English.
A Culture of Difference
When I lived in South-Central LA in the early 70's, I was certainly in the USA - but I was also in a place few white Americans ever came to, or knew anything about. Yet everyone who lives in South-Central LA (no matter which city it's in) knows everything about "America". I get that same feeling when I'm on le plateau Mont-Royal in Montréal, or the neighborhoods of Québec City, or any number of other places in the province of Québec.
And francophone Québecers largely feel the same. Canadians from other provinces are referred to as "the English". The sense of differentness is everywhere in Québec. I've been to Montréal 16 times in the last several years - and I can count on one hand the number of Canadian flags I've seen. But the blue and white flag of Québec with the fleur de lis is everywhere.
Language and culture are inseparable. And I can certainly feel a much greater affinity between Paris and Québec City than the latter has with Regina.
Québec has something else in-common with the South-Central LA's of the US; a sense of differentness born of being second-class citizens. And that's only natural given its history.
In a very real sense, Québec remains an un-digested element of British colonial expansion. Québec, by losing a war, was subjected to British/Canadian political control - but it has always proudly guarded its unique linguistic and cultural identity. In-fact, the French spoken in Québec sounds more like that of Louis IV than that of modern-day Paris. And this is precisely because the linguistic integrity of Québec's French has been so zealously guarded from the assault of the sea of English surrounding it. Québec's isolation created a linguistic time-capsule of sorts.
And in many ways, Québec is more French than France herself. Come to a street corner anywhere in France and you see a Stop sign. Do the same in Québec and the sign says Arrêt. In France you send an email; in Québec un courriel. And there are many more examples like this. All manifestations of Québecers vigilance in protecting their culture & language from the cultural force of its Anglo neighbors.
For most of its history in Canada, Québec has felt the sting of language discrimination and something less than full social inclusion. As a result, Québec's population was poorer and less integrated into national life than the citizens of any other province until quite recently. Something black Americans can definitely relate to. Maybe that's why I always have a sub-sense of familiarity with everything Québécois.
So is Québec really Canadian? Well, of course the answer is yes in formal political and economic terms. And the question of sovereignty is certainly not a topic of serious discussion anywhere in Canada today - including Québec.
But neither is it dead. Many still wish for it - someday - while accepting the facts on the ground of today. And even those Québecers who do not dream of sovereignty and are proudly Canadian, are at least equally proud of their unique culture and language.
On my latest trip to Montréal, two of the biggest news stories were about Prime-Minister Harper's appointment of a communications chief who does not speak French, and a campaign to suppress the encroachment of English into public signs in downtown Montréal. And it seemed the near universal reaction to both stories across the province was a sense of exasperated acceptance that their guard can never be let down.
So - Yes - Montréal and the rest of Québec is Canadian. If you look hard enough, you might even find a Canadian flag there to prove it. But cultural vigilance, provincial pride, and a deep sense of uniqueness are center-pieces of life for les Québécois - and The English forget this at their peril.