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Energy for a new society.

MONTREAL -- Well, here we are, looking for Quebec's personality. We've been looking for it for years now, so there's not really any way to stop. The quest is its own field of study now, and here is this war, this low-intensity World War Three, on for a month, a single month as I write. Testing the personality, stretching it, changing it and showing its unchanging aspects.

The night the bombardments approached, there was a tension in the air such as I do not remember, even in the October Crisis. In the summer, I had felt similar tension as the shooting between the Mohawks and the Army kept threatening to start, and didn't quite start. But then, I felt isolated; only a few others seemed really to feel how historic it was, how unjust.

Now, I felt that everyone around me felt humanity walking toward its destruction.

"You know," one friend said, "human civilization had it beginnings in Iraq, in what we now call Iraq. Now it seems the End may come from Iraq too."

The friend was 20 and was up to her neck in demonstrations, tracts, meetings, coordinating committees. There had been an extraordinary awakening among the 15 to 20 year olds.

The high schools had emptied into the streets, the cold open space before the Quebec Parliament had filled with kids. The slogans were there: LA CHAIR A CANON DIT NON, the cannon-fodder refuses to be cannon-fodder. The images, the marching hammers from Pink Floyd's film on the regimentation of youth, The Wall. The metre-high letters from the John Lennon work IMAGINE, each letter held by a separate demonstrator and each coloured by a hundred purple and green hand-prints.

At the same time the universities have been very slow to move, and my friend tells of a guy standing up on a cafeteria table at laval and delivering a finely-hewn anti-war speech and having to look around the room at indifferent faces that went on eating yogurt. Acceptance of also a big feature of today's Quebec.

Waiting, seeing; looking to leaders, hoping the absence of leaders; waiting to learn what to think from the television screen.

And yet, this is a decisive time for Quebec. N'est-ce pas?

Think of this:

Quebec is feeling less attached to Canada than at any time since Louis Riel. Public opinion polls routinely register more than half the population ready for sovereignty.

At this very moment, Canada imposes on Quebec the thing which, always and ever, and going back way beyond the Quiet Revolution, has been most unacceptable to Quebec: war. and the prospect of her sons (and even daughters, in this day of coed armies) being drafted and sent to die in war.

Add to this that the high-techness of war has now, also for the first time in history, created the custom of sending dead soldiers back in plastic bags, and hence of their funerals being held in their home parishes, and not on some foreign soil. This is an explosive development. Even if the war tap were to be suddenly turned off, it would be that.

But the quality, the likely shape, of the explosion, is hard to foresee.

In the sixties, Quebec created a nationalist movement, a new thing in Canadian history, that was strongly, profoundly involved with socialism and opening-out into the world. The link was never all that explicit, and the socialist part never got as much coverage as the independence part, but the link was the steady undertone of the sixties, seventies, eighties.

The English-Canadian left was first skeptical, then attracted, and finally a generation grew up for which it was simply taken for granted that "Quebecois" and "radical" were related terms.

I would venture the guess that for these young people it was puzzling why the spirit of sovereignty-as-leftism seemed to die down so thoroughly after its 40 per cent performance -- a rather strong performance, no? -- in the Referendum of 1980. It was puzzling for me. This puzzlement seems to be expressed in David Fennario's new play, which I hope to see in Montreal one of these weekends.

Fennario, the great dramatic voice of the Anglophone left in Montreal, the gentle-angry heart from Pointe Saint Charles, reflects upon The Death of Rene Levesque, apparently as upon the death of egalitarianism as the Quebec dream.

For what has happened that nobody in my circle predicted is that through the Eighties, as the left-nationalist leadership, though faithful to its ideas, felt more and more lost, many young people who were drawn to independence forged ahead in business.

And many older people already established in business grew softer toward independence. The hesitant 10 per cent needed to put the idea over the top had a leadership, and, bringing the missing bit to the formula, this leadership was in a very strong position to say: "We shall lead you all."

Pierre Vallieres was not in an obscure Christian socialist current, and Lucien Bouchard, just last year associated with Free Trade and cuts to social services, leaped over from the Tories to the Bloc Quebecois and began hearing himself spoken of as a future premier of a sovereign Quebec. The Parti Quebecois, still living out The Death of Rene Levesque, was exactly like an old workhorse, its social democracy, so important in Levesque's furrowed brow of concern, gone. Or split into pieces and scattered about the landscape.

Levesque had rallied 40 per cent of the people. It would be for someone much more conservative to rally 60 per cent. Canadian conservatism had proposed Meech Lake, a fairly generous federal frame for Quebec. It hadn't been able to sell it to its Canadian people. So now Quebec conservatism had its chance to come up with its fairly flexible version of sovereignty and to try to sell it to its people.

And meanwhile, women's groups continued to work against violence.

Third World groups continued to work with poor lands and immigrant communities, diversifying Quebec's culture in other directions than North American.

Ecologists questioned the James Bay development. Indian sympathies, always a strong breeze in Quebec youth culture, had a practical task, demonstrating at Parthenais for the imprisoned Mohawks. Artists innovated, labour activists persevered.

And those high school kids poured out of the schools with "LA CHAIR A CANON DIT NON" our front.

Quebec was much like other Western countries, other Northern states, now: A certain part of it wanted a new kind of society. It was a matter of finding the energy to say so. And then finding the energy to say so again.

Malcolm Reid is editor of the Quebec magazine Abraham -- Journal du village global.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Canadian Dimension Publication, Ltd.
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Title Annotation:politics in Quebec
Author:Reid, Malcolm
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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