This is the 100th post. I’m approaching this blog from the standpoint that each post is not just its own tid-bit of information, but rather the piece of an overall puzzle. When we look at them together, we begin to see the portrait of a society, and themes begin to develop (things we cannot necessarily learn from textbooks, travel guides, one-off articles, nor a vacation).
In earlier posts, I mentioned that pop-culture (along with other aspects of our culture) is all around us. We live it, or at the very least, even without realizing it, we are surrounded by it everywhere in our daily lives. It provides a focal point for commonality and belonging and its references are instantly recognizable.
With each post, I’m trying to introduce you to a little more of our Francophone culture. For many Anglophones, these references may not be as apparent as they would be for someone who, say, moves to Québec, or lives life with a strong footing in Canada’s several Francophone societies.
By writing this blog, I’m hope I can help to preclude you from having to physically live within Francophone areas of the country in order to begin to understand it better – and hopefully you can feel a bit more connected to it as you continue to take your own journey. It’s an important component of our country, our identity and our lives; be it past, present, and future. We live together, we make economic decisions together, we make political decisions together, and we make important societal decisions together which affect all of us – regardless of how visibly apparent those decisions may be. But the sum of these joint decisions have shaped our collective psyche. We would not be the same people, and we would not view the world and ourselves the way we do now had our country not had it’s bi-cultural roots. Some people say we’re a country built on “compromise” for just those reasons (remember hearing that magic word from junior high school social studies and history classes?). They say it has shaped our culture and temperament, and makes us unique. But actually, I don’t think it’s “compromise”, but rather “collaboration”. I say this because compromise infers you have to give something up to to get something else that you want (yes, that is sometimes true). But that’s not really how the country has been built, especially in more modern times. Rather, we’re in a country which has been built, and continues to be built, from co-operation and working together – with each of our two linguistic groups adding something of value to the table with every decision being made. We’re just not overtly conscious of it because each contribution becomes (for the most part) seamlessly integrated into our lives, and then just becomes part of our overall identity.
I can offer many examples of what I mean when I say our country has (and continues to be) built through Francophone & Anglophone cooperation and collaboration. We would not have the same underlying Canadian values or be the same people today had it not been for this joint effort. Off the top of my head, I can keep it down to three of examples of thing that affect our daily lives:
Example 1 – Québec’s indirect role in giving a bolted to Canada’s overall sense of community:
You may recall in the post “Our accents – Post 1” I discussed a little bit about how regions and towns in Québec remained in relative isolation from one other until the beginning of the Quiet Revolution – so isolated from one another, that whole regions, and in many cases, individual villages, developed completely different accents and ways of speaking. However, elsewhere in English Canada, massive migration movements were taking place during the period of 90 to 150 years ago. New railroad lines saw people move all around, and there was a great deal of back-and-forth movement between the Western Provinces, Southern Ontario and Anglophone Atlantic Canada. There was so much movement over such a vast stretch of land (the world’s second largest stretch of land), that apart from the very strong regional in English accents in the Atlantic Provinces, other distinct regional English accents in Canada were greatly muted (we have accents – I can certainly hear the difference between Northern Alberta, Southern Saskatchewan, and Southern Ontario English for example). But the differences in our accents in English were of a much lesser degree than in French, owing to the high level of inter-regional movement by Anglophones of the period.
Because Québec communities did not experience such a long history of interconnectedness, they came to value “local community” as being vitally important to an individuals’ identity : be it the church, be it extended family which often did not leave the town (hence whole communities having only a handful of family names), be it the local industry, or be it the local newspaper.
The late Pierre Péladeau Sr., the founder of the media giant Québecor (and the father of Pierre Karl Péladeau) was very much was a Québec nationalist. He believed whole heartedly in the values that Québec holds dearest. In a broad sense, that means he very much valued a sense of local community. It was something he culturally understood, and he built his business around it (as I’ve learned from my own experience in the business world, you stick with what you know). His business style very much fit into those values and he was committed to local news. It probably was a natural fit since he knew he could make money from it. As he built his business empire, he founded a local newspaper empire across Canada; newpapers which gave citizens of dozens and dozens of small communities across Anglophone Canada a voice, an outlet for local citizens to express themselves, stay engaged, stay connected with one another, and to remain profoundly attached to (and involved in) their local towns. Pierre Péladeau Sr. played a direct role in spreading Québec traditional values of local community right across Canada – forever changing how individual Anglophones view and relate to themselves, relate to their communities (especially newly founded ones), relate to their neighbours, and even to their country – much in the same light as Québec Francophones relate to the world. In a sense, he imbued Québec values into Anglophone culture across Canada, and we, as Anglophones, have never been the same people since. This is one area where we now share a strong sense of shared values with our Francophone compatriots.
An effective way to show you to what extent Péladeau “brought home” Québec’s sense of community values into Anglophone lives would be to actually list all the communities in which he owned a newspaper (the list is long, so just quickly skim them over… but the sheer number makes an impact): The legacy of Péladeau Sr. can be found today in the likes of all the “Sun” papers (Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary) “Tribune” papers (Grand-Prairie, Welland), the “Times” papers (St. Thomas, Brockville, Orillia, Owen Sound), some of the “Examiners” (Barrie, Peterborough), many of the “Observers” (Pembroke, Sarnia), some of the local “Star” papers (Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury). He also imbued Québec values of community into our lives through his papers in many others in places such as London, Simcoe, Stratford, Kenora, Portage La Prairie, Fort McMurray, Belleville, Brantford, Chatam, Cornwall, Kingston, Niagara Falls, North Bay, Northumberland, St. Catherines, Timmins, Brantford, Chatham. His smaller chains of papers helped to keep community spirit alive in many smaller towns across Canada – often in places where the community was new and in need of a sense of local togetherness, or in some cases it may have been older and on the cusp of decline (which heightened the need for a sense of community). These include papers in Alberta: Airdrie, Camrose, Cochrane, Cold Lake, Devon, Drayton Valley, Edson, Fairview, Fort Saskatchewan, Hanna, High River, Hinton, Lacombe, Leduc, Mayerthorpe, Nanton, Peace River, Pincher Creek, Sherwood Park, Spruce Grove, Stony Plain, Strathmore, Beaumont, Vermilion, Vulcan, Wetaskiwin, Whitecourt, in Manitoba: Altona, Carman, Interlake, Morden, Selkirk, Stonewall, Winkler, in Saskatchewan: Melfort, Nipawin, in Ontario: Bancroft, Barry’s Bay, Bradford, Chatham, Clinton, Cochrane, Collingwood, Elliot Lake, Fort Erie, Frontenac, Gananoque, Goderich, Haliburton, Ingersoll, Innisfil, Kapuskasing, Kenora, Kincardine, Lakeshore, Leader, Lucknow, Minden, Mitchell, Norwich, Paris, Pelham, Petrolia, Stirling, Strathroy, Delhi, Napanee, Thorold, Tillsonburg, Timmins, Trenton, Wallaceburg, West Lorne, and Wiarton (you think Willy reads this last one?).
(Quick note: The newspaper branch of Québecor (at least the papers outside of Québec) are soon to be sold to another company in Canada).
Example 2 – Québec’s and other provinces’ roles as strong partner in maintaining values of universal healthcare:
Universal free healthcare (symbolic of a “Don’t worry neighbour, I’ve got your back!” society) was born at a provincial level in Saskatchewan. Even though we’re not a socialist country (overall we value efficiently managed taxes at a reasonable rate, and the free-market), the notion of looking out for each other is highly valued, regardless if you’re NPD, Liberal or Conservative (all three parties of the spectrum value this — and it’s to be commended that all three parties overall defend the same values Canadians care deeply about – of course with some nuances in program execution). Our values of mutual assistance has symbolically come to be embodied through the universal healthcare movement, spreading province-by-province until eventually all the provinces were working together (with the added participation of the Federal government) to ensure they could maintain mutually comparable standards and best-practices. This makes it so we can all expect the same level of care across the country, regardless where we seek medical attention. Because the program is provincial jurisdiction, it requires constant dialogue between the provinces to maintain consistency. Otherwise the system would become fragmenting along provincial lines and would be at risk of collapsing. I cannot under-emphasize just how much inter-provincial cooperation and collaboration at a government-to-government level is involved to make this program work – and for the most part, we pull it off very well.
In more recent times, Québec values played a key role in helping to keep the program on track and alive in its current form. Since 1867, Canada has gone through a few major economic highs and lows. There have been more than one occasion where the economic future of certain provinces has been in question and the healthcare system was under threat. Since coverage became universal across Canada in 1961 (following Saskatchewan’s 1949 implemenation of the plan), Québec has since become, in many ways, the most ardent supporter of Saskatchewan’s universal heathcare dream. Québec, Ontario, BC and other provinces have provided the moral support and encouragement which has helped provinces to decide to stay the course when they thought they may want to opt out of the current structure (sometimes this dialogue occurred behind closed doors, premier-to-premier, sometimes government-to-government, and sometimes wide-open in the media and in the streets). In this respect, Québec has contributed immensely to keeping our values towards our fellow citizens alive and well. I’ll give you an example:
I can vividly remember Alberta’s flirt with healthcare privatization back in the Ralph Klein years of the early 1990s. Something many people across Canada, and particularly in Québec, may not realize is just how serious the economic situation was in Alberta in the early 1990s. The resources industry collapsed, and Alberta was faced with so much debt that it threatened the viability of Alberta as a stand-alone province. Austerity was seen as the only option. Something had to be done, and fast. Premier Klein had some very difficult decisions to make (and I very much admire him for having made some very tough calls in the face of enormous pressure). I can still recall when I was in grade 10, the province’s financial situation was so bad that our school had to keep the lights turned off during the day. The halls were lit only by emergency lights, and the classroom lights were turned on only if there was not enough light coming through the windows to read, write and see the blackboard. Photocopying was banned because there was not enough money to buy paper or run the photocopiers. Every penny was watched. With mounting health-care costs, Klein had it on his agenda to try to privatize elements of the healthcare program. It had the potential to become a very slippery slope.
Québec, at the time, was one of the most ardent supporters of Saskatchewan’s universal healthcare dream. Despite the constitutional mayhem of that period, Québec politicians and those in Québec’s Ministry of Health were able to compartmentalize the constitutional rigmarole from the necessity of doing day-to-day business. They provided the moral support, healthcare infrastructure assurances, additional perspectives, encouragement, sober second thought, and advocacy which helped to convince Alberta to make the difficult decision to stay in the fold of universal healthcare coverage at a time when Alberta was economically on its knees and seriously considering alternative options.
In a nutshell, our Québec compatriots, along with other provinces, basically sent continuous reminders that we’re all in this together, and it is an aspect of our society to maintain. The signals were many: “This is something we value very much and we’re all in this together. Saskatchewan came up with it, and we fully believe in it. We’re going to continue to contribute to this national project of universal healthcare, and in that respect, you can count on our support come hell or high water. Are you sure you want to take steps which could lead to its dismantlement. Look at what we’ve built together – something which was so difficult to build, but which we actually managed to pull off… and it actually works — we did it. Think about it – think very very hard.“ Klein eventually backed down on the health-care front. There were a number of reasons, but it was also in part because of this type of sober-second thought and moral support offered by Québec, and other provinces. It also helped to entrench Canada’s (including Albertan’s) overall reaffirmation in support of the program, and our values and commitments to our fellow countrymen and women. There may be a time when Canada as a whole may once again examine reforms to the system, but if and when that happens, it will likely be when the country as a whole is ready to sit down and look at options which work best. These are deeply profound values which we, as Anglophones and Francophones alike, share in no small degree.
I was listening to an interview Denise Bombardier gave the other day in which she discussed the death of her former spouse with whom she separated decades ago. She was at his bedside at the moment of his passing. It was the second time she was physically present for the death of a loved one, and her recount of the moment was quite emotional. In a nutshell, he was in a palliative care centre (funded as part of our universal healthcare system). She was especially moved by the tenderness of the care he receive, the consideration of the staff (her ex-spouse was in a coma, but every time they touched him, the staff gently told him there were going to do such things as turn him, or change his bedpan). She said the discreetness and care with which the staff treated the family was almost like they themselves were close family members. She said what struck her was that staff told her the majority of patients in the facility do not have family to visit them. Yet Bombardier saw the staff stepping up to the plate, every single time, to become surrogate family. They made every effort there were people around the dying, people who cared for them, and in many ways tenderly loved them (even though the staff were strangers). She said nobody in the public facility dies alone. Bombardier was terribly moved in the interview and she made an emotional point of saying these are Québec values, that this is the Québec she loves so much, that this is the Québec she has devoted her life to.
Denise Bombardier was so very right. These are profoundly deep Québec values, and these are also values shared by us all across Canada. When my grandmother passed away in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan a couple of years ago, this was the exact same treatment she received and which I saw too. We have built something special together which has served as a base to build an entire value system. I don’t think she could have said it better.
Example 3 – Mutual assistance through equalization values:
I’d like to give one more example of how our values, as a nation, are intricately tied across linguistic lines – and how we have together mutually influenced those values. Today, the economic situation in Alberta is completely different than the early 1990s. Since the austerity days of the Klein years (which in my opinion, did save the province from economic collapse), Alberta has been blessed with the strongest economy, lowest unemployment, one of the fastest economic growth rates, and one of the most substantial population growth rates in all of North America (within the next three years, it is predicted to even overtake BC as the most populous province in Western Canada). It also has the highest per-capita international immigration rates in Canada (due to immigration, Alberta now has one of the highest percentage of visible minorities in Canada, standing at almost 20% province-wide, and substantially higher in the major metropolitan areas of Calgary and Edmonton). Alberta’s per-capita income of $78,000 a year is also the highest in all of North America (but having one of the highest incomes in the world comes with its own set of challenges such as an increasing cost of living and how to convince students to stop dropping out of high school for $100,000 jobs which are readily available for 17 year olds).
Despite this incredible situation, Albertans have never forgotten the support it received from Eastern Canada in its darkest days (not just the early 1990s, but dating back to the even darker depression days between the 1920s and 1940s). Nor to Albertans ever take the oil boom for granted – fully aware that there are boom and bust cycles, and the winds can change on a dime. Albertans and people from Saskatchewan still recall how the Atlantic provinces sent repeated shipments of salted fish, and Québec and Ontario sent trainload after trainload of free fresh fruit during the 1930s. The “Relief Program” in which Québec and Ontario were the largest contributors, literally helped to save Alberta and Saskatchewan from starving, and helped to get the Prairies back on their feet as we went into WWII. Even to this day, my grandfather from Saskatchewan still talks about the Relief Program. I have a photos he took of Eastern Canada’s efforts from the late 1930s or more likely the early 1940s, when they airdropped supplies over the Moose Jaw area of Saskatchewan to help families like my grandfathers’. It’s a remarkable photo with tremendous symbolic value (an extremely rare photo because people back then did not just carry around cameras, and it as a complete fluke of nature that my grandfather’s family was carrying their camera at the time of an airdrop). Airdrops such as this cemented Canadian values of not only helping your fellow countrymen and women in times of need, but also your fellow provinces. This photo of supplies being parachuted to the Prairies, captures in essence the birth of the spirit of equalization.
It’s for these reasons, and many many more that Alberta and other “have” provinces generally are content with contributing to Canada’s equalization programs. (Wikipedia has a decent explanation on the equalization program here http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equalization_payments_in_Canada). We (Albertans) were supported by Québec when times were tough and when we had difficulty making ends meet. At various times in its history, Western Canada would have found things very difficult without the past support of Québec and other provinces in Eastern Canada. And now it’s Alberta’s turn to help Québec. Québec is faced with serious economic issues and is having a difficult time getting its own financial house in order – but they’re trying (these efforts of economic redress have been front-page news in Québec for the past few weeks). For the moment, Québec is the greatest recipient of equalization payments (approximately $9 billion), into which Alberta (along with Saskatchewan, BC and Newfoundland) are the net contributors. While Québec is going through this difficult period, Alberta is sticking with it and continues to pay into the equalization program, knowing full well it is the right thing to do.
There are groups in Alberta who are complaining, but they are mostly restricted to the Wild Rose Party – and the Wild Rose’s support seems to have peaked in very low percentage ranges. Although there are very vocal elements in their party, their views on equalization are not representative of the vast majority of Albertans, and they remain on the fringes in this sense. That certainly doesn’t mean there are not things which couldn’t be done different or improved to become more effective. But Albertans have repeatedly voiced their support for equalization as a civic duty, knowing it’s ethical for us to be there for others, and having the comfort of knowing others will be there for us – just as they have in the past.
Equalization has become one of the most valued aspect of our country, both economically and socially. We’ve been there for each other, Québec, Alberta, Anglophones and Francophones. Our shared values continue to compel us to stick with it. It also serves as incentive to strive harder to increase our own provincial economic might (equalization is a temporary measure to lend a helping hand to provinces until they can become “have” provinces also). There’s not much more Canadian than our provinces standing side-by-side through thick and thin. It’s in our nature and values – and we’ve developed these values together.
I very much appreciated that you’ve taken the time to read through the past 100 posts, including those of you who have become regular followers. I also appreciate the emails of support. I look forward to continuing to bring you more posts with various cultural references to help you bridge the Two Solitudes in your own way.