Home » Political Related » Conditioning: The goal of the “Estates General of French Canada” (#279)

Conditioning: The goal of the “Estates General of French Canada” (#279)

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The next couple of blog posts regarding the Estates-General tend to discuss quite controversial and emotionally charged matters for many people – both Anglophone and Francophone.

I’m going to talk about some events which many Anglophones may not be aware of.

I am going to present events from an angle of history which is not necessarily taught in Québec, but rather from the point of view of how Canada’s Francophones outside Québec tend to often view Canada’s recent history.  It is a version which places extra weight on the failure of the the “Estates-General of French Canada” (Les États généraux du Canada français” as being one of the root causes for other constitutional events snowballing over the past 40 years.

Nonetheless, I believe the events I am about to talk about should not be overlooked (as they often are).  Having a more complete picture from various angles is always beneficial to understanding nuances so as to move forward.

The “Estates-General of French Canada”

By 1966, the Quiet Revolution in Québec was in full swing.  I don’t need to elaborate much on the Quiet Revolution.  It is something all Anglophones and Francophones in Canada study in school.

But I will say that it was a response to two major factors:

  1. It was a modernization and societal affirmation in response to a fast changing and re-ordered, post-WWII world, and
  2. it was a societal “realignment” to counteract perceived obstacles Francophones in Québec faced vis-à-vis Anglophone dominated industry and national (federal) politics.

But something else was occurring at the same time — something which is not taught in Anglophone Canada, which is only lightly skimmed over in Québec history books, and which is poorly understood in both Francophone and Canadian societies (Francophones outside of Québec perhaps know its history more than any other people in Canada).  It is an event which spanned from 1966 to 1969, and which we call the Estates General of French Canada (Les États-généraux du Canada français).

Prior to the 1960s, Canadians of Francophone heritage saw themselves as one cohesive group, regardless of where they lived in Canada.  Picture it this way… Imagine two whole maps of Canada.   Let’s say one map is coloured green and represents Anglophone Canada, and the other is coloured red and represents Francophone Canada.  Now superimpose those maps on top of each other, and the map of Canada turns yellow (red + green = yellow).   This is how Francophones used to view Canada as whole.

In a general societal context, Francophones did not view themselves in terms of a distinctive Québec or Francophone society which was demarcated by borders (the view many hold today).    There were no “Québécois”, or “Franco-Albertans” or “Franco-Ontarians” and even the term “Acadien” did not have the same significance as it does today.   There was only one term and one way of viewing oneself:  “French Canadian”… coast-to-coast.

But what happened in the last half of the 1960s at the Estates-General was a major game-changer.  It set much of the tone for the rest of Canadian society’s modern history – socially, constitutionally, and politically.

Post WWII Canada was rapidly changing from coast-to-coast.  It was having a tremendous effect on Francophone society across Canada, and Francophones saw themselves at a cross-roads.

On one hand, there were high degrees of Francophone assimilation across Canada.   But on the other hand, aspects of Post WWII Canadian society made it so that Anglophone Canadians were more “open” and “worldly” than they had ever been at any other time in Canadian history.  People were travelling on an unprecedented scales, television and radio made people aware of issues they never knew or thought about in the past, and people were becoming sensitive to the needs of others around them.  Francophones across Canada felt that a window of opportunity finally opened with which to allow them to affirm themselves, as one people, from coast-to-coast, and thereby not only counteract assimilation, but to also grow their societies on equal footing with Anglophone Canadians.

In 1966, Francophone delegates from across Canada gathered in Montréal.   They were comprised of large numbers of “French Canadian delegates” from all regions of Canada.  Most were French Canadian community leaders, union heads, or French Canadians who had constant interaction with their local or regional governments.  They gathered in Montréal to discuss how to advance French Canadian culture in a national context so as to be able to adapt to, and thrive in a new Post WWII Canada.

The assizes (rounds) of the Estates-General were to take place annually, starting in 1966.  The goal was to come up with resolutions to seek changes to the Canadian federation, from coast-to-coast.  They were to make Canada a country where all Francophones (and Anglophones) could live, and feel at home – regardless of the region of Canada.   In a sense, it was like an unofficial “Francophone parliament”.   The clincher was that the Estates-General has such a large population backing it (more than 30% of Canada’s population), that its clout would be difficult for Canada’s provincial governments and federal government to ignore.   For many, a sense of change was in the air.

The timing of the start of the Estates-General was appropriate, and telling.  Québec, as a province, was going through its own Quiet Revolution.   But many other aspects of Canadian society and various provinces were also going through their own styles of a “Quiet Revolution”.

Alberta was set to make the leap to abandon a Social Credit philosophy-based government and to embrace a massive movement of secularization, economic realignment, and industrial nationalization.  Saskatchewan was embracing a new wave of political progressivism and secularization.  BC’s, Manitoba’s and Ontario’s industries and governments were undergoing tremendous changes and adapting to a new era of trade and international interactions.   The Atlantic provinces were having to completely restructure their way of interacting with the rest of the country – politically and economically – to keep pace with the changes in what was quickly becoming a new, modern Canada (one in which a Post-WWII realignment saw Atlantic province prosperity shift more and more towards Central Canada).

The first assize (round) of the Estates-General of French Canada took place in 1966.  It was simple in the sense that it was not meant to pass resolutions.   Rather, it was to set the agenda for future Estates-General – so that everyone was on the same page (it could be considered the “negotiating stage” to ensure that all delegates were on the same page).

The planning of the Estates-General did not go unnoticed in English Canada.   Changes were in the wind within Anglophone Canada itself.  Anglophones in Post-WWII Canada were coming to the realization that French was to be treated on “equal-footing” in English Canada.  In the early 1960s, the Federal government’s Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (the Bi-Bi Commission) was mandated to look at ways to correct linguistic inequalities.  Various provincial governments were also looking at similar matters.

Anglophone Canadians across Canada, who previously had no prior interaction with any aspect of Francophone culture were actually beginning to take notice — and to take an interest.   A good number of concerned unilingual Anglophones launched was became the very first French immersion programs (in the late 1950s in Central Canada, eventually spreading to parts of Western Canada in the 1960s).

Francophones themselves were educating their provincial and local governments across Canada, and dialogue was finally beginning on a level never seen before in the history of Canada.

I don’t want to make it sound like everything was picture-perfect.  It was not.  There were many challenges to be overcome.  There would be a long road for all Francophone demands to be met.  But the time was better than it had ever been to undertake such a journey.   And the chances for success were better than at any other point in the past.

Anglophone Canada was beginning to brace itself for major linguistic changes – socially and politically.  For the first time in history, Anglophone Canada was preparing to carve a new prominent place for Francophones in Canadian society – from British Columbia, stretching all the way to Newfoundland.    It would likely occur on an asymmetric basis, with variances between the provinces – but national change appeared to be coming.

The second assize of the Estates-General of French-Canada took place in 1967 with all of the above happening in the background.   Again, it was made up French Canadian delegates, nominated from across Canada – over 1600 in fact (with the majority being from Québec).

In the minds of most delegates, this was going to be the start of a major push to bring about sweeping changes across Canada – once and for all.  And many believed that the time was right for it to work.

The Estates-General were going to deal with, and attempt to put into action a plan which would finally resolve (in a national sense) Francophone matters of

  • the status of French in Canada (including its use as an official language federally, with windows and options open to push for it to be adopted as an official language in most, if not all provinces — at least in some capacity)
  • radio & television (with the establishment of local stations and networks in all provinces and major cities… much larger, deeper, and wide-reaching than the current status of Radio-Canada),
  • work legislation (so that companies across Canada would be better able to deal with Francophone customers and staff from ocean to ocean, and resolutions which could influence provincial civil services),
  • social services and health matters (bilingual and Francophone services, hospitals, and benefits -all across Canada),
  • education advancement
  • family affairs
  • agriculture
  • finance and banking
  • Canada’s international relations
  • other resolutions as deemed necessary.

As an aside:  Just to give you an example of how significant the Estates-General could have been…  I know numerous people in British Columbia who still recall talk of potential legislation in the 1960s, to be implemented in the 1970s, with which to mandate all restaurants to provide bilingual French/English menus – in British Columbia!  That’s how wide-reaching an impact the pressure from the Estates-General could have been.

For the first time in history, there was actually much excitement about being able to resolve many of the above issues.  The Bi-Bi Commission’s preliminary report had come out in 1965, and it was becoming clear that Anglophones were taking note of issues they historically had not paid much attention to.   But with the advent of Post-WWII modernization, international integration and mobility, such issues were difficult to ignore any longer.

However what happened next, during the 1967 assize of the Estates-General, forever changed the course of French Canada’s history, and that of Canada as a whole.   It was a case of shock and horror — which I will discuss in the next post.



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