Parti Québécois leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon unwittingly demonstrated a shaky grasp of his own province’s history last week when he criticized Premier François Legault for ordering the lowering of the provincial flag on public buildings after the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
“François Legault should not treat the Queen of England as Quebec’s head of state, nor give credibility to an illegitimate British colonial regime,” the PQ leader tweeted. “A minimal knowledge of our history and basic respect for our motto ‘Je me souviens’ should lead us to abstain from lowering the flag to half-mast.”
Historians have long debated the meaning the province’s motto – “I remember” in English – which first appeared in 1883 in an engraving above the main entrance of the National Assembly and which has been inscribed on provincial license plates since 1978. But it is fairly certain that the motto was not inspired by any deep-seated antipathy toward the British monarchy.
Indeed, for most of Quebec’s history after 1759, French Canadians viewed the British Crown about as favourably as their English-speaking compatriots. That may have been because the British conquerors moved quickly to accommodate the religious and social customs of New France’s colonists, in contrast to the 1755 expulsion of Acadians who refused to swear allegiance to King George II. The Quebec Act of 1774, signed by George III, enshrined those accommodations into law. Most French Canadians became fervent loyalists to the British Crown.
“Leading Catholic clerics in Quebec came to the conclusion that the British conquest was divinely ordained,” University of Ottawa history professor Damien-Claude Bélanger explained in an interview. “The clergy even amended Sunday prayers to ask parishioners to pray for George III.”
Republican sentiment emerged in the 19th century, culminating in the 1837 Lower Canada Rebellion led by Louis-Joseph Papineau. But it quickly faded after the suppression of the rebellion and the arrival of responsible government, requiring the executive branch to answer to an elected assembly.
The conscription crisis of 1917 marked a turning point in public opinion as French Canadians overwhelmingly opposed sending Canadian soldiers to fight in the First World War. But it was opposition to British imperialism, not antipathy toward the monarchy, that defined the crisis.
Hostility toward the British Crown only began to escalate in Quebec with the onset of the Quiet Revolution and the rise of separatist sentiment. The Queen’s 1964 visit to Quebec City, to commemorate the centennial of an 1864 conference there that led to Confederation, turned violent after police attacked peaceful protesters with clubs. What became known as le Samedi de la matraque, or Truncheon Saturday, is remembered as a dark day in the province’s history.
Except for indépendantiste hardliners, the Queen herself was viewed affectionately by most Quebeckers. Even a separatist firebrand like Jacques Parizeau, a self-confessed anglophile, admitted to having a “soft spot” for Elizabeth when he implored sovereigntists to call off a planned 1990 anti-monarchy protest in Gatineau, Que.
Most Quebeckers greeted the Queen’s death with the same pang of loss and sadness that most other Canadians – indeed most people everywhere – felt when they heard the news. They, too, admired her sense of duty and kindly nature, not to mention her unique ability to work a handbag. She had been a fixture in their lives, too.
Forget about polls showing that Quebeckers are more likely than other Canadians to think the monarchy should be abolished. There is no contradiction between deeming the monarchy an anachronism in a modern egalitarian society and harbouring warm feelings toward the monarch.
With the decline of the independence movement, there is no impetus for political change in Quebec. Quebeckers have only ever known a British parliamentary system and most of them seem to be fine with it. Republican sentiment is all but dead.
To be sure, there are calls to abolish the post of lieutenant-governor in the province. But they mostly stem from the expense scandals that plagued previous holders of that office. Trying to do away with the post may turn out to be more trouble than it’s worth, which is why Mr. Legault is not making any promises.
As for Mr. Plamondon, whose party remains in fifth place in the polls in advance of the Oct. 3 provincial election, his tweet went over like a lead balloon. He later admitted his comments were badly timed. But the damage had been done.
“He was working with the PQ’s traditional playbook,” Prof. Bélanger said. “But his gaffe only showed how out of touch the PQ has become with much of Quebec public opinion.”
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