Canada is a French country

COYNE: Stephen Harper has been playing up the province’s role in Canadian history

Mathieu Belanger/Reuters

The most striking passage in David Johnston’s speech on being named Canada’s next governor general, apart from the reference to the Queen as “our head of state” (there seemed to be some doubt on his predecessor’s part), was his lengthy encomium to Samuel de Champlain, “Canada’s first governor.” In case anyone did not catch his drift, he ended by invoking the example of his predecessors, “from Samuel de Champlain to Michaëlle Jean.”

But wait a minute. Johnston is, as he says, the representative of the Queen of Canada, Elizabeth II, great-great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, granddaughter of George III, the first monarch to rule over what was then called British North America. Champlain served a different king, from an altogether different royal house: Louis XIII of France.

Yet Johnston seemed to be saying the two dynasties, British and French, were one, part of the same story. Just as he is the 71st in a line of governors going back to Champlain, so Elizabeth is not the sixth monarch to reign over Canada (since Confederation), or even the ninth (since the British Conquest), but the 18th, going back to Francis I, the king in whose name Jacques Cartier first landed in Canada in 1534.

I don’t know whether Johnston wrote his own speech, or whether someone in the Prime Minister’s Office wrote it for him. But it is certainly very much in keeping with a rhetorical strategy Stephen Harper has been deploying for some time: that is of speaking of Canada as if it were, at least in part, a French country. (Which, of course, it is.) He’s reaching back to a French heritage that predates Confederation, predates the Conquest, emphasizing that our roots were first planted in the soil of New France.

Just days before, at the Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill, the Prime Minister had spoken glowingly of “the steadfast determination and continental ambition of our French pioneers, who were the first to call themselves ‘Canadians.’ ” At other times he has spoken of Canada as having been “born in French,” of French as “Canada’s first language,” and, most famously, of Quebec City as “Canada’s first city,” its founding in 1608 as marking “the founding of the Canadian state.”

Harper is not the first to have taken this line—the “Champlain as first governor” theme seems to have been inspired by a portrait identifying him as such in Rideau Hall—but I can’t recall any prime minister placing such heavy emphasis, deliberate and repeated, on it. While the sentiment may seen anodyne, moreover, the implications are radical.

For 50 years we have been debating whether Quebec would remain a part of Canada. Harper’s formulation turns this on its head: Canada is, in a sense, a part of Quebec. By fusing Quebec’s history with Canada’s, both emanations of the same French colonial experience, it makes pride in Quebec coterminous with pride in Canada. Quebecers could no more reject Canada, on this reading, than they could their own French heritage: the one grew out of the other.

This is not a repudiation of Quebec nationalism so much as a subversion of it. Nationalist mythology has long emphasized the Conquest as the decisive break point in Canadian history, the trauma from which French-speaking Quebecers have never fully recovered, and never will unless “liberated” by secession. The psychiatrist and Péquiste minister Camille Laurin used to talk about Quebec as if it were quite literally a patient on his couch.

The nationalists’ conquêtisme, of course, was but a mirror to that of an earlier tradition of Anglo triumphalists, who also emphasized the Conquest (“Wolfe the dauntless hero came”) as the locus generis of the British ascendancy. As, in their own way, did a later generation of Canadian nationalists, for whom the British connection was a yoke to be thrown off, together with such colonial “relics” as the Crown, not merely to mollify Quebec but for the sake of our own psychological maturation as a people. You still hear a lot of that.

But if the history of Canada is an unbroken chain of sovereignty, Francis to Elizabeth, Champlain to Johnston; if what is important about it is not the change from French to British rule but the continuity between them—if we are not a British monarchy, or even a French monarchy and then a British one, but simply a monarchy, throughout—then the Conquest is not the pivotal event in our history: it is just an event. The effect, in turn, is to deracinate the British inheritance. What is valuable is the inheritance—Crown, Parliament, the common law, the Constitution—not its Britishness.

If that sounds like a lot to load onto a few words, it certainly didn’t strike Quebec nationalists that way. When Harper first started talking about Quebec City as the birthplace of Canada, around the time of the 400th anniversary, the nationalists were fairly purple with rage, accusing him in the most acrid terms of rewriting history for political ends.

But then, they should know. The nationalist project, notably in the use of the neologism “Québécois” in place of “French-Canadian,” was a conscious attempt to shunt the history of Quebec off onto a siding, separate and apart from the history of Canada, whose logical terminus was a separate Quebec. The logic of Harper’s language is to wrench it back on to the same track as the rest of us: while Champlain could hardly have known he was founding Canada, it is certainly true that the history of present-day Canada leads inexorably back to him.