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Étienne-Alexandre Beauregard: Embracing our tradition is how we preserve Quebec

Commentary

The following is an excerpt from Quebec-based author and scholar Étienne-Alexandre Beauregard’s new book, Le retour des Bleus: Les racines intellectuelles du nationalisme québécois (Liber, 2024).


It has been acknowledged for years that the old cleavage between federalists and sovereignists has lost its edge in Québec politics. Other antagonisms now structure the political rivalry even though, until very recently, politicians and observers had trouble discerning the new opposition that would supplant the constitutional question. […]

In Le schisme identitaire, I analyzed the emergence in Québec of the identity question as the main political polarization factor after the collapse of the nationalist consensus arising from the Quiet Revolution. The issues of language, secularism, and immigration, which pertain to the question of the Nation State and the role the Québec State should play to defend the Francophone nation, have their own existence beyond the opposition between sovereigntists and federalists, and the Coalition Avenir Québec governments have proved how much these questions arouse lively debates in public opinion. Much more than economic quarrels, where arrangements are often possible, the symbolic universe of identity leaves very little room for rational and reasoned compromise. In this sense, lively political passions are being expressed today in Québec, and their intensity goes far beyond the sanitized debate we were promised on public finances, government efficiency, or tax rates. Without being incidental, these are not questions that break up friendships, divide families, and structure political cleavages. In this regard, only identity has supplanted sovereignty.

This being said, we would be wrong to think that the Québec identity question is specific to the 21st century or that it is only the local transposition of similar rifts embroiling other Western nations. On the contrary, the debate between conservative nationalism and liberal progressivism goes a long way back in our history. In 1839, the progressive Lord Durham wrote that the French Canadians had to abandon their nationality in the name of progress, that they remained “an old and stationary society in a new and progressive world”.J. G. L. Durham, Le rapport Durham, p. 67. Their disappearance was, so to speak, inevitable, determined by the direction of history and required by the continent’s march toward progress. A few years later, in his History of Canada, François-Xavier Garneau responded to Durham by exhorting his compatriots to cherish their identity and adopt a conservative policy, without fear of opposing the alleged progress conceived for them, but without them. We consider Durham and Garneau as the respective fathers of the progressive Rouges and the conservative Bleus, two ideological families divided by their philosophical attitude towards the nation: is it a reserve of indispensable reference points for every individual and a legitimate way to gain access to modernity, or is it a cause of confinement and alienation when it is politicized? This fundamental question, which calls on the conception of human nature adopted by progressivism and conservatism, marks the history of Québec and is embodied in a renewed form in what is today called the identity debate.

[…]

Since François-Xavier Garneau, the Bleus have defended a special kind of conservatism, a product of the peculiar situation of the Québec nation, whose culture is “scorned from the heights of a certain Anglo-Saxon modernity”, but also because “this community finds itself obligated to adopt a sufficiently consistent self-image to support its project of survival”.J. Beauchemin, L’histoire en trop, p. 171 and 30. Faced with the depoliticization of identity desired by the Rouges, for whom a State must remain culturally neutral, and who thus would abstain from establishing institutions favouring the Franco-Québec nation, a substantial definition of the nation becomes necessary to support the idea of a Québec Nation-State. As Beauchemin affirms, “this impervious and constant desire to remain part of the history of peoples” is the deepest foundation of Québec nationalism, which has nurtured all its incarnations, “from the project of survival to the project of sovereignty”.Ibid., p. 41. The election of the Coalition Avenir Québec is further evidence of the relevance of this distinction between nationalism and “indépendantisme”, with the former going beyond the latter in that it refers to the desire of the Québec nation to endure, be it inside or outside of Canada. The Bleus are nationalists above all, and find their unity in the field of identity instead of the constitutional question. These voters even form the majority if we judge by the frequent polls concerning Bill 21 and the protection of French, as well as immigration. Beyond the denigration that wrongly likens them to withdrawal, lack of self-confidence, and smallness, it is time to address the opposition between Rouges and Bleus head on.

The fact is that major points of convergence exist among the Honoré Mercier’s Parti National, Maurice Duplessis’ Union Nationale, René Lévesque’s Parti Québécois and François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec, the four political parties that have consolidated a nationalist majority in power since 1867. At the end of the 19th century, Mercier understood the necessity to “associate the destiny of the French-Canadian people with the State of the “Province de Québec”, the only political entity where the Francophone nation is a majority.A. Tétreault, La nation qui n’allait pas de soi, p. 46. Under Maurice Duplessis, the Québec State was virtually absent from the economic domain, but it was nonetheless aware of its role as the “fortress that we must defend without failing […] that permits us to construct the schools which suit us, to speak our language, to practice our religion and to make laws applicable to our population”.Maurice Duplessis, cited in H. F. Quinn, The Union Nationale. A Study in Quebec Nationalism, p. 117-118. For Duplessis, Québec was the political embodiment of a special cultural phenomenon. He fought against federal interference in Québec jurisdictions and adopted the contemporary Québec flag. René Lévesque was a worthy successor of this vision, seeing Québec as “the only place where it is possible for us to be really at home”.R. Lévesque, Option Québec, p. 19. He worked to make it prouder and more French through the adoption of Bill 101, among other legislation. While the founder of the PQ was certainly a Social Democrat, we would be wrong to see him as a progressive, at least on the cultural questions that concern us. “Allergic to the “knights of the clean slate”, who dreamed of finishing with the past once and for all, and to certain doctrinaire minds who called for a “break” with history, René Lévesque at all times was a man of continuity. In his view, Québec, both modern and old, was a fortunate synthesis between loyalty to one’s roots, to the land, and an adventurous spirit, a sort of attraction for the open sea.”É. Bédard, «René Lévesque et les Bleus», in A. Stefanescu, René Lévesque. Mythes et réalités, p. 157. 

Latifa Karfach hands out Quebec flags on Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day in Montreal, Thursday, June 24, 2021. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press.

Nowadays, behind the electoral success of the Coalition Avenir Québec, there is certainly its ability to speak to “Bleu” Québec and its emotions, beyond the constitutional confrontation that monopolized the past fifty years. When he says that “the first duty of a Premier of Québec is to defend the Québec nation, the French language and its values”,G. Lajoie, «Débat des chefs fédéraux en anglais: la nation québécoise “attaquée”». François Legault essentially sums up the expectation of Québec conservative nationalists that the Québec State protect this particular humanity under its responsibility. The CAQ’s popularity largely depends on its identity discourse. For the time being, it seems to be the political vehicle adopted by the majority of Bleu voters, who are tending to band together politically after being dispersed to the Left and Right, among the sovereigntists and the federalists. It will also be recognized that François Legault is not particularly unwilling to assume the mantle of Maurice Duplessis, a man who “had many faults, but [who] defended his nation”,C. Lecavalier, «François Legault traite Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois de “woke”… qui l’accuse d’imiter Maurice Duplessis». unlike many neo-nationalists, who are uncomfortable with the Union Nationale past. 

Québec Bleus should not be ashamed of identifying with conservative nationalism, which historically has promoted an original synthesis between nationality and modernity, between rootedness and progress, which has allowed us to remain “absolutely, doggedly ourselves”,L. Groulx, Dix ans d’Action française, p. 131. while evolving over time. Being Blue means taking on the history of Québec, from New France to our times, without shame. It means trusting democracy and the Québec people instead of fearing them. It means defending a republican model of seeking the common good in the face of multiculturalist fragmentation. It means understanding that individual freedom has its limits and that it cannot flourish without a collective framework. It means knowing what is most precious is also the most vulnerable, and never fearing to protect it. Above all, it means refusing to give up on the pretext that the struggle would be lost in advance, that the Québécois are doomed to disappear, swallowed by irresistible “progress”. There is no shame in following in the footsteps of François-Xavier Garneau, Honoré Mercier, Lionel Groulx, Maurice Duplessis, René Lévesque and all those who loudly affirmed that the Québécois had the right and the duty to be masters in their own house and live on. On the contrary, this tradition is a reason to be proud, and today only asks to be taken on by its legitimate heirs. 

Paul W. Bennett: You shouldn’t get a participation award for failing high school

Commentary

High school graduation is now being reinvented to align better with runaway grade inflation and everyone-gets-a-pass education times. “No pass? No problem” read the headline in the Ottawa Citizen on proposed changes to the academic graduation tradition that went national this past week. Little wonder it immediately became the latest flashpoint in the ongoing debate over declining standards in Canada’s schools. 

One Ontario public school district, Ottawa Carleton District School Board, is proposing to change graduation ceremonies into commencement exercises and striking out academic awards from its policy. The proposed changes, if accepted next month, will soon get recognized at a June “commencement” ceremony which would include students who have not passed or secured a graduate diploma. 

The proposed shift replaces “graduation” with “commencement,” but the changes go far beyond a simple doctoring of the language. A graduation marks a stage in a student’s academic career recognizing the successful completion of a program, signified by the achievement of a diploma, and the conferring of a range of academic and non-academic student awards. Changing it to a “commencement” implies that it’s a community celebration, including everyone, which marks “the beginning of a journey” in education rather than a milestone. 

The clock is ticking on the changes. Proposed amendments to OCDSB policy P.038.SCO, dating from May 1998, initiated by associate director Brett Reynolds and senior staff, were tabled for public feedback until March 29 and will be reviewed by a board committee on April 4. They will then be presented to the board of trustees on April 25 for final approval. That’s clearly not enough time to ensure proper public engagement and accountability, but par for the course at the local school board level. 

The OCDSB claims that the intent of the change is to make the end-of-year ceremony more inclusive. “At commencement, students of all levels of achievement will be able to cross the stage with their peers,” reads the official statement that accompanied an invitation to members of the public to comment on the proposed change. 

The OCDSB rationale downplays the salient difference: “For a variety of reasons, students may not have completed all the requirements for a move on from secondary school. With this change, these students will be able to join their peers and celebrate their achievements.” What students who have not passed the grade are celebrating is as clear as mud. It, in fact, implies that simply “showing up” is now worthy of praise. 

They go on to add, “Commencement is equity-based and not marks-based,” and that “Students have diverse educational journeys, and all students’ diverse experiences should have the opportunity to be celebrated, including those who have historically faced challenges within the education system, both in the past and in the present.”

Students leaving secondary school after reaching 18 without meeting the marks will receive a Certificate of Accomplishment. It takes participation medals to a whole new level. 

Graduation rates have skyrocketed as well as final averages over the past two decades or more.  While Ontario high school graduation rates in 2004  sat at 68 percent, they now soar into the high 80s and low 90s. Being an Ontario Scholar used to mean securing a difficult 80 percent average. Today the vast majority of students exceed what was formally a benchmark of academic excellence. 

The awarding of high marks is deeply entrenched. This, in many ways, has undermined the value of a high school diploma. In June 2022, for example, some 86.1 percent of Ottawa-Carleton DSB students graduated in four years (Grades 9 to 12) and 90.5 percent took five years. That’s a little above the provincial average, comparable to Toronto DSB (85.8 percent over five years) but lower than York Region DSB (94.2 percent over five years) and York Region Catholic DSB (97.3 percent over five years). 

Coleton McLemore is silhouetted against the sky during the Commencement Exercises for the Class of 2020 at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School’s Tommy Cash Stadium on July 31, 2020 in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga. C.B. Schmelter/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP.

It’s still alarming to examine the impact of the proposed OCDSB changes on the current cohort of graduates. Students who work conscientiously to complete the high school program will have their achievement diminished further by the presence of a smaller group, roughly 14 percent, who get a free pass to participate in the final ceremony. 

The OCDSB policy change did not come out of nowhere. It owes its origins to the OCDSB Strategic Plan for 2023-27 and its undergirding philosophy—a commitment to inclusion, equity, and accessibility for all students. While few quibble with embracing inclusive education, the devil is in the details and the extent to which it now overrides the core mission of schools: teaching and learning in the classroom. 

Recognizing high student achievement is now being conflated with the traditional graduation ceremony and that is seen as antithetical to the overriding goal of celebrating all levels of achievement while serving those who have been “underserved” by the school system. 

Most inspiring school reforms and policy changes seek to lift children up and instill what American education psychology professor Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset.” For students, it amounts to a “commitment to thrive on challenge” where you don’t see failure as a way to describe yourself but as “a springboard for growth and developing your abilities.”

Degrading graduation is completely at odds with fostering a student growth ethic and a commitment to exceeding expectations. If the OCDSB policy changes go through and other boards follow suit, it may, in fact, breed complacency and give aid and comfort to what former U. S. President George W. Bush once called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” It will have arrived when, in the not-too-distant future, everyone gets a high school participation certificate.