By Patricia Tomasi
Most of my relatives are Quebec separatists. I was shocked when I found out last summer and I decided to go to Quebec to try and understand their point of view. I returned to Toronto more confused but convinced of one thing: separatism is a sham.
I first got a glimpse of my relative’s political views during the 1995 referendum that nearly caused Canada’s break up. My aunt didn’t seem too glad to hear I had participated in Toronto’s unity rally prior to the big one in Montreal. She responded on the telephone with dull “mmms” and “uhmmms” as I told her how I’d signed the giant “we love Canada” poster that was going to Montreal. She actually sounded a bit disturbed by it all.
My aunt seemed more excited to tell my mother how my cousin from Quebec, on a visit to Toronto, made moose calls with her friend on the subway. Apparently this was meant to offend anglophones. My mother didn’t quite know what to say. My aunt just chuckled at the cleverness of her daughter’s antics.
Time passed and it became clear my Quebec relatives were separatists. I was beside myself. I didn’t understand what could possibly make them believe separatism was the only answer for Quebec. What made them dislike anglophones so much?
I needed to find the truth. I needed to go to Quebec and ask my aunts, uncles and cousins why they believed separatism.
So last summer I headed to La Belle Province. I told my relatives I was coming for a visit but I didn’t tell them the real reason behind it all. I felt like a federal spy on a mission for truth.
Arriving in the small town of Bic it was apparent I was in a separatist region. The Quebec Fleur de lis were the only flags to be seen and they were everywhere. They were on top of houses, stores and on top of the train station.
I grabbed my bags and walked towards my waving uncle. He drove me to my aunt’s house where I would stay in Quebec.
I decided not to drop any bombs until I was properly settled in. At breakfast the next morning I saw my chance to start the discussion when the morning papers, La Presse and Le Devoir, arrived. I used the front page article about the preparation for the present Supreme Court case on Quebec’s legal right to separate as a segue into a discussion on separation.
“So what do you think about this case,” I nonchalantly asked my aunt over a bite of roast.
“Well, it’s just crazy,” she responded. “How can the federal government think it can tell us Quebecois what we can and can’t do. If we want independence, there’s nothing they can do to stop us. It’s our right.”
Pandora’s box was open.
Separation dominated our discussions from that point on. It even spilled over into bigger family gatherings and ended in a serious argument that divided the family for a while.
We were all invited to dinner at my uncle’s house in Rimouski one night, a city not too far from the small town of Bic. Politics was not on my mind that evening. I felt I had already exhausted the issue the days before and I needed a break. So instead I enjoyed the view of the sunset on the St. Lawrence River from my uncle’s balcony and sat down to eat la ratatouille with the rest of my relatives.
But the fire was already lit.
My aunt started. “Did you know that Patricia is really interested in Quebec politics?” My uncle’s face lifted. Looking at me he said, “Is that so? What do you think about the whole situation?” Somehow I knew that question was going to get me into trouble. No one had asked my opinion up to that point and I wasn’t sure sitting at a table full of separatists was the right place to share it. But the platform was mine so I used it.
That’s when it call came pouring out. I told them how I thought separatism was wrong. That Quebec shouldn’t have to feel threatened by the rest of the country. That the French language and culture is being preserved. I found myself unleashing what was bottled up inside. I went a little too far. I reminded them they had lost the war.
“You’re lucky you’re my cousin,” my moose-calling cousin said.
“Why wouldn’t separation work?” she asked. “First of all because of the economy,” I said, and she quickly jumped in. “How dare you bring up money in this issue. Don’t you know that the way we feel has nothing to do with money? We will find a way to make it on our own even if we suffer in the beginning. I hate it when they [anglophones] say that we’re going to suffer economically. That’s not what it’s all about.”
I could feel the emotions rising. I wasn’t going to stop there. I came here to find answers, not remain quiet for fear of offending someone. I plodded on.
“What is it all about then?” I asked her. Then I addressed the question to the whole table. “Why do you want to separate?” I think I heard the sound of one lonely fork clang the side of a plate in that long 10 second moment of silence.
Then the silence was broken. “Because we should have been separate from the beginning,” my aunt responded. “Our history is different from yours [anglophones]. Just compare an English history textbook to a French one. We have each interpreted the events in the past differently. Take Louis Riel for example. The French have always seen him as a hero and the rest of Canada see him as a traitor. The federal government pardoned him not too long ago only to get on the good side of the Quebecois because they know they’re losing the battle. They know separation is just around the corner.”
And that’s why I was glad to see Daniel Johnson, leader of the Quebec Liberal party, resign last week. He’s not strong enough to win the next provincial election. If the Bloc Quebecois gets reelected, there will be another referendum and this time the separatists might actually win.
Although the discussion left the room divided and some of my relatives didn’t talk to each other for a while, I felt like I was doing some kind of duty for my country by speaking out against separatism. My uncle spoke out in defence of Canada. And I found there is a lot of misinformation about the issue.
My relatives didn’t know that aboriginal Canadians have claim to two-thirds of Quebec. My aunt thought Quebec was the only province with a flag. I felt good telling them the truth but I was also a bit disturbed. Was this the kind of information separatists were holding on to? Who was feeding them these lies? Or were they just never told the truth? I learned a lot from my relatives that summer and I hope they learned a lot from me.