Something to Remember

Thomas J. FlemingFrancis Parkman concluded his monumental account of France and England in North America with the Peace of Paris of 1763, by which France ceded Quebec, once and for all, to the British Empire.  In an uncharacteristically smug observation on the aftermath, Parkman described the French Canadians as “a people bereft of every vestige of civil liberty,” adding,

Civil liberty was given them by the British sword; but the conqueror left their religious system untouched, and through it they have imposed upon themselves a weight of ecclesiastical tutelage that finds few equals in most Catholic countries of Europe . . . and if French Canada would fulfill its aspirations it must cease to be one of the most priest-ridden countries of the modern world.

I wonder what Parkman, who really did love Quebec and her people, would say today, now that nationalists have rejected not just priests and the Church but the entire Christian moral order.  One might say that after surviving two centuries of English domination, Quebeckers have thrown out the baby Jesus with the holy water.

The most obvious aspect of the Quebec identity is language.  It is my impression that French is more universal now than it was when I first visited the city some 35 years ago.  One of the queerest results of the French separatist movement is the status of the French language.  Canada is officially a bilingual country, and even the smallest community in Ontario or Manitoba is supposed to provide street signs and official documents in both French and English.  Once an Anglo-Canadian enters Quebec, however, he had better be prepared to leave his language behind.

Canadian French does present something of a dilemma.  If the Québécois decided to preserve only their local dialect, they would be cut off from the great francophone universe whose literature and ideas have dominated our world for five centuries.  On the other hand, if they decided to speak cosmopolitan French, they would be like the pitiable Americans who come back from a year at Oxford speaking like the queen herself.  The obvious compromise has been to preserve Québécois as a home and folk language, while encouraging the study of standard French in school and promoting it through the media.

In the lower 48, Southerners face a similar language problem, which has led to some silliness about adopting British spelling, but the truth is that anything like the standard English spoken by educated Americans in the 1940’s has been replaced by the cosmopolitan Valley Girl dialect you hear on NPR.  If North American conservatives wish to preserve any part of their identity, they had better clean up their language and teach their children and grandchildren the language not only of Dr. Johnson and G.K. Chesterton but of Booth Tarkington and Scott Fitzgerald.

When the French army capitulated in Canada, it was without conditions, and the government of Louis XV took no steps to preserve the language or religion of France’s former subjects.  The Catholics did not know what to expect.  The great English model for a conquered province was Ireland, where the Catholics were persecuted and stripped of their lands.  The first British governor, James Murray, had been Gen. James Wolfe’s successor, and he was very sympathetic to the Canadiens (French Canadians), whom he admired for their hard work and general decency.  He won from the crown the rights of Catholics to practice their religion, but only in conformity with British law—which was, as the Irish knew, no right at all.  His deputy and successor, Sir Guy Carleton, was equally sympathetic and returned to England to argue his case.  The result was the Quebec Act of 1774, which granted the Canadiens the right to use their language as well as a privileged provision for the Church.  The act also pushed the boundary of the province of Quebec south to the Ohio River.  New Englanders were outraged at the thought that they might have Catholic neighbors in Ohio, and their worst nightmare was the fear that if the act were extended to the 13 colonies, mackerel-snappers could say Mass in Boston without facing execution.

British Protestants in Canada did not entirely shed their anti-Catholicism, but they did a pretty good job of learning to collaborate with individual Catholics and with the Church Herself, which, in Quebec, enjoyed official protection and support.  In the 1950’s under the conservative premiership of Maurice Duplessis, Church and state worked together to make the province a beacon of light in a darkening world.

Unfortunately, provincial and even national cultures do not have sufficient strength to resist the tidal wave of modernism that engulfed traditional Christian cultures in the 20th century.  When the so-called Quiet Revolution got under way, undermining not only the Church’s authority but all moral authority apart from the anarchic passions of the individual, the 60’s rebels looked back at the postwar years and described the period as “le Grand Noirceur,” the great darkness from which they were liberated—but from what and for what?  Most of us like to think we are “our own persons,” free agents who make up our own minds about everything.  This is hardly ever the case, especially with people who join revolutions.  In liberating themselves from bondage to family, church, and tradition, they are simply enslaving themselves to fashion—and the government.

The 60’s generation—my generation—are a spoiled, selfish, and ignorant people, who can change our wives, religion, and sexuality as easily as we slip from one pair of designer jeans to another.  Mine is not a generation of vipers, but a generation of dung beetles living off the excrement of earlier generations.  We can only consume.  We create nothing.

When Lord Durham arrived in Canada as governor general on a mission to sort things out after the rebellion of 1837-38, he made two memorable observations.  In the first he described Canada as “two warring nations with a single state”—a remark that has been quoted as often by the English as by the French—but he also described the Québécois as “a people with neither history nor literature.”

There is some truth to Durham’s jibe.  Unlike Sicily or Scotland or the American South, Quebec has not played a disproportionately important part in the culture of its country.  This is partly because Quebec was not yet a nation when she was conquered by the British, and the cultural traditions the French settlers had brought from the Old World were folkloric.  In the decades following the conquest, what literary scene there was came to be dominated by the provincial imitators of the Enlightenment—a misfortune that afflicts most provincial peoples, as in the South, which is dominated by Ivy League imitators who read the New York Times and The New Republic.

Despite the dearth of major literary figures Quebec is no exception to the rule that nations must survive in the imagination, if they are to survive at all.  The Acadiens, transplanted from Nova Scotia to Louisiana, today exist primarily through Cajun music, and the folk music and café songs of Quebec help to define the national character.

One of the most enduring songs, “Un Canadien Errant,” was even a hit on the American folk scene.  The song was written in 1842, a few years after Lord Durham’s arrival, by Antoine Gérin-Lajoie, a student who had heard of the rebellion and the harsh punishment meted out to the rebels, who suffered execution and exile.  In the last words of the third verse, the banished Canadian asks us to “tell my friends that I remember them.”

In time this song became the anthem not just for Canadiens in exile, like the Acadiens who adopted it, but for a people who came to regard themselves as exiles and strangers in their own land.  Even to this day, “Je me souviens” is the motto of the Quebec nation that for so many generations kept faith with their ancestors, their traditions, and their religion.

If a few folk songs and novels were the sum total of French culture available to Quebec, they would be perhaps even more culturally malnourished than we Americans would be if we were suddenly deprived of the classics of English literature, against which American fiction and poetry make a pathetic showing.  Fortunately, French is one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest, literary language of the past 500 years, and an educated French Canadian is at home in the language of Racine and Molière, Balzac and Baudelaire and Bernanos.  Unfortunately, many Quebec nationalists take as little interest in French civilization as they do in the Catholic Church, and they are systematically destroying every social, moral, and cultural impediment to the multicultural Quebec that in providing a home to Haitians and Algerians will make the natives strangers in their own land.

Like the Québécois, civilized and morally responsible Americans are becoming aliens in our own country.  By 2020, the left gleefully boasts, the United States will have a non-European majority.  But the English language and its great literature is less threatened by Mexican immigrants than by the twin forces of public education and popular culture.  When I listen to people under 30 or even under 40, I have trouble understanding their patois of broken phrases, worn-out clichés, all in the present tense with only one verb—goes—and delivered in the Valley Girl accent that makes every phrase a question.  I am speaking not only of mall rats under 25 but of a certain Harvard graduate in high office whenever he speaks—excuse me, “goes”—without the benefit of a teleprompter.

Americans, it is true, attend church services more often than Europeans do, but this statistic does not translate into lower rates of divorce, illegitimacy, and drug abuse.  Many of the most popular churches are simply weird commercial cults that have no discernible connection with historic Christianity.  Added to this mix are non-Christian religions, not just Judaism, with which we Christians have had to deal since the beginning, but Islam, Hinduism, and voodoo.

Then what, in a practical sense, can be done to remedy our amnesia?  There is no point in talking about what government can do in a country whose parties have offered, as their standard-bearers in the past four elections, a set of self-important hacks and hucksters who could not play a president on television, much less on the world’s stage.

Whatever significant regress is to be made, then, is up to ordinary people within their own community and circle of friends.  Some have been willing to throw the fakirs out of the pulpits; others have refused to permit shopping malls and office complexes to replace historic and beautiful buildings; while still other brave souls have resisted every effort to remove religious images from public spaces or even defended the Confederate flag.

Religious and historical symbols are more potent than might be imagined.  They are cultural talismans that work magic.  Driving into Quebec, visitors have to go by the Parliament building, which flies only one flag, the Fleurdelisé.  It is the flag of Quebec, the ancient royalist fleur-de-lys, set within a cross.  Since Quebec has the status of “a nation within a nation,” we can say it is the only Christian national flag in North America.  Quebeckers may be eager to abandon their religion and their history, but in preserving the symbols they have given their descendants something to remember.

This article first appeared in the November 2009 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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