Canada’s last big wild and crazy dream

Written by  //  April 24, 2014  //  Canada, Guy Stanley  //  No comments

Opinion: Canada’s last big wild and crazy dream
By Guy Stanley, Special to The Gazette
18 April 2014

Despite its boosterism and hype about “success,” North America has a long history of lost illusions and busted dreams.

From the Mexican El Dorado to the Massachusetts Bay City on a Hill to Jefferson’s Republic of yeomen farmers, none fulfilled all that was hoped.

Canada’s dream of a mighty land bridge, linking the Atlantic to the Pacific, and preserving freedom under British institutions, worked out better than most — except that the Empire didn’t survive.

The élan has also drained from Canada’s successor dreams, such as Pierre Trudeau’s Just Society, constructed around a liberal constitution of founding peoples. Stephen Harper’s neo-con project looks less like a crazy dream than a hyper-rational business model; and while our prime minister talks a northern dream, it turns out in practice to be more of the same.

So what’s left?

There is, in fact, only one big, wild and crazy dream left in Canada.

It’s the romantic dream of a French empire of the Laurentians, from the Gulf of St Lawrence to the Great Lakes and beyond. And you know what? We keep checking on this dream, in one way or another, from one election to the next. The result is always the same. The dream is never realized but it is still there. It is not going too far to call it what it is: the last great Canadian dream.

The heart of that dream remains New France. It is worthwhile remembering how it began: the struggles of the first few hundred Frenchmen and women who came here 400 years ago and stayed through the stunning rigours of the winters, the savage violence of what we call today “asymmetrical war,” the English-speaking invasion, the rejection by France, the struggles for representative democracy, and the preservation and promulgation of the language of Molière, to the point that French is permanently grafted into the institutions of the conquerors/occupiers/neighbours.

That story is the history of Canadian freedom.

History has made the French Fact a shared Canadian achievement — however reluctant some may be to see it that way.

People of a certain age can remember the last world war. After the surrender of France in 1940, Montreal was the last great free French-speaking city in the world. The old French Empire was largely conquered; yet in Canada, French civilization endured free.

One of Canada’s major contributions in that war was to help liberate France and Belgium, thus again re-establishing French culture as a vital element of transatlantic civilization, with Montreal and Quebec at the apex of the North Atlantic triangle.

Today, while France is busy working on its franglais, Quebec is a centre of French cultural creativity. Quebec is where they reinvented the circus, the oldest form of entertainment in the world. From Quebec outward streams literature, music, cinema, TV — just a torrent of French culture out to the rest of the world, all the more remarkable from a place less than a day’s drive from New York City.

True, Quebec is not an accountant’s favourite spot. Le Duc de Choiseul, France’s foreign minister under Louis XV, asked the English why they wanted New France. It was impossible to defend and a drain on the treasury.

Today, that same dreary observation is made during almost every election campaign in Quebec.

Unfortunately, it’s still not clear that the Rest of Canada actually “wants us.”

Nor is it altogether clear that Canada’s current federal structure is roomy enough for the emerging new and vibrant Quebec to flourish fully.

Yet the arrangement between the two official languages and cultures provides security, and an economic base, upon which the impossible dream of a vibrant and expansive French civilization in North America builds.

If a French empire from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes was the first of the great Canadian dreams, it’s also the last one standing.

Although this dream is realizing itself in many ways, its ultimate impossibility confers upon it an ineffable fragility, like Canada itself. Quebec and the Rest of Canada are the people of the dream — crazy, astonishing, and strangely beautiful.

Guy Stanley is a historian and semi-retired business consultant who has taught at McGill University and HEC Montréal. He lives in Beaconsfield.
© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette

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