Friday, June 1, 2018

What might have been

André Laurendeau, a French Canadian writer and politician, died 60 years ago today. He is most well remembered for spending the last five years of his life as chairman of the ambitious Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, set up in 1963, designed to try and find solutions to the escalating crisis between French and English speaking peoples. The stress and workload of the position, and an increasing despondency at the Commission’s achievements, may have contributed to his early death. He left behind a diary, published in 1991, which, according to Patricia Smart’s introduction, traces his ‘intellectual and personal evolution against the background of the major political events of the years he was involved in the Commission’. But, ultimately, she wonders whether the diary can only serve ‘as a lament for what might have been’. According to The Canadian Encyclopedia ‘the unsolved consequences of biculturalism is still a key question in Canadian unity’.

Laurendeau was born in 1912 in Montreal, into a well-connected Quebec family, his father was an ardent nationalist. André was given a classical education at Collège Sainte-Marie and studied literature and history at the Université de Montréal. In 1933, he and several friends formed a youth separatist movement, advocating a homeland for French Canadians. In June 1935, he married Ghislaine Perrault, and the two of them soon travelled to France, where Laurendeau studied philosophy and social sciences at the Sorbonne. There he eschewed his focus on nationalism, and became more preoccupied with the Americanisation of French-Canadian culture (as opposed to the threat posed by English Canada). Upon returning home, he served as director of the L’Action nationale from 1937 to 1943 which previously had been managed by his father.

Laurendeau came to prominence during the Second World War years as leader of the anti-conscription Bloc populaire, under whose banner he sat in the Quebec Legislative Assembly from 1944 to 1947. Thereafter, he was a member of the editorial board of Le Devoir (and its editor from 1958); he also returned to being a director of L’Action nationale. He is credited with turning Le Devoir into an effective forum for criticism of Maurice Duplessis’s second government (1944-1959).


Laurendeau became a leading spokesman for a wave of neo-nationalism in Quebec, a policy which was adopted by the Québec Liberal Party of Jean Lesage. However, fearing the consequences of a rising tide of separatism, he called for the Québec and Ottawa governments to look into the crisis. Prime Minister Lester Pearson responded in 1963 by creating the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism with Laurendeau and Davidson Dunton as co-chairmen. Laurendeau worked zealously for five years, and although the commission did produce various reports and recommendations, many of which were taken up by the incoming Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, it never published a final volume. Laurendeau died on 1 June 1968, the strain of Commission work being cited as partly responsible for his early death. Further information can be found at Wikipedia and The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Laurendeau kept a diary of his time as co-chairman of the Commission. This was later published, first in French, and then in an English translation as The Diary of André Laurendeau (James Lorimer & Company, Toronto, 1991). Some pages can be freely read online at Googlebooks. The Canadian writer Patricia Smart provides an informative and explanatory introduction. She starts by explaining that the B&B Commission, as it was known, ‘was arguably the most important - also the most lengthy, the most expensive and the most controversial - commission of enquiry in Canada’s history.’

She continues: ‘Were it simply an account of the inner workings of such an important government body, André Laurendeau’s diary would be a valuable document. What makes it far more than that is the image it traces of Laurendeau’s intellectual and personal evolution against the background of the major political events of the years he was involved in the Commission. Begun in January 1964, four months after he had accepted the chairmanship of the Commission, the diary gives a fascinating behind-the-scenes account of the way the Commission was put in place, including Laurendeau’s own initial hesitation to accept the position of Co-Chairman and his decision, after consulting with a number of Quebec political figures - Jean Marchand, Rene Levesque, Claude Ryan and others - that he must follow the logic of his commitment to Quebec and Canada to its conclusion. From the beginning, Laurendeau insisted to Prime Minister Pearson that if the inquiry was to be effective it must include culture as well as language, that it must be based on the principle of the equality of Canada’s “two founding peoples,” and that it must have the authorization to include recommendations for constitutional reform.’

And, finally, Smart concludes (in 1991): ‘For today’s readers, André Laurendeau’s pilgrimage in search of a means to allow this country to realize its potential may seems quixotic, or - more frighteningly - no longer worth the effort; and in that case his diary will remain as a lament for what might have been. [However . . .] Even as I write these lines, changes are taking place that may oblige Canadians to come to terms at last with the reality Laurendeau devoted the last years of his life to finding a solution for. With both major political parties in Quebec now committed to a radical restructuring of federalism, the province is speaking from a position of strength that twenty-five years ago Laurendeau had come to suspect was the necessary prerequisite to real dialogue with English Canada.’

It is worth nothing that much more recently Smart has published a book - Writing Herself into Being (McGill-Queen’s Press, 2017) - which includes a discussion of the lifelong diary kept by Laurendeau’s wife, Ghislaine Perrault. Pages of this can also be found online at Googlebooks. Here, though, are several extracts from Laurendeau’s diary.

12 April 1964.
‘Woke up this morning in Halifax in a thick fog, amid the screaming of sirens. We arrived here last night on our way to Sydney.

I note some impressions I’ve had over the last few days. Essentially the Maritimer is a Canadian dissatisfied with Canada, who remembers the period before Confederation as a period of prosperity, and who feels a constant need for interventions, at least on the financial level - which means grants from Ottawa. It is not only a political attitude: it’s a profound part of his psychology. He considers himself mistreated almost as much as the Quebecois does, but since he feels weaker economically, and less different from a cultural point of view, his criticisms always lead to more requests for money rather than a demand for greater autonomy.’

2 May 1964.
‘On Saturday, April 25, at about 5:00 p.m., return to an impossible life: I leave Montreal first for Toronto, then for Vancouver. During the stopover in Toronto, I learn from the Toronto Star that a commissioner fell asleep at the regional meeting the previous day in Edmonton, and that another spent his time smoking cigarettes in front of a no-smoking sign; a woman in the audience even commented that he must not speak English . . . A disagreeable impression, since all this appears on page 1 of Canada’s largest daily paper. I sit with Neil, Mr. Stinson and Frank Scott on the plane. It’s about 6:30; a red sun is on the point of disappearing over the horizon when the plane takes off. As we’re climbing quite quickly into the sky, the sun all of a sudden seems to be rising. And then we observe an amazing spectacle: a twilight that lasts for four and a half hours. During the first hour, we distinctly see Georgian Bay, then Lake Superior, and finally the desolate view of Northern Ontario. Then a screen of clouds settles in below us, and all we can see is this extraordinary end of a day, so slow that you feel you are out of time. It is only when we’re approaching Vancouver that night falls.

Dr. Walden meets us at the airport, and it’s a good thing: for the second time my suitcase has been lost, and I have to borrow a pair of pyjamas, buy a toothbrush and shave with someone else’s razor.

The stay in Vancouver starts out rather painfully. It’s not yet ten o’clock by Vancouver time and Dunton, who arrived the same day from Edmonton, isn’t yet back from dinner. Marchand, Gagnon, Lacoste and Boisvert are travelling by train. The others gradually drift into our suite, and I learn in bits and pieces that the Edmonton incident was decidedly disgraceful, and that it could have led to unpleasant consequences. Two of the commissioners had had too much to drink at dinner; one snored through the session, despite the nudges of Jean Marchand, who was sitting beside him, and the other made some imprudent comments (specifically on the need for a new newspaper in Edmonton). The staff were disappointed and humiliated by this public behaviour. The next day I learned that Jean Marchand royally chewed out one of the commissioners, who failed to understand his veiled allusions. All this seems far away now, but at the time we were all thinking of what would have happened if a newspaper had photographed our indiscreet sleeping friend. When Dunton arrived he seemed nervous and even aggressive, which is not his usual style. . .

The Commission met at 5:00 p.m. (the next day) for a briefing from Dr. Walden, who has done excellent work and recruited some remarkable collaborators. We ate on the run because at 8:00 there was a press conference in the presence of about twenty high-school students and the discussion leaders for the next day’s session. It wasn’t a very good blend: it meant we had a gathering in which the journalists felt a bit lost; and we had to exclude them from the meeting once the interviews were over . . . Once they were gone - and one of them surreptitiously tried to stay - it became a lot more interesting. Neil Morrison said a few words, and immediately the young people started to come forth with questions and opinions. I have only a vague recollection of what they said; I think it dealt mainly with language questions: Is it possible to learn French in Vancouver? Why this pre-eminence being given to French? How “good” is the French spoken by French Canadians? etc. Their ignorance of Quebec is no greater than that of other groups. And yet Dunton caught them out with a clever question: “How many of you know that Quebec has a rural majority?” All the hands were raised, and we burst out laughing. Dunton made the correction: 65% of the province is now urban, to which we could have added that there hasn’t been a rural majority since 1921. These young people are a good forty years behind the times; but it’s true that we took a long time ourselves to notice this transformation. This meeting, which lasted over an hour, was truly refreshing, and one had the feeling it could have gone on for hours. But to be really fruitful it would have had to contain a presentation on Quebec - which brings us back to our insoluble problem: for it’s a presentation we can’t make ourselves and that we can’t officially ask anyone else to make.

Finally, a fairly technical discussion with the group leaders, then coffee. A young businessman said to me: “Do you know why I’m here this evening? Like most people, I was fairly indifferent to this problem. About a month ago, I heard a speech by a young Liberal MP, a man with an attractive personality, very French Canadian. When he spoke in French, I said to myself: I don’t understand a thing he’s saying, no more than if he were speaking Russian; and yet he’s using the language spoken by a third of the Canadian people. My ignorance seemed to me abnormal.” Unfortunately, one swallow doesn’t a springtime make . . .

On Monday the 28th, the evening regional meeting was held in a shopping centre, almost in the suburbs. We expected a fiasco, but more than 400 people came. All the commissioners and group leaders were crowded onto a little stage, blinded by floodlights, but just the same it was a very lively meeting. It started out with a series of negative comments on Quebec, one after the other, very disagreeable to listen to; the theme was that of a “retarded people,” and retarded through its own fault. And then a young man I had met earlier in the day got up and said: “Keep on insulting French Canadians like this, and you’ll create thousands more new separatists in Quebec.” That was the turning point: others pointed out the large number of errors and prejudice in what had just been expressed, tried to set the record straight, etc. Neil was very nervous, and irritated by the comments he was constantly getting from the commissioners sitting near him. Once the meeting ended, he lost his temper: “This is the last meeting that I chair.” There was no point in trying to talk to him at that moment.

We went back and chatted in our suite, and later Jean-Louis, Mrs. Laing and I went out to eat in an Italian restaurant.’

9 September 1964.
‘. . . I went to Ottawa Tuesday evening, August 25, and got in touch with the Commission the next day. It was mostly a matter of setting up the meeting for the following week. The calendar set up in July has been followed to a certain extent: all those concerned - with the exception of Dunton and Morrison, away on holidays - sent in their drafts on the agreed dates. Personnel did, too. As for phase two, that is, comments on the texts that are in, the deadlines weren’t met with the same rigour. The projected overview has been done, to some extent, by a staff member, Mr. Hawkins. In addition, Mr. Dunton, when he came back from his holidays, wrote a plan for the entire report, which was sent to me in Saint-Ga- briel at the end of mine. It’s truly a wonderful text, with a simple and convincing tone, that brings together a considerable number of facts and impressions. Its shortcoming is probably the fact that it doesn’t bring out the crisis aspect enough, a crisis which most of the commissioners sense keenly in Canada at the present time, and which Léon Dion had proposed we use as the report’s central theme . . .’

8 February 1965
‘A lot has gone on recently that I don’t have time to go into, but I will go into one incident having to do with the Department of External Affairs.

Occasionally, ever since the beginning of the inquiry, French-Canadian civil servants have proved to be very uncooperative. It’s quite understandable: in order for them to pursue a career in the civil service as it now exists, they have had to accept it for the most part, even though it was hard on them and they did their best to see it progress to some extent.

Everything I’ve just said applies, I believe, to Marcel Cadieux, Assistant Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. We learned that the officials of this department wanted to submit a crucial paper; Mr. Cadieux intervened, and there would no longer be a paper. He didn’t like our using André Patry to investigate various aspects related to Canada abroad. He made his position clear to us through a letter signed by his minister, Mr. Martin, after which we met him. He was accompanied by one of his departmental chiefs who was taking notes. His official attitude came down to this: the Commission was not asked to investigate Canada’s foreign policy - which was patently obvious, no more than it was asked to investigate the running of trains by CNR, or the way the Armed Forces ensure Canada’s defence. However, we have to sniff around quite a bit to fulfil our mandate. And that’s what we answered, unwaveringly. Another letter from Mr. Cadieux summarized the meeting leaving out essential details, but Mr. Dunton courteously set the record straight in a subsequent letter. It was even said that Mr. Cadieux was quietly campaigning against our way of doing things with his colleagues, the deputy ministers. It remains to be seen if this is in fact true and what consequences it might have.’

No comments: