Month: August 2016

The Coloured Tongue : Orientalizing the Québécois from Lord Durham to Today

The Coloured Tongue : Orientalizing the Québécois from Lord Durham to Today

Picture: Michèle Lalonde reading Speak White! during the 1970’s Nuit de la poésie

Imagine a few thousand votes had gone the other way in 1995, and Quebec’s separatists had won their referendum. Today Quebec could be closing in on its 20th year of independence. And what would we have? A small, deeply indebted country cut off from its supply of federal subsidies, its economy weak and state-dominated, its society riddled with corruption from top to bottom, struggling to survive in a much bigger, more successful marketplace uninterested in its cultural worries. Odds are it would be using someone else’s currency, the pragmatic reasoning for that being too strong to ignore. And a key problem would be in keeping its best and brightest at home, the prospects being so much brighter in better-run neighbouring countries. In other words, Greece.

– Kelly McParland, “Quebec’s ‘distinct society’ proves to be riddled with corruption disease”,  National Post, June 18, 2013

In other words, Quebec’s economic prospects — or lack thereof — likely have contributed to its status as “the most corrupt province in Canada.” As Quebecers ponder the arrest of yet another mayor, they may merely be harvesting the fruits of their political choices — rotten apples and all.

– Tasha Kheiriddin, “Corruption, stagnation, separatism – what’s really killing Quebec”, June 17, 2013,

Every student from Québec has heard of Lord Durham’s 1839 report. John George Lambton, Earl of Durham, was appointed Governor General of British North America and High Commissioner to Canada in 1838. The previous year, a group of Canadiens – that is, French Canadians, as distinct from the British settlers – rebelled in Lower Canada (today’s Québec)[1]. The episode, commonly referred to in Québec as the Révolte des Patriotes, was crushed by the British authorities, but it remains for many French-speaking Québécois a crucial, bittersweet token of their colonial plight, and the symbol of their anticlimactic yet enduring resilience. In a report published in 1839, Lord Durham accounted for the result of his inquiries on the rebellion throughout Upper and Lower Canada. According to him, the uprising had been caused by issues related to the colony’s political structures of government and by a “conflict of race” that opposed the French and English populations. His assessment of the French Canadians has made him one of the most despised historical figure in Québec history :

They [the Canadiens] are an old and stationary society, in a new and progressive world. In all things and places they have remained French, but Frenchmen who in no way resemble those of France. Rather, they resemble the French of the Ancien Régime. […] There can hardly be conceived a nationality more destitute of all that can invigorate and elevate a people, than that which is exhibited by the descendants of the French in Lower Canada, owing to their retaining their peculiar language and manners. They are a people with no history, and no literature. The literature of England is written in a language which is not theirs; and the only literature which their language renders familiar to them, is that of a nation from which they have been separated by eighty years of a foreign rule, and still more by those changes which the Revolution and its consequences have wrought in the whole political, moral and social state of France.

Durham’s portrayal of the French Canadians is typical of colonial, Orientalist discourses of the time : The subject nation is an “old and stationary society” that is “destitute” because it holds on to its “language and manners”; it has “no history, and no literature”. Just like, according to Kelly McParland from the National Post, Québec’s inclusion within the Canadian confederation is what keeps it from being a clone of today’s Greece[2], so did, in Durham’s view, the solace of the French Canadian “race” lie in its assimilation into the “new and progressive” British Empire. Accordingly, Durham’s report proposed three measures aimed at preventing another rebellion : 1. The Union of Upper and Lower Canada into a single colony 2. The assimilation of French Canadians 3. The granting of ministerial responsibility to the local ruling elite. His first and third suggestions were implemented but, alas for him and his supporters, his second one remains but a fantasy.

In 1968, while in jail in New York city’s Manhattan House of Detention for Men, the former Franciscan turned writer/revolutionary Pierre Vallières wrote Nègres blancs d’Amérique. The province was then in the midst of the Révolution Tranquille (the paradoxical expression perfectly encapsulates Québécois discomfort with open confrontation), a nationalist awakening that brought a sharp end to the control of Québec’s social and economic life by the catholic clergy and the anglophone élite respectively, while giving rise to a French-speaking cultural emancipation whose repercussions can still be seen (and heard) today. That same year, the Québécoise poetess Michèle Lalonde turned the English-Canadian expression “Speak white!”, which was commonly used in Canada to urge French and other non-English speaking individuals to resort to English in public contexts, into the title of a powerful poem, the reading of which, in 1970, is considered one of the highlights of Québec’s cultural decolonization[3]. The beauty and persisting relevance of her verses force me to quote part of it here :

Speak white
tell us again about Freedom and Democracy
nous savons que Liberté est un mot noir
comme la misère est nègre
et comme le sang se mêle à la poussière des rues d’Alger ou de Little Rock

Speak white
de Westminster à Washington relayez-vous
speak white comme à Wall Street
white comme à Watts
be civilized
et comprenez notre parler de circonstance
quand vous nous demandez poliment
how do you do
et nous entendez-vous répondre
we’re doing all right
we’re doing fine
we are not alone

Nous savons
que nous ne sommes pas seuls.

Nègres blancs d’Amérique and Speak White highlight how, to Vallières, Lalonde, and many French-speaking Québécois of the time, the struggle of the French-speaking population of Québec was comparable to that of their southern Black American neighbours and, more broadly, of all men and women living in former colonial countries (Vallières and his friend Charles Gagnon had actually come to New York city to touch base with Black Panthers members, and they both got thrown in jail after starting a hunger strike on the steps of the UN building). For them, time had come to have some self respect and, as René Lévesque later put it, take “Le beau risque” of independence. Yet, forty-eight years and two lost referendums later, Québec is still a province of Canada, and deep down, in subtle yet enduring ways, the founding myth of the Nègre Blanc d’Amérique persists, in what I call the colonized complex of the Québécois people : This fierce egalitarian tendency, whereby someone with too much culture, success, or wealth is seen either as a source of intense collective pride (see, we can do it too !) or as a highly suspicious individual (who does she think she is ?). Despite our socio-economic emancipation, we remain, in many ways, stuck in a colonial limbo when it comes to our sense of self and, concomitantly, the way we are portrayed by the French or the English Canadians.

For Québécois are still subject to two main types of othering processes, whose underlying logic can be seen as an evolution of Durham’s Orientalizing assessment : One coming from France; the other, from English Canada. According to clichés frequently reinstated in mainstream English Canadian media, Québec is both the closest alternative to French “art de vivre” and culture[4], and a corrupt land peopled by racist, intolerant, disorderly whiners.

One striking illustration of this Orientalizing, simplistic stereotyping known as Québec bashing[5] is the now famous cover of Macleans’ issue dated from September 24, 2010 and entitled “Quebec : The most corrupt province”[6]. The dossier, headed by Martin Poliquin, was written in the context of a provincial corruption scandal, that had been brought to light by a team of French CBC investigative journalists[7]. The closed nature of the question it poses is in itself an illustration of its stereotypical and reductive bias : “Why does Quebec claim so many of the nation’s political scandals?” According to the pseudo-sociological analysis provided by Poliquin and fellow English Canadian journalist Andrew Coyne, the answer lies in two main factor : The role played by Québec’s State (the État providence) and the independence movement in the province’s affairs and its catholic past[8]. Nowhere does it occur to the authors that, perhaps, the distinguishing feature of Québec’s treatment of corruption compared to the rest of the country is not so much corruption itself, but the fact that documented collusion systems have been thoroughly documented and made public by local teams of journalists, and that these investigations have led to passionate collective discussions and official (though imperfect) consultation mechanisms. Alas, just like Kelly McParland’s and Tasha Kheiriddin’s neocolonial assessment of Québec quoted above, Maclean’s caricatural portrayal of Québec’s history, population, and State is not disimilar to arguments put forward by white academics to justify the poor representation, if not systemic exclusion, of non-white scholars in their field. In both cases, their inferiority/incompetence/corruption is seen as a fatality that stems from fundamentally flawed State institutions and religious beliefs. Maclean’s point about Catholicism being one of the roots of Québec’s corrupt nature reminds me of a conversation I had recently with a senior white academic, according to whom, “as long as they [Egyptians] will remain Muslim, this [that is their intellectual incompetence] won’t change”. A similar logic applies to the way in which debates surrounding the Accomodations raisonnables have been covered by English Canadian media : According to the prevalent reading, these debates regarding what cultural and religious accomodations should be permitted or not occurred because French-speaking, white Québécois’ obsession with their own linguistic and cultural survival has made them more afraid of change and, therefore, xenophobic than their English Canadian peers. The ghost of Lord Durham looms close.

In mainstream French discourses, “Canadiens” (the pre-1960s term remains the most commonly used ones to refer to Québécois) are amusing “cousins”, who speak a bastardized and archaic version of the proper (that is Parisian) French. Depending on the open-mindedness of each French person, the way Québécois speak is seen as colourful and funny, horrible to hear, or simply impossible to understand. A surreal conflation of xenophobic and colonial views is provided by a conversation between French TV Host Thierry Ardisson and Maurice G. Dantec, a late French poet who became Canadian after migrating to Québec, during a 2006 show of Tout le Monde en Parle. Ardisson, who quotes Dantec saying that he prefers the accent Québécois to bumping into Muslims, says of the Québec accent that “c’est quand même ce qu’il y a de pire”, and concludes by confessing : « Moi, je préfère croiser des Musulmans que l’accent québécois”. The audience then applaudes.[9]

Québécois are also often portrayed using words and metaphors that refer to the time of the Nouvelle-France : The cliché has it that we remain, like the nature around us, wild, coarse fur trapers who enjoy nothing more but hanging out in the woods, a bit like a white, French speaking version of the autochtone or Indien (Native American). A good case in point is an article about Québec chef and businessman Ricardo Lavallée published in the September/October 2016 issue of the French magazine Elle Table. This article is, frankly, an Orientalist gem. Take for instance this passage (words in bold are mine) :

L’appétit autonomiste de Ricardo évoque le fonctionnement des anciens établissements pionniers, ces sociétés de défricheurs capables de tout produire en autarcie, comme autant de petites arches de Noé. Il y a chez lui, comme en tout Québécois, une vénération de la retraite dans l’érablière, équivalent autochtone de la palombière ou de la datcha : pendant « le temps des sucres » (entre 4 et 6 semaines autour de Pâques), un porc est traditionnellement sacrifié et congelé en plein air, véritable garde-manger dont on tire des charcuteries fumées au bois d’érable, des « oreilles de crisse » (chips de couenne de porc frite au saindoux) ou des fèves au lard. Cela se déguste avec des délices de cabane sucrière comme les œufs au sirop ou la tire sur neige (qui consiste à faire tomber du sirop d’érable sur de la glace, tout en l’enroulant sur un bâtonnet au fur et à mesure qu’il durcit). L’influence du personnage dans le Nouveau Monde est telle que la sortie de son premier livre en France sera célébrée par lui-même à l’ambassade du Canada. C’est qu’il est en quelque sorte le meilleur émissaire de l’art de vivre québécois. Ricardo vit à proximité du fort de Chambly, au bord d’un affluent houleux du Saint-Laurent qui a dû servir de décor à la geste de Jacques Cartier et aux guerres indiennes. Sa maison-studio au confort de gentleman trappeur est environnée d’oliviers de Bohème, d’argousiers, de bleuets, de glycines et de rosiers de jardins anglais, entre lesquels slalome une petite frayère pullulant de têtards et d’écrevisses. L’esthétique de Ricardo jette un ouvrage d’art entre l’Amérique et le monde d’expression française. Cette France américaine a quelque chose d’intimement dépaysant, avec son franc-parler, sa franchise en tout qui francise tout. On dirait qu’elle résiste à l’accélération continentale qui est en train de faire de la gourmandise une sorte d’enjeu narcissique, de conquête héroïque.[10]

To sum up, according to the author of this article, Ricardo Larrivée, his North-American culinary empire, and the town it is based in (Montréal!) belong to the realm of the Nouveau Monde’s French pioneers, to a world where people trap furs and, comes Spring, retreat in sugarfarms where they feast after sacrificing a pig. Just like in Lord Durham’s portrayal, for Elle Table, Québécois identity is not theirs : They belong to a static American France where, out of insecurity and naive candidness, they turn everything into French. The online outrage created by the stereotypical and colonial content of this article was such that both an author (not the author of the article) and the editor in chief of the magazine were compelled to publish a justification and apology[11]. The magazine’s humility and ability to apologize to its Québécois readers is commendable. Yet, the core of the issue is, after a full week in Montréal, the author and other members of Elle Table’s team thought that such a festival of colonial clichés was appropriate. Why? Because, according to the magazine’s editor-in-chief :

Cet article n’est certes pas exempt de lieux communs, mais c’est souvent le lot des fantasmes qui poussent les voyageurs à découvrir de nouveaux horizons. Et c’est en partie de cela que se nourrissent la cuisine et l’art de vivre : d’images certes un peu caricaturales, mais réconfortantes.

Now this is precisely where the problem is : In the indulgence with which colonial or dominant cultures think it is comforting to stereotype the colonized Other. It might be so for them, but it is certainly not for the objectified ones.

I’ve once given a talk in Paris during which most of the audience spent their time smiling. Some would at times look at each other with amusement. They really liked how I spoke, they told me later. It was so coloré. What about what I was saying, I thought. French friendly yet neo-colonial judgement of Québécois French is also used by many English Canadians as a perverse way to rationalize why there is no need for them to learn Canada’s second official language. A Québécoise friend of mine who used to work in Toronto was told the following by a couple of English-Canadian colleagues : “Why should we even learn your language? The French themselves say it’s not proper French.” They might as well have saved themselves a few words and just say Speak white!

For many Québécois, me included, to have someone mention our accent when we speak French or English is seen as some sort of a failure : the sign that, despite our efforts to blend in, to self-assimilate into the dominant cultural context we are immersed in, our otherness has been uncovered. Is only fully bilingual he or she who does not have an accent (that is, any non metropolitan one). This is perhaps a symptom of where the main issue lies : In our own inability to see, let alone get rid of, this self-Orientalizing layer that has, subtely yet enduringly, permeated our collective, and also individual, identities.

Katherine Blouin

[1] For a good summary of the events, see : .

[2] I will refrain from commenting on the very condescending, simplistic, and Orientalizing nature of this metaphor from McParland.

[3] See also, for some context : , where the picture on top of this post comes from.

[4] The case of Québécois cinema, which has been thriving in recent decades, is a particularly interesting one. Unsurprisingly, it tends to travel more to France and francophone Europe than in the rest of Canada. This pheonomenon is generally rationalized by English Canadians as the result of the fact that movies from Québec are in French, a language which, despite the “bilingual” nature of the country, most Canadians don’t speak nor understand. See for instance the following article, whose title appeals to the topos of the francophone therefore entrapped nature of Québec’s society and culture : .

[5] See notably on the matter ;



[8] Macleans’ article was not only condemned in Québec – including by Jean Charest, the Premier Ministre of the time, who was personally targeted in the article – but also in the rest of Canada, including the House of Commons, where all parties joined to propose a motion condemning it

[9] .


[11] , which includes some hilarious tweets from Québécois readers.