Quebec's Imagined Communities

(written in 2011)

Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities locates the origin of nationalism in the “Creole” states of Latin America and the US. He argues that growing tensions between colony and mother country fostered a discrete identity in the colonies based on what made them different rather than what they shared (language, heritage). The development of print capitalism brought together geographically dispersed populations through national distribution networks of readers, uniting them around a common local culture. Innovatively, nationalism is seen here not as a product of the consolidation of European capitalism but as a result of anti-imperialism.
The centrality of colonialism to Anderson’s thesis makes it surprising that Canada and Quebec get no mention in the book, either as proof of or exception to the argument. If Canada’s beginnings saw it cling loyally to the colonial motherland, repudiating many of the tendencies Anderson outlines, it nevertheless defined itself in opposition to subaltern identities, both French and American, as its leaders imagined the nature of its community/ies in diverse, competing, ways. In this sense, Canada is actually an exemplary representation of Anderdon’s thesis if the process of imagination is understood dialectically as the product of a struggle for power and rights and not simply as discursive outgrowth of print capitalism.
On the French side, the rough trajectory of the struggle to imagine itself seems to consist in a gradual radicalization and localization of political demands. Even as he demanded local power, Louis-Joseph Papineau’s 92 Resolutions was rhetorically committed to remaining within the Empire: “The People of this province of Lower Canada, have shown the strongest attachment to the British Empire” (Point 1). By the time of his grandson Henri Bourassa, French interests were imagined to be reconcilable with a Canadian federation that distanced itself from war-hungry Britain. World War One would test this theory. Bourassa first declared the war justified on the basis that “Le Canada, nation anglo-française” had ethnic, intellectual and economic ties to Britain and France that went beyond the imperial relationship (Durocher 251). René Durocher argues that Bourassa hoped English and French Canadians might “découvrir leur commun nationalisme et ainsi freiner l’impérialisme” (252). However, as the Conscription Crisis intensified, the intransigence of Canadian politicians and, more fundamentally, the belligerence of the English-language media had pushed Bourassa to oppose the war by 1916.
The same war would come to play a major role in the mythology of the (English) Canadian nation, with the Battle of Vimy Ridge acting as a (paradoxical) symbol of national independence as Canadian soldiers left 20,000 Germans dead in a battle for British influence in Europe. The officially imagined Canadian community continued to tie itself to loyalty to the Empire through this coming-of-age story of an obedient, responsible, independent child.1
Prior to this, Canada had been imagined by its leaders as a British outpost trying to deal with le fait français, either through the hard assimilation tactics of Lord Durham or through various strategies of containment by way of concessions to the French and the promotion of francophone figures into the visible leadership of the country. These two tactics continued in alternance into the second half of the century, as Diefenbaker’s anglophilia gave way to Trudeau’s bilingual federalism, though this could be interspersed by periods of tough stand-offs, such as 1970’s War Measures Act and 1982’s Night of the Long Knives. In Quebec, since the Quiet Revolution, the imagined community has changed from an ethnic-religious-linguistic to a geographic-linguistic identity, transforming the frontiers of the imagined community from all of Canada to the borders of Quebec.
The influence of print capitalism in Canada developed differently from Anderson’s model. Instead of a single indigenous (or Creole) print culture carving out an identity distinct from a mother country that shares the same language, the Canadian example is one of two language communities with their own print cultures as well as an overlapping translated, bilingual culture. This, in fact, reinforces Anderson’s point that language is not the defining feature in the creation of nations. In contrast, he argues, “The major states of nineteenth-century Europe were vast polyglot polities, of which the boundaries almost never coincided with language-communities” (196). However, competing print cultures in Canada would articulate different imagined nations, with different imagined borders. In popular discourse in English Canada, Canadian identity is usually defined according to a series of narcissistic traits and an ambiguous relationship to the US and the UK. Not only do such definitions seek to sidestep the nation’s origins as a colonial settler society and an outpost of British imperial expansion, they forget le fait français as quickly as did the author of the Maple Leaf Forever. Such neglect is partially wilful and partially an accident of having a separate print culture (and separate media). In Quebec popular discourse, meanwhile, English Canada seems to exist largely as a benevolent or imposing political (rather than cultural) entity. English culture is experienced, and accepted, in great part as American culture. Another kind of English Canadian nationalism that attempts to imagine Quebec as backward and Quebec nationalism as ethnocentric. The Canadian nation is then imagined narcissistically as more open and tolerant as a way to score points against the enemy separatists and forge an alliance with blocks of citizens.2
Jill MacDougall’s fascinating analysis of Quebec’s performance of nationhood in the St-Jean-Baptiste parade highlights the importance of the dream in imagining (and performing) the utopian project of creating a new nation. The national dream is not limited to the non-existent nation. Jean Chrétien’s pre-referendum speech alluded to the “end of a dream” should the Oui side win. He went on to outline his vision of that dream: “A country whose values of tolerance, understanding, generosity have made us what we are” (A16). The federalist dream is marched out as a dystopian counter-dream to the utopian separatist one. In it, the existing nation is imagined in a language of hyperbolic sentimentalism.
Since MacDougall’s analysis is restricted to a parade it is limited to a particularly kitsch aspect of Quebec nationalism and she risks adopting the gaze of the Saidian imperialist anthropologist (certainly, many English Canadians might find it problematic to evaluate the English Canadian national dream on the basis of Roch Voisine’s performances on Parliament Hill). This points to the fact that a mature national project needs to be broad enough to include diverse models of subjectivity into the identities it claims to represent. Recent St-Jean events have featured not only a parade of national saint figures but also an alternative music festival (l’Autre St-Jean) and raucous street parties ending in skirmishes with the riot police… in Mile End. However, can this diversification ever match the possibilities for subjectivity that exist beyond nationalism? Indeed, disparagement with Quebec nationalism is often portrayed with the affect of being “beyond” all nationalism: anti-sovereigntists are more likely to stay home than attend a July 1 celebration, but this cynicism often a tacit acceptance of the status quo, i.e. of tolerance for Canadian nationalism. This raises the question of whether the paradoxes of nationalism affect established and embryonic nations in the same way.
Finally, a note on the ambiguous relationship of nation to capitalism. The Canadian ruling class sought to found its own nation once production had advanced to a point at which local state regulation was needed to guarantee accumulation. The lumpen Quebec bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century was led towards nationalism because it needed a state to secure its social position and felt left out of the Canadian state. Many of these concerns have been achieved as a result of the nationalist movement of the last century. Language laws have undone some of the systemic discrimination in the production hierarchy. The reforms of the Quiet Revolution prepared the population for life as educated workers in a modern, urban capitalist market and allowed for the flourishing of a Quebec bourgeoisie (so-called “Québec Inc.”) that now has an ambivalent relationship to the dreams of sovereignty of its youth. The nation is ultimately, then, a capitalist project that requires all of society to dream it.
1 A curious reversal of these roles is found in Jean Chrétien’s pre-referendum speech, “Why destroy Canada?” The federal government is now the parent lecturing to a wayward adolescent: “Do you really think it makes sense, any sense at all, to dye your hair green and run off with an alcoholic truck driver?” he seems to say.
2 Perhaps the most desperate version of this was Jan Wong’s attempt to recruit Dawson College shooter Kimveer Gil as a victim of a xenophobic Quebec (among Gil’s extensive online inanities was only one mention of Quebec: “It’s OK, I guess.”).


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