Duceppe Makes His Pitch to Western Francophones
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, January 17, 2005

Gilles Duceppe went West last week and found an audience still opposed to Quebec sovereignty but more receptive to him as person and a politician. Reassuring western francophones of his party’s continuing support, he also offered a fiscal position that made sense to anglophones.

“People in Saskatchewan are opposed to Quebec sovereignty but now they know and respect Gilles Duceppe better,” says Frederic Dupre, research co-ordinator at the University of Regina’s two year old Institute Francais, “so they are more open to him.” Dupre ferried the Bloc Quebecois leader to last Tuesday’s meetings at a francophone school, Ecole Monseigneur de Laval, before he appeared as a guest of the L’Assemblee communautaire fransaskoise and later addressed Regina’s business and academic communities. “He defends social and democratic values and is more respectful and calm, not passionate, but more rational. The kind of politician people could vote for,” says Dupre.

The Regina round came after a day in Winnipeg and before meetings in Edmonton and Calgary where Thursday’s Enbridge sponsored luncheon sold out. His western tour concluded in Vancouver at the Fraser Institute. Insisting the coming federal budget address the problem of a fiscal imbalance that has the federal government floating in surpluses but leaves the provinces scrambling for money, Duceppe added that this is a problem that is just as pressing for other provinces as it is for Quebec.

Conservative leader Stephen Harper couldn’t have said it better. But it was Duceppe’s undertakings to western Canada’s francophone communities that give pause to consider. A brief look at the history of francophone settlement in the West explains why.

In their paper Conspicuous by their Absence: French Canadians and the Settlement of the Canadian West, academics from Queens, McGill and Trinity College, Dublin discuss what they call one of the ‘great might-have-beens’ of Canadian history.

Between 1867 and 1905, the Canadian population and economy changed dramatically as massive settlement in the West laid demographic foundations that persist to this day. But the new western settlers were overwhelmingly from Europe, or even Ontario, not Quebec.

While some scholars believe federal policies deliberately attempted to reduce the influence of French Canadians in Confederation, there’s no question francophones migrated, but they went south not west. In fact, according to Quebec historians Damien-Claude Belanger and Claude Belanger, some 900,000 of them went south between 1840 and 1930.

Caught in Quebec’s changeover from crop to dairy production, many, particularly larger families, found the move to New England less costly than moving West. Here, too, the textile mills offered the whole family employment. And if opposition by Quebec’s elite classes discouraged westward migration, it certainly didn’t discourage large numbers moving south.

As economists, the authors of Conspicuous by Their Absence focus on skills and mobility issues without referencing the seminal events of the period, namely the Riel Rebellion and the Manitoba Schools Question. These pitted French against English, Catholics against Protestants and East against West, which was hardly conducive to new French settlement.

Today, and despite well established French second language programs everywhere, western francophones are feeling vulnerable. Of 6.6 million Canadians who claim French as their mother tongue, 5.5 million live in Quebec while most of the remaining million live in Ontario and New Brunswick. About 50,000 now reside in each of Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia, with 35,000 in Nova Scotia and sprinklings elsewhere. Of the 15,000 in Saskatchewan, some 5,000 use the language at home.

“Saskatchewan francophones are counting on Duceppe to defend them in the federal government,” says Dupre. “They don’t agree with sovereignty but they are afraid of being abandoned.” Federal money, he adds, is now overdue for renovating francophone schools in Saskatoon and Moose Jaw.

Duceppe has pledged that a sovereign Quebec would maintain a good relationship with the Francophone and Acadian communities of Canada. He would do this, he says, by creating a Secretariat of the Francophone Communities of America. “Once sovereignty is achieved, Quebec … will (have) greater reach and influence, which will be very conducive to the growth of Francophone communities in North America.”

A fictional presidential candidate ion last week’s episode of The West Wing was advised of the importance of New Hampshire’s franco-American vote which at 13% is significant. Some other states boast even higher numbers. Duceppe, who may replace Bernard Landry as leader of the Parti Quebecois and become the next premier of Quebec, is on to something he could soon deliver.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

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