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Super-cool Quebec: independent and easy

A recent visit to Quebec City took me to my favorite tourist haunts that make this city so special: the panoramic view of the St. Lawrence from the towering terrace by the Chateau Fontenac; the elegant cathedrals and churches that dominated here for over three centuries; and the magnificent ferry ride from Quebec City to Levi which affords spectacular views of the Quebec skyline. But it took an unexpected and very painful three-day stay in a Quebec City hospital to afford me a clear view of life in Quebec today and to explain why the once very successful Quebec independence movement has fallen on hard times.

Traditional Quebec was a poor region dominated by British interests, rural farms, and the Catholic Church. The remnants of that old Quebec remain today. When my son David and I visited Levi, a beautiful city across the river from Quebec City, we entered a large Catholic cathedral that was about to start a late afternoon mass. The congregation awaiting the service was quite large, but there must have been no one under the age of sixty or seventy. There was not one younger or middle-aged person in sight. We next visited the city’s old Catholic seminary which once boasted a large cathedral-size church, but not many years ago the seminary sold the old church to the city for a dollar. The building is now a most attractive and well-utilized library.

Chateau Frontenac

Chateau Frontenac

Today Quebec is a vibrant, proud, wealthy state in full control of its destiny. Across Quebec one encounters the Quebec flag, called the Fleurdelisé, flying proudly over every park and public building. One occasionally sees the Canadian Maple Leaf flag, usually at a federally run post office, but such a citing is rare. When you are in Quebec, one gets the very real and firm conviction that one is in a sovereign nation. Texas, by comparison, is very proud of its independent heritage, but when there one never doubts one’s presence in the United States. On the other hand, many Quebeckers I have spoken to in recent times, while proud of their Canadian citizenship, state firmly that they are first and foremost Quebeckers. They also expressed the conviction that Quebec has already achieved the sovereignty that will preserve their French identity and cultural heritage.

During the 1960s Quebec experienced its “Quiet Revolution” where younger leaders took over the government and modernized many of the province’s traditional institutions. The Catholic Church lost control of education and health care, both of which were thoroughly modernized and expanded by the State. Quebec’s cities grew at a rapid pace as the province joined the modern industrial and technological world. French Canadians, now better educated and more confident than in the past, began to assume positions of authority in industry and government. French was mandated the official language for all business and government transactions.

Quebec’s new nationalism led to calls for independence and pro-sovereignty politicians and parties fared well in both provincial and federal elections. The pro-sovereignty forces crested in October, 1995 when an independence referendum failed by just a handful of votes. In recent months the Parti Quebecois has collapsed and the parliamentary Bloc Quebecois was decimated in the May 2011 election, sinking from 47 seats to just four. So what is going on here?

I found the answer in the very modern University of Quebec hospital where I made a quick recovery from a potentially life-threatening illness. It was fortunate that I spoke some French because virtually nobody, from top administrators to the nurses who cared for me so well, spoke any English. The region around Quebec City is thoroughly French and is clearly a very distinct society that takes great pride in its Quebecois heritage.

The hospital stands as a symbol of the new Quebec. The Quebec flag flew proudly over the hospital and there was no Canadian flag in sight there or in any other part of Quebec city. The hospital is a modern, efficiently-run, but thoroughly French. When I asked a nurse if she was interested in Quebec national sovereignty, she replied that while she sympathized with sovereigntist goals, there was no need for Quebec to seek its own nationhood. “We are already a nation. We have our culture and language and nobody outside is threatening us. We have our own wonderful health care and educational systems which we ourselves control. We are one of the wealthiest and culturally advanced regions of Canada—and we have done this on our own. We have all that we need—we are already a sovereign state.” Quebec even has its own national health service, having opted out of the Canadian health system. Maintaining its own health service was Quebec’s way of asserting its own sovereignty.

Her point is well-made. Today Quebec ranks second in national income behind Ontario. Its high-tech industries are among the fastest growing in the world, it is the cultural leader of Canada in terms of books published and other indicators, and there is simply a lot of wealth around. Twenty years ago when I would visit the small resort city of Magog near the Vermont border, I found a rather run-down place that offered few amenities beyond its nearby Mt. Orford ski resort. Today one finds street upon street with huge mansions, superb restaurants, and ultra-modern super-markets.

Quebec does not need sovereignty because it is already free. The goal of the sovereignty movement was the preservation of French / Quebec culture in an English sea. Sovereigntists claimed that French culture could not survive unless Quebec became its own state, but French culture is flourishing, the Quebec economy is booming, and Quebeckers are increasingly confident in their world. They have everything they want and manage their lives very well without outside interference. The doctors and nurses at the Quebec hospital saved my life and provided dramatic proof that they are performing well within their own cultural nation.

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