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La question qui tue: Does English Quebec value itself?

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--March 14, 2014.

In his March 8 column (“La question qui tue: Are anglophones valued in Quebec?”), Don Macpherson seems to imply that the fault of not appreciating English-speaking Quebecers and their contributions to the province lies totally with francophones.

I have a different perspective.

I suggest that our undervalued contributions to the history of this province is the result of most English Quebecers not knowing their own history, and most are unable to counteract accusations of being spoiled and ungrateful, and unable to dissuade the stereotypic barb of being Westmount Rhodesians.

How do we change this situation?

We should look at how French Quebec has made its own interpretation of Quebec history widely known.

Being undervalued by the rest of Canada was something that many French Canadians felt prior to the 1950s. Rather than just blame others, though, francophone academics decided to make the history of French Quebec a subject that was widely studied and disseminated.

One professor associated with this change was Université de Montréal historian Michel Brunet. In a 1971 interview for a CBC television documentary titled The Craft of History, Brunet reminded the interviewer, fellow historian Ramsay Cook, that he had once found it necessary to admonish French Canadians for not explaining their history to English Canada.

Brunet told Cook that some 20 years earlier, he had come to the view that a “minority cannot blame the majority for not understanding it as long as the minority does not have the knowledge, the science and the courage to define itself.” While Brunet’s words were directed toward the French Quebec of an earlier generation, his observation about minorities and their history applies equally to the English Quebec of today.

Has English Quebec found the courage to define itself?

Far from it, I would argue.

How did this once-vital community find itself in this predicament? Are the contributions of English Quebec to the province and the country so little known that its history is an indifferent subject — perhaps even politically incorrect, especially within the English Quebec university milieu?

English Quebec today does not have an adequate, published panoramic history that explains who this minority is, or what its decisive contributions have been to both Quebec’s and Canada’s evolution.

Likewise, Quebec’s three English-language universities offer infrequent courses at best on aspects of English Quebec, only occasionally looking at contemporary sociological problems currently facing the aging population or, if a historical approach is taken, studying ethnic communities in stovepipe fashion rather than looking at English Quebec and its history as a whole.

It has been 30 years since Concordia University historian Ronald Rudin took a stab at writing a history of English Quebec in his aptly titled book, The Forgotten Quebecers. But as Rudin himself lamented in the preface of the book, his analysis “is a study of broad patterns, and it frequently lacks the detail that would have been available had a substantial literature on the subject already existed.” A substantial body of research now exists that was not available to Rudin 30 years ago, and yet academics seem reluctant to grasp the challenge of synthesizing this research into a comprehensive narrative of the English Quebec experience. Evidence of this substantial body of research can be found in an online annotated bibliography at the Quebec English-speaking Communities Research Network website at http://www.quescren.ca.

Sadly, none of the province’s three English-language universities has either a chair or a specialized study unit dedicated to the interdisciplinary research and teaching of anglophone Quebec. There are units dedicated to the study of the Irish, Jews and Italians, three populations commonly associated with English-speaking Quebec, but theirs is a limited, narrowly focused view of the anglophone population.

The fact that there is no adequate panoramic survey of English Quebec history is cause for concern. If the English Quebec minority is to have the knowledge, science and courage to define itself, it needs our universities to take a greater leadership role. Academics need to stop being ashamed of being known as historians of English Quebec.

Let us not blame others for not appreciating English-speaking Quebecers and their contributions to the province. Let us understand our own history so that we can explain our contributions and argue away the stereotypes.

Brendan O’Donnell is an independent researcher and the author of three bibliographies on sources for the study of English-speaking Quebec. He lives in Stanbridge East.