Nègres blancs d’Amérique

I grew up watching two social movements.  As a child I watched the protesters in the USA – everything was happening there!  Protesting Vietnam! Women’s liberation and the ERA!. But the biggest change on the canvas was the Civil Rights movement and this new equality between the races (that takes some explaining to a Canadian kid – how long ago was that Civil War? how long ago was slavery? there really was slavery?).  News photos of segregated fountains and bathrooms, and George Wallace’s Alabama.  Sore losers from a historic war.


At home, Québec was changing in profound ways as well.  It was called the Quiet Revolution (la révolution tranquille), which is why you never heard of it.  The book “Nègres blancs d’Amérique” is written by Pierre Vallières, a FLQ member. “Speak white” is a phrase from that era.

[He] wrote it after he was arrested in 1966 at a demonstration in front of the United Nations. He was held at the Tombs prison in Manhattan until January 1967, awaiting deportation to Canada on charges related to the bombing of shoe factory in Montreal in the early 60’s that killed a secretary at the plant. 


negresblancsThis is how the French/English divide in Québec (The Two Solitudes) was explained to me: my mom told me that of all the colonialists the British were the “nicest”.  Wasn’t it nice that even after the English won the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759 that they did not make the French people give up their culture or language!

A little older and the story becomes well, the Catholic Church made a deal with the English.  They could keep their Civil Code and Catholicism and all, and the Church would “keep the people in line” for the English businesspeople.  (This is kind of ridiculous – I mean did they sign a secret document, have a secret handshake?).  But the Catholic Church in Québec was all powerful – in an Ireland/Rome kind of way.  Education was provided entirely through the church. School boards were strictly denominational. (My “Protestant” high school is where the Jewish kids were, because there was entirely no religion in my school at all.)

"The Evening Visitor" Jean Paul Lemieux, 1956- National Gallery of Canada

“The Evening Visitor” Jean Paul Lemieux, 1956- National Gallery of Canada

Depending on your parish, you might expect the priest to visit you one year after marriage to ask where the baby was, and why not?  People of my generation had French-Canadian grandmothers that had 10 -12 -15 or 20 children (often said “17, 4 of which died” or “21, but 7 died”).  The horror I feel on behalf of those mothers!  It was also commonly said that the French were not encouraged to higher education, the priest would choose which of your sons should study at the seminary (having a priest in the family!) – but that meant the only educated member was designed not to breed or raise the next generation.

My dad used to say “The Catholics go to school and learn their catechism and 2 plus 2 equals 4.  The Protestants go to school and learn 2 plus 2 equals 4 and 1 for interest makes 5.”

French Canadians were the factory workers, the farmers, the labourers by and large.  Management was English – if you couldn’t speak it, you couldn’t get ahead.  Entrepreneurship was an English mindset.  

funny how much he looks like Jacques Parizeau

funny how much he looks like Jacques Parizeau


Prior to the 1960s the moral codes from the church were really strict – almost Scarlet Letter level control – for the Catholics.  Montréal was always a sin city because of and in spite of the priest on your shoulder. We all know that the 60s saw revolutions among the youth worldwide.  If the culture you are rebelling against is sufficiently repressive, the pendulum is going to swing far the other way.  In art, there was Le Refus Global in 1948, but that was more elite, not as populist. Paul-Émile Borduas was dead by 1960 so he wasn’t there to see it through.

"Leeward of the Island"Paul-Émile Borduas, 1947- National Gallery of Canada

“Leeward of the Island” Paul-Émile Borduas, 1947- National Gallery of Canada

The English status quo in Montreal barely noticed anything was happening until the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) started bombing, killing and kidnapping.  I was eleven when the October Crisis happened.  The idea that the French saw themselves as “white niggers” when the English had more or less let them govern themselves… from the same NY Times article as above

”To be a nigger in America is to be not a man but someone’s slave,” Mr. Vallieres wrote in his book, which was published in French in 1968. He and the movement clearly identified with the struggles of blacks in the American South, although he was criticized for comparing the history of the blacks to the less burdensome travails of French-Canadians.

The FLQ was quickly suppressed.  Trudeau père enacted the War Measures Act – to my surprise barely covered in school now – in which ALL CIVIL LIBERTIES WERE SUSPENDED.  In Canada!  The army was here! Soldiers! Tanks!  When their victim Pierre Laporte died, and they left his body in the trunk of car to be found – the terrorist wing of the movement died except amongst the most diehard political separatists.

Peter Bregg @Breggphoto "I was there Oct. 16, 1970 P. E. Trudeau tells CBC Tim Ralfe 'Just Watch Me' after invoking War Measures Act."

Peter Bregg @Breggphoto “I was there Oct. 16, 1970 P. E. Trudeau tells CBC Tim Ralfe ‘Just Watch Me’ after invoking War Measures Act.”

The political arm of the movement, the Parti Québécois, was elected to rule the province in 1976, to the shock and horror of the English business community.  I was working as a typist in my first job straight from high school. I could not vote on November 15, 1976 because I was still seventeen.  In my childhood the Canadian dollar was always worth a couple of cents more than the American dollar.  My first job was in customs brokerage which entailed daily international currency exchange rates.  The Canadian dollar began to fall overnight.  The manager had never seen such a fall in currency.  Huge companies left their historic flagship head offices in Montréal for a trip down the 401 to Toronto.

Aislin is the Montreal Gazette's beloved editorial cartoonist.

Aislin is the Montreal Gazette’s beloved editorial cartoonist.

We were now called anglophones, francophones, or allophones.  They were not French Canadian, they were Québécois. There was not white flight, but anglo flight – largely to Ontario..  In my high school years a new FM radio station CHOM was broadcasting bilingually.  DJs could speak or play music in either language depending on their whim or desire.  One famously played the entire Tubular Bells many times in a row.  I learned about and still enjoy much Québécois music: Harmonium, Beau Dommage, Charlebois, Offenbach, Pagliaro, Plume Latraverse.  Language laws came into play, apparently French stations were losing audiences to this bilingual station – and afterwards a station was regulated into English or French, and a great opportunity was lost to really bridge the Two Solitudes – youth culture is the fastest and best way.


A neat fact about popular Québec music in the 70s – they may have hated the anglophones but they LOVED the Brits.  All the progressive art rock bands from England: Genesis, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Supertramp and Yes were embraced years before they hit elsewhere in North America. The biggest cult following for an American act here? – Frank Zappa – unilingual francophones were able to phonetically sing along to even his most verbose songs.

Growing up when and where I did gives me such a great window onto the world – I can appreciate so much because so much was offered up so openly.  The French passion tempered by a little English practicality makes for a lot of joie de vivre.  It is said that Torontonians “live to work”, but Montrealers “work to live”.  I can know people for years socially, know their musical tastes and hobbies, and not really know what their job is beyond office, or factory.  In fact most who make more money than me in higher-caste professions want to know about my day job at the dog groomers.  We rent, we don’t save, we invented Balconville years before Staycations.  We smoke, we drink, we have festivals, and concerts, and parades.

Today is June 24th.  St-Jean Baptiste Day. La fête nationale. It is Québec’s holiday.  Years ago it was along religious lines, celebrating missionaries and such, and after they traded in the fervour of religion for the fervour of nationalism the holiday changed its tone.



While America sadly has to relive its racial history over and over again with violence, at least Québec has the benefit of an intellectualism that tends to soften.  Now Québecers largely are maîtres chez nous (masters of their own house), their contribution is well received and well documented. The English who stayed all speak French now to varying degrees, and the daily life is integrated except in very few anglo outlier neighbourhoods.  Some grumble reverse discrimination, that pure laine Québec surnames now get preferential treatment.  

What happened to Pierre Vallières?  According to the obituary in the NY Times he progressed from terrorist to human rights advocate.

Mr. Vallieres eventually grew disenchanted with the Parti Quebecois and did not even vote in the separation referendum in 1980.

By the time of a second separation referendum in 1995, Mr. Vallieres had grown distant from the movement to which his writing had helped give intellectual life.

In recent years, Mr. Vallieres took up many causes, including gay rights, native self-government and mental health. He was a founder of the Quebec-Bosnia Solidarity Committee and traveled to Sarajevo in 1995.


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