The End of the Great Depression

Stephen Harper, Reformist - credit to Canadian Press (1992)

Now that we’ve all had a week to digest…

The administration of Stephen J. Harper, Canada’s 22nd Prime Minister, has mercifully come to an end. A nation takes a much-needed sigh of relief.

This was not the prime minister the majority of Canadians wanted. Elected on promises to end a decade of self-congratulatory and self-serving Liberal government, the Harper Conservatives quickly degenerated into precisely what they had claimed to oppose. In the end, they were far worse than that which they had replaced. Patronage was rampant, the party could barely go a month without being embroiled in scandal, and the leader, his party and his band of raving sycophants treated the Canadian public, and the institutions which have helped unite a cosmopolitan and continental country, with utter contempt.

For nearly a decade a disorganized, disunited yet nonetheless vocal majority of Canadians opposed Stephen Harper, the Conservative Party he commanded, and just about every decision they made. This opposition rallied around the NDP’s Jack Layton in 2011, and found a new hope in the third-place Liberals under the apparent leadership qualities of Justin Trudeau in 2015.

Justin Trudeau, heir to the Liberal crown, is now prime minister, and he promises great change.

The problem of course is that this is not great change at all.

Canadians have been following a cycle stretching back to the Second World War at least. We get fed up with the Tories and replace them with the Grits, then get fed up with the Grits and replace them with the Tories. Each promises to move the nation forward and eliminate the wasteful ways of the predecessor, and then each winds up essentially committing the same crimes, further diminishing the public’s confidence in what the federal government is capable of accomplishing (and this here is the greatest crime ever perpetrated on the Canadian people; the idea that government is more hindrance than help has, and will continue to, set us back developmentally-speaking).

So let’s be real for a moment.

Our last truly great prime minister was Lester B. Pearson. In five years (and with two back-to-back minority governments no less) the man managed to eliminate the death penalty, establish universal health care, created the Canada/Quebec Pension Plan and brought in a student loan program to increase access to post-secondary education. He gave us our flag, the Order of Canada, kept us out of the Vietnam War (and was assaulted by U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson for having the ‘temerity’ to tell American students precisely why) and established the bilingualism and biculturalism commission to better integrate the ‘two solitudes’.

And on top of all this he won the Nobel Peace Prize for inventing peacekeeping and was elected in 1963 at least in part because he insisted Canada should acquire nuclear weapons!

Pearson should have served as a model for all of his predecessors. A natural diplomat, he not only invested heavily in the establishment of a comprehensive and effective foreign service, he also fought hard to achieve consensus here at home. Neither Harper, nor Chretien nor Mulroney were able to accomplish half as much as Pearson during their twice-as-long-lasting reigns as prime minister, and with every passing decade it seems we’ve elected chief executives who have demonstrated a progressively decreasing interest in working with anyone other than their own partisans.

That this is taken for granted is terribly problematic. Our elected ‘leaders’ ought to work for the benefit of all Canadians, regardless of who those Canadians voted for or what region of the country they live in.

In the 148 years of this nation’s modern history, no prime minister has been as divisive as Stephen Harper. We are fortunate he has decided to exit federal politics and will allow new blood to run the Conservative Party. Whoever replaces him has an immense task at hand to regain public confidence and re-define the party. Given that the Trudeau Liberals have won a majority of seats in Parliament, the Tories have a while to rebrand themselves.

That being said, we have every reason to be cautiously optimistic.

Justin Trudeau has proven himself a very effective politician, and he ran a very successful campaign. In terms of how the Liberal Party presented itself to the public, they championed a kind of pragmatic progressivism which has characterized the Liberals for over fifty years, albeit delicately and without being overly precise.

Mr. Trudeau is Canada’s first Gen-X prime minister, and at the age of 43 one of the youngest in Canadian history (though we do tend to elect PMs in their mid-40s). He is also, of course, Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s eldest son, born on Christmas Day 1971 to Canada’s enthusiastic and professorial prime minister and the flower child he met on the beaches of Tahiti. The American President Richard Nixon famously prophesized that Justin would one day walk in the shoes of his father when he was still a toddler. When the elder Trudeau passed in the Millennial Year, Trudeau the Younger’s eulogy from the pulpit of Montreal’s Notre Dame Cathedral turned heads: a nation heard the voice of a future leader.

We must not make a false idol out of Justin Trudeau.

There’s temptation to do so: our democracy isn’t that strong, and historically-speaking the people of this nation have, time-and-again, created a kind of local aristocracy out of our political class. If we despised the Tories for any one particular reason over the last decade, it is because they so frequently acted as though they were not beholden to the citizenry of the nation, not even to those who supported them most fervently. The Tories turned their backs on veterans and the military, their economic record was abysmal and a total lack of federal command over strategic resource exploitation has not only turned much of Northern Alberta into a environmental wasteland, it has further sapped Western Canada of its primary economic driver. Thirty years after the National Energy Program sank the Trudeau/Turner Liberals, we now wonder whether a degree of protectionism in the oil and natural gas sector might not be to our advantage in a world of unstable geo-politics, itself a product of un-stable oil prices.

Laissez faire, the unspoken motto of the Harper Decade on far too many matters of national importance, doesn’t seem to work anymore.

But inasmuch as Canadians seemingly voted to end ‘hands-off’ federal government, I can’t help but wonder if we also voted, even if we won’t openly admit it, for Justin’s father, and a notion of political genetics. I fear some of us may have.

The 42nd election was quite unlike any other in Canadian history, as it was so clearly an executive election in a parliamentary system that doesn’t directly elect executive leaders. This was not a three-way fight between three national parties, it was Justin vs. Stephen vs. Thomas, with Lizzie and Gilles off on the sidelines providing colour commentary. And so, this election was also a demonstration of just how broken our democracy really is. What we were supposed to do was collectively choose 338 legislators to replace a remarkably dysfunctional parliament. Instead, only 67% of us chose between one of two prospective national leaders (after taking a principled, socially-liberal and fundamentally Canadian position on the issue of the niqab, Mulcair paid for it by losing much of the early support he had acquired; for the last month of the election at least, it was a two-way race).

While the voter participation rate in 2015 was about five percentage points higher than in 2011, 67% participation still puts us squarely in C minus territory vis-a-vis democratic participation. A third of Canadians could not be bothered to execute their primary democratic responsibility. As far as I’m concerned, this is as much the fault of the ‘leaders’ and their parties as it is the system in which we operate. Even as bad as things have gotten, a third of those eligible still felt no particular need or utility in expressing themselves as citizens in a democracy.

Mr. Trudeau has indicated several times that 2015 will be the last federal election in Canada to use the ‘first past the post’ method, and that the next election will utilize a proportional system wherein the composition of parliament directly reflects the wishes and will of the people. He must be held to this. Canada cannot consider itself a true democracy when so many votes wind up not counting for anything at all.

Ultimately there’s a broader idea here – the chief executive of the nation must be held accountable at all times, not just during our quadrennial attempt at democracy. Unfortunately, given Mr. Trudeau’s majority government, he won’t be required to achieve consensus in Parliament to get anything done. He should try to nonetheless; he should govern more like Pearson than even his own father. We should not want Pierre Trudeau reborn.

There’s much Trudeau the Younger must do. He should repeal bills C-51 and C-24 in their entirety, make the TPP document public and even consider a national referendum on further free trade pacts. He needs to ensure next year’s census is long-form and mandatory, and I wouldn’t mind mandatory voting in addition to a new proportional voting system as well. November 11th (Remembrance Day) and February 15th (Flag Day) ought to be statutory national holidays, door to door mail delivery needs to be maintained and the CBC, NFB and NRC should all get major funding increases too.

And we also need a proper inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women (and men) that results in a serious commitment and plan to end the endemic inequity, mistreatment and generally lower quality of life experienced by an unfortunate number of Aboriginal Canadians.

I could go on with a wishlist but I won’t, it would take far too much time and I’m certain there are other more talented writers currently drafting outlined for large tomes aimed at dissecting the nation’s most recent ‘decade of darkness’ and all we want our prime minister-designate to accomplish.

Rather, I’ll end it on this point here. François Cardinal at La Presse already neatly summarized an idea that’s now quite clear to Montrealers – the holy trinity of liberals at the helm nationally, provincially and municipally will likely benefit our city immensely, especially given the forthcoming sesquicentennial of Confederation and Montreal’s 375th anniversary in two years.

Cardinal argues that Montreal voted for the right team, and that this will benefit us. Not only is the Prime Minister a Montrealer, there’s a good possibility a number of cabinet members will be as well (and it should be pointed out that Canada’s largest cities not only rejected the Tories outright, but their mayors were far more vocal about their dissatisfaction with Stephen Harper, another national ‘first’).

At the very least this means our city’s unique perspective will be well represented. But what underlies Cardinal’s article is the notion we’ll benefit more directly in terms of federal money flowing into our city, perhaps in part as a kind of reward for electing so many Liberals, or to help stave off separatist rumblings. Either way, if the new government benefits Montreal in particular, it will be no better than its predecessors. We should not want a federal government that rewards cities or regions because of who they voted for, as this is precisely what we didn’t like about Stephen Harper.

Or Maurice Duplessis for that matter…

It’s natural that the new government and our new chief executive will likely favour our city in various ways, but it can’t come at anyone else’s expense. We can’t accept more patronage and favouritism simply because the guy doing it is young and handsome.

That being said, it is most definitely the right time for a new political arrangement between Canada’s largest cities and the federal government, one that gives Canada’s major cities greater local control over how tax dollars are spent, over how key services are administered, and in particular how our great cities are to move forward and develop.

If there’s a particular reason to be cautiously optimistic, this would be it.

In search of the Fat Damned English Ladies from Eaton’s

Pierre MacDonald, August 1989 - credit to the Montreal Gazette
Pierre MacDonald, August 1989 – credit to the Montreal Gazette

Here’s an example of a contemporary Quebecois myth you’ve likely heard before:

At some point in the past Quebec Anglophones were openly hostile to Francophones and insisted that Francophones speak English whilst conducting business transactions. This supposedly widespread phenomenon was illustrated with the image of a rotund middle-aged woman working behind the counter at Eaton’s, speaking the Queen’s English and insisting anyone who wants her service should do the same.

I’ve heard this story and variations of it for as long as I’ve cared to have an opinion on Quebec independence. The story is often brought up to suit various purposes, either as demonstrative of the ‘Westmount Rhodesian’ stereotype of old-school Anglophones, or to demonstrate the relative success of Bill 101 in ensuring Francophone dominance in our day-to-day lives.

Some, including Mathieu Bock-Coté of the Journal de Montréal, refer to the ‘grosses madames de chez Eatons’ not only as though this racist, sexist, characterization were an evident historical fact, but additionally claim the phenomenon of Anglophones refusing to do business in the language of the local majority is alive and well today.

If you have any common sense, you’ve doubtless thought this story was a touch far fetched.

It certainly never made any sense to me. Why on Earth would a business of any size prohibit their staff from speaking both official languages? Doing so would be a disastrous policy. Moreover, why would any business openly antagonize Francophones by hiring people such as this aforementioned stereotype? If I ran a business and discovered one of my staff was conducting themselves as such, they would promptly be fired. Any manager or business owner with a modicum of common sense would do the same today inasmuch as fifty, seventy or one-hundred years ago.

Let’s keep something in mind: Montreal has been a primarily Francophone city since before Confederation. The last time the relative populations of Anglophones and Francophones in Montreal were even close to parity was back before the Rebellions of the late 1830s. In the last 100 years, the largest the Anglophone population ever was (in all of Quebec), was 880,000 in 1971.

It is entirely unrealistic to imagine at any point in time in the last 100 years of our city’s history that saleswomen working in the city’s major department stores were instructed to not speak French or were hired specifically because they were unilingual Anglophones. It goes against the very nature of capitalism and basic customer service practices. It’s even more unrealistic to imagine there was some kind of concerted effort amongst the Anglophone minority to snub Francophones and/or antagonize the majority population to prevent them from shopping on Sainte-Catherine.

And yet, despite the fact that the stereotype of the fat unilingual Anglophone lady doesn’t jibe well with reality, there’s the very real fact that it is taken as historical truth and that the entire story is utter bullshit.

Here’s what really happened:

In January 1989 then provincial industry and commerce minister Pierre MacDonald granted a La Presse journalist an hour-long interview, during which time the reporter asked what MacDonald thought of the language debate. At the time the Quebec Liberal government had just invoked the notwithstanding clause to uphold its ban on bilingual signs, and linguistic and nationalist/federalist tensions were running high.

MacDonald replied candidly that he was sick of the debate.

As it was reported in the Montreal Gazette shortly thereafter, and again in the May 1st 1989 issue, MacDonald was said to have called some Eaton’s clerks “fat, damned English ladies who can’t speak a word of French” (for those unaware, Eaton’s was a major national department store chain that went under around 1999-2000; in 1989 their Montreal flagship store was located at University and Sainte-Catherine and was one of the premier shopping destinations in the city). The Gazette article was itself referring to comments made by MacDonald in the La Presse interview from earlier that year. An opinion piece in La Presse dated to January 17th 1989 by Lysiane Gagnon excoriates the minister for having repeated the ‘sentiments of his colleagues who, evidently were wise enough not to repeat the racist and sexist statements of some their own constituents.’

In the context of the question “what do you think of the language debate?” MacDonald had answered that he was personally sick of it and that the phrase “fat, damned English ladies from Eaton’s who can’t speak a word of French” was an example of the language used by extremists on both sides of the debate (meaning both the Francophone and Anglophone communities had linguistic extremists who were either unwilling to speak with the other camp and/or felt excluded by them).

The Gazette’s ombudswoman in 1989, Stephanie Whittaker, felt it was necessary to clear the air on June 26th 1989 when she pointed out the inconsistency in the Gazette’s own narrative in an article entitled “Small inaccuracies can gravely distort news stories”.

Tell me about it.

What’s embarrassing for the Gazette is that they reported the inaccuracy, as fact, in MacDonald’s obituary, published on July 10th of this year.

The same mistake was repeated by La Presse writer Émilie Nault-Simard in her October 25th 2013 article “Les grosses Anglaises de chez Eaton.”

Too bad for Pierre MacDonald. Not only was he often misquoted as the source of a statement that did not reflect his own views, but by referring to this clichéd stereotype wound up inadvertently solidifying its place in our common memory. So much ink was spilled attacking the minister for his remark the fact that he wasn’t speaking of his own experience, nor even of any kind of recorded experience, somehow became unimportant.

And now, for some people, it’s accepted as a historical fact. Nault-Simard, writing for La Presse, even attempts to bring the mythological fat English ladies into the fold of Quebec history by arguing the Quiet Revolution was in part a reaction against them (and in additional historical revisionism, Ms. Nault-Simard refers to the Fédération des femmes du Québec, founded by Thérèse Casgrain and critical of the minister’s alleged comments on the grounds of the inherent sexism, as an Anglophone women’s group!)

I say again, there were no fat unilingual Anglos at Eaton’s. The Gazette reported it couldn’t find any on January 15th 1989, and letters published in La Presse on January 26th 1989 indicated at least three Montrealers who, by their own admission, couldn’t find any either and had always been served in French when shopping at Eaton’s.

Both Pierre MacDonald and Lysiane Gagnon were referring to a cliché, a stereotype, a mischaracterization and a fabrication that existed before MacDonald’s 1989 La Presse interview.

But a cliché isn’t a historical fact no matter how many people believe it.

What’s interesting to me is how local media dealt with the obvious miscommunication. For La Presse the problem was that an important cabinet minister felt such an obviously racist and sexist comment would in any way be representative of mainstream Quebecois sentiment. Gagnon objected to the sexist and racist stereotype on the one hand, then attacked MacDonald for not realizing there’s demonstrable proof French was the overwhelming language of commerce in Montreal, as it was then and as it is now. According to Gagnon, the same day MacDonald referred to the ‘fat damned English ladies’, the Conseil de la langue française issued a report indicating French was first in the shopping malls, department stores and small businesses across the city. It should be noted that Gagnon’s piece, entitled ‘La vendeuse et le ministre’, defends Anglophone linguistic rights, attacks the Bourassa government’s Bill 178 as being unnecessarily damaging and further adds that Bill 101 was more flexible in terms of the languages used on commercial signs.

Gagnon is a noted promoter of Quebec’s language laws.

For their part, the Gazette seemed incapable of choosing a narrative. At first they reported MacDonald as having made the remarks himself as an indication of his own opinion, seemingly approving of Bill 178 as necessary to protect the French language against Anglophone linguistic extremists under the employ of the T. Eaton Company. Then the Gazette corrected their earlier story and appropriately explained MacDonald was not expressing his own views. Then, inexplicably, the Gazette returned back to their original story, and continued reporting it as fact and as demonstrative of MacDonald’s personal views until the minister corrected them in May of 1989. It would take until June of 1989 for the Gazette to get their story straight, and only after the paper’s ombudswoman went to the extraordinary step of issuing a fairly comprehensive explanation of the prolonged communication breakdown.

And even once this was done, the story had been so widely taken out of context it even made its way into Mordecai Richler’s controversial ‘Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!’ as, you guessed it, an indication of MacDonald’s personal feelings.

So to recap: there were never any ‘fat damned English ladies at Eaton’s who couldn’t speak a word of French’, it was all one big game of broken telephone.

And it’s unfortunately become an indelible stain on the historical record, accepted as a real example of things used to be.

Special thanks to Kevin Areson for helping with the research.