Ethnic Profile, Historical Processes, and the Cultural Identity Crisis among Quebeckers of French Descent

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Marc-Adélard Tremblay (1922 - )
Anthropologue, retraité, Université Laval


Ethnic Profile, Historical
Processes, and the Cultural
Identity Crisis among Quebeckers
of French Descent”

Un document produit en version numérique par Jean-Marie Tremblay, bénévole,

professeur de sociologie au Cégep de Chicoutimi


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Cette édition électronique a été réalisée par Jean-Marie Tremblay, bénévole, professeur de sociologie au Cégep de Chicoutimi à partir de :

Marc-Adélard Tremblay (1922 - )
Ethnic Profile, Historical Processes, and the Cultural Identity Crisis among Quebeckers of French Descent”. Un article publié dans l'ouvrage sous la direction de Michael D. Levin, Ethnicity and Aboriginality: Case Studies in Ethnonationalism, chapitre 6, pp. 111-126. Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 1993, 181 pp.
M Marc-Adélard Tremblay, anthropologue, professeur émérite retraité de l’enseignement de l’Université Laval, nous a accordé le 4 janvier 2004 son autorisation de diffuser électroniquement toutes ses oeuvres.
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Édition numérique réalisée le 27 mai 2005 à Chicoutimi, Ville de Saguenay, province de Québec, Canada.

Marc-Adélard Tremblay (1993)

“Ethnic Profile, Historical Processes, and the Cultural Identity Crisis among Quebeckers of French Descent”

Un article publié dans l'ouvrage sous la direction de Michael D. Levin, Ethnicity and Aboriginality: Case Studies in Ethnonationalism, chapitre 6, pp. 111-126. Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 1993, 181 pp.

Table des matières

Cultural identity and development
The cultural identity crisis of french-speaking Quebeckers
Social Institutions

The Sociocultural Universe and the Daily Activities of the French-speaking in Quebec

Issues at Stake

The Quebec of the 1980s

The Breaking Down of the Institutional Frameworks of Social Cohesiveness and the Cultural Identity Crisis
Concluding remarks


Marc-Adélard Tremblay (1922 - )

Ethnic Profile, Historical Processes, and the Cultural Identity Crisis among Quebeckers of French Descent”.
Un article publié dans l'ouvrage sous la direction de Michael D. Levin, Ethnicity and Aboriginality: Case Studies in Ethnonationalism, chapitre 6, pp. 111-126. Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 1993, 181 pp.

Cultural identity and development

Retour à la table des matières
The idea of making an ethnological analysis of the cultural identity crisis among Quebeckers of French descent seems to be well suited for a colloquium entitled “Ethnonationalism: Canadian and International Perspective.” I want to do it from a development perspective. The close relationships that exist between cultural identity and societal development are of such importance that they justify both the nature and the orientations of such a theoretical stand. Some of these justifications are, from the standpoint of the vital interests of a particular ethnic group, related to the concept of its development (or of its social progress) and to the imperative, of its “culturalization” Others refer to social conditions that make development possible through a process of self-consciousness on the part of the whole ethnic group. Whereas the former belong to the order of objectives, the latter are integral parts of instrumental strategies.
The social progress of an ethnic group can be slowed down or accelerated by a large number of sociopolitical and sociocultural conditions that acquire great significance for the cultural identity of a people. From my viewpoint, the concept of cultural identity has three major components: a collective self-image which, because of its specificity, confers to a group its distinctive character; social institutions that embody its various elements and its way of life; and a projection into the future which ensures its continuity and its lasting while taking into account the dynamism capable of transforming it. Thus conceived, the cultural identity of an ethnic group constitutes a powerful evolutionary lever that firms up ethnic self-image and constitutes a guiding principle for collective development projects. But, for this connection to take place, principles upon which this identity rests must be known and internalized; their concrete expressions, through their consensual nature, must be found in all social strata, and the prospective views of the ethnic group's future must be convergent. We would then be in a situation where the cultural identity of the group is a vigorous one. A weak cultural identity, however, would manifest itself in acculturated behavioural patterns, in cultural confusion, and, at the extreme, in deculturation phenomena. Such cultural patterns could not serve as the launching grounds for creativity and for the conception of future societal projects. The working hypothesis that I wish to document in this case study on French Quebec, from an emic perspective, is that Quebeckers- of French descent are going through a profound cultural identity crisis that imperils the survival of a francophone cultural entity on the North American continent.

The cultural identity crisis

of french-speaking Quebeckers

Retour à la table des matières
In order to document the hypothesis advanced here, the type of analysis follows two interconnected pathways: that of institutional frameworks and that of the life habits of individuals in their respective sociocultural niches. Such splitting of a pattern is being made with the view to giving a sharper perspective on these two fundamental aspects of the ethnicity crisis of Quebec francophones.

Social Institutions

Retour à la table des matières
The cultural identity principles, the particular social institutions as well as the other complementary phenomena tied to ethnicity, from a collective standpoint appear to me to be sharp reading instruments in the examination of the impact of rapid social changes, whether they are the results of endogenous determinants or the consequences of external dynamisms, to the extent that they best reflect the numerous dialectical tensions existing between individual and collective identity, between idiosyncratic behavioural patterns and institutional armatures, and between resistance to change and involvement in acculturational processes. The swing between these polar stances obeys cultural norms and constraints that act either as curbing or pressure elements, as much at the level of the individual in his daily living as that of institutional frameworks. A close examination of these oscillations might lead to discovering how and through which processes they transform the ethnic image that the French-speaking Quebeckers have of themselves as a group, their ways of life, and their social representations that nurture their concepts and views relating to social development (les projets de société).
Although they have fostered the use of the French language in public services throughout Canada, federal linguistic policies related to the concept of a multicultural state and the policies on bilingualism - including in this Bill C-72 - have not been successful in stopping the proportional reduction of the francophone population of Canada that has occurred in the past few decades. The French-speaking population of Canada today barely represents twenty-five per cent of the total. In contrast, within the Province of Quebec, the population of French descent has been successful in maintaining its relative numerical importance, eighty per cent of the total population, despite a sharp decrease in the birth rate. Such a stability, however, cannot necessarily be viewed as a marker of the vigour of cultural traditions, since it is being accompanied by the shattering of ethnic institutions and the weakening of the basic principles of the cultural identity configuration (Tremblay 1983).
Let us look at historical processes with the intent of documenting that assertion. The national consciousness of Quebeckers of French descent arose in the middle of the nineteenth century, that is, about one hundred years after the British Conquest. At that time, they collectively became aware that the Roman Catholic church, the parochial confessional school, the patriarchal family, their network of social solidarity, and the French language were the main ethnic institutions of what was then being called the 'French Canadian Nation.' Through that expressed recognition, these social institutions became the armature of cultural patterns that embodied a spiritual worldview, a type of ruralist and theocentric social organization, at the heart of which was an abundant population constituting the main contingent factor for economic production and the reproduction of cultural patterns. A conservative nationalism, self-centred and impervious to external ideologies, was at first an affirmative nationalism and gradually became an aspiration to a nation-state.
At the time of the election of a government led by the Parti Québécois, the distinctive principles of the cultural identity of French-speaking Quebeckers were gradually shifted from ethnic institutions to the nation-state. This transfer in the cultural identity infrastructures brought about some drastic changes in both the content and the expression of Quebec identity. Those changes were so rapid and without due ordering that they fostered many negative consequences. From a nationalistic perspective, one was the discarding, in 1980, of the political sovereignty project.
Far from achieving national aspirations and nurturing collective hopes, the nation-state of French Quebec, at this embryonic stage, was confronted by hard facts in the federal-provincial arena (the repatriation of the Canadian constitution without the consent of Quebec after the negative answer to the Quebec referendum) and by the unpredictable consequences of the 1981-2 economic crisis. These two major events imposed upon the government of René Lévesque the necessity to endorse laws and install administrative policies that were quite unpopular, especially among the most faithful clientele of the Parti Québécois. This conjuncture had given rise to an abrupt disenchantment toward the nation-state, at the same time endangering the cultural foundations of the francophone community. The latter was in such a state of turmoil that it found it impossible to reorient itself on the disintegrating traditional ethnic institutions, nor was it capable of inventing replacement institutions that would be generally attractive. That abrupt discrepancy between Frenchspeaking nationalists and the nation-state happened at the very time when the Quebec spatio-temporal universe was undergoing a massive and undifferentiated invasion by the Anglo-American mass culture. This penetration of southern value systems and models of behaviour has been accentuated by the enforcement in 1989 of free trade policies between Canada and the United States of America which, by the way, do not seem to exclude cultural institutions from the agreement. This dualistic stance, the rejection of the nation-state as a principle of ethnic assertion, on the one hand, and the invasion of public and private life by numerous elements of American culture, on the other, imperceptibly constructed a powerful structure of collective alienation from the original culture.
Some people are going to disagree with me about my statement above. They will use as an argument the established fact that, in the past, French-speaking Quebeckers were successful in surmounting, on a number of occasions, the historical difficulties that became a threat to their ethnicity and that they are still capable, by which deus ex machina I do not know, of getting out of the deadlock. Some others, even more optimistic than the preceding ones, reflecting as far as I am concerned a besieged mentality, are going to cast back to the numerous questions associated with the survival of a French Quebec: 'Since our language remains a distinctive cultural trait and continues to be our main instrument for self-affirmation, does it not suffice to convince you'? This powerful linguistic consciousness, to be sure, was attenuated, in its real and symbolic scope, when the Supreme Court of Canada stated that it was unconstitutional to impose French unilingualism. in the display of signs outside business establishments. The current government (controlled by the Liberal party), even though it was committed to a federalist ideology, has used the 'notwithstanding' clause in order to enact Bill 178 in the Quebec Legislative Assembly. The bill represents a compromise that has left unsatisfied both the protagonists of a radical nationalism expressed in French unilingualism and the members of the English-speaking community who felt deprived of one of their fundamental individual rights. In general terms, however, Bill 178 has left the great majority of the francophone community satisfied.
That said, it is right to think that Bill 101 produced a strong linguistic consciousness among the intellectual elite and the middle class of the francophone community. But it has failed to francocize immigrants since at present three out of four are English-oriented in order to better their chances of success in the workplace. English is the North American language (la langue de I'Américanité), the medium of prestige and of advancement within the professional world. Is it not spoken by more than ninety-five per cent of North American people? It comes as no surprise, then, that French is the only language facing a survival challenge in North America, even in La Belle Province. We do not have to be surprised either that Bill 101, until it was rigorously applied, had a limited effect on the process of francocization of business enterprises and of commercial signs and on the improvement of the written and spoken language among members of the upcoming generations.
Furthermore, despite the overwhelming importance of linguistic patterns in a given culture, language only represents one cultural element among many others. To assign to the spoken language the primacy among the foundations of cultural identity, let alone to say that it is the only one, would amount to mistaking the container for the contents. Moreover, to consider the French language in Quebec as a factor of social cohesiveness among French speakers, and between the people of French descent and the various ethnic groups or the indigenous peoples, would amount to giving it a strength that it does not have at this time. Its mediating value and its integrating power are more symbolic than real.
How does one explain this functional weakness of the French language in Quebec? Diverse contextual and conjunctural elements have to be taken into account. Space does not permit a detailed answer, but there is an established fact that is important. The French-speaking community is divided about its main cultural orientations. Value systems of authority, economic standards of living, environmental conditions, ways of life, political affiliation, and so on all vary and, as a result, create many reference points for identity. The diversity of cultural allegiances and ethnic values does not rest on a unitary foundation.
Let me refer to a second category of factors which account for some of the weaknesses of the French language in La Belle Province - the cross-cultural context in the school system. In some Montreal schools, for instance, allophone students are more numerous than those of French descent, accentuating the weight of the 'otherness' in systems of thought and in social relationships. It is imperative, too, to underscore the increasing importance of overtly expressed aspirations of the ethnic communities, both old and new, especially in greater Montreal, to participate more actively in the full economic, social, and cultural development of Quebec as full-fledged partners. The leaders of these communities vigorously denounce the social policies of the dominant society aimed at keeping them in a folkloric ghetto. They require, on the basis of sound arguments, an adequate representation in the public and parapublic functions and in the information media. In the workplace, as in daily social environments, they determinedly fight racist prejudices and ethnocentric views of those with whom they interact. To be sure, they live in Quebec but their ethnic roots, their many sources of inspiration and the symbols which express them, while being visible here, especially in the case of ethnic groups having some numerical importance, belong to the mother country. Under all those circumstances, in Metropolitan Montreal at least, the French language is bound to remain at most an instrument of bringing together the French-speaking and those of foreign origin and of reducing areas of misunderstandings. To consider the French language to be a source of social cohesiveness in such a multi-ethnic environment, goes far beyond what it can provide. The functional prerequisites simply do not exist.

The Sociocultural Universe and the Daily Activities

of the French-speaking in Quebec

In the first move, I draw a panoramic view of the sociocultural space of present-day Quebec with the aim of showing the issues at stake and the various forces acting upon the society. I shall be able, afterwards, to provide you with the genesis and the evolution of those issues from the cultural identity standpoint.

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