MONTREAL – Quebec provincial politician Stephane Bergeron’s use of quotation marks reflects his feelings on the federal government’s plans for the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017.
The member of the separatist Parti Quebecois says Ottawa is fond of commemorating “comfort history,” or what he calls a sterile narrative that doesn’t offend or delve deep into controversial aspects of the past.
“For these, quote, ‘celebrations,’ unquote, we risk being served the same kind of attitude,” he said about the year-long festivities Ottawa is subsidizing to mark the country’s milestone.
The official calendar of “Canada 150” includes a flotilla of “tall ships” sailing through various ports on the East Coast, travelling exhibitions, concerts and art projects.
Unofficially, the PQ is promising to crash the party with a year-long series of its own, offering an alternate point of view of the past 150 years to Quebecers and anyone else who wants to listen.
They’re calling it the “Other 150,” and Bergeron, along with Quebec historians and volunteers, are cobbling together a list of 150 moments in history between Quebec and Canada they plan on outlining over the next 12 months.
He wouldn’t reveal many details, but offered one hint.
Confederation was essentially a Conservative project, he said. “The Liberals, in what became Quebec, were rather against it. I doubt the current Liberals will want to bring that up.”
Bergeron’s version of history isn’t entirely correct but isn’t entirely wrong either.
As a remedy to the violence of Upper and Lower Canada — or what are known today as Ontario and Quebec, respectively — the two territories fused into the Province of Canada, a political union lasting from 1841 to 1867.
In Canada East (Quebec), the radical and anti-clerical party called the Parti Rouge was strongly opposed to Confederation.
After Canada was born, moderate members of the Rouge merged with the pro-Confederation Clear Grits, in Canada West (Ontario), to become the modern-day version of the Liberal Party of Canada.
“The PQ can talk about the past, we’ll talk about the future,” said Heritage Minister Melanie Joly, whose department is leading the Canada 150 events.
A francophone Liberal MP from Montreal, Joly said the Canada 150 celebrations will be “a way to look at the future and how we can foster that future positively.”
“The projects are about reconciliation and celebrating diversity and really, ultimately, about celebrating a strong social cohesion,” she said.
One political science professor believes competing versions of history can be healthy for a society, especially a federation like Canada.
“Canada has always been a sort of marriage of convenience,” says Concordia University political science professor Daniel Salee.
“And a federation is often like that. Find me a country that is fully cohesive. Social cohesion is a sort of liberal fiction.”
The conscription crises in the First World War and Second World War, the failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, and independence referendums in Quebec were all clear signs that Canadians don’t agree “but we can stay together,” Salee said.
For Bergeron and the PQ, however, the goal is to separate from Canada and its narrative of the last 150 years.
The impetus for the “Other 150” came from PQ Leader Jean-Francois Lisee, who promised such a project during his recent leadership campaign.
“It’s not necessarily against the federal government,” Bergeron said. “We’re not trying to demonize the presence of Quebec in Canada. The idea is that we can presume that Ottawa will try and present one side of the coin and we want to offer the other.”
Regardless of the PQ’s view of history, Salee says Quebecers have achieved significant gains since the early days of Confederation.
“Name me another place in the world where a supposed oppressed minority, time and time again, has led the majority,” he said, referring to prime ministers from Quebec such as Pierre and Justin Trudeau, Jean Chretien and Brian Mulroney.
Quebecers have been able to achieve a great degree of self-determination inside Canada, Salee said.
“Canada is showing the world it is possible to have a country that is not necessarily socially cohesive but it’s a place where you have different people with different approaches to what we are all about,” he noted.