Notes on 17th Text for Reading Field: Bothwell

Canadian History, Week Three

Robert Bothwell. Canada and Quebec: One Country, Two Histories. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1995.

Bothwell seeks to address the history of two questions — Quebec’s relation to Canada, and Canada’s relation to Quebec — through a series of deftly edited interviews with a number of learned and prominent people. The interviewees include two premiers, a prime minister, members of parliament, members of legislatures, senators, at least eighteen historians (including Fernand Ouellet and Allan Greer), and a variety of other interested observers – including political advisors, economists, political scientists, journalists, and corporate executives. In the text, Bothwell covers the distant past and current events. He notes that the roots of divergence of opinion regarding his two questions can be traced to the 17th century and finds a legacy, reflected as a divergence among those interviewed over the meaning ascribed to events in his present. He intersperses quotes from the interviews with his own interjections so as to supply a readable and informative historical survey up to about 1960, at which point the perspective changes — in a manner explained below.

In the text that traces Quebec/Canadian history prior to 1960, several observations stand out from the historiographically commomplace regarding the Conquest. For example, William J. Eccles points out that witnessing the physical destruction of the Conquest should be acknowledged as having left psychological scars among the population. Dale Miquelon questions whether the models used for describing Quebec history are adequate. He seems particularly wary of assertions regarding the triumph of the bourgeoisie. He does not agree that there was a social pyramid “which was English at the top and French at the middle and bottom; rather … a pyramid that was divided vertically.”[1] For his part, Bothwell observes that a significant aspect of the post-Conquest dynamic was that, “The Canadians could not be governed without the consent of the British, but the British could not govern without the consent of the Canadians.”[2]

To his credit, Bothwell presents understandings of identity formation that are in keeping with empirical studies and theoretical premises current in other fields and disciplines. For example he notes that, typically, appeals to tradition are made when “a tradition is being threatened by something not authentic, not traditional, or not legitimate.”[3] He follows this with Ramsay Cook’s sophisticated explanation (and a concise one, relative to other authors I have surveyed regarding group identity), of the dynamics of identity:

Nationalism in Quebec, as elsewhere, is a way whereby a people defines itself against something else. They didn’t define themselves particularly against other Frenchmen, but they did gradually define themselves against the English, and they saw quite clearly that they were different. The constitutional regime that was set up in 1790, which allowed for elections and for a legislature, provided the machinery into which that sense of difference developed into a kind of political competition, and out of that political competition came, at least among the elites, a growing sense of them and us. That’s a simple way of saying what nationalism is.[4]

Cook is again cited, seconded by J.R. Miller, in the discussion of Confederation and the concept of elite accommodation. Bothwell states, “Confederation was a bargain among politicians who more or less represented their voter’s feelings on the issue. Some more, and some definitely less. Confederation was not submitted to the electorate for ratification.”[5] He then moves through such events as the Manitoba schools question to show that along with patronage, political compromise represented a convenience that protected political position more than it protected ‘rights.’ Thus Bothwell — along with Réal Belanger, Tom Flanagan, and John English in this instance — highlights a trend in Canadian history: apparently people have had to put up with, and then cope with, the aftermath of elite decisions that were negotiated away from electorate control.[6]

Whether intentional or not, the manner in which successive snippets of interviews are arranged illustrates the emergence of a gradual, but historically significant change in dynamic: people seem to come into their own, the elites seem to lose the patina of power — at least a little. For example the Union Nationale under Maurice Duplessis is credited with being the first autonomous provincial party. Its longevity – and that of Duplessis’ career — is acknowledged, though the apparent strength of both was actually due to the conservative political system in place. Richard Jones is quoted as averring that the Quiet Revolution, as a product of population growth, challenged that state of affairs. The implication is that the people of Quebec simply became too numerous, as a group that was too possessed of a sense of commonality, to be ignored. Their collective desire to achieve specific social goals found overt expression as a desire for provincial autonomy — the practical means of ensuring self-determination, particularly over fiscal and cultural matters.[7]

After this point in the book (and not surprisingly given the ages and occupations of the interviewees and author), the text becomes noticeably less determined by knowledge of history and historiographical debate – along the lines of a secondary source — and more a collection of individual opinion reflective of personal experience – as is the case with a primary source.

There are two aspects of the change in the tone of the discussion (from relatively objective to decidedly subjective), that I find interesting. The first is suggested in the passages Bothwell devotes to the topic of reform and reparation of the Constitution. Outsider assessments begin to focus on insider attitudes in Quebec. These are regarded as central to “the Quebec problem” and the question arises: “what does Quebec want?”[8]

In my opinion, the enunciation of the question suggests the source of the duality of perspective that Bothwell highlights with posing twin questions at the beginning of the book. If the comments of other historians studying other groups — such as Aboriginals, women, and colonies — on the “problem” these subject groups reputedly present in ‘traditional’ historiography, and if the existence of the same question (‘what do natives want?’, ‘what do women want?’, ‘what do the colonies want?’) are taken as an indication, then perhaps the relation between Canada and Quebec is a ‘problem’ because it is regarded as a paternalistic relation (as opposed to a strictly federal one).[9] In Canada this relation is accepted as normal, in Quebec it is not.[10]

The second aspect that I find interesting is one of continuity and change. Consistent with observations in the book that are made about the past division of élite from popular opinion, Bothwell, acting in his present, exclusively solicited the élite for opinion and reminiscence. When dealing with ‘current events,’ they describe élite negotiations removed from public scrutiny. A notable innovation, as of the 1992 Charlottetown accord, was the open expression, by members of the élite, of “the opinion that we should consult the people of Canada.” This expression, however, was given “with reservations.”[11] To some, the people’s negative reaction was apparently sobering enough to suggest their engagement in political process would be better left as before. In other words, the people should not be engaged. As Roy Russell opined, “we should not do that again, unless we’re forced to.”[12]

Bothwell, though he comes across as holding a more populist sympathy than Russell, closes on an equally pessimistic note, observing that “time is short” with respect to resolving differences between Canada and Quebec. Nevertheless, one of his opening observations suggests a potential for optimism. He notes that “History is one of the main ways in which people define their identity.”[13] As neither the history of Canada nor Quebec is over, there is time yet for clearer definitions not only of ‘them and us’ problems but of the solutions that future historiography may recount.


[1] Dale Miquelon quoted in Robert Bothwell, Canada and Quebec: One Country, Two Histories (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1995), 20.

[2] Bothwell, Canada and Quebec, 25.

[3] Ibid., 28.

[4] Ramsay Cook quoted in Bothwell, Canada and Quebec ,28.

[5] Bothwell, Canada and Quebec, 39.

[6] Réal Belanger, Tom Flanagan and John English as well as Bothwell, Canada and Quebec, 49-50.

[7] Bothwell, Canada and Quebec, 70-71.

[8] Bothwell, Canada and Quebec, 230, 229, also 210-211, Pierre Fortin’s comments, on “what the Quebec people feel”, prompted one anonymous reader of  the QEII library copy to pencil the question “what does Qué want?” in the top margin.

[9] See for example, R.G. Moyles and Doug Owram, Imperial Dreams and Colonial Realities, British views of Canada, 1880-1914 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), and Phillip A. Buckner, Transition to Responsible Government: British Policy in British North America, 1815-1850 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985). Adrian Adamson, “Glossary of Terms for Political Geography,” State of the World: A Political Geography from a Canadian Perspective, e-book, online text cached at <http://www. naiadonline.ca/book/ 01Glossary.htm>, defines paternalism as “a ‘parental’ relationship of the government of a country over its aboriginal citizens by which the government makes most essential decisions on their behalf.” Gerda Lerner, cited in, <http://www.ruralwomyn.net/define.html#source&gt;, supplies the following definition: “Paternalism, or more accurately Paternalistic Dominance, describes the relationship of a dominant group, considered superior, to a subordinate group, considered inferior, in which the dominance is mitigated by mutual obligations and reciprocal rights.  The dominated exchange submission for protection, unpaid labor for maintenance.  ….As applied to familial relations, it should be noted that responsibilities and obligations are not equally distributed among those to be protected:  the male children’s subordination to the father’s dominance is temporary; it lasts until they themselves become heads of household.  The subordination of female children and of wives is lifelong. Daughters can escape it only if they place themselves as wives under the dominance/protection of another man.” “Paternalism,” Wikipedia, online encyclopedia, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paternalism&gt; reads: “Paternalism often refers to the hierarchic pattern of the family applied as a paradigm to state policy; it also can refer to paternalistic attitudes and actions by individuals and non-state institutions. Paternalism is often justified as a policy that prevents others from doing harm to themselves.” A further entry explains: “Among many family/state paradigms in traditional cultures, that expressed in some Greek philosophy is particularly familiar in the West. The family as a model for the organization of the State is an idea in political philosophy that originated in the Socratic/Platonic principle of Macrocosm/microcosm, which states that lower levels of reality mirror upper levels of reality and vice versa.”

A federal relation, on the other hand, is usually assumed to have been cleansed of paternalism and is “characterized by or constituting a form of government in which power is divided between one central and several regional authorities.”

[10] Gordon Robertson, quoted  in Bothwell, Canada and Quebec,119, comments on the perspectives of Pearson and Lesage in 1965, see also 201, Clyde Wells commenting on the Meech Lake ‘distinct society clause’.

[11] Gérald Beaudoin quoted in Bothwell, Canada and Quebec, 222.

[12] Peter Russel quoted in Bothwell, Canada and Quebec, 227.

[13] Bothwell, Canada and Quebec, 7-8.

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About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
This entry was posted in Book Notes, Canadian History, Week 3 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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