Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Blast from the past: Quebec anglos - 'Divided we stand'

Long before I worked at the Globe, Tu Thanh Ha interviewed me about being a young Montreal anglophone for the newspaper. Given that anglo angst is back in the news of late, I thought I'd post the article he wrote from July 2, 1999. My politics have changed vastly in 13 years, but I still feel this way: "A separatist is not a scum - but someone with a different political opinion."

Montreal -- On a sticky, toasty afternoon, people gathered amid the flower beds at Westmount Park on Thursday of last week for an event unprecedented in the history of their posh, mostly English-speaking enclave.

With Mayor Peter Trent holding court in top hat and 19th-century tailcoat, the Westmounters held a picnic and lit a bonfire as their city marked St. Jean Baptiste Day -- the provincial holiday that has become a controversial showcase of francophone nationalism.
"Westmount is such a symbol of anglo-felicity," Mr. Trent later said. "I knew it would create some stir. I wanted that to happen. It's a positive message to send. It allows people to see that even the staunch bastion of Westmount feels part of Quebec."

St. Jean Baptiste Day used to epitomize Quebec as the home of two solitudes -- the French speakers celebrated while the English speakers kept a low profile.

This year, both solitudes could be found within the anglophone community alone.

Across town, another crowd assembled at La Maison du Egg Roll, the famed federalist gathering place. They had paid $35 each to tuck into spare ribs, chicken balls and fried rice at a fundraiser organized by the English-rights group Alliance Quebec.

Alex Mocella had no doubt that he was better off at the fundraiser. "I'd rather spend time on much more valuable situations," said the 49-year-old machine-oil sales representative.

Traditional fault lines among anglophones have widened since the 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty -- especially since journalist William Johnson became head of Alliance Quebec last year.

His leadership has been marked by exceptional rancour pitting his supporters, often dubbed radical hard-liners, against the more conciliatory activists they derisively describe as "the lamb lobby."

The feuding has led to defections from the 17-year-old Alliance Quebec and shattered the idea that any one person can speak for the anglo community.

"I've always been a proud member of the lamb lobby," Westmount's Mr. Trent said. "The in-your-face attitude that Alliance Quebec has adopted is representative of part of the community, but not all of it. . . . Name calling won't get us anywhere."

One Westmounter who supported his mayor's initiative is Morton Brownstein, who runs a well-known chain of shoe stores.

"I think what Mr. Trent did was a very sophisticated and strategic way to show francophones that we want to live in Quebec, in a compatible manner with the French, but with self-respect for the English," he said.

Mr. Brownstein, an Alliance Quebec founder, has a key place in the history of Quebec English-rights activists. In 1984, he was among a handful of business people who challenged the Quebec law that banned English commercial signs. They fought all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada and won, forcing the province to invoke the notwithstanding clause to override the ruling.

Oddly, however, Mr. Brownstein has been attacked recently by members of his own community. Radio host and anglo activist Howard Galganov recently tried to place an advertisement in the local English-language daily that read: "SHAME ON YOU! Morton Brownstein."

Why? Because now his stores are accused of not displaying enough English signs. (The Montreal Gazette refused the ad because it singled out a person rather than a group or company.)

Mr. Brownstein denies the allegation, and described the failed ad as "bizarre -- I don't think that served a purpose."

His case isn't isolated. As their discourse has grown more muscular, some English-rights activists have taken fellow anglophones to task as readily as they do their traditional foes among francophone nationalists.

When the Black Watch Scottish Regiment's pipe band agreed to take part in the St. Jean Baptiste Parade last week, Mr. Johnson said that to avoid becoming a separatist propaganda tool, the pipers should fly the Canadian flag. They declined.

David McAusland, president of the Metropolitan Montreal Board of Trade, told Mr. Johnson in a private conversation that he did not want to make a public stand on the issue of the rule of law in the separation debate.

A few days later, Mr. Johnson repeated his comments in a public speech, and then remarked on "the silence of the lambs." He later objected to a newspaper that said he had singled out Mr. McAusland.

When John Trent, a University of Ottawa professor, ran against Mr. Johnson for the Alliance Quebec presidency, Johnson supporters booed him at a public meeting, called him "liar" and "brown-noser," and laughed as someone bleated like a sheep in the background.

When Mr. Johnson held a news conference this spring to comment on the mass resignation of half of the alliance's board of directors, who accused him of being too confrontational, one of his supporters displayed a packet of lamb meat to mock them.

Then, when the former directors met the media, they asked all reporters to show their credentials, mindful that Johnson supporters had crashed Mr. Trent's news conferences to jeer at him. As the meeting began, there was a commotion at the door and organizers were told that a Johnson supporter had materialized. The session went ahead to the accompaniment of loud arguing outside.

Mr. Johnson, meanwhile, said he has not engaged in a public display of ill will, and can't understand why people are so hard on him. "I've never broken any laws in my life. I'm a dignified senior citizen of 68," he said. "It's easy to demonize someone."

The hard feelings and controversies stem from two pillars of Mr. Johnson's philosophy:

First, federalists should present a united front and be better prepared and more unyielding in resisting the separatist threat.

Second, they must challenge what he considers a francophone nationalist orthodoxy that expects too many axioms about language and politics to be taken at face value.

Despite what he calls his drive to rebuild and consolidate Alliance Quebec, his approach has sparked nasty infighting.

At the Maison du Egg Roll fundraiser, he told the crowd that "we have to talk to the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens." But almost in the same breath, he slipped into hyperbole, saying English-speaking Quebeckers are being "treated like pariahs, like a contamination," and have, because of Quebec's langauge laws, "been sacrificed to the false god of the French state."

Earlier, he had told reporters that St. Jean Baptiste Day has become "a symptom of a nationalist sickness that infects Quebec."

Such language may explain why Mr. Johnson's views are too hard to swallow for the fence-sitting francophones he says he wants to win over. That, and the fact he is lumped in with such controversial, unbending federalists as Mr. Galganov, lawyer Guy Bertrand or former Equality Party candidates Brent Tyler and Don Donderi, is why many francophones seem to have a visceral distrust of him.

Many anglos are also turned off by his tactics. Mr. Johnson often cites a poll showing that most in the community share his belief that access to English schools should be widened.

The poll does not, however, reveal whether people believe it's worth launching a messy legal fight -- the reason Alliance Quebec was holding the fundraiser.

Perhaps the organization's greatest weakness is its diminished appeal to younger anglophones -- joining Alliance Quebec is not exactly hip.

The young have fewer memories of a time when English took pride of place in Quebec. They are more likely to be fluently bilingual -- and to have empathy with the other side. They do not want to revisit old battlefields.

The increasingly vociferous rhetoric is one reason that Kelly Nestruck never renewed the $5 Alliance Quebec membership he took out as a high-school student in 1995.

"Listening to them, you'd think we are completely repressed, undergoing some sort of ethnic cleansing," he said. "They don't listen to young anglophones. The average young anglophone is not bothered if the sign that says '3 per cent discount' is written in either language. It's all the same for us."

Mr. Nestruck, 18, moved back to Montreal from Winnipeg this spring so he could attend McGill University. He could have enrolled elsewhere, but chose Montreal because he enjoys the French presence in his city of birth.

He and his friends are at ease in French, have francophone friends and find that the English-rights activists' doomsaying has little bearing on their lives.

Furthermore, his mother recently remarried, which means that he now lives with a francophone stepfather -- and a separatist stepbrother. [Note: My mother actually remarried about seven years before this article.]

The brothers don't agree on politics, but their nascent friendship has allowed each to put a human face on the other's community.

Now, when Mr. Nestruck hears someone like Mr. Galganov, the radio host, dismiss separatists as "bastards," he is irked. "A separatist is not a scum -- but someone with a different political opinion."

All the acrimony among rival anglophone groups comes just when they have to sit down together and talk about money.

As a linguistic minority, they receive financing under the federal Official Languages Act. The Heritage Department agrees to a global figure for the 15 main anglophone groups, which negotiate under a common umbrella, the Quebec Community Groups Network. The network then is asked to advise Ottawa on what criteria should be used to divide that lump sum among themselves.

This year, however, the process has become a diplomatic minefield. Several groups in that umbrella network -- including anglophone associations from the Eastern Townships and Quebec City -- are among those who severed ties with Alliance Quebec because they didn't agree with William Johnson's views or leadership style.

In addition, Coalition Quebec, the splinter movement started by foes of Mr. Johnson, is also hoping for a share of the pie. "We want fair treatment," said its acting chairman, Harold Chorney.

Asking competitors to divide money among themselves is touchy, and one federal official conceded that "it's awkward for us."

Nonetheless, the competing groups are trying to keep a polite face in their behind-the-scene jostling and vying, in the fear that public bickering will turn off their federal benefactors, who are not eager to have to play King Solomon.

Mr. Johnson's group used to get the bulk of the funding, with more than $922,000 a year. That funding makes up the major share of Alliance Quebec's budget and has become even more crucial because other revenue sources have shrivelled.

This year, corporate and private donations dropped to $130,000 from a high of $165,000. The decrease would have been more acute but for a first-time donation of $50,000 from one of the companies owned by media magnate Conrad Black, according to former treasurer Lynn de Grace.

The number of donors also shrank to five from 15, with the loss of some donors who had been giving for 10 years, she said.

A face-saving solution would be for Ottawa to increase the overall budget for Quebec groups so that it could hand out more money to Mr. Johnson's rivals without having to lop Alliance Quebec's share.

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