In Praise of Small Countries
I feel like telling you, as did a certain triumphant general: "Long live free Scotland!"
— René Lévesque in Edinburgh, June 1975.
[...] Every time René Lévesque finds an occasion to speak in praise of small countries the size of Quebec, such as Switzerland, Sweden or Denmark, with an equivalent income per capita, he does not refrain from underlining their successes. The sovereigntist pedagogue then seeks to prove that a country of Quebec would do better than a simple province dependent on another people in majority whose interests and aspirations do not always match its own.
His reading notes abound in quotations and underlinings to the glory of small countries. The nation is for him an eternal concept, as necessary as the family to the balance and realization of the individual. When the people is impoverished, fearful and uncertain, like the people of Quebec, the individual is unbalanced, degraded and diminished. In a small dynamic country like Norway or Holland, the individual feels great, proud and stronger. Thus, the legal reality of the Canadian nation, brandished by federalists like the ten Tablets of Law, is of little weight in front of the human, linguistic and social reality of distinct Quebec. [...]
Going through the book of Serge Richard on the Swedish school system, he discovers that the ministry of education there only has about a hundred civil servants. He writes: "Compact society = small size = mini-bureaucracy." Nothing to do with the incredible waste where 11 governments and more than 200 federal-provincial committees try to survive within a true bureaucratic jungle. [...]
The other side of his liberating demonstration consists in showing that dependent peoples know the same vicissitudes as Quebecers. In June 1975, the occasion is given to him to verify his theories in Scotland. The Scottish section of the Times of London invited him as a "separatist" to a symposium on education in Edinburgh, historical capital of this Scotland fallen under the English ferule, in 1707, and whose national language, Gaelic, was lost in the fog of time.
Preparing the text of his speech, René Lévesque takes inspiration from the book Scotland Today to draw up a parallel between the provincial annex of England that Scotland became and the French annex of Canada that Quebec became. Same population (5.2 million and 6 million). Same massive emigration to the United States at the turn of the 20th century due to unemployment. Same persistence of specific traditions (law, religion, school system) and national identity, in spite of the wounds of vassalage and assimilation. Same desire of secession also, the Scottish National Party (SNP), favorable to the independence of Scotland, obtained 30 percent of popular votes and a minority of seats at the last elections, like the Parti Québécois.
Scots also share the social and economic frustrations of Quebecers: social status inferior to the English, industrial development of Scotland lagging behind compared to England, unemployment rate always higher than in England "for some mysterious reason", * notes René Lévesque, thinking of unemployment always being lower in Ontario than in Quebec and of the relative underdevelopment of Quebec compared to its rich neighbour.
In Edinburgh, the Scottish find the pugnacious small man "intensely French", * even if he comes from North America. He starts out as an introduction by referring to the first Scots who populated the north of Great Britain before the English: "Coming here, I could not keep myself from drawing analogies between Scotland and Quebec. Your nation has traditions and a long history similar to ours. It is the French of Quebec who were the first white colonizers in North America, preceding by five years the American Pilgrim Fathers of the May Flower."
He also underlines what differentiates Scotland from Quebec. Scots swapped Gaelic for English, whereas Quebec preserved its language. Forming only 10 percent of the population of England, Scots are more of a minority than Quebecers, who are about a third of the Canadian population. Lastly, contrary to Scotland which in all matters obeys to London, Quebec has a government and a Parliament that administer, make laws and raise taxes.
René Lévesque allows himself to tell his hosts what he thinks they should do: "Scotland must go in the same direction as us. Along the way, it will discover like us that appetite comes with eating. Once some powers have been wrested away, the desire to have some more is born naturally."
Unable to resist the urge to stumble like a certain general, René Lévesque utters an amused "Long live free Scotland!", all the while noting that his cry will surely not cause a storm in Great Britain because he is only a small politician who is not even elected, and not a triumphant de Gaulle.
Leaving his Scottish friends, René Lévesque ensures them that Quebecers have "the will to become independent". Perhaps have the latter heard him. Three months later, at the end of October, a Crop opinion poll carried out throughout the province places his party ahead. For the first time of its history, the PQ leads the Liberals. [...]
- The Man from Quebec with a Message for Scotland, the original Times article dealing with this visit.
*: In English in the original French text.
1. This is a translated excerpt of René Lévesque, héros malgré lui (pp.643-658), a book by Pierre Godin first published in 1997 at Les Éditions du Boréal. This is an original and unofficial translation for this site.
2. The demographic data in this text is dated from the 1970s.
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