On Thursday, April 12, Dr. David A. Powell, French professor at Hofstra University, visited Geneseo to give a presentation entitled "Québec: That French Mystery Up North."
Powell described his fascination with Quebec as unexpected and complex. Québec is the largest of the 10 Canadian provinces, has the largest population, and is the most diverse in climate and topography. Apparently, even though French is the first language in Québec, the cities and people in this province resemble those of North America more than those of France.
"When you go to Montreal, it looks very much like North America - the cars are the same size, the architecture, the disposition of streets and the buildings are similar to any urban center in the North," Powell said. "And yet you have this language around you - a language which was, to me, both familiar and unfamiliar," he said. "It is French, but pronunciations are different, usage of words is different," which was an obstacle for Powell. "How could I know and understand so much, and yet it seems so foreign to me?"
In his presentation, Powel explained a bit of quebecois history. It was under the reign of Louis XIV that France first colonized part of North America. Under Louis XV, colonization spread and the territory flourished, eventually spanning West and South from present-day Labrador (in Northeastern Canada) all the way down through present-day mid-west United States. Just as the English called their colony "New England," this French neighbor was called "La Nouvelle France," or "New France."
In 1759, the English waged war against the French on the newly-claimed soil, but as La Nouvelle France became less of a commodity with limited exportable goods, France decided to renege all obligation to its pan-Atlantic property. England claimed the land south of the present-day border between Canada and the United States, which became official with the 1763 Treaty of Paris. "This meant that an entire population of people had lost their language, their traditions, their customs, their festivals, and their religion," Powell said.
After many more years of heated history, Québec became its own province in 1861. Powell explained the sensitivity of the word "quebecois," which most Americans believe is the proper term to refer to a person who is from Québec. This, however, is false. According to Powell, a quebecois is someone who considers him/herself French by nature, and who wants to disassociate from the identity of being Canadian. Quebecois believe that the province of Québec should become its own nation. This conflict has been apparent over the past 20 years with several discussions on the possibility of seceding from Canada. The first referendum was in 1985, and the vote was largely against. A second took place a few years later, this time with a growing vote in favor of separation. In 1994, the result of the third referendum was almost a perfect divide: the vote was "no" by less than half of a point. Quebec has not had another referendum since. The movement toward sovereignty is subsiding, despite the desire to declare independence, mostly because separating completely from Canada could be "an economic disaster," Powell said.
The people of Quebec never forget that France ended any relation to her overseas property. That sense of lost identity in the people of Quebec is all too apparent in the provincial motto, which is printed on the license plate of every car: "Je me souviens…" or "I remember."