The first time my friends and I voted was in the 1995 Quebec Referendum. We had all just turned eighteen, and the days leading up to the vote—over whether Quebec should secede from Canada—were fraught for us, to say the least. We had all grown up in the Anglophone suburbs of Montreal, the “West Island,” and even when we went into the city for college, we stuck to the western side of the city, so our knowledge of the “Yes” side, the secessionist side, was indirect, fueled by the media. One day, while waiting for the bus back home—on a route well-known for carting anglo suburbans to and from the West Island—we noticed, “Anglo, GO HOME” scrawled over the bus stop sign.
“How considerate,” one of my friends noted. “That’s exactly what I’m doing.”
The night of the Referendum, we all stayed up, nervous. This was before social media, cell phones, or even three-way calling, so we awaited the results with our parents, anxiety building. “No” won by the narrowest of margins, solidifying my belief in the importance of the vote. But when Jacques Parizeau, leader of the duly-elected majority separatist party, got up and gave an unprepared concession speech, we realized that it wasn’t over. He gave it in French, with a message that anyone who had grown up in Quebec—anglophone or francophone or allophone—could understand. “We” had overwhelmingly voted yes, he declared, but “money and the ethnic vote” had cause the “Yes” side to lose. “Money,” because Anglophones had historically controlled business and much of the wealth in Quebec; “ethnic,” because most of the Jewish population in Quebec spoke English as their primary language as well. Everyone knew what he meant by “we”. “We” meant francophones, or true Québécois.
He could have said “pure laine,” but he didn’t have to; it was understood.
Parizeau was disowned by his party and by most separatist leaders, and was forced to resign. The “Yes” campaign had focused on inclusivity, while playing up immigrant sympathy for the postcolonial condition. But Parizeau’s message had been sent: linguistic and ethnic minorities felt blamed, scapegoats for those who voted “Yes.”
I first heard the term “pure laine” in 10th-grade history, a class focusing on the history of Quebec and Canada. But if it was a term from the past—one that Francophones might insist was consigned to the dustbin of history—it felt immediate and relevant to me, describing the nagging feeling of otherness I had always felt within the larger culture. I was a Bill 101 baby, child of the law that made French the official language of Quebec and carved out who was still allowed to go to English or French Immersion (rather than unilingual French) schools; I was “grandmothered” in, since my mother had gone to English school in Quebec. If I were still living there, my kids would be able to go to English school, too. But I had grown up watching the formation of a Federal separatist party (the Bloq Québécois), the failure of a national referendum recognizing Quebec as a “distinct society,” and, in the 1993 Federal election, the Bloq gaining enough seats to form the Official Opposition. No one in the media, or in everyday conversation, used the words “pure laine”; it was an artifact of colonial times. And yet the news told us otherwise.
I learned the history of Quebec in French, using the same textbook as the rest of the province (and writing a province-wide common exam at the end of the academic year). We weren’t forced to take the course in French, but we knew by word of mouth that the English translations of our textbook and the exam were notoriously bad. My education in Quebec history was an exception to the rule that history is written by the victors: it celebrated the triumphs and achievements of the French-Canadians, and then the Québécois, always glossing over the most problematic parts of the story (mistreatment of Indigenous peoples, antisemitism, etc.), and never hesitating to highlight how the English had wronged the people of Quebec. The English were the English, from England, the United States, Upper Canada, or Rest-of-Canada. The slant began in elementary school and continued through high school.
We learned, for example, how New France had been given over to the English and turned into Lower Canada. We learned how Lord Durham in 1839 recommended that the unhappy (Catholic) French-Canadians—who tended to behave violently towards their new overseers—be dealt with by being assimilated into the “dominant” English culture, linguistically and religiously. We learned that “pure laine” became a symbol, a kind of rallying cry for the Church and the former French aristocrats still smarting from the French Revolution. Their goal was to preserve their rural, French, and Catholic culture by outbreeding the English, a demographic campaign inspired by the vision of a pure laine population: La Revanche des bercheaux; the revenge of the cradle.
The idea of purity had come into Québécois identity even earlier, however. When New France was first colonized, there were more French men than French women (many of whom were nuns doing missionary work), and so the hunters, trappers, and woodsmen were pairing off with Native women. This caused no small amount of disapproval from the ruling Jesuits and noblemen, who sent a message to the King of France; he replied with what came to be called les filles du Roi, a flood of unmarried women sponsored to emigrate to New France. By 1672, the population of New France had risen to 6,700, from 3,200 in 1663. Or the French population, rather. Ever after, tracing your ancestry back to these girls was proof that you were “pure laine,” truly Québécois.
(I now see on Facebook friends proudly sharing videos of their elementary-school aged kids reenacting the arrival of the filles du Roi, dressed in peasant garb, happily meeting their new husbands, overseen by the clergy.)
Most people don’t know the origin of the term. As anthropologist Serge Bouchard said in an interview, the phrase comes from the story of a tailor who dressed a young boy in white wool, as one of Saint-Jean-Baptiste’s sheep, for the celebration of the saint’s day; the Church, according to Bouchard, was looking for an image to rally the population to become “more French, like before the revolution, more Catholic, more French than France.” The association of Saint-Jean-Baptiste with the Catholic Jesus, the ‘lamb of God,’ merged with nationalist politics and Quebec’s historic wool industry. This nationalist ideal of purity was always a farce, points out Bouchard; there were Natives, and Irish, and Scottish, and any number of others’ blood mixed into what we consider Québécois. But as an idea that fueled generations of political movements, it was a powerful one. By and large, the working class spoke French and the bosses spoke English until well into the 1970s.
When the Catholic church was pushed to the margins by the social revolutions of the 1960s, Quebec became one of the most socially liberal places in North America, with high rates of union membership; many businesses that had been owned by the English were nationalised. If the Church and the Anglophone minority were the sources of oppression, casting them out left Quebec ripe for a less repressive, less exclusive form of nationalism. But Quebec’s history of racism and antisemitism left an important legacy nonetheless. And this idea of a real Québécois persists today. “Pure laine” on Wikipedia takes you to pages on Quebec nationalism, and while the real Québécois might see it as an outdated term, the ideas behind it still manifest themselves in the politics and rhetoric of the province.
Parizeau’s comments reminded us that the idea of “pure laine” is a political tool. But because of Quebec’s liberal and left-leaning social politics—and the ease of taking it for granted—its ancient racism remains unspoken. After all, Montreal has for centuries been a distinctly multicultural and cosmopolitan city, with longstanding ethnic populations (particularly welcomed if they also happened to be Catholic). Quebec is one of the only provinces with jurisdiction over whom to prioritize in terms of immigration; favoring immigrants from countries that had been colonized by the French—North Africa, Vietnam, the Caribbean, and Haiti in particular—was apparently evidence enough that Quebec was an open and accepting place.
Except of course for the lived experience of those of Native descent, or of those who could never claim pure laine status. But because the insults, the slights, the micro- and macro-aggressions happen in the French language, it all flies under the radar. Comedians and social commentators Aba and Preach break down the casual Islamophobia from Quebec, while Dany Laferriere was empowered to do an entire TV special on the issue of racism in the late 1980s. Read the literature of immigrants and non-pure-laine Quebeckers, in both languages, and you’ll quickly come to understand how insidious it is.
The nationalist/separatist movement still ebbs and flows in Quebec; there are flare-ups and misfires and proposals and government task-forces and reports about integration, assimilation, and reasonable accommodations. It’s important for Quebec to look like it’s evolved. But outright denial can be a dangerous thing. People like the blogger “AngryFrenchGuy” are determined to show that the ideal of “pure laine” is only perpetuated by the Anglo media, and is no longer relevant in the larger Québécois/francophone culture. But just because the term is infrequently heard doesn’t mean its meaning has gone away. Things have a way of coming home.
Not long after the Referendum, I left West Island and went to the Université de Sherbrooke, thumbing my nose at the Anglophone convention of going to McGill or Concordia, or leaving the province altogether. There, I met others my age who had also just voted in their first election, albeit the opposite way from me; for many of them, I was the first Anglophone they had ever met who wasn’t a tourist. Some approved of my decision to leave Montreal; it was “filled with punks and immigrants,” I remember being told. And as I met people’s families, I was reminded not to let Gramma know I wasn’t Catholic (“it’s bad enough you’re English.”) That I actually can trace my family back to the filles du Roi was not enough; it was only on one side, and Skallerup is clearly not pure laine. Never mind the friendship and solidarity we found around our shared lower-class upbringing.
I had somewhat naively voted for the “No” side in 1995, not understanding the very real historical oppression that francophones faced. My Anglo friends were at best suspicious—at worst, dismissive—of my decision to go to Sherbrooke, and while bragging about their world travels, they rarely came to visit me and my new Francophone friends. I spent those years studying comparative Canadian literature, meeting students from all across Quebec, and immersing myself in another part, even a larger part, of where I was from; I worked for those years at erasing my Anglo-accented Québécois French. Imagine my surprise, while on the road doing archival research for my PhD, when a French scholar in the States told me that if I ever wished to get a job here, I would have to get rid of my horrendous Québécois accent.
I’ve been living outside the province of Quebec now for almost as long as I lived in it. If within Quebec and Canada, I bristled at the negative stereotypes of the Québécois, and rise to defend my friends and the place I loved, I also bristle at the over-positive view many have of Quebec as the closest thing to a socialist paradise right here in North America. I tell these stories and histories, explain that while many may be envious of our generous social programs, it all comes at a great cost that has yet to be truly acknowledged.
There is no perfect place unless there is a perfect people.
But I still can’t get on public transit without expecting to be greeted in Québécois. I miss the code-switches that happen in any conversation. I miss how rude everyone is in public, but warm and affectionate in private; in one swift motion, a true Québécois can flip someone off and then embrace a friend with a kiss on each cheek. I still read Québécois authors, particularly writers who would not be considered “pure laine,” begging my mom to buy them at the bookstore and mail them to me. When people speak to me in French, in a Parisian accent, I struggle to find the words to respond; when someone speaks to me in Québécois, I fall back into it.
This Anglo longs to go home again, pure laine or not.
Tour of Babel is a regular Popula column, in which we translate the world’s words that can’t be translated, the phrase and expressions that don’t travel (but that also, it turns out, do).