Canada 2017·Personal Essay

How Quebec separatism taught me to always see the other side

Lisa MacColl has always believed Quebec should stay in Canada, but considering the sovereigntist side taught her a lot about empathy.

What does the October Crisis have to do with the refugee crisis?

In the 1970s, Lisa MacColl's family joined the Anglophone exodus from Quebec. (MacColl family album)

"The French lost the war on the Plains of Abraham. If Quebec tries to separate, we should send troops across the border." 

My Grade 10 classmate sat down, smugly satisfied at her response during a mock parliament in history class.

I sat at the back of the class, stunned and horrified. Quebec separatism was a hot topic in 1977, but this was my first encounter with anti-French sentiment. Before I had time to stop myself, I leapt up in passionate defense of all the people living in Quebec, shocking my classmates and the teacher.

It was the first time I had opened my mouth since the beginning of the school year.

Too young to understand

Lisa, a 'curious, sensitive' child, was in Grade One during the October Crisis. (MacColl family album)

Before that moment, I'd been the quiet new girl. No one knew the big reason my family had moved from Montreal to Kitchener, Ont.

For me, that story traced back to October 5, 1970, when the Front de la libération du Québec (FLQ) kidnapped Pierre Laporte and James Cross. It was the culmination of a decade-long campaign of violence to spur Quebec sovereignty. 

Before it was over, Laporte had been murdered, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had invoked the War Measures Act and scores of people were arrested and detained without warrants.

Several decades of debate about French-English relations and Quebec's place in Canada followed.

1970: Pierre Trudeau says 'Just watch me' during October Crisis

53 years ago
Duration 7:32
The October Crisis prompts Trudeau to fill the streets with army tanks and invoke the War Measures Act.

I was a child during the October Crisis, an Anglophone living in the West Island of Montreal, at a time when Hugh MacLennan's Two Solitudes was an everyday reality. There were separate French and English school boards and little interaction between French and English people.

But only an hour away in St. Eugène, Ont., where my mother was born, French and English co-existed peacefully. In this small farming community, just across the Ontario border with Quebec, most people mingled freely and spoke a reasonable facsimile of both languages. 

How could things be so dramatically different? Why did the Francophones in Quebec feel so alienated?

I was a child during the October Crisis ... a time when Hugh MacLennan's Two Solitudes was an everyday reality.

The level of French discontent was brought home to my family when René Lévesque was elected premier of Quebec in 1976, bringing his goal of Quebec separation to the forefront of the Canadian political landscape.

My parents didn't speak French and, in 1977, we had joined the first frightened Anglophone exodus from Quebec and had moved to Ontario.

Seeing the other side

In 1992, Lisa graduated from Wilfrid Laurier University with an MA in Political Science. (Lisa MacColl)

I wanted to know "why" this was all happening when I entered that Kitchener high school. The questions remained with me throughout university.

As I researched, I discovered that the Jean Lesage government, first elected in 1960, was responsible for a period of intense social change known as the Révolution Tranquille (the Quiet Revolution), including the first Ministry of Education.

The focus in curriculum shifted from the Catholic church-led liberal arts education — heavy in philosophy, arts and languages — to a focus on business, science and technology. The reforms put more young Francophones on the path to higher education and influence in English-dominated arenas. This was only the first of many changes that turned the focus in Quebec from English to French-first.

The more I learned about the history of Quebec Francophones, the more empathy I developed for their point of view. I began passionately explaining the history that led to the rise in nationalism.

Had I been a young Francophone in Quebec in the 1960s or 1970s, I might have been a sovereigntist. And while I remained firmly in the Quebec-should-stay-in-Canada camp, I was willing to consider the other point of view.

Consider the why

A Syrian refugee child, as young as Lisa was during the October Crisis. (Save the Children)

These days, I see talk of Quebec sovereignty largely replaced with concerns about other cultures and religions. New groups are told to "go back where they came from."

But the same fundamental intolerance and lack of understanding remain.

If only people would stop to consider the why — why would families risk their lives in open boats without life jackets?

A family from Syria arrived in Kitchener last year, and as they became more comfortable, they shared their story. Turns out, their town was levelled, everything they owned was gone.

They paid people who turned out to be criminals several thousand dollars — all their savings — to be transported to Greece. As the family was boarding the boat, their four-year-old son already aboard, the police arrived and the smugglers fled after launching the boat. The family watched helplessly as their child sailed away from them, alone amongst strangers.

Lisa MacColl still believes our commonalities are so much stronger than our differences. (Lisa MacColl)

They would spend the next several months in a desperate search for him. And that's just one part of their story.

If only people would stop to consider the why — why would families risk their lives in open boats without life jackets? Why would they leave everything behind and go to a country so different from their own?

The answers are everywhere, if you only look.

From the October Crisis then to the refugee crisis now, it's clear to me that we need to spend more time trying to understanding another person's circumstances. As any curious, sensitive child can tell you: this leads to more empathy, tolerance and acceptance.

For me, that was a lesson whose seed was planted in October 1970 and continues to resonate with me in 2017.


Lisa MacColl is a third generation political junkie, Montreal Canadiens fan, a freelance finance and investment writer, crafter, wife, mother, singer and she fights the good fight to keep her cats off the table. She's also the author of Cannoli, her first novella.