Quebec City's Anglophile Mayor

THE NEWLY CREATED little city square is called the Scottish Causeway. If you look a little north from there to McMahon Street, you see the Celtic cross donated by the Irish government, inside its own little park. The causeway itself runs between the old, well-kept St.

Quebec City's Anglophile Mayor

THE NEWLY CREATED little city square is called the Scottish Causeway. If you look a little north from there to McMahon Street, you see the Celtic cross donated by the Irish government, inside its own little park. The causeway itself runs between the old, well-kept St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, and the even older jailhouse built by the British in 1813. It is now named after Joseph Morrin, the Scottish-born mayor who was a prominent doctor and social activist. In the 1860s, the jail was turned into a college. Now, in its third life, the sturdy but beautifully restored building has become a community centre and a museum dedicated to exploring and celebrating the historic contributions of the English, Scottish and Irish. Where are we? Kingston, Ont.? Not even close. This beautifully showcased trove of British colonial heritage is in the heart of QUEBEC CITY - the overwhelmingly French-speaking capital of Canada's perennially secessionist province. And who's behind all the showcasing? Jean-Paul L'Allier, 66, the city's ebullient but outgoing mayor - a proud recipient of the French Légion d'honneur, and a Quebec separatist for the past 25 years. "We'd want to know and celebrate our British cultural heritage even if we were separated, because that is our heritage," L'Allier explained in a recent interview. "It's part of our culture, it has made us what we are."

Visitors falling under the charm of the narrow streets, the extravagant scenery and the rich historical texture may well be excused for ignoring some of the quirks and idiosyncrasies that make Quebec City the living, breathing set of contradictions that it is. The fact, for instance, that the landmark walls and gates of this haughty, albeit insecure, French citadel - a certified UNESCO World Heritage Site - were largely built by occupying British military engineers and commanders long after their predecessors had conquered the place. Or that one of the biggest landlords in the defiantly fleur-de-lysed, self-proclaimed capitale nationale du Québec is the federal government. The Maple Leaf flies over the harbourfront, the Plains of Abraham, the Citadel, the airport, the prison, and a rich portfolio of lots and buildings all over town.

Quebec City is so riddled with reminders of the ebb and flow of history that it often gets its own references ass-backwards. Here, Terrasse Dufferin is pronounced with a French flourish. That's despite the fact the famous boardwalk at the foot of the Château Frontenac is named for Lord Dufferin, Canada's third governor general. But locals pronounce Avenue Salaberry as an English noun even though Charles-Michel de Salaberry was a Quebec-born aristocrat who defended against American invaders in the War of 1812.

Quebec City, now preparing for the 2008 celebrations marking the 400th anniversary of its settlement by Samuel de Champlain, is definitely a francophone stronghold. Ninety-seven per cent of the 700,000 or so people living in the metropolitan area speak French, the mayor says. A few decades ago, many of my grade school buddies here bore names like McIsaac, Gallagher, Marino and Podomansky - and spoke no more English than I did. Today, local English-language TV reporters still struggle with important locals - bureaucrats, businessmen, officials - unable to utter a glib sound bite in English. It was not always like that, though. In the mid-19th century, almost half the population spoke English. In the nationalists' lore, Quebec City is all about overcoming - if not exacting sweet revenge against - the hardship of history, and dominance by les anglais.

But still, a separatist mayor honouring the English heritage of his defiant French citadel? "For me, being a separatist has nothing to do with resentment or hostility against anyone," L'Allier says, noting that not everyone shares his attitude. "Sure, I've come under fire for celebrating the conqueror. Some petty, narrow-minded nationalists would rather eradicate all signs from the past that don't match their vision." But culture, he says, is not image-making, it is identity. "It is what you are for real. It's not something you want to hide or tamper with." Fine. But isn't taking pride in a rich and diversified cultural heritage a quintessentially Canadian thing to do? "I don't have a problem with being branded a Canadian," says L'Allier, who as a culture minister in Robert Bourassa's first Liberal government in the '70s was viewed as a left-leaning, Quebec-first federalist.

Like so many other then federalists in Quebec, L'Allier opposed Pierre Trudeau's 1982 patriation of the Constitution (the National Assembly has still not ratified it). "Trudeau imposed a lot of symbols and constraints, such as official bilingualism, on English Canadians in Quebec's name. They didn't want it, and neither did we."

The result? "The respective identities of French and English Canada have been dulled and are getting blander from one generation to the next," L'Allier says. "A federation, a real federation of two nations would have worked. This confederation doesn't."

For contrast, he likes to draw examples from Europe. "When you are in Italy, you know you are in Italy. A Flemish banker in Brussels does not check his language and culture at home when he leaves for work. The former nations of the Soviet bloc that are the most successful today are the ones that have kept a stronger sense of their identity and culture. Without these, you cannot be creative and adapt efficiently."

But what does he mean, Canada and Quebec are getting blander? "Remember the '70s? The referendum of 1980? The intensity, the drama? That was nation building, with all the energy such a process can demand, and unleash, on both sides. That was creativity. Now, look at 1995. We voted to a draw, and the morning after, everyone went back to work as if nothing had happened. That was not nation building; we were voting on a mere governmental flow chart."

He is concerned about what is to come. "I am not seriously worried by national unity," L'Allier says. "We will probably continue getting older, and bored, side by side. But I am worried for our future. The danger is that Canada's enviable position in the world will be overtaken by more alert, better-defined societies. We're not building much of anything here at the moment." His dream for this country? "It would be wonderful if someone, somewhere, could rise, saying 'We, the people of Canada!' and mean it - with a vision, a project that could include and mobilize everyone. I'd probably be the first on board."

Maclean's July 1, 2005