The Best Canadian Political Books: In French Too

Have you ever seen a samara floating on the wind? No, it’s not an exotic bird. It’s the maple seed that spins like a mini-helicopter as it flies through the air. Samara is also the name of a non-profit organization that disseminates ideas on the participation of citizens and journalists in Canadian democracy.

This past Canada Day, Samara launched an open contest to find the best Canadian political books of the past 25 years. A self-confessed bookworm, I jumped at the chance to submit my suggestions and then awaited the list’s unveiling with bated breath.

A tempest in a teapot?

I must confess I was a bit disappointed when the list of finalists was announced. Certainly, it contains important works, but with the notable exception of Stephen Clarkson, none of the authors are political scientists. Have the ivory towers of academia really produced nothing worthwhile since 1986? Why was Vincent Lemieux and Will Kymlicka overlooked, for instance?

But even more perplexing is the absence of a single French title. Jean-François Lisée was quick to jump on this omission, citing the list as further evidence of the “de-Quebecisation of Canada”. Lisée is a former advisor to Parizeau and Bouchard, and he sees any gap between the two solitudes as further justification for Quebec sovereignty. He quipped: “It’s asking a lot of Toronto-based Canadian juries to feign interest in Quebec and to do so convincingly. We’re so far away….”

In an attempt to be a bit more… constructive, I arranged a meeting with the co-founder and Executive Director of Samara, Alison Loat, to get better understanding of their selection process. Surprise! The list wasn’t generated by a group of misinformed, anglocentric pundits after all. It was actually created through a popular vote using social media. Samara is a young organization, and its website is still unilingually English. This explains the paucity of academic works and the lack of French titles. So much for the anti-Quebec conspiracy.

Embarrassment of riches

In an effort to “bridge the solitudes,” I took the liberty of developing my own list of political books published in French. My first draft had more than 150 titles , so I decided I needed to set some stringent criteria. The books had to:

  1. Contribute to the understanding of the key issues, players and institutions that affect all of Canada.
  2. Display originality of thought.
  3. Possess high-quality and extensive research and compelling arguments.
  4. Be politically or academically influential.
  5. Be written in an accessible style suitable for a general readership.

After much gashing of teeth, I whittled my list down to 13 titles.  I guess that’s my lucky number.

Defining the Quebec nation

It seems fitting to start with Genesis, or rather, Genèses:

  • BOUCHARD, Gérard, (2000), Genèse des Nations et Cultures du Nouveau Monde, Montreal: Boréal. Translated by Michelle Weinroth and Paul Leduc Browne as The Making of the Nations and Cultures of the New World: An Essay in Comparative History.
  • DUMONT, Fernand, (1993), Genèse de la société québécoise, Montreal: Boréal.

These historical books recount the building of Quebec’s identity. They show how a handful of French “habitants” come to be defined first as Canadians, then as French-Canadians and finally as Québécois.

We learn of the events that shaped the province’s political culture and left their mark on the federation.

Interestingly, these two influential authors present different sides to Quebec’s origin story. Dumont, a noted sociologist, examines the province’s cultural and ethnic roots. Bouchard is the brother of the former Quebec Premier and co-chair of the much-discussed Commission on reasonable accommodation. An historian, he offers a more civics-based  perspective on Quebec. Today, political discourse in la Belle Province seems to be dominated by a synthesis of both approaches.

Canada-Quebec relations

The following works deal more directly with relations between Quebec and Canada:

  • BURELLE, André, (1995), Le Mal canadien. Essai de diagnostic et esquisse d’une thérapie, Montreal: Fides.
  • DION, Léon, (1995), Le duel constitutionnel Québec-Canada, Montreal: Boréal, 1995.
  • GAGNON, Alain-G. (2008), La Raison du plus fort: plaidoyer pour le fédéralisme multinational. Montreal: Québec-Amériques. Translated as The Case for Multinational Federalism: Beyond the All-Encompassing Nation.
  • PARIZEAU, Jacques, (1997), Pour un Québec souverain. Montreal: VLB. Translated by Robin Philpot as An Independent Quebec: The Past, the Present and the Future.
  • PELLETIER, Benoît, (2010), Une certaine idée du Québec : parcours d’un fédéraliste de la réflexion à l’action. Québec: Presses de l’Université Laval.

It’s instructive to read Parizeau’s sovereignist speeches alongside those of the federalist Stéphane Dion — two former academics who entered public life to defend opposing ideals. The other works lie somewhere between these two extremes. They criticize the 1982 Constitution but argue for a renewed federalism to better accommodate Canada’s duality (Gagnon, Pelletier, Dion L.). It’s worth noting the different visions of Dion père and Dion fils.  I also recommend two books available in French translation: Un Pays à refaire (Misconceiving Canada) by Kenneth McRoberts and La Voie canadienne (Finding Our Way by Will Kymlicka.

Biographies

If you want to explore the human element in Canadian and Quebec politics, I suggest:

  • GODIN, Pierre, (2007), René Lévesque: un homme et son rêve. Montreal: Boréal.
  • LISÉE, Jean-François, (1994), Le tricheur et Le naufrageur. Robert Bourassa et les Québécois.  2 volumes. Montréal: Boréal. Abridged and translated by Simon Horn, Wanda Taylor and Robert Chodos as The Trickster Robert Bourassae and the Quebecers, 1990-1992.

Quebec has its own political celebrities, both revered and reviled. I’m thinking of Henri Bourassa, Maurice Duplessis, Lionel Groulx, André Laurendeau, Wilfrid Laurier, Jean Lesage, Honoré Mercier, Brian Mulroney, Joseph Papineau, Jacques Parizeau and Pierre Elliott Trudeau. These towering figures have all been the subjects of numerous biographies, but I’m a bit partial to René Lévesque’s. The book I’m suggesting is actually the condensed version of a monumental four-volume work. It paints a picture of an imperfect, charming and complex Lévesque, taking us inside one of the most fascinating periods in Canadian political history.

Lisée’s book isn’t a biography per se, but it focuses on Robert Bourassa and his political journey following the failure of Meech Lake. It describes the clever and often misleading manoeuvres of the federalist Premier as he attempts to stem the largest sovereignist tide in Canadian history. The book is well researched and provides a window into the mechanisms of power in Quebec City. It garnered a lot of attention when it was first published, and provided ammunition for the Yes vote leading up to the 1995 referendum. Since then, Lisée has emerged as an éminence grise of the Parti Quebecois. It’s a compelling read.

Current Issues

Finally, three books on key social issues:

  • MACLURE, Jocelyn et Charles TAYLOR, (2010), Laïcité et liberté de conscience. Montreal: Boréal. Translated by Jane Mary Todd as Secularism and Freedom of Conscience.
  • MARTEL, Marcel et Martin PAQUET, (2010), Langue et politique au Canada et au Québec. Montreal: Boréal.
  • DUPUIS, Renée, (2001), Quel Canada pour les Autochtones? La fin de l’exclusion. Montreal: Boréal. Translated by Robert Chodos and Susan Joanis as Justice for Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples.

After over 400 years of cohabitation in Canada, Aboriginal peoples and European descendants continue to live under a cloud of conflict. Renée Dupuis explores the long-time marginalization of our First Nations: the tyranny of British rule, the reservation system, the destruction of traditional ways of life and governance, the nightmare of residential schools and the late acquisition of the right to vote. She recommends several legal and political solutions — including self-government — to improve Aboriginal peoples’ living conditions.

It’s been argued that politics in Britain are entwined with class struggle and that American political life is dominated by questions of race. Canadian politics, meanwhile, can be seen as a face-off between two linguistic groups. These are all generalizations, of course, but you can’t begin to understand Canada without acknowledging a simple fact: in this country, we have a French-speaking minority that is itself a majority in one of our ten provinces. This has made all the difference to our history, and explains a lot of our current issues. Marcel Martel and Martin Pâquet’s superb historical summary examines this fundamental tension. It illustrates the mobilizing power of linguistic issues across the country, from the British Conquest to the most recent Supreme Court decisions.

The concept of ethnic and religious accommodation provoked heated debates on the place of the burka, the kirpan and the eruv in this country. It raises important questions for Quebec, Canada and any place immigration plays a major role. Should we impose codes of behaviour that aim to protect our citizens, or should we defer to freedom of conscience? In other words, should our model of integration be liberal or republican, in the classic sense of the words? Taylor, one of Canada’s most important thinkers and the former co-chair of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, explores the issue with his colleague, the philosopher Jocelyn Maclure. A eloquent and illuminating work.

And that’s my list. But you, what are your desert-island political books (en français)?


Translated from the original French by Jamie McLennan. © 2011 Gaston Murdock

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