Separatism—A Dangerous Philosophy
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 6 Feb 1964, p. 204-214
Thomson, Peter Nesbitt, Speaker
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Item Type
The speaker's concern with recent events in Quebec, and whether, because of what is happening there, Canada is on the threshold of great and nation-shaking transitions. How the rest of the world might be looking at Canada today. How much of the turbulent change of spirit by Canada is really attributable to the English-Canadian businessman (on whom it has become fashionable to lay the blame for today's conditions). Other factors that do not stem from English-speaking Canada. A detailed discussion of the separatist movement in Quebec, from the viewpoint of an English-speaking businessman in Quebec. Time for an honest appraisal. Suggestions for improving the situation.
Date of Original
6 Feb 1964
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Full Text
Separatism A Dangerous Philosophy
CHAIRMAN, The President, Mr. Arthur J. Langley


Our guest of honour is described by his friends as a dedicated perfectionist, with a consuming interest in--not only his own business affairs--but the busi ness and problems of Canada and its welfare. Married with two children, Our guest is sometimes a golfer and curler, and an avid yachtsman--even belonging to our own R.C.Y.C. He is a Governor of Montreal General Hospital and a Director of the Canadian Welfare Council, to name but two of his community interests. With a varied and thorough preparation for his present responsibilities, which was rooted in the investment business, our speaker assumed the direction of Power Corporation in 1957. Now 37, and with an impressive record behind him, our guest directs one of the largest investment and development trusts in the Canadian economy. A corporate chief with an abiding faith in Canada, he believes in the principle of Canada for Canadians--enhanced by sound business judgments and enlightened governmental policies that will help, not hinder, our growth. With this deep concern for his country, he gives us now a businessman's point of view on a problem vital to us all--"Separatism". Gentlemen, the Chairman and President of Power Corporation of Canada-Peter Nesbitt Thomson.


Much has been written, and much has been said, of recent events in Quebec and whether, because of what is happening there, Canada is on the threshold of great and nation-shaking transitions.

As an English-speaking Canadian I am greatly concerned over this situation. As an English-speaking Quebecer identified with business I cannot help wondering if emotions have not superseded hard facts; nor help wondering how the rest of the world may be looking at Canada today in the light of the turbulence which is now sweeping the province, and of the anxiety which this is bringing to the rest of the country.

As an English-speaking Quebecer I wonder, also, how much of this turbulent change Of spirit by Canada is really attributable to the English-Canadian businessman, on whom it has become fashionable to lay the blame for today's conditions. I hope to show you that there are other factors, equally blameworthy, that do not stem from English-speaking Canada at all.

No one who has ever lived in Montreal can say that Quebec is like the rest of Canada--it isn't. It is this very difference which makes Montreal one of the greatest cities. in the world, and makes Quebec the most fascinating province in this country of ours. I, for one, cannot conceive of a Canada without Quebec, nor can I conceive of a Quebec without a Canada. For it is this very intermingling of races which has created the aura that surrounds Quebec.

That there is bigotry in Quebec between the two main races and religions cannot be denied, no more than we can deny that bigotry exists across the whole of this country. It has been intensified, and divided the races by identifying the English as Protestant and the French as Catholic. There is exaggeration here, but unfortunately it is too close to the truth to be completely dismissed. That this is an offshoot of the divergences too often voiced by religious leaders in the past is unfortunately true, as it is throughout the world.

But I want to speak to you today about something which is unique to Quebec and which, in its own way, is much more insidious than the other and more obvious than the differences that I have mentioned. This is the pre-disposition of some French-Canadians to blame English-speaking Canadians and, in particular, English-Canadian business, for the emergence of the separatist movement in Quebec. I want to suggest that, by their attitudes, some EnglishCanadians tacitly admit this is true, with the result that we now see more compatriots than we care to mention running about like scared rabbits, patting the French-Canadian on the back and telling him of the "bad deal" he has had.

It is not a situation easy to appraise dispassionately, but two points stand out above all others: What have we, as English-Canadians, done or not done--OR--What have they, as French-Canadians, done or not done? Has there been something lacking in our relationship with FrenchCanadians in Quebec over the years--or, has there been something lacking in the French-Canadian attitude which has resulted in the economic subservience he is now bemoaning?

The separatist movement in Quebec has been likened to the movements for freedom in Africa which has seen the emergence of many new nations. Of the control of industry in Quebec we had a prominent French-Canadian member of parliament, speaking in Toronto, assaying the new attitude in Quebec, saying that it makes no difference to Quebecers whether their industry is controlled by American or by English-speaking Canadians--"They both speak English: it is all the same to us," he said.

In this kind of language and reasoning lies the crux of much of the problem of Quebec today. There is a growing sentiment among the separatists and their supporters that anything that is wrong with Quebec must be the fault of the English, and it is this very attitude that makes the separatist philosophy dangerous.

I suggest to you that the separatists are wrong: that the fault lies as much in themselves as in anything the English have done or have not done with respect to French-Canadians. I feel that they are developing a philosophy based upon a fallacy.

We find in separatism an echo from Quebec's past, but without the honesty that characterized the soul-searching of French settlers in the early days. When Quebec was New France, the call to the wilderness and the greater opportunities for profit in fur-trading militated against the development of industry and agriculture, much to the concern of the French Crown.

Whereas the French coureurs-de-bois opened up the vast territories that make up much of North America today by establishing fur-trading posts wherever lake or river traffic would permit it, industry and agriculture were largely ignored. It was a more adventurous life than the life of the Englishman in the New England states for whom the fur trade was but incidental. He relied, instead, on developing agriculture and industry, and an export trade in tobacco and fish, with the result that eventually the English colonies outgrew New France in population, wealth, trade and command of the sea.

We have the words of Raudot, the Intendant of New France, in 1706, in support of this view. Said he: "The English do not leave their homes as most of our people do. They till their ground, establish factories, open mines, build ships, and have never yet looked upon the fur trade as anything but a subordinate part of their commerce."

It was a different way of life, and in many respects a way of life that did not change radically until recent years. The classical traditions of French-Canadian colleges pre vented its students from playing a full part in the scientific, engineering and business development of their province. This is something the separatist overlooks when he comes to apportion blame. To realize how much blame attaches to the educational system, with which the English had nothing to do, he need only look at the intense efforts now being made to reform the educational system, to fit it better to the times in which we live. The government's determination to reform the system, made manifest only a while ago in the much discussed Bill 60, is a tacit admission that the educational system has been the most inhibiting factor in French-Canadian life. It left him unfit for commerce or industry, and by that token left the greater part of commerce and industry to the English with their vastly different educational background.

This leads me to think the time has come for an honest appraisal. How much of the present problem is due to the French-Canadian himself? Certainly more than he cares to admit. French-Canadians who liken the attitude of Quebec to that of the new nations seeking freedom are using spurious analogies to lessen the burden of their Own responsibility. They belong to the colonial school of thought. They believe that all Quebec has to do to regain its feet is to free itself from the "colonialism" of the English regime. However honestly held, this view is fallacious for French-Canadian colonialism is a state of mind, and not a reality.

One would think, from the expression of separatist sentiment, that French-Canadians were in a minority role in Quebec, whereas the reverse is true. No minority role has been more apparent than that of the English-Canadian in Quebec politics.

How many persons of English origin are in the Quebec government? How many Quebec premiers has the Englishspeaking minority produced? While Canada, through Que bec, has produced two brilliant French-Canadian Prime Ministers and many others of great competence at Cabinet level on the national scene, the role of the English-Canadian in the affairs of Quebec has been minimal--and not necessarily by accident.

Economic opportunities have always been present in Quebec for both races. That the French-Canadian prepared himself for politics, the professions and the priesthood in preference to commerce and industry was of his own choosing. If he entered the business arena later than his Englishspeaking contemporaries, no one is to blame but those who perpetuated the parochial educational system that failed to prepare him for a role in business. The French-Canadian is a product of his own system--of a system which he himself has controlled from the beginning, and in which the Englishspeaking Quebecer has had little, if any, voice whatever.

To say, as some separatists argue, that business opportunity was denied to him is to close the eyes to the facts. To base the separatist argument wholly on economic diffi culties is to insult the myriad French-Canadians who have contributed to the grandeur of this country and of their province in the judiciary, in politics, in the legal profession, in the arts and in medicine. It discredits the many French-Canadians who, despite a late start as compared with the English, still managed to build industries and business complexes that compare favourably in size to any in the whole country. Since when is accomplishment based on the language one speaks?

Yet we see today the spectacle of English businessmen surreptitiously taking lessons in French to hide their ignorance of the language, to appease the French-Canadian hunger for equality of language. If more French-Canadians are bi-lingual than are English-Canadians it is to their credit, as it is to any nationality that encourages the growth of knowledge.

But to speak French to satisfy the nationalistic feelings of some French-Canadians is merely to cover up the hard, cold facts of life. Even if all the English-Canadians in Can ada learned to speak French, what of the 180,000,000 English-speaking Americans who are our closest neighbours and with whom we have to do business? In this respect the French-Canadian separatist is far from realistic--if he wants to do business outside Quebec--and, mind you, he does--he must learn to speak English, and since our biggest market is to the south of us, and probably always will be, realism will not take a back seat to nationalism.

It is the very opportunity and, if you will, insistence, to do as he chooses that, ironically, has harmed FrenchCanadian aspirations. Guarantees of the right to their own language in all French-Canadian institutions of learning, government and law have, in fact, contributed to the very economic dependency they are now bemoaning, for it is through their language that they separated themselves from the main stream of progress and development in North America. I am not arguing that it should have been otherwise. I merely point out that exclusive development in French has been a greater inhibiting factor than any other. There is a great fear among French-Canadians that their cultural identity will some day be submerged by the English. But culture is inherent in each race, and one's own culture may always be retained. It is not likely that we shall ever be united in a single culture but we can, and must, unite through trade. The different cultures of Europe separated its peoples for more than two thousand years, yet trade has brought them together for the first time in history with the formation of the Common Market--to their mutual advantage. The cultures remain--but who would have suspected not so long ago that the German, the Frenchman, the Italian, would proudly say, "I am a European", as is the case today?

Perhaps that is why the attitude of the French-Canadian today is incomprehensible to many European businessmen. They see a revival here of the nationalism that kept them at one another's throats for so many years. While they can understand nationalistic feelings in under-developed countries, it is impossible to make them understand how this could happen in a free country and in a free society with our high standard of living. To the Americans this separatist feeling is even more incomprehensible. Yet it is gratifying to see that many French-Canadians deplore the separatist movement because they realize what an independent Quebec would mean, not only to the province itself, but to the rest of the world.

Yet, have enough voices been raised by our FrenchCanadian politicians and business leaders? Regrettably, the answer is an emphatic "No".

Some voices are now being raised, however, and in places where they will do the most good. More and more French-Canadians are coming to believe that their future lies, not in separatism, but in a revised Canadianism within a revised constitution that will give the French-Canadian the realization that he has the right to stand equally beside the millions of other Canadians of many origins who accept Canada as their own country.

This, I think we can say thankfully, is the attitude of the Lesage government. Only the other day the most verbally vigorous member of that government, Mr. Rene Levesque, rejected separatism as a solution for Quebec. Not long ago Mr. Levesque was edging towards separatism--at least he didn't reject it, if only as a last resort. Now he definitely excludes it. Mind you, neither he nor Mr. Lesage abandons any of Quebec's claims, but they seek to assert them through a cooperative federalism, and not by way of separatism.

This is the kind of Canadianism with which Englishspeaking Canadians must come to some accommodation. It is just here that there is some danger of the dialogue sup posed to be going on in Quebec becoming a monologue. The French-Canadian view, whether about separatism or cooperative federalism, is heard more often and more loudly than the English view.

We need to get the dialogue on a basis of facts, and not of nationalistic ideologies. We have a lesson to learn from the Common Market. While no barriers have separated Canadians as a nation, in Quebec the language and a way of life have. We, as English-Canadians, must take a share of the blame if the French-Canadian feels that he has been treated like an inferior citizen. Whether by accident or design many of us have made no effort to speak French in centres where French was the predominant language, thereby imparting an attitude Of English superiority. The lesson we have to learn is one of trade--trade among ourselves, with ourselves, and share among ourselves. It is only in this domain that both French and English-speaking Canadians can be made to realize that they are part of the same scheme of things. The lack of affinity has not been one-sided. One hears of few French-Canadians on the boards of English companies, but what about the lack of English-Canadians on French-Canadian boards?

If we, as English-Canadian businessmen, feel that Confederation is worth saving--as I do--the initiative is up to us. There is much to be done. We seek to stay out of the stream of public life and as a result our image has suffered greatly. This is particularly true in Quebec where some are inclined to look upon us as something monstrous. We avoid political life like the plague, yet we are the first to complain about events that may shatter our complacency.

If more businessmen had taken an interest in the political life of their country--at the grass roots of a Party where decisions and policies are made-and at the Parlia mentary and legislative level, we might not have lost touch with French-Canadian aspirations and some of the assaults by governments on private enterprise in recent years might have been avoided. I dare say that our public image, in any event, would be more complimentary.

There is a great breakthrough being made in education in Quebec today, and in other provinces we find a growing sentiment for the extension of French teaching in the schools. The breakthrough in Quebec is of their own making, their own decision, as it must be. The fate of Confederation may depend upon the outcome of this educational development within a decade. We must not let the FrenchCanadian feel that he is being by-passed, or we will have failed Confederation. Nor must today's French-speaking Canadian too readily condemn Confederation either, because of the inadequacies of a system he inherited. But the English-speaking Canadian in Quebec must not keep silent about those matters which affect his own interest and the interest of the country as a whole. Let me say in closing that though I make no pretence at speaking French well, I feel, at least, that I can show my impartiality in that I am married to a French-Canadian and have two children who are perfectly bilingual, and while I am not proposing that all of you duplicate this feat, I do honestly feel that we, as English-Canadian businessmen, could accomplish much more in French-Canadian understanding, if we opened our offices to French-Canadian students to let them see and learn the inner workings of industry and business, than we would by taking furtive, and not always too successful, lessons in speaking French.

May I leave some thoughts with you:

Should we not send vocational guidance and personnel advisers to French-speaking universities to tell about opportunities ahead for students? If they only hear about you, and not from you -what can they believe, and who can they believe?

Should we not sponsor seminars between French-speaking and English-speaking businessmen to discuss, in confidence, what to do, not just what to say, to ensure for all Canadians equality of opportunity--and that they all feel it?


Thanks of the meeting were expressed by Past President Dr. C. C. Goldring.

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Separatism—A Dangerous Philosophy

The speaker's concern with recent events in Quebec, and whether, because of what is happening there, Canada is on the threshold of great and nation-shaking transitions. How the rest of the world might be looking at Canada today. How much of the turbulent change of spirit by Canada is really attributable to the English-Canadian businessman (on whom it has become fashionable to lay the blame for today's conditions). Other factors that do not stem from English-speaking Canada. A detailed discussion of the separatist movement in Quebec, from the viewpoint of an English-speaking businessman in Quebec. Time for an honest appraisal. Suggestions for improving the situation.