The Dream of Nation: A Social and Intellectual History of Quebec
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
Terry A. Crowley is a professor of history at the University of Guelph,
and the author of Agnes Macphail and the Politics of Equality.
In The Dream of Nation, Ottawa University historian Susan Trofimenkoff unveils part of the vast panorama of Quebec’s past. Despite the subtitle of the book, this is not a social and intellectual history of the province but a rapid-fire and generally sure-footed survey of some five centuries of Quebec history. Trofimenkoff returns constantly to two themes: the development of French Canadian nationalist thought and the changing position of women. It is this thorough weaving of women’s history into the larger fabric of Quebec’s development that makes the book truly pioneering. The author’s approach is fresh and her writing frequently insightful, especially when she establishes the links that associated nationalism, clericalism, and feminism at the turn of the twentieth century.
This book traces aspects of Quebec history from the beginnings of European colonization early in the seventeenth century until the Quebec referendum of 1980. At most points the author manages to condense the scholarship of the last quarter century into pithy summaries of major trends and developments. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries draw the greatest attention, especially the clericalization of the province beginning in 1840 and the effects of industrialization on the working class. Along the way Trofimenkoff does not fail to discuss the province’s most influential politicians, religious leaders, and intellectuals. One might well have wished that the author’s treatment of the 1960s and 1970s were more extended than the two brief chapters that she presents. The last two decades have proven to be among the most momentous in Quebec history, and, although it is always difficult to discern the major trends in the recent past, the book would have been strengthened by greater discussion of the Parti Québécois and the province’s relations to the federal system.
This interpretive synthesis will now replace the previous standard authority, Mason Wade’s largely unreadable The French Canadians (Macmillan, 1955). One can still take issue with the presentation at several points. Trofimenkoff writes with verve and immediacy but occasionally her prose falls flat. For example, agriculture is described as a commodity (p. 9) and the 1775-76 siege of Quebec City is inappropriately labelled as “rather uncomfortable” (p. 38). France was not totally uninterested in Canada after 1759, as the author maintains, and there were good reasons that Carleton did not pursue the retreating Americans in 1776, although Trofimenkoff cannot find them. Nor was the resignation of Archbishop Charbonneau following the Asbestos Strike of 1949 as mysterious as it was made out. Ecclesiastical dissension and political opposition converged to force the Archbishop’s hand. The firm implanting of social democratic principles within the province is also as much a permanent legacy of the recent past as the author thinks separatism and feminism to be.
Such reservations aside, The Dream of Nation should stand for some time as the best one-volume survey of Quebec’s history for English-language students and general readers alike.