A Canadian Myth: Quebec, Between Canada and the Illusion of Utopia


415 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 1-895854-08-3
DDC 971.4'04




Reviewed by Dominique Marshall

Dominique Marshall is an assistant professor of history at Carleton


In A Canadian Myth, Montreal journalist William Johnson argues that
since 1960 most francophone Quebec politicians have worked at the
construction of an “ethnic state” through the diffusion of negative
ideas about the English. An initial survey of political programs and
strategies of the 1960s is followed by a detailed examination of
language and constitutional politics since 1970, based mainly on the
author’s own interviews and columns over the years.

While he accepts that former economic inequalities between French and
English in the province may have justified a wish for autonomy and
withdrawal, he believes that since the late 1960s, when studies started
to show that the signs of injustice along linguistic lines were
receding, the image of the dominating English has been kept alive
artificially. Johnson shows that “illusions” of collective
oppression and liberation that discriminate against the English are
still profuse and even influence the main currents of federal politics.
He follows the life of these “myths” among political leaders,
intellectuals, journalists, and artists, and he points at less visible
civil servants, advisors, or publicists.

The book may be an antidote to the many commentators who have declared
that Quebec nationalism has become pluralist. But it is less convincing
in establishing just how central these traits are to the ideology and
the platforms of political elites. Since the Quiet Revolution,
Quebec’s francophone politicians have enlarged the scope of the
provincial state in sectors where ethnic specificity is less important
than are the questions of language. They have created, for instance,
welfare policies that were not only similar to the federal system of
social security, but also compatible with it and, often, inspired by it.
These facts call into question Johnson’s diagnosis of an attitude of

Moreover, the construction of a welfare state represents a form of
promotion of national allegiance that contributed, in its own right, to
the attachment of the French population to the provincial state. Federal
politicians had fully understood the patriotic potential of social
policies since World War II, when their welfare programs had become the
hallmark of what it meant to be Canadian. If the transformation was
shared by many Western states, it had, in Canada, the added advantage of
dissociating patriotism from the imperialistic core that had done so
much to rejuvenate French-Canadian nationalism at the turn of the
century. When the Quebec government entered that race, the two sets of
national allegiances started to look more like one another. Johnson
doesn’t take into account the complexity of a population’s sense of
belonging, and the many French citizens of Quebec who have harbored
nationalist sympathies appear as the alienated victims of self-serving
elites. At this level of high politics, it is impossible to explain why
the same groups often seem to adopt the nationalistic “illusions,”
which he denounces, and the liberal individualism of the Trudeau years,
which he praises.

As long as histories of the period remain rare, however, this book will
be useful. Attentive as it is to the unsuccessful alternatives, the
unexpected turns, and the contradictory events, Johnson’s lengthy
reconstitution of the chain of political events around language and the
constitution shows that important developments are already fading from
the public memory.


Johnson, William., “A Canadian Myth: Quebec, Between Canada and the Illusion of Utopia,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed November 29, 2023, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/6628.