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Cynthia Reyes

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It Wouldn't Be Canada Without Quebec

Posted: 03/15/2014 12:59 am

If you're not Canadian -- and even if you are -- you might wonder why some people are fretting about the potential break-up of our country -- yet again.

You may be surprised to learn that some of the Canadians most concerned about this are immigrants. People like me.

I came here in the 1970's. Went to university, launched an award-winning career, married a great guy, bought our first house and raised our children together -- here, in Canada. I've worked in every province, and the Northwest Territories, of Canada. I have relatives and friends here.

Canada is home.

Most of the places and people I write about in my book, A Good Home, are right here in Canada.

Even now, when the winter has finally driven me crazy and I've been making up silly poems beginning with lines such as: "No ifs, ands or buts, This winter has driven me nuts..." Even now, I love this country. It's not where I was born, but it's where I will be buried.

My love affair with Canada ignited, not in Ontario, where I landed, but in the history of French Canada -- particularly Quebec. I experienced it only in the books I studied at university. I'd never even been to Quebec.

"New France", the French called their new outpost. Settled in the 1600′s by French soldiers, priests, woodcutters -- and the destitute orphans, peasants and street women who came to the new colony to marry them (except for the priests!) and populate the colony.

In 1759-60, British forces defeated the French, formally taking over New France in 1763. But even in the 1980′s - when I worked as a journalist and producer for Canada's public broadcaster -- Quebec's early history, and that historic loss, seemed present.

"Je me souviens", Quebec license plates read, starting in 1978. "I remember."

Fast-forward several years, and I'm now an executive producer/ head of journalism training for the CBC. On the international front, I'm also Secretary General of INPUT, a public television organization based in Italy and Canada.

Back home in Canada, the province of Quebec was threatening to separate from Canada. But it was in Italy -- while having supper in a Florence restaurant with an international group of TV luminaries -- that I was confronted with the real likelihood of it.

My favorite person at the table was Helene, a passionate and outspoken producer from Quebec.

An Irish colleague asked Helene: "Would Quebec really separate from Canada?"

Helene didn't miss a beat. "We have to go," she said.

Helene was my closest friend in INPUT. But realizing her dream of a new country meant tearing my country apart. I, who had felt the pain of the conquered Quebecois, was now solidly on the other side of this fight.

"My Canada includes Quebec," I said, reduced by shock to talking in slogans. "I don't want you to go."

"I know, Cynthia," she said, pronouncing my name Cyn-te-ah. "I'm really sorry. But we have to go." The words flew from her mouth like bullets to my heart.

My Canada included Quebec. It also included the Aboriginal peoples, the original inhabitants of Quebec. They, too, had suffered historical losses. My Canada included English Canada and French Canada and the Aboriginal peoples of Canada.

On October 30, 1995, I was in downtown Montreal, where many of the shopkeepers are immigrants. Rue Ste Catherine; St. Dennis: I wandered these streets and others whose names I was too upset to notice. It was Referendum Day. Quebeckers were voting. By day's end, Canadians would know if we were still a country.

The streets were almost deserted that day, the shopkeepers downcast. It was as if the mourning for Canada had already begun.

Surprisingly, the separatists were defeated. Narrowly. Some blamed Quebec's immigrants for the loss. They'd voted overwhelmingly against separation.

I imagined Helene's grief, her dream denied. But for the first time since I'd met her, I didn't know how to console her. Because Canada, my adopted home, would stay together. At least for now.

There is separatist talk again in Quebec. And it scares me. Again.

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