Vive le Canada: a history lesson.

Posted by on July 7, 2012 at 7:13 pm.

On July 24 1967 then-president of France Charles De Gaulle stood up in front of a large crowd in a Montreal square and made a speech.

This speech was the cause of a very significant turning point in the relationship between Quebec and Ottawa and in the Quebecois separatist movement, which was in its infancy at the time.

De Gaulle had come to Canada by sea, bypassing the diplomatic protocol of starting in Ottawa to visit Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. He opted instead to visit first Quebec City and then Montreal.

This route was meant as an intentional affront to Pearson.

Eleven years earlier as secretary of state for external affairs, Pearson had prevented a land grab by the joint French, English and Israeli armies of the Suez Canal to avoid escalating the war with Egypt for the coveted piece of land connecting the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.

By calling for the UN to put a hold on the land and pressuring England to pull out their troops, the war ended and France had no choice but to pull out. The canal was guarded by UN forces and declared neutral.

De Gaulle’s speech was designed to slight English Canada but was most likely aimed at Pearson himself. He called to Montreal as the French city. He compared the spirit of the Quebecois people to the liberation of France from Nazi Germany, referring to his own last victory before retiring from the military.

And slyly, he ends by offering the words “vive le Quebec libre!”

The reference is undeniable. In 1944 De Gaulle delivered a speech to the French people about the fall of Nazi Germany in which he says, “vive la France libre!” The comparison could arguably have been intended to compare English Canada to Nazi Germany.

The effect of this inflammatory speech spread fast. It fueled the fires of a movement that at the time was in its infancy and involved only a very radical demographic. In the few years that followed the Quebecois separatists caused riots and committed acts of terrorism in protest of their continued status as a province of Canada.

The reaction to De Gaulle’s speech has become one of the iconic moments in Canadian history. The video footage of a large crowd in the street below the Hotel de Ville, cheering loudly as De Gaulle compares Montrealers to the French at liberation and as he utters that famous phrase is still a familiar image to Canadians.

The reaction was varied. Some Quebecois politicians rued the damage it might cause, saying that Quebec was trying to work with – not fight with – Ottawa for rights. Members of parliament were furious that a foreign leader would get involved with internal politics and do so in a way that showed complete lack of regard for Ottawa. They pushed Pearson to condemn De Gaulle’s speech.

So did protesters, who took to the streets in front of the French embassy in Toronto and sent nearly 1 000 telegrams calling for action by the Prime Minister.

Pearson himself did not condemn De Gaulle. He condemned his words, saying, in a carefully worded speech delivered the following day “The people of Canada are free” and “Canada… will reject any effort to destroy her unity.”

Pearson followed by stressing that France is an important friend to Canada. He talked about discussing the matter with De Gaulle when he arrived in Ottawa. In fact, De Gaulle was supposed to board a train the next day to Ottawa. A speech, written in both English and French and discussing the issues of Canada’s two languages was prepared.

The speech was never delivered; De Gaulle returned to France by plane without coming to Ottawa and sent for his boat to come after him.

This was a careless speech, a product of a personal political grudge held against Pearson.

But it had profound effects.

Quebec suddenly found an ally in France. That translated to a bargaining chip in Ottawa. Canada formally recognized French as an official language at the federal level three years after the speech.

The separatist party grew and became more widely recognized in Canada. Although De Gaulle never made another attempt to speak in Ottawa, the relationship between France and Canada remains amicable to this day.

De Gaulle was interested in pushing buttons. And did so very well: he permanently changed the course of Canadian history.

The Speech:

Watch the video here

(Translated from French)

It is a great emotion that fills my heart to see before me the French city of Montréal!

In the name of the old country, in the name of France, I salute you! I salute you with all my heart!

I would tell you a secret that you cannot repeat. Here this evening, and all the length of my trip, I found myself in the same sense of atmosphere as the Liberation! And all the length of my trip, in addition, I have noticed what immense efforts of progress, of development, and consequently of empowerment that you have accomplished here, and that it is to Montréal that I must give this statement, because, if there is a city in the world exemplary of modern success, it is yours! I say it is yours, and I permit myself to say, it is ours!

If you knew what confidence France, waking up after immense troubles, now carries for you, if you knew what affection she has started to feel again for the Frenchmen of Canada, and if you knew to what point she feels obliged to further your march that is before you, to your progress.

It’s why she has finalized with the Government of Quebec, with my friend Johnson here, the agreements for which the French on this side and the other of the Atlantic can work together towards the same French undertaking.

And, of course, the aid that France brings here, each day a little more, she knows well that you will reciprocate because you are building the best factories, enterprises, laboratories, which will be an astonishment for all, and which, one day, I know you will allow to aid France.

This is what I have come this evening to say, and that I will bring back from this unforgettable Montréal reunion, an unforgettable souvenir! The entirety of France knows, sees, hears that which is happening here, and I would tell you, she is better for it!

Long live Montreal! Long live Quebec! Long live free Quebec!

Long live, long live… long live French Canada!

And long live France!

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