Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Why an American Professor Bids Quebec Separatists Adieu

At a time when Quebec separatists are trying to rebuild support for their cause, they have lost one of their more unusual supporters: Robert Dole. Not the American politician, but an American exile from New England who lives in the most French part of Quebec.

Mr. Dole left the United States during the Vietnam War, when he received a medical deferment, and settled in Quebec. Most Americans here choose to live in cosmopolitan Montreal.

About these ads

But not Dole. He even joined the Parti Quebeois, the separatist party, something almost unheard of for a native English-speaker.

Now he has left the party because of what he calls the tribal nature of Quebec nationalism, which rejects outsiders even if they embrace the French culture here.

He is part of a small number of intellectuals in Quebec who have supported separatism but who are now rethinking their position. Their disillusionment comes at a time when the cause is losing some of its cachet among longtime supporters. Labor unions, for example, are upset that the Bloc Quebeois, the separatist party in the House of Commons, has cut money for social programs.

"I spoke with a friend in Montreal this past weekend, and he told me he wants nothing to do with independence any more," Dole says.

Chicoutimi, where Dole lives, is as French a place as you can find outside of France. Ninety-eight percent of the 60,000 residents of the city, located 130 miles north of Quebec City, are of French heritage. More than 1,000 students a year come to study at its many language schools. Living in Chicoutimi means total immersion: In Montreal students can find an English-speaker on their off hours. It's almost impossible here.

And little in the city is changing. No place in Canada receives fewer new immigrants, according to government statistics released last month.

Because it is so French, the people have tended to vote for the party that proposes an independent French-speaking state. But the separatist cause is waning even here. Polls show support for independence at about 40 percent, down from 50 percent two years ago.

About these ads

Dole's reasons for rejecting separatism are more personal. He has been ostracized by his French-speaking colleagues for trying the raise the standards of English teaching at the University of Quebec at Chicoutimi, where he has taught for the past 20 years.

'More French than the French'

Dole left the US after graduating from Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., in 1968. He says his love of the language led him to become more French than the French. He even writes his essays and books in French. His nonfiction work, "Le Cauchemar Americain (The American Nightmare)," was a bestseller in French-speaking Canada.

"I'm the only famous writer this university has ever produced, and now they're trying to get rid of me," says Dole. He is fluent in seven languages, including Polish, German, and Russian, but teaches English.

Dole instructs students who want to teach English in French-language high schools. But because they live in an area of only French speakers, he says, his students need more courses to achieve a high standard of spoken English.

Just another foreign language?

But the university, which got the second-worst ranking in Macleans magazine's annual survey of colleges, wanted fewer English classes in the English teaching major. In fact, it was going to cut them in favor of Spanish classes. "This is way of saying that English is just another foreign language," Dole says. "It's obvious English is essential all over the world, whether they like it or not."

The only other English-speaking member of the faculty left in May. Dole has stayed on. In the halls at the university, he says, few people speak to him. It is that icy rejection of foreigners and people who challenge the established order that made him reject his support for Quebec separatism.

"I have had to rethink my entire involvement in Quebec politics because of my relationship with my Francophone colleagues," Dole says. But he has no plans to leave Quebec. "I love it here," he says of Chicoutimi. "But there have to be standards, and I want to make this university a better place."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.