The necessary national story

“We are also the heirs of this fantastic adventure that was an America that was initially almost exclusively French and, even more so, of the collective obstinacy which made it possible to keep this part of it that we call Quebec alive. » — René Lévesque, Quebec option

“It is not hating others to love your people. »

— Léopold Sédar Senghor

When the creation of a first National Museum of the History of Quebec was announced, one would have expected a huge “Finally!” » from history teachers. But no, instead of rejoicing, around thirty of them rushed to sign a letter in The Press to worry about a possible “return to the national narrative”⁠1. Here are some thoughts raised by this letter.

The priority

In 2011, at the request of the Coalition for History, the firm Léger Marketing conducted a survey with a single question: “Who was the very first prime minister in the history of Quebec?” “. Result: 94% of respondents were unable to identify Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau⁠2.

If people had been asked to explain who Kondiaronk was or to name the first black person elected to the National Assembly, the result would probably have been the same (perhaps the respondents would have known George Washington, the first American president? ).

When the signatories of the letter say that the Museum must serve to “better shed light on certain little-known parts of history”, they have completely got the wrong priority. The Museum must start by giving citizens a taste for History again. Today, when it comes to collective memory, it is not the absence of nuances that threatens us, but downright forgetting.

History and emotions

According to these professors, “the development of narratives should not explicitly serve to provoke specific emotions, whether pride or shame in the face of certain aspects of the past.” For them, admiration of ancestors, love of the nation and pride are suspect emotions that threaten critical thinking.

However, there is no shortage of critical spirit in the modern way of approaching history. Everything is re-evaluated, questioned, put into perspective, debunked. Our view of ourselves becomes nuanced and refined. It is necessary and useful. However, excluding emotion from the story is neither possible nor desirable.

The arrival of Europeans is not neutral, the Great Peace of 1701 is not neutral, the traces of cannonballs fired at the church of Saint-Eustache are not neutral. Dissociating emotion from history means dissociating history from humanity.

If we want to live better together, we must, on the contrary, name, recall, highlight what each person has experienced as victories or defeats, joys or sorrows. We are the heirs of a long struggle of which we can be both critical and proud.

However imperfect they may have been, we owe a debt to our grandfathers, our grandmothers, our ancestors. Their efforts, their battles, their exploits must be celebrated. Yes, celebrated. Thanks to them, Quebec today is one of the richest states in the world.⁠3the North American society where there is the least gender inequality, the least child poverty, etc.⁠4

Of course, we must admit our imperfections, but it is perhaps more important for us than for others to share our successes. All people who have been colonized have difficulty loving themselves. The Quebec nation and indigenous nations are no exception.

To help us heal from this lack of self-esteem, the story must absolutely “provoke specific emotions”, particularly pride. Any decolonization necessarily involves a reminder of the successes, beauty and originality of the culture of the colonized.

A necessary story

To deprive ourselves of a national narrative, to deprive ourselves of a certain historical continuity, is to disinherit ourselves, it is to detach us from a fundamental part of who we are. This is to risk what Gérard Bouchard calls “the horizonless crumbling of micro-history”⁠5. In a society where frenzied individualism reigns, it is not the “us” that is a threat, but rather the absence of “us”.

When it comes to confronting a crisis, it is to the nation that people turn. The nation is the place of collective commitment, of democracy, of solidarity, of the greater than oneself. It produces meaning. The Quebec nation has played this role throughout its history, it is aware of itself, it wants to maintain itself and its story has value.

There is a Quebec national fact just as there is an Innu, Attikamek, Cree national fact, etc. National history is neither a withdrawal nor a threat, it is an essential presence, it is an explanation, it is an anchor. The national story constructs the social bond, it constructs a mobilizing “we”.

The establishment of a National Museum of the History of Quebec is not an end point. It will not replace the history departments of our universities. The writing of our national narrative will never be finished. If there must be debate, it must not focus on the erasure of the collective narrative, but on its ability to consolidate our common future.

1. Read the letter “The risks of a return to the “national narrative””

2. Consult the Coalition for History/Léger Marketing survey

3. Read the article “The “country” of Quebec well positioned internationally” from the Montreal Journal

4. Read the column “The courage to be different”

5. Gérard Bouchard, For national historyÉditions Boréal, 2023, 396 pages

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