Quebec is ending 'Les Deux Solitudes,' EC can too


By Peter Thomson

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Un­til re­cently in Que­bec, Canada, two peo­ples lived side by side sep­a­rated by lan­guage: the English and the French. After de­feat­ing the French at the Plains of Abra­ham in 1759, the Bri­tish made a deal leav­ing the French much of their le­gal sys­tem and guar­an­tee­ing them their lan­guage rights, but en­sur­ing they were the con­querors.

Until recently the two populations demonized each other with bad language: the French were the “Frogs” and the English “les maudits Anglais” (unspeakable English). They shopped in different stores, went to different events, and attended different schools. In general the French Canadians were Catholic and the English were Protestant, so they met only in nightclubs, and at professional hockey and baseball games. The French-Canadians called this “Les Deux Solitudes,” two solitary societies not recognizing each other unless they were forced to by circumstances. The French felt put upon as a national minority and the English felt defensive as a provincial minority. Successive Quebec governments preached separation from Canada.

Today, the separatist firebrands have disappeared and a new status quo has emerged. With the proliferation of international trade, the ebbing of the English-only population, the insistence by the provincial government that signs be either bi-lingual or French, and that you must be served in either language, the population is becoming more homogenized. As the parochial French-Canadian school system changed and included people from all cultures, there has developed a wonderful arts and entertainment industry bringing the world plays, films and music. Cirque de Soleil and Celine Dion are among the performers this industry has produced. The young have discovered that there is a real advantage to having two languages at their disposal, and that learning a third can be pretty darn easy. Quebec manufacturers have become outward-looking, and the province has become a global economic force.

Elizabeth City can find some interesting parallels in the situation in Quebec. Here we still have two separate societies striving to find common ground but separated by race and custom. Only a few white folks go to African-American events and vice versa. Downtown businesses wonder why they can’t attract African-American customers, and some black businesses believe that an unconscious racism affects their bottom line. As in Quebec, the hope for true integration and economic equality lies with the youngsters, and critical to that is the quality of education they receive and the jobs we can develop to keep them here after they graduate. Both are challenges.

On the school front, under the leadership of Superintendent Larry Cartner, it seems evident that progress is being made, but it’s not showing up yet in the test scores. The Northeast Academy for Aerospace and Advanced Technologies, our public charter STEM school, is already putting up good numbers on the standardized tests but because it’s regional, only a few local students have the opportunity to attend this innovative school. Regionally, Camden and parts of Currituck shine, so things are getting better in the area but need to improve more. The Pasquotank County commissioners, the Elizabeth City City Council, our Elizabeth City- Pasquotank Economic Development Commission and our regional helpers are working to bring in good jobs, and there are encouraging signs in that sector.

Recently Dr. Rex Ellis, associate director of curatorial affairs for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, gave a presentation at our Museum of the Albemarle. In an eloquent address, he spoke about the Underground Railroad and how both races working together brought over 100,000 of the enslaved people to freedom. On a warm, moonlit October evening we gathered together, African Americans and whites, applauded and asked questions. As in Quebec, times are changing, and we’re changing too.

Peter Thomson is a resident of Elizabeth City.