Two articles by Jocelyn Létourneau about the historical consciousness of young Quebecers

Here are two articles by Jocelyn Létourneau about the historical consciousness of young Quebecers.

It is usually thought that young people, for different reasons, know very little about history. Bodies like the Dominion Institute of Canada, for instance, have commissioned multiple polls over time to show that, when questioned about features of the past, young people, mostly students, would be unable to answer correctly more than two or three times out of ten. In Quebec as well, we find numerous studies showing the lack of empirical knowledge among young people about the history of the province or of the nation – whatever you choose to call it. Summing up this catastrophic state of affairs, one publication was even titled Trou de mémoire.

My feeling is that we must be careful about polls that try to measure the level of empirical knowledge possessed by students. In that game, even professional historians may lose their shirts, their skirts, or, worse, their reputation. Personally, I’ d be afraid to be tested in a poll. l’m sure I would perform badly! Does this mean l’m without a knowledge or even impressions of the past? Not at all. It is the same with young people. When, instead of testing them about specific details of the past, you ask such putative ‘green minds’ to account for the history of Quebec, you find that they know quite a lot of things. You also find that they can account for the history of Quebec in a pretty coherent manner. This account may be not as sophisticated as yours and mine. But still, we are far from a trou de mémoire, and far also from a confused or senseless account of the past.

Létourneau, Jocelyn, “Remembering Our Past. An Examination of Young Quebecer’s Historical Memory”, Ruth Sandwell, dir., To the Past : History Education, Public Memory, & Citizenship in Canada, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2006, p. 70-87.

When young, fifteen to twenty-five-year-old Quebeckers of French-Canadian heritage attending secondary school, college, or university are asked, without prior warning, to tell the history of Quebec since its beginnings, this is, broadly, what they all write:

– In the beginning, there were people who had come from France. They lived a fairly rudimentary, but peaceful, life, in a world they were building together in French. They suffered under the twin annoyances of a colonial regime and a mercantile system, but felt no need to rebel against the mother country. They traded with the indigenous people, and gradually became aware of the considerable economic potential of the patch of America they inhabited. They suffered few internal conflicts, continued to be dominated by French interests, but did not have to fight to preserve their rights or their tongue.

– Then came the Great Upheaval, touched off by the 1759 Conquest of New France by the British. Thus began the francophones’ history of unending struggle to emancipate and liberate themselves from continual attempts at assimilation, whether warlike or underhanded, inflicted on them by the anglophones. From the Quebec Act (1774) to the Quiet Revolution (1960), the dynamics of conflict frames all the milestones of Quebec history, with one side seeking to assert itself and the other ruling with a carrot or a stick.

– The 1960s brought the newly invigorated Quebeckers’ collective Great Awakening. They plunged steadfastly into modern life and put a healthy distance between themselves and their former perceived identity and ways of being, readily summed up under a triple caption: agriculturalism, messianism, and anti-democratism. They opened their doors to the world, shook off the English yoke, freed themselves from a federal government that had been a preferred instrument of control ever since the war, and set about taking back their collective destiny. Jean Lesage, and particularly René Lévesque, are seen as key players in this shift, facilitating collective action and redeeming the group’s shared history.

– For various reasons, particularly because the people of Quebec are divided over their future and because there are forces, particularly the federal government, that are frustrating its advent, this future burgeoned during the Quiet Revolution (the liberation of the people of Quebec and the sovereignty of Quebec) only to be stymied by the 1980 and 1995 referendums. Then came a period of uncertainty, the search for a gateway into the future, and maybe even a stab, albeit ambiguous, at redefining Quebeckers’ self-identity.

Létourneau, Jocelyn & Sabrina Moisan,“Young People’s Assimilation of a Collective Historical Memory. A Case Study of Quebeckers of French–Canadian Heritage”, Peter Seixas, dir., Theorizing Historical Consciousness, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2004, p. 109-128.