THE brasserie was absolutely packed, as It usually was at lunch time, but Jean-Claude was perched in his usual place and yelled at Yves to join him.
‘Salut, ~ça va?’, Jean-Claude said with a nod towards the empty chair to his right. He fumbled in his breast pocket for a packet of Gaulloise and smartly tapped out a cigarette, offering one to Yves, who refused, then self-consciously sticking the unlit cigarette behind his ear.
The two were old friends. They sat quietly, Yves absently-mindedly chewing on the ends of his moustache and Jean-Claude blankly staring at the front page of Le Devoir; ‘Vive Le Quebec Libre’, the headline said, ‘Tenth Anniversary Independence Celebrations Set to Go’. September 10 was only two days away and the city workers had been busy for the last week stringing bunting from the lamp posts and sticking little Quebec fleur-de-lys flags at every conceivable place along the parade route.
‘Bread and circuses’ Yves spat, sucking flecks of beer from his upper lip. ‘All this nationalist stuff, Tabernacle! Here we are in the second-largest francophone city in the world. We’re 12 years into the 21st century, and we don’t even have a decent sewage system. But somehow we’ve always got enough for a thousand kilometres of blue -and white bunting and a few million flags.’
Jean-Claude put his hand on the waiter’s arm as he passed and gestured for two more Brador beers. ‘Stegasaurus,’ he mumbled as -the waiter threaded his way through the sea of bodies back to the bar.
‘You and I, old friend, we’re a bit like dinosaurs. You remember how long it took to get rid of the English? 239 years. Do you remember: Maitres chez nous, masters in our own house.’
‘That was our struggle, our youth, merde, they controlled the economic life of this country so long that if that little shrimp Levesque hadn’t passed those language laws nearly 40 years ago we d be like the Cajuns in Louisiana. Do you remember them? They were a tourist attraction. Cute little frogs in an English pond. You needed English to get ahead and French was going the way of the dodo. You remember when the Parti Quebecois was first elected? Boy, we went crazy: crying, laughing, cheering, singing, dancing. We all felt so proud, so strong. We could do anything.’
Yves began to laugh softly, a sudden bubbling laugh that spiralled towards the sky. Jean-Claude broke off abruptly and began to trace a maple leaf from spilled beer on the black arborite table top.
‘çafait rien, pardon’, Yves chortled, his laughter trailing off to a small chirrup. ‘It’s all so romantic, n’est-ce pas? National sovereignty, cultural autonomy, Quebec aux Quebecois - we sure knew how to make slogans, eh? The kind that make you stand bolt upright and shiver with pride.’
‘OuI, t’a raison,’ growled Jean-Claude, finally flipping the Gaullois from behind his ear and lighting it defiantly. ‘But that’s something we should rejoice in. Language is always a weapon. Using it to mobilize people to a worthwhile cause is a great skill.’
‘You should have been a poet Jean-Claude, but all the same I get worried about the power of words when I see the kind of hype that’s pumped out every time we have these independence celebrations. Hallelujah, we’re a free nation! Sure, we’ve got our own flag and we don’t have to put up with any more crap from Ottawa. Nobody needs English to get ahead anymore. But we are we really sovereign? I mean, how can we be? We don’t even have our own currency. The Quebec dollar is just a farce. Hell, we use the Yankee dollar like it’s our own. Sometimes I think I’d rather be part of Canada again,’
Yves rocked back on the legs of his chair and absent-mindedly tugged at the ends of his moustache, half-squinting into the liquid heat of the street, He was 62 years old, Jean-Claude was 64, The wives of both were dead and their children scattered, Most were in the .US - Cincinnati, New York City, Miami, Boston; a few were in Toronto and Vancouver. Yves’s eldest son had settled in Montreal and one of Jean-Claude’s daughters was in Lac St Jean. For all Quebec’s ascendancy to nationhood had boosted her cultural stock, it hadn’t done much to spur the economy. Young people were still leaving by the thousands every year to find work, Most of them never came back. Oh, they wrote passionate letters home recalling the memories of Jean-Baptiste Day, the good-natured revelling in knee-deep snow of Quebec City’s Carnival and the silver spires of the country churches in the Sr. Lawrence valley. They would even visit, usually in the summer, for a week or so, with the kids in tow. That was what saddened Yves the most. He had to talk with his own grandchildren in English - and not Canadian English either eh? They stretched their vowels and coasted through sentences just like the bloody Yanks. Sometimes he really wished Quebec hadn’t become a separate country. Ottawa and the rest of the English provinces never gave in without a fight, but at least there was a shared fear of the Americans.
‘You and I both know there’s not a hope in hell of turning back now,’ Jean-Claude said. He bent over, blew the tobacco ash off the newspaper and defily turned to a clean page.
‘Look at the shape the Canadians are in. Newfoundland and the Maritimes are so cut off from the rest of English Canada they’re making noises about becoming the 59th state of the US. And Washington seems more than willing. Alberta’s flirting with the Yanks too. Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and B.C. are all in disarray. The Yukon and the Northwest Territories are already American satellites; oil, minerals and the "Russian threat" saw to that. No, we’ve just got to make it on our own.
Jean-Claude glanced to his right at the clock behind the bar. The lunch time crowd was thinning and the sun had retreated behind the crown of a huge old maple tree. He folded the paper into a neat square and slipped it into the side pocket of his attaché case. Two classes to teach this afternoon, he thought. Time to concentrate the mind. He shifted sideways and pulled out his wallet, motioning to the waiter for the bill and removed a limp and soiled US $20 dollar note in preparation.
‘You know what’s funny?’ said Yves. ‘This conversation seems like collected bits of our past. We even talked about this happening. We predicted it. You used to say, or maybe it was Maurice, "If Quebec controls only its language and culture, it will cease to be a nation." That sounded so pompous to me at the time. But now we look around, we see it’s true. We’re no more in control of our resources than we were 40 years ago. Americans, Canadians, French, Germans and a few privileged Quebecois still decide what goes on here. We still ship out lumber, electricity, a few minerals and import nearly everything else. We’re no longer a cultural minority, but we’re sure as hell an economic one.’
Both men rose to leave. Yves fished in his pocket for some small change which he flung on the table as a tip. He was already thinking about the agenda for the afternoon’s meeting. They pushed in their chairs and shook hands briskly.
‘We go step by step,’ Jean said brightly, ‘step by step. At least now we know what the next step is.’ He stopped for a moment, then snapped his fingers sharply.
‘It was Maurice,’ he said.