ACROSS CANADA WITH JOHN STACKHOUSE
Day 11: Baie Comeau, Que.
Where the Canadian flag seems
almost like a souvenir from afar
Thursday, August 17, 2000
All along the province's north shore, in fishing coves and suburban malls, the most visible emblem of Quebec nationalism flaps valiantly in the summer wind, a wind that comes from afar and is only gaining strength.
From the Natashquan River to Baie Comeau, along 400 kilometres of road through separatist country, I could not keep count of the Quebec flags, so common were they in front of schools, municipal buildings, little shops and superstores, gas stations and homes.
There were enough flags to resemble the U.S. Midwest, and they were all blue and white. Along the same stretch of road I saw only five Canadian flags, and all but one were on federal buildings.
Coming from Atlantic Canada, where Canadian flags are always on the horizon, I began to see the maple leaf in Quebec almost as a souvenir from afar, like the three Acadian and two U.S. flags on the same route, or those foreign flags outside hotels that are meant to lend an international air to a place.
A local man who gave me a lift from Baie Comeau said anyone flying a Canadian flag is sure to face verbal insults from neighbours, or worse.
Yet the same friends prefer English music, American English for the most part, and usually turn down their local radio stations when the mandatory 60-per-cent French language music quota is on. On TV, they watch Friends. At the movies, they pay only for Hollywood.
Although few people I met on the north shore had ever been outside Quebec, that sort of cultural integration may be as irreversible as anywhere else in a world that blurs culture and commerce. But the people I met did not see it as assimilation. Only convenience.
In Sept-les, the gateway to Quebec's vast natural wealth and the last city along the St. Lawrence, the main street is all middle America -- or middle Canada -- a starkly impersonal strip of McDonald's, Wal-Mart, Canadian Tire and Tim Horton's, two of them.
If it were not for Provigo, French-language signs and the endless wave of Quebec flags -- the biggest, curiously, was atop an Irving gas station, hardly a beacon of nationalism -- a traveller could easily confuse the town with somewhere in Indiana.
John Stackhouse's Notes from the Road will appear daily in The Globe and Mail, and on globeandmail.com, until the Labour Day weekend. His conclusions will be published in September.