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An insider’s guide to understanding Quebec

Pollster Jean-Marc Léger's new book Cracking the Quebec Code: The 7 keys to understanding Quebecers gives outsiders access to the province's "best-kept secrets."


Jean-Marc Léger has written a book that only a Quebecker could write.

The famed pollster says so himself – and the bold title he's chosen gives away the reason.

Cracking the Quebec Code: The 7 keys to understanding Quebecers, makes the kind of tantalizing promises for itself that a reader might expect from a marketing guru like Mr. Léger. "For the first time," a foreword boasts, "English Canadians will have access to Quebeckers' best-kept secrets." Here, finally, is a "skeleton key" to the "question of Québécitude."

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Co-written with journalist Pierre Duhamel and business scholar Jacques Nantel, the book uses survey data, interviews with provincial leaders and a novel approach measuring reactions to hundreds of key words to come up with seven traits that define the Quebec character: joie de vivre, easygoing, non-committal, victim, villagers, creative and proud.

The project would seem presumptuous if it weren't led by Mr. Léger, the ultimate Quebec insider who is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the eponymous polling firm he founded with his late father, Marcel, a one-time Parti Québécois cabinet minister.

"He's probably right now the most experienced pollster in the province," said Jack Jedwab, executive vice-president of the Association for Canadian Studies. "He's very visible in the Quebec media – probably one of the most visible in the last couple of decades. He knows the political and economic intelligentsia of the province very, very well."

That deep immersion in Quebec's political and social life has given Mr. Léger the confidence – some might say hubris – to channel Quebec's collective unconscious for an audience of outsiders.

"I'm saying loudly what people know deep in their mind," he said in an interview this week. "I'm only the messenger – so don't shoot the messenger!"

The Quebec media does not appear to have its guns trained. The book comes out in English and French on Monday and is already a sensation in the province, with excerpts running in each of Montreal's three top newspapers and Mr. Léger booked for more than 50 interviews in the next week and a half. As Mr. Nantel writes in the book's final chapter, "Quebeckers like to acknowledge themselves, and they like to be acknowledged."

That maxim may be tested by some of the book's more "uncompromising" revelations, as Mr. Léger calls them. Anglos eager for a peek at dirty French-Canadian laundry will have plenty to ogle . "Many Quebeckers are unfaithful, stressed out, lack resources, wash inadequately, work unexceptionally, and live badly – but are happy," he writes, at his scab-picking best. (The book addresses the province's anglophone and allophone populations, but focuses its analysis on the francophone majority.)

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Ultimately, though, this is a proud, even boosterish account of Quebec and its people. Mr. Léger insists that the province is no more racist than the rest of Canada, even while noting that 49 per cent of Quebeckers would be bothered by a server in a hijab compared with 6 per cent who would feel the same way about a server wearing a crucifix. "Public expressions of faith disturb Quebeckers, especially when it comes from a foreign tradition," he writes.

Mr. Léger boasts that his study will show the rest of Canada that Quebec isn't so different after all. Seventy-one per cent of the attitudes and behaviours of English Canadians and French Quebeckers overlap, he reports.

The differences, however, are just as arresting. Seventy-six per cent of Quebeckers believe that "having pleasure" is more important than "being responsible." In English Canada, the figure is 53 per cent. Joie de vivre is the most cherished value in Quebec and only the fourth most-cherished in English Canada. (Mr. Léger notes that the English language doesn't even have a word for joie de vivre – it just borrows from the French.)

Though the book promises to overturn old stereotypes about French Canadians, it may bolster as many as it dispels.

The typical Quebecker, as Mr. Léger portrays her, is hedonistic, fun-loving, spontaneous, creative, emotional, work-shy, navel-gazing and proud. She loves good food, red wine and Céline Dion. She spends more on booze (but binge-drinks less), enjoys shopping more, saves less, and is 16 per cent more tolerant of homosexuality than her Rest-of-Canada counterpart. Her heroes are Maurice Richard, René Lévesque – and Céline Dion.

Other insights may prove more counterintuitive. English Canadians will perhaps be surprised to learn that their Québécois compatriots, who veer from party to party each federal election and gave Canada two referendums on national unity, are chronically indecisive and averse to strong positions – but that's what the surveys show.

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What's arguably most interesting about the book is that it could have been written at all. For all its diversity and evolution, Quebec is still a remarkably cohesive place. The cultural mainstream is stronger than anywhere else in Canada: an astonishing 94 per cent of Quebeckers root for the Montreal Canadiens, compared to the 58 per cent of Ontarians who cheer for the Leafs. Bye Bye, a comedic end-of-year review program, commanded a TV viewership of more than five million last year – 62 per cent of all Quebeckers.

That cohesiveness can make the province insular and alienated from the broader Canadian culture. Consider the Vancouver Olympics: While the Games were smothered with news coverage in English Canada, much of it glowingly patriotic, Mr. Léger reports that the Quebec press largely ignored the event.

Daniel Weinstock, a bilingual Quebecker and director of the McGill Institute for Health and Social Policy, remembers a time when Quebec and English Canada were passionately, sometimes angrily, engaged with each other over federalism and the Constitution. The fizzling of the separatist threat, the relative self-sufficiency of Quebec, and a Western-oriented Harper government helped usher in a period of "benign neglect" between the province and its partners in confederation, he believes.

"We may finally be realizing that a federation is just that," said Mr. Weinstock. "Largely distinct societies that have a kind of marriage of convenience for a range of issues having to do with security and foreign affairs, but that largely go their own way."

For his part, Mr. Jedwab believes English Canada is suffering from "Quebec fatigue."

"I notice that when I'm in Toronto, my Toronto colleagues appear less interested in Quebec than when the separatist threat was more potent," he said.

Mr. Léger is making a bet that he can inject a dose of Québécois adrenalin into bored English Canadians. If he has written a book that only a Quebecker could write, he will be hoping it's not a book that only Quebeckers will read.

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About the Author

Eric Andrew-Gee has covered national news for the Globe and Mail since 2015. He previously worked at the Toronto Star, where he was a reporter, and Maisonneuve Magazine, where he was an editor. Eric won the 2015 Goff Penny Award for Canada’s top newspaper journalist under 25. His work has also been nominated for two National Magazine Awards. More


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