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Fifty years on, does ‘Vive le Québec libre’ still resonate?

If accounts of the summer of 1967 are even close to being accurate, it would be difficult to document another moment in time when Montrealers and Quebeckers felt as optimistic about their future or had as much faith in their own ability to shape it. All of Canada was envious of Expo '67 and the city and province that played host to the world that glorious summer.

The Queen, amazingly the same one we have now, came to mark Canada's centennial and – in defiance of the tight security that, according to The Globe and Mail's Scott Young, so irritated Prince Philip – took an impromptu ride on the Expo mini-rail. In a speech later the same day, the Queen declared Montreal's world's fair "one of the great events of our time," adding: "So it is that everywhere in Canada, and especially here in the heart of French Canada, there seethes a life of intensity, a deep will for renewal. All we see, everywhere in Canada, is a shock of ideas, questions, demands, projects, a whole vigorous churning which is the tumult of life itself."

We were indeed a country on the verge, although not quite in the way the Queen envisioned.

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Globe editorial: In Quebec, an anxious season for separatism

On July 24, Charles de Gaulle made sure of that. On one of the steamiest nights of the summer – the humidex was above 32 C at dusk – the then 76-year-old French president thrust Canada into a political pressure-cooker with the "Vive le Québec libre" speech he delivered from the balcony of Montreal's City Hall. Earlier that day, Gen. de Gaulle had travelled to Montreal from Quebec City along the so-called Chemin du Roy, an 18th-century road along the St. Lawrence River built to link the colonies of New France. "On my way here," he told the feverish and overheated crowd gathered below him in Montreal, "I sensed something like the atmosphere of the liberation" of Paris in 1945. "If there is anywhere in the world a city that sets an example by its modern successes, it is yours, and might I add, it is ours."

No matter that France had cut all ties with Quebec after the British conquest, Gen. de Gaulle vowed that la mère patrie would henceforth accompany its former colony on its road to liberation. "A people – and you are a piece of the French people – must not depend only on itself. This is going to happen. I see it, I feel it," he had said earlier in the day in Donnacona, outside Quebec City.

The Quebec separatist movement was until then a fringe group, even though the Union Nationale premier of the day, Daniel Johnson, had threatened Ottawa by seeking constitutional recognition of Quebec's nationhood under the slogan "equality or independence." Gen. de Gaulle changed everything.

In the space of a single, steamy summer day, Quebec's political aspirations became an international cause célèbre. Suddenly, the restless French-speaking province was at the centre of a diplomatic incident – Gen. de Gaulle's apparent intervention in the internal politics of a foreign country – that gave Quebec sovereigntists to-die-for credibility, publicity and momentum. Four months after Gen. de Gaulle's visit, René Lévesque founded the Mouvement Souveraineté-Association, which became the Parti Québécois the following year.

Canada-France relations were never the same. Successive French presidents were often suspected by Ottawa of being separatist sympathizers. France's officially neutral position of "non-interference, non-indifference" toward Quebec's political future, first articulated under Valéry Giscard D'Estaing in 1977, was seen in Ottawa as too cute by half. It was certainly no throaty endorsement of Canadian unity.

France-Canada relations warmed under François Mitterrand, owing in part to his fondness for Brian Mulroney, but Quebec sovereigntists never doubted Mr. Mitterrand's sympathy for their cause. Jacques Chirac all but endorsed the sovereigntist side in the 1995 referendum by suggesting, a week before the vote, that France would "recognize the fact" of a Yes victory. Nicolas Sarkozy had no time for Quebec separatists, although his position was perhaps influenced by his close friendship with Quebec's staunchly federalist Desmarais family. At any rate, François Hollande restated France's non-interference, non-indifference policy after taking office in 2012.

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And Emmanuel Macron? PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée, for one, isn't counting on the new French President's support. Mr. Macron, Mr. Lisée said in May, "represents unbridled globalization" and "a kind of multiculturalism à la Trudeau." Indeed, Mr. Macron is allergic to the nationalist forces threatening his own country and the European Union. That would make him an unlikely PQ ally.

So, was Gen. de Gaulle wrong? Fifty years after his speech, Quebec separation has never seemed a more distant prospect. Still, the summer of '67 did seem one of endless possibility for Quebec, and Canada. Not at all like 2017.

Video: Justin Trudeau serves cake in Quebec town (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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