A sketch on Montreal’s infrastructure troubles from “Bye Bye 2011,” a Québécois comedy special. After the characters hear a radio report about 2012 potentially being the year of the world’s end, they survive crumbling roadways and joke about such chaos being attributable to the city’s character, not the planet’s demise.
By FRANCISCO TORO - MONTREAL — This New Year’s Eve, like every year, millions of Quebeckers huddled around their television sets to watch “Bye Bye 2011,” a comedy special satirizing the events of the past 12 months, broadcast from 11 p.m. until the stroke of midnight. Think hour-long version of “Weekend Update” on “Saturday Night Live” in French, and you’re not a million miles off.
This year’s show started with a raucous, special-effects laden send-up of Montreal’s recent infrastructure troubles (several bridges and highways in the city are famously on the brink of collapse, causing major traffic problems). One pair of sketches made fun of infighting at the nationalist Parti Québécois and the upstart political party that’s challenging P.Q. for nationalist votes. Another act mocked the provincial premier’s plan to develop northern Quebec, while others took on a corruption scandal in Quebec’s construction industry and the local government’s ham-fisted response to it.
What was striking about the line-up was that all those skits would have been incomprehensible to most English-speaking Canadians : They simply don’t know who the people being parodied are.
Just about every sketch was narrowly focused on Quebec politics. Even the few that acknowledged that Quebec is part of a bigger country did so with a distinctly parochial focus : one poked fun at the inexperienced new breed of left-wing Quebeckers who were elected to the federal Parliament last spring ; another turned the spotlight on the undying support of Bob “Elvis” Gratton, a fictional Elvis impersonator from Quebec, for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s conservative government.
In doing this, “Bye Bye 2011” is no exception : a shocking proportion of Quebec’s Francophone broadcast and print media gives the rest of Canada only an occasional sideways glance.
This makes a certain amount of sense, not just because of the language divide but also because of the extreme form of federalism practiced in this country. Virtually all decisions of any import to people’s everyday lives are made at the provincial level, and more so in Quebec than elsewhere, thanks to a series of ad hoc deals that have given the province some degree of autonomy over such typical mainstays of national policy as immigration and even international affairs.
Living in Quebec, it’s often hard to shake the feeling that Canada is “somewhere else” — a different country with a different culture, a different language and different priorities. Quebec has its own television personalities, its own pop icons, its own celebrity chefs — household names in the province all blissfully unknown in the rest of Canada. As a newcomer here, this strikes me as marvelous : while the rest of English-speaking North America marches inexorably toward cultural homogeneity, Quebec is keeping alive a vibrant cultural life of its own.
All this might seem like great news for Quebec’s separatists, but things don’t work like that. While Quebeckers still disagree about whether secession is a good idea — with support for the idea in the 25-40 percent range — they increasingly agree that the debate over secession is a throwback to a bygone era. In a 2011 poll, 71 percent of Quebeckers said they thought the multidecade debate that led to two referendums on independence, in 1980 and 1995, is now “outmoded,” with 63 percent seeing no contradiction in being proud Québécois and proud Canadians at the same time.
Politicians perceived as too keen to push for secession have suffered badly in recent polls, and the P.Q. faces electoral annihilation in upcoming provincial elections, the fate suffered by its sister party at the federal level last year. Quebec’s resurgent nationalist politicians increasingly favor independence in the same way that South Korean politicians favor unification with North Korea : it’s a fine idea in theory, one to aspire to in the long term, but certainly nothing worth hurrying along.
And why should they rush ? Whatever the constitutional details, Quebec has already reached its own type of sovereignty : a sovereignty of the public sphere. All you have to do is tune in to the television an hour before the new year to know that.
Francisco Toro blogs about the Chávez era at CaracasChronicles.com.