A game between classic rivals: the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs, captured in Montreal. Credit: Shane Zurbrigg / Flickr Credit: Shane Zurbrigg / Flickr

Quebec Premier François Legault has announced a committee to “relaunch” hockey in Quebec, spurred by shock when the Montreal Canadiens played a game last spring with no Quebecers in the lineup. The panel’s a bit pure laine: It includes no minorities or First Nations; the committee route itself is a typically bland, rather Canadian gambit for such a fierce Quebec nationalist.

The mandate’s also frail: Legault claims he’ll bring les Nordiques back from Denver, which the NHL denies. And there’s no effort to restore Quebec’s lock on Quebecois players, that it once exercised. So there’ll be no end to tragedies like Marcel Dionne playing entirely in the U.S. or Denis Savard (mostly) in Chicago.

But it’s another salvo in Quebec’s assertion of its “distinct” rights, and Legault must be taken seriously. Why? Because not since René Lévesque has a Quebec leader had his finger so on the pulse of his people. Picture Lévesque after the 1980 referendum loss, cocking an ear toward the crowd’s mood , and then: “If I understand you correctly, what you mean to say is, Till Next Time.”

Legault has this knack, which can’t be learned. But he’s not Lévesque and it’s not 1980. So what’s changed and what’s to be gleaned from this episode?

•Quebec has diminished in national importance. In 1995, after the second Quebec referendum nearly did Canada in, every assertive twitch from Quebec sent waves of anxiety across the ROC. Masses of Ontarians travelled to Montreal to march through its streets before that vote, shouting, “We love you, Quebec.” They knew it was embarrassing but they couldn’t stop themselves. Legault has way more cred than the breakaway tantrums of Jason Kenney or Scott Moe, but still, today the general Canadian reaction is: Meh.

Also, IMO, a source of Anglo angst then was a fear that if Quebec bolted, there’d be nothing distinct left about us. That’s no longer true. What began as limited multiculturalism has spread deeper roots and the young especially say, with no sense of paradox: Our diversity is the unique thing distinguishing us. Meanwhile, Indigenous peoples have somehow taken the distinct society slot that Quebec occupied. This may be something that’s irking and motivating Legault.

•Hockey has diminished in national importance. Hm, actually, since I’m working on diminished word counts these days due to the Star’s perky new redesign, let’s move on to:

•Nationalism has diminished in national importance. About 75 years ago, nationalism was in bad odour among well-meaning Canadians. It had been a core part of fascism’s rise, laced with racial/ethnic overtones. Internationalism was the enlightened alternative. But by the 1960s, nationalism had morphed, as it constantly does, into a progressive force: it inspired anti-colonial liberation movements and ambitious socio-economic projects in the colonized world.

That echoed here too, especially among the young. Quebec nationalists rebelled against the colonial subjection to Canada and its Anglo bosses. Others elsewhere in Canada rejected the American imperium. But nationalism’s appeal sputtered, then fizzled. Nationalism itself, true to its protean spirit, re-emerged on the far right and is once again an ominous force.

•There’s a special problem for Legault in trying to wield the hockey myth for his purposes: it holds a singular place in Quebec. It wasn’t just about heroes and icons; it was about the indomitable Quebec spirit under centuries of foreign control. “Every winter our team goes south,” said someone to me in a Quebec City bar long ago, “and they return in the spring, as conquerors.” Then along came Lévesque and his PQ to restore that defiant spirit from its symbolic location on the ice to its proper realm: politics. It wouldn’t be easy, even if it was wise, to switch it all back again. That metaphor deserves a rest.

So Legault is working with a diminished myth, and even if he succeeds, he may get diminishing returns. Still, if anyone can revive Quebec’s hockey pulse, it’s probably him.

This column was originally published in the Toronto Star.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.