La Vraie Saison

Spring comes into Québec from the west. It is the warm Japan Current that brings the change of season to the West coast of Canada, and then the West Wind picks it up. It comes across the prairies in the breath of the Chinook, waking up the grain and caves of bears. It flows over Ontario like a dream of legislation, and it sneaks into Québec, into our villages, between our birch trees. In Montréal the cafes, like a bed of tulip bulbs, sprout from their cellars in a display of awnings and chairs. In Montréal spring is like an autopsy. Everyone wants to see the inside of the frozen mammoth. Girls rip off their sleeves and the flesh is sweet and white, like wood under green bark. From the streets a sexual manifesto rises like an inflating tire, “The winter has not killed us again!”

Beautiful Losers (1966) is Leonard Cohen’s second novel, and like many of his songs it is set in Montréal. Revolutionary, gloomy, and filled with desire, the book gets realistic when describing the energy floating in the air when spring comes to town. The streets might be dirty with all the rubbish that the snow kept buried, but they are also filled with a rejuvenating rush. The city is familiar with contradictions. Quebeckers still feel undermined by the inescapable presence of English, but they remain passionate about forging their own way.

Despite their joie de vivre, Montréalers can also get pretty nasty when spring arrives. La vraie saison vient de commencer, as the saying goes. The Stanley Cup playoffs kick in and hockey is everywhere. The Montréal Canadiens are always expected to play with character, even if they are no longer the dominating squad they were until the seventies. Things can get particularly ugly in the streets of Montréal when the “Habs” (one of the club’s many nicknames) win. Last year, the Canadiens dispatched the two best players in the NHL from the playoffs: Sydney Crosby (of the Pittsburgh Penguins) and Alexander Ovechkin (of the Washington Capitals). But the biggest riots in downtown Montréal were when the Canadiens made it to the Eastern Conference Final. (They were taken out there by the Philadelphia Flyers.) It was the same in 2008, when “Les Glorieux” defeated the Boston Bruins, and raging fans chased Bostonians around the Bell Center in Montréal. Beating the odds, Canadiens’ fans do not know how to win with grace.

Spring for me is the time I feel like Mordechai Richler’s Barney. Living in Paris, I cannot forget about hockey. I wake up and immediately check the score online, just as Barney would look through the International Herald Tribune to see how “his beloved Canadiens” had done. Away from home, many Quebeckers cannot give up their hockey habits. Last year, a friend who is a reporter in Sudan paid for live streaming to watch the playoffs. But the suspense during the final minutes of key matches proved too much for him, a man living and working in a wartorn country (which was about to hold a crucial referendum on the independence of one of its provinces). He would resort to doing push-ups, saying to himself, if I can do it, they can do it too.

Hockey is the only language shared by the whole of Canada, and the Stanley Cup playoffs always provide a rare moment of unity for a country still shaken by the 1995 Quebec independence referendum. The province rejected the idea by a mere 50,000 vote margin, leaving the matter unresolved. Any federal election is likely to have the Quebec issue as the elephant in the room. Canadians do not want to talk about it anymore and Quebeckers remain uncertain what they want to say. As he prepared for the early election held on Monday, Tory Prime Minister Stephen Harper hoped to gain the few seats necessary to form a majority government, a goal he had been unable to achieve since he assumed office in 2006. Canadians finally granted him what he has long asked for: the Conservatives now hold 167 seats out of 308. On the campaign trail, Harper portrayed himself as a reassuring figure, able to stem the troubles “lapping at our shores,” as he put it. Amid international instability, he portrayed Canada as “the closest thing this world has to an island of stability.” Harper’s political platform did not advance much besides good management of a resilient economy. With Canada’s GDP growing at a rate of 3 percent in 2010, he did not feel the need to provide a new vision for the country.

Harper did however make one tactical move. He turned his back on Quebec. During his first five years, Harper tried to connect with the province, learning French and introducing a successful motion to the House of Commons to recognize Quebeckers as a nation. But the province was not to be wooed. Harper never saw Quebec, which has seventy-five seats, elect more than than ten Conservative MPs, and he came to realize that there were no gains to be made there. He shares no cultural affinities with the province; he was in favor of the war in Iraq while Quebeckers were strongly against it. More importantly, the Bloc Québécois, a separatist party, has been the main federal party in Quebec since its founding in 1993, generally holding two-thirds of the province’s seats. At least since then, many Canadians have seen Quebec as a spoiled child who constantly makes demands but does not want to cooperate, and Harper suddenly seemed convinced that the harder he played with Quebec, the more he would be rewarded come election day. He proved his stance by refusing to spend public money on the construction of a new ice rink in Quebec City, a project rejected by most in Western Canada.

Quebec City desperately wants its hockey team, the Nordiques, back, and a new rink is crucial to bringing them home. The NHL franchise went to Colorado, where it was renamed the Avalanche, in 1995, leaving behind a town that had cheered it on even when the club was the worst in the league for three seasons. City Hall and Quebec’s government are both ready to invest in the project. Conservative media mogul Pierre-Karl Péladeau, Quebec’s Rupert Murdoch, is ready to throw some money into building the igloo. But Harper has bet against the team, going so far as to pass on the opportunity to forge an alliance with Péladeau, who on April 18th launched the Sun News Network, dubbed a “Canadian Fox News.”

The other two major political parties wanted to make hockey a major issue during the campaign. The Bloc Québécois saw proof in Harper’s decision that he is anti-Quebec. The Liberal Party, which used to be the main political force in Canada, hoped the issue would help it get back in the race. But both came out of the election badly wounded. The Bloc, which came in with forty-nine MPs, now only has four. The Liberals also collapsed, coming in with seventy-seven seats and leaving with thirty-four. The Tories went from ten seats in Quebec to six. And the rink had almost nothing to do with it. It was another party that was able to enthuse the province and shake up an uninspiring campaign.

The left-of-center New Democratic Party (NDP) held thirty-seven seats after the 2008 election, and only one of them came from Quebec. The NDP now has 102 MPs, fifty-eight of them from Quebec, some of whom do not even speak French. No one would have bet on such an outcome. But by voting for the NDP, Quebeckers made clear that it wants something new. Time will tell if Quebeckers really support the party or were simply attracted to its novelty, but they have always been more liberal than the Rest of Canada (ROC), and it helps that the NDP shares their values. Quebeckers have now sent their most diverse representation in history to Ottawa, and it is as if they are hedging their bets, calling for stronger competition among the parties and a more compelling political debate.

In recent years, the province has been seen as increasingly indifferent to Canada. In a way, the election confirmed that idea. If the rink did not become such a political hot potato, it is because the province and city hall in Quebec City had already laid out a plan to build it without Ottawa’s help. Quebec has learned not to wait for federal politicians to make up their minds about where the province fits into their strategy. So while it could be said that the NDP’s rise proves that the province is learning to go along with the rest of the country, it also could be the case that Quebec is asking to be presented with more legitimate options for its future. In this second sense, rejecting the debate about the hockey rink revealed a growing impatience with the status quo. Quebeckers do not want to be seen as the opposition, as Harper sees them, nor as easily bought fools, as the Liberals do and to some extent the Bloc as well.

Quebec’s feeling of isolation is part of its history. La Nouvelle-France covered most of North America until it was conquered in 1760 by the British Crown, and the French were slowly confined to the banks of the Saint Lawrence river. The French elite and aristocracy went back to Europe, leaving behind a rustic people, peasants and adventurers, who were not rich enough to sustain institutions through which they could express their character and engage with the world. Laval University in Quebec City was founded in 1663, but it was under the strict direction of the Catholic Church. Cultural life in the country was limited, and French-Canadians were cut off from their origins.

This changed to some extent in 1837, when what was then called Lower Canada rose up against British colonial power. The Crown put down the revolt, but twenty years later the province of Quebec was formally created and defined as a French and Catholic society. In 1867, the first British North America Act established Canada as a constitutional monarchy. Over time, more and more English-speaking provinces were added to the Confederation, and political clashes between the two linguistic communities grew in regularity. One of the main issues of dispute was the loyalty owed to the Crown of England. Quebeckers did not feel they had to fight on foreign land to defend the British Empire, as English-speaking Canadians did, and opposed serving in the First World War. Quebeckers also resented the economic dominance of the English-speaking community. Most industries were controlled by Anglophone businessmen living in Montréal, and language was a strong factor in determining wealth. Quebeckers formed a close-knit society that was suspicious of foreign influence, as the Catholic Church encouraged it to be.

To this day, most Canadians would still say that Quebec is “impregnable,” as Herman Melville described it in Moby-Dick. But if Quebec’s citadel cannot be conquered, its inhabitants cannot escape from it either, and here lies a tension that hockey has helped to overcome. Hockey has always been a way for Quebec reach out beyond its borders. It has also helped the province express its aspirations. But hockey has never been made a partisan issue—although, considering the role it plays in Quebec, it is understandable that the traditional parties might have wanted it to be so.

During the fifties, Maurice “Rocket” Richard became the first modern hockey player, and the chief French-Canadian hero. Richard began his career with the Canadiens in 1942. The following season, the NHL changed its rules and allowed the attacking team to make forward passes across its own blue line, up to the newly introduced red line in the middle of the ice. Before that change, players had to carry the puck out of their zone before they could make a pass. The new rules created a much faster game, and players such as Richard, with good skating skills, could quickly enter their opponent’s defensive zone and put the puck in the back of the net. “Rocket” became the first player to score fifty goals in one season. He retired in 1960, as an eight-time Stanley Cup winner and the NHL all-time top scorer. (His records have since been broken.)

Richard became more than a hockey player: he was an icon. Living among a majority who shunned their language, French-Canadians found in Richard and hockey a symbolic ground on which they could prevail. Rocket was a fierce competitor who would not be intimidated. One night in Boston, he fought a local defenseman and punched a linesman (who was holding him while he was hit in the face). He was suspended for the rest of the season, and many in Montréal thought that NHL president Clarence Campbell, a Canadian born in Saskatchewan, was excessively harsh because he wanted to chasten the French-Canadian star. Four days later, on March 17, 1955, the Habs were playing the Detroit Red Wings at the Montréal Forum, and word got out that Campbell was in the building. An angry fan attacked him, and a tear gas bomb thrown near the NHL President forced the evacuation of the rink. A riot ensued in the streets of Montréal. Around forty people were injured and sixty were arrested.

The Richard Riot, as it is known, is now seen as an early sign of the Quiet Revolution that happened in Quebec during the sixties. For the first time, French-Canadians expressed their growing frustration with how they were treated by Canadian society. This frustration was exacerbated by the long reign of Province Prime Minister Maurice Duplessis, which stretched from 1936 to 1959 with only a five year interruption. Under Duplessis’s influence, Quebec was rife with corruption. Anti-communist paranoia and a Catholic zealot culture prevailed, while the streets of Montréal were full of advertisements written in English. Most of Quebec was stuck in the previous century, but the art scene was burgeoning. Félix Leclerc wrote folk songs about liberation, and the visual arts group Les Automatistes imagined a new pictorial landscape in a place were Jesus Christ had long been the only subject of representation. These artists too were paving the way for the Quiet Revolution. At the end of the fifties, the province suddenly asserted itself, reclaiming the power held by the Catholic Church and the English-speaking elite.

In 1960, Jean Lesage became the province’s prime minister and everything started to change. Quebec nationalized sensitive resources such as hydroelectricity, saying it would not allow them to enrich fat cats in Toronto and in Westmount, a posh English-speaking city on the island of Montréal. Schools and universities became more secular institutions. The churches were suddenly empty. And language laws were adopted to spread the use of French in businesses and help immigrants learn it. The politics of the country changed and became a rivalry between federalists and Quebec nationalists. 1970 was marked by the kidnapping and killing of Pierre Laporte, a provincial minister, and by the imposition of martial law to fight the Front de Libération du Québec, the loose terrorist group responsible for Laporte’s killing. The men who killed Laporte were eventually arrested, and these events reinforced the idea that the cause for a free Quebec should be fought through democratic means. The nationalist Parti Québécois had been founded in 1968, and in 1976 it surprisingly took power in an early election.

During such a politicized era, hockey provided a topic about which everybody could agree. Between 1965 and 1979, the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup nine times. Their exclusive rights on young Quebec players created a winning machine. Until 1963, NHL clubs owned and sponsored junior teams whose players were not allowed to sign with other franchises. The Canadiens controlled entire leagues in Quebec, and they also had teams elsewhere in Canada and in the US—theirs was the most developed scouting system at the time. In 1963, the draft system was established, breaking old monopolies. But until 1969, the Candiens were still granted “cultural picks,” which allowed them to draft the two best French-speaking players ahead of any other team. The impact of the massive pool of talent they assembled was still felt in 1971, when the Canadiens dared to trade aging key players to make sure they would get first pick and draft Guy Lafleur.

A smooth skater and astute scorer, Lafleur was instrumental to the team’s domination during the seventies—he was the best player of the decade. With Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Ken Dryden, Bob Gainey, Yvan Cournoyer, and Serge Savard, to name just a few stand-out players, the Canadiens were unstoppable. They lost only eight times during the regular 1976-77 season and only twice during the playoffs. They scored 387 goals, while their closest rival scored only 323. Frustrated by the English soccer team’s inability to win the World Cup, Gary Lineker once said, “Football is a simple game; twenty-two men chase a ball for ninety minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.” During the seventies, the same could be said about the Canadiens and hockey, and in Quebec and throughout all of Canada, no matter what language people spoke or what political views they held, they could always agree about the Habs.

The Canadiens’ domination ended on May 21, 1979, almost exactly one year before the first referendum on the province’s independence. Held on May 20, 1980, the referendum lost by a 20 percent margin. The charismatic Pierre Elliott Trudeau, head of the Liberal Party and Prime Minister of Canada, had implied during the campaign that constitutional talks held after the vote would respond to Quebec’s demands. But the 1981 talks under Trudeau’s leadership produced a different result. A Quebecker committed to Canada’s unity, Trudeau signed an agreement on November 2, 1981 with all the provinces except Quebec. (Trudeau waited until René Lévesque, Quebec’s prime minister, had left the hotel where the talks were taking place, then signed an agreement without the French-speaking province’s consent.) In 1982, Canada “repatriated” its constitution—the 1867 constitution was still in London, as it was originally a law adopted by the British Parliament—and made the amendments agreed to the year before. Quebec lost its right to oppose any constitutional changes, a prerogative it had claimed since the founding of the country. A Charter of Rights was also added to the constitution, which by reinforcing individual rights undermined Quebec’s efforts to formulate collective rights protecting its language. The 1982 constitution remains very controversial in Canada. Its supporters believe it strengthened the country’s unity while giving private citizens more leverage against the state.

After 1982, the search for a collective destiny, dreamed of during the sixties and the seventies, was abandoned in the province, as it was in much of the Western world. The eighties are remembered in Quebec as a time when the province suffered from a “post-referendum syndrome.” Individualism was on the rise but failed to provide real opportunities as the economy plunged. The province’s growth rate was 0.8 percent between 1981 and 1984, while Ontario enjoyed a 3.1 growth rate. Nevertheless, Quebec embraced liberal economic policies and was in favor of the free trade agreement Canada signed with the US in 1988. A soaring suicide rate was also seen as an aspect of “post-referendum syndrome.” Canada was now a divided country, and Quebec was struggling to find its place in the new economy at the same time that it was bound by a political pact that had disregarded the province. The Canadiens’ comeback at the top of the NHL in 1986 offered a rare moment of hope, and it had its roots in the Summit Series of 1972.

The Summit Series changed hockey (as Kent Russell explains in “Sid/Ovie”). The Soviet team came to North America to face the best Canadian NHL players who, because they were professionals, were not allowed to take part in the Olympic Games. The series brought together two opposing styles, which can be described as playing the puck or playing the man. The North American school emphasizes neutralizing the opponent. It involves hitting but also following the puck carrier closely. The European school focuses on possession of the puck and its flow between teammates. The Canadian team won the eight-game series by four games to three (with one tie). Afterward Canada and the US integrated the lessons learned against the Soviets, and during the eighties great scorers such as Wayne Gretzky, Steve Yzerman, and Mike Modano emerged.

Quebec, however, saw potential in defense. In 1972, the Russian goalie Vladislav Tretiak came out as the best player on the Soviet team. His style amazed the Canadian bench. His legs were lightning fast; His reflexes were incredible to watch. He could bend down on his knees, throw a pad on one side to stop the puck, and jump back on his skates in a second. The stand-up technique had always dominated the game, but it all changed after Tretiak, and net-tending underwent a radical transformation. Jacques Plante, the Canadiens’ goalie in the fities, had shown that goaltenders could be leaders on the ice and help hold the team together. (Plante was the first goalie to leave the cage to get the puck for his defensemen.) Patrick Roy’s butterfly style, inspired by Tretiak, became the new standard for netminding. Both spectacular and efficient, this technique relies on the lower legs, which are spread towards each side of the net as the goalkeeper quickly goes down on his knees, while the hands stay up to stop upper shots. Patrick Roy was so imposing that in his first season,1985–86, he carried the Canadiens to an unexpected Stanley Cup win.

It was around this time that hockey became a global sport. The NHL was expanding, and the Quebec City Nordiques, who had previously played in the World Hockey Association, joined the circuit in 1979. In its early years, the club’s board had consisted of ex-Canadiens stars, but experience on the ice did not translate into the ability to build a team. More daring management was needed. The frontiers of the game were disappearing, and the club’s new president, Marcel Aubut, went looking for talent further afield. In 1980 and 1981, he was able to help the three Stastny brothers defect from Czechoslovakia to play in Quebec City. Peter Stastny was the first star player to come from behind the iron curtain to compete in North America. Stastny had a brilliant career with the Nordiques and ranks as the thirty-sixth best scorer in NHL history.

The Nordiques’ other star player, Joe Sakic, was born into a Croatian family in British Columbia. His first language is Croatian (he learned English around the age of 6), and he is generally known as a man who quietly adapts to his environment. He was an amazing scorer who carried the Nordiques on his shoulders when the team hit bottom, reaching the one-hundred point plateau during 1989–90 and 1990–91, the club’s two worst seasons. In Quebec City, he was a bashful hero who never asked to be traded despite his team’s miserable performances.

Eric Lindros was the polar opposite. Drafted by the Nordiques in 1991, he was seen as a new kind of power forward: heavy and intimidating but also gifted with great scoring skills. But Lindros made it clear even before he was picked that he did not want to play in Quebec City. At first, he claimed that the town was a small market that would not allow him to sign product endorsement contracts, but it soon became clear that he did not want to live in a French-speaking city. Lindros was the face of scornful Canada, disrespectful of Quebec and its culture. His blunt rejection of the province came at a tense time in Canadian history. Post-referendum syndrome in Quebec was over, and the province was now feeling the rush of a new pre-referendum fever.

Tory Prime Minister Bryan Mulroney, elected in 1984, had negotiated a set of amendments, known as the Meech Lake Accord, to bring Quebec into the 1982 constitution. The Accord had to be signed by all provinces by 1990, but that year, one day before Quebec’s National Day, on June 24th, Newfoundland and Manitoba interrupted the ratification process and the deal was officially declared dead. Another round of discussions was held, but Quebeckers felt betrayed. Jacques Parizeau was elected the province’s prime minister in 1994 with a clear mandate to organize a new referendum on independence.

Meanwhile, Lindros had been traded to the Philadelphia Flyers and the Nordiques were developing into a promising team of talented young players. The club’s performances were improving. But the franchise left for Colorado in 1995 in search of bigger revenues, and it was a gloomy year in Quebec City. The city’s bid to host the 2002 Winter Olympics was rejected. The Nordiques, now the Avalanche, won the Stanley Cup in their debut season in Denver. A small majority of Quebeckers voted against independence, denying Quebec City the opportunity to become the capital of a new country. I
t is impossible to say what effect the Nordiques’ departure had on the outcome of the referendum, but their leaving certainly hurt Quebec City’s pride.

It also hurt that both Quebec and Canada were undergoing drastic budget cuts to reduce their deficits, altering the province’s tradition of faith in an interventionist state. Quebec, like the ROC, accepted these cuts, but trust in the political establishment collapsed after “le scandale des commandites.” For over ten years, the Liberal Party, which ruled in Ottawa from 1993 to 2006, had run a “sponsorship program” meant to promote the cause of Canada’s unity and defeat the independence movement in Quebec. The program had raised suspicions from the start, but a formal investigation did not begin until 2000. By 2004, it was clear that the program had awarded between $100 and $250 million to businesses close to the Liberal Party, for little work. The Liberals never recovered from the scandal, and Quebeckers have since been aloof from and distrusting of Ottawa.

In hockey, the last two decades were also a period of readjustment. Until then, most NHL clubs were concentrated around the Appalachian Mountains and the Great Lakes, and the Stanley Cup rarely left Canadian soil. The nineties saw the NHL attempt to dive into untapped markets by moving both south and westward. Eight new franchises were added between 1992 and 2000, and the relocation of four clubs is even more telling: the Minnesota North Stars were transferred to Dallas, the Nordiques moved to Denver, the Winnipeg Jets became the Phoenix Coyotes, and the Hartford Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes. (Minnesota got a new team back in the league in 2000.)

Despite or perhaps because of these decisions, hockey was struggling. Ratings and revenues were down. The game got boring as new defense strategies shut down scoring opportunities. Even one of the most successful teams of the decade, the Pittsburgh Penguins, considered relocating because of financial problems. But their star player turned owner, Mario Lemieux, born and raised in Quebec, brought them back from the brink.

Lemieux retired in 1995 after having twice won the Stanley Cup and established himself as the only player who could be compared to Wayne Gretzky. Using his reputation in Pittsburgh and the league, Lemieux led a group of investors who bought the Penguins after they filed for bankruptcy in 1999. Restructuring the club was tough, but ultimately successful, and “Super Mario” even got back on the ice from 2000 to 2006 to help rebuild the Penguins, despite persistent back problems. In 2009, Lemieux became the first to win the Stanley Club as a player and as a club owner. He also proved that a NHL franchise can thrive in a small town.

Gretzky was not so fortunate. “The Great One” invested in the Phoenix Coyotes in 2000 with the hope of popularizing hockey in a western city, as he had as a player with the Los Angeles Kings. The Coyotes never took off and filed for bankruptcy in 2009. Gretzky or not, ice hockey is a tough sell in a city surrounded by desert.

In 1960, the year Rocket Richard retired, only 13 percent of French-Canadians finished high school. The province still lived like a hermit kingdom, although change had been slowly coming since the end of the Second World War. Quebec’s hockey achievements have been a testament to the renaissance it has subsequently enjoyed. Maurice Richard, the Canadiens, the Nordiques, and Mario Lemieux all helped establish their province’s distinctive tradition. They also have shown that Quebeckers can be ambitious and daring, that they are not the dispossessed people of “Canadien Errant,” or “Lost Canadian,” Antoine Gérin-Lajoie’s famous poem, popularized in the English-speaking world as a folk song by Leonard Cohen. Through hockey, an institution shared with all of North America, Quebeckers have been able to demonstrate that they truly belong to the continent.

When Harper used hockey to break up with Quebec, he was not so much addressing the province as he was the ROC. The national sport was a way to send the message that he was determined not to bow to Quebec’s every demand. He would instead rely on the ROC to get a majority and to govern. (In the end, it was in Ontario where he made most of his gains, winning twenty-two new seats in that province alone.)  The Canadian right had wanted Harper to follow this strategy for some time. The National Post, Canada’s conservative newspaper, likes to quote political scientist Peter Brimelow, who in 2005 said: “While Quebec is at the centre of every major government decision . . . the natural conservative tendencies of [English Canada] will continue to be frustrated. For the Canadian right, the road to power lies not through Quebec, but around it.”

The Bloc and the Liberals thought they could make gains by saying they approved of spending federal money on the new rink. But by doing so, they followed Harper and the old Canadian political playbook, in which you always either disregard or bribe Quebec (which in the end amounts to the same disrespect). The Bloc, a party that has been clear in its desire to stay in the opposition, has long been a good alternative for Quebeckers. But on Tuesday Quebeckers expressed Bloc fatigue. By voting for the NDP, until now a definite underdog in Ottawa, Quebeckers delivered a severe critique to the capital city and also confirmed that they are one of the most liberal communities in North America.

The Canadians who joined the NDP wave also expressed a desire to share power with the province. The trouble is that no one really knows how to translate that wish into a new political deal. During the campaign, NDP leader Jack Layton said he wanted to bring Quebec fully into the constitution but never explained how this could happen. Quebeckers have said twice that they want to remain part of Canada, but they also want Ottawa to accept that they are a distinct people.

Constitutional disputes and other questions about how to accommodate Quebec are no longer high on the agenda. Political debate in the province and the ROC now revolves more around economic and environmental issues than power sharing. Trying to address Canada’s unity has never been very productive or politically rewarding, as the country has never been truly economically integrated. Business practices were never fully harmonized, which means few products can be sold coast to coast, and labor mobility inside the country remains a challenge, as provincial professional organizations still control who can legally work on their turf. In any case, internal demand would not be enough to keep Canada’s economy growing. In 2006, Canada owed 70 percent of its GDP to international trade, compared to the US’s 28 percent.

Maybe Harper was right to try to break the hockey consensus. It may be time for Canada and Quebec to move beyond hockey. After all, the sport remains very Caucasian, although one in five Canadians is foreign-born, and most new immigrants now come from Asia and South America. Canada is growing more diverse than its favorite sport.

But both Quebec and Canada care too much about hockey to give it up. Harper himself has been saying since he was first elected that he is trying to finish a book on hockey. The problem may be that Canadians have no other sport to turn to. Americans have baseball, football, and basketball. The French and the British have soccer and rugby. In France, la pétanque is a cultural cornerstone, as is cricket in the United Kingdom. Curling and Canadian football do not have the same international appeal. But as long as Canada holds on to hockey, Quebec will continue to feel more at home within the NHL Eastern Conference—where besides the Habs there are two other Canadian teams—than within the Canadian federation.

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