In 1945, the first novel I read after coming home from the war against Germany was a new one by Montrealer Hugh MacLennan, titled Two Solitudes. Yes, the one Madame Jean, our new Governor General, alluded to last week when, in her first remarks as Her Excellency, she said:

“The time of the two solitudes that for too long described the character of the country is past.”

Two Solitudes, the novel, has had much impact on Canadian opinion, because its plot updated the core Canadian dilemma going back to 1760.

Indeed, this dilemma of duality was summarized famously more than 100 years before MacLennan’s novel when, after the 1837 rebellions in the Canadas, Lord Durham reported to London of “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state — a struggle not of principles but of races.”

Anyone in our military in northwest Europe through the fall of 1944 and into spring of 1945 knew how desperately depleted our infantry ranks had become. This crisis at the front became a crisis in Ottawa over whether to send “the zombies” over. The latter were several thousand well-trained conscripts, most of them French-Canadians, who refused under great pressure “to go active” and be posted overseas.

Thankfully, the crisis in Canadian politics slowly eased as the Germans retreated. Eventually the “zombies” were sent and a few did fight in the last weeks of the war. The racial aspects of the crisis chilled political parties and (I believe) most thoughtful citizens. Lester Pearson retained his concern for the “two nations” issue. When he became PM in 1963, he launched a royal commission on bilingualism and biculturalism.

By the time of Pierre Trudeau’s succession in 1968, federal promotion of bilingualism had become a national goal, whatever the costs. Many federal officials would have to meet high bilingual standards. Grants from Ottawa helped promote “French immersion” in schools in every province.

There was, of course — and continues to be — a buzz of protest from those who felt the programs flouted the “merit” principle and gave an unfair advantage to French Canadians. But there was also — and continues to be — a rather astonishing high-mindedness and optimism that Canada was on its way to a genuine French-English bilingualism.

Nonetheless, a lot has happened to alter this vision of bringing the “two solitudes” together. Quebec has held two vivid referendum campaigns on sovereignty in which federalists won but separatists showed their movement strong and durable.

Clearly, one of the “solitudes” had an element that enjoyed the idea of solitude. What was happening in the other?


Well, the steady prate for bilingualism (i.e., French) began to give way to multiculturalism, which took its cues from the changed immigration policies under Trudeau. The number of immigrants coming, in particular from Asia, rose quickly while European immigration slid. With them and other immigrant groups came the promotion of multiculturalism, a policy which emphasized that immigrants could retain their ethnic and religious values; no need to drop them to adopt the majority’s values, whose roots go back to the two mother countries, Britain and France.

My hunch is that multiculturalism has weakened the anglo “solitude” in Canada — which has been further weakened by our deep absorption in American culture. The franco “solitude,” meantime, has retained its solidarity.

Consequently, it seems to me that only one of the heralded “solitudes” of old remains — the Quebecois in Quebec.

The other and more populous one is confused and in a dither, not much interested in Quebec and thinking grandly, yet vaguely, like our prime minister.