Quebec studies at McGill

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McGill Reporter
November 25, 2004 - Volume 37 Number 06
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 37: 2004-2005 > November 25, 2004 > Quebec studies at McGill

Quebec studies at McGill

What's a venerable anglophone institution like McGill doing in Quebec studies?

The short answer is, a lot. McGill's Quebec Studies Program (QSP) — its courses, events and publications — can be conceived of as a very sophisticated "YOU ARE HERE" on a complex cultural map.

Program director Catherine Desbarats and administrator Stéphan Gervais are busy people. Having recently hosted a symposium celebrating the 40th anniversary of the ministère de l'Éducation du Québec (MEQ), and close on the heels of launching an online research tool (, they are in the process of planning an upcoming conference on Québécois music, the publication of a bilingual collection of essays on Quebec identity and next year's conference on Quebec's environmental history, among other activities.

Crossing academic and cultural boundaries, the program allows undergraduate students to combine studies in law, political science, anthropology and arts, and provides academics and other professionals with a fertile meeting ground for discussion.

Desbarats, in her second year as program head, comes to this role as "a cultural broker in many senses," she says. An economist and historian educated at Queen's, Oxford and McGill, her "hybrid background" includes, Desbarat says, laughing, a family that pitted "a Presbyterian granny and her views on manners against a French-Canadian Catholic father."

While Quebec studies programs at other universities tend to focus on individual disciplines, McGill's program, started in 1964, maintains an interdisciplinary, comparative approach. With questions on issues such as identity, it is "very easy to pursue a particular discipline's comfortable way of examining this question without realizing that there are perhaps other approaches," says Desbarats.

This was neatly illustrated at the MEQ symposium, a celebration of the state's entry into public education hosted by the QSP. MEQ deputy minister Pierre Lucier spoke of the French definition of "state," which can include everything but the government: culture, institutions, a series of values and management paradigms. Janyne Hodder, vice-principal of institutional affairs at McGill, responded by pointing out that the English definition of state is just what the French definition leaves out — government.

When historical and economic changes enter into the equation, the idea of "The" Quebec state enters yet another level of complexity.

Desbarats, whose area of specialization is New France in the 17th and 18th centuries, is inclined to ask, "What is Quebec? Let's remember that the word itself has a history that echoes changing identities and their relationships to particular places: It's first of all a Native Algonquian term meaning 'a narrowing in the river,' then it comes to designate a town, eventually a fortified one that was part of a French colonial world, and so on."

The historical morphing of the concept of "Quebec" is complex, but its very landscape is largely misunderstood by Montreal "southerners." The geographer Louis Emond Hamelin was invited to speak to QSP students about the physical reality of Quebec as a northern landscape. Desbarats was impressed that "we have such a skewed sense of the landmass. We are excising from our perceptions of Quebec huge chunks of land. They're just not part of our mental geography."

Seminars with invited guest speakers are a key component of the program. For Desbarats's course on the Native Experience in Quebec, speakers included Native community members — such as Harry Tulugak, one-time mayor of Puvirnituq and a member of the Nunavik Commission — who "took your breath away by virtue of their civic-mindedness."

Guests speakers at seminars of 15-20 students are informed well in advance to expect active debate, discussion and an interdisciplinary challenge. "We are not in the entertainment business!" jokes Gervais.

In the program, discussions and readings are most often in French, therefore students require a passable understanding of French. For those who have not yet got the hang of the Québécois dialect, the course Découvrons le Québec en français — open to all McGill students — does double duty as an introduction to Québécois culture and a language course. Desbarat points out that "the studies of McGill researchers like Wallace E. Lambert and Robert C. Gardner on attitudes and motivation have shown that you pick up a second language more quickly if you feel an affinity or an interest for the culture."

And if you feel an affinity for the culture, you may be more likely to pursue a career in Quebec upon graduation. A few of the program's students have benefitted from an MEQ policy that allows foreign students majoring in Quebec studies to pay Canadian tuition rates.

The program course load, Gervais says, is demanding. "We ask a lot from these students, but from the evaluations we get, I'm very proud to say that these students have gained a lot in terms of knowledge. They have a sense of belonging. They come to our library. They come to our activities. They feel that we respect their opinions and ideas."

Desbarats agrees, noting that some students in the Native Experience course hailed from communities where there was tension between Native and non-Native groups. "We see their personal thinking evolving."

The QSP is seen by researchers working in social fields outside Quebec as offering unique professional tools. Robert Laliberté, of the Association internationale des études québécoises, recently commented, "We need McGill and the QSP to make us aware of new research and to build bridges."

Desbarats associates the success of the QSP with an inclusive stance she sees at McGill. "I think scholars at McGill are comfortable with intellectual traditions coming from Europe, and coming from the States." In this way, she says, the university affords "an inclusive, critical look at the community in which you find yourself."

For information about the program and upcoming events, contact Stéphan Gervais at 398-3960, or consult the website at

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