Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Foreign Visitors

July 24, 2017

A few years ago I was on vacation in Puglia on Italy’s Adriatic coast. At the beach one day I met a veteran Italian television journalist taking the sun. Immediately upon learning that I was Canadian he wanted to discuss Charles DeGaulle’s notorious visit to Quebec in 1967. It seemed to be the only thing he knew about the country. I would imagine that most Canadians, outside Quebec at least, have little memory of the General and his audacious “Vive Le Quebec Libre.” Yet here was this European stranger who was eager to talk about it as if it happened yesterday.

There is an interesting piece in today’s Globe and Mail by Robert Everett-Green marking the fiftieth anniversary of DeGaulle’s visit and the publication of a new book (in French) about the affair, La Traversée du Colbert by André Duchesne. The French president arrived by ship (the Colbert) at Quebec City and drove the next day to Montreal in an open-top Lincoln Continental, hailed by adoring crowds along the way. When he gave his famous balcony speech, as offensive as the “Vive” remark was his comparison of the motorcade from Quebec City to his entrance into a liberated Paris in 1944, as if English-Canadians were Nazis occupying Quebec by force.

DeGaulle’s speech ignited a diplomatic firestorm, of course. Prime Minister Pearson responded icily that Canadians were a free people and did not need to be liberated by anyone. As if to rub it in, during his visit to the Expo 67 site the next day the General hardly spent any time at the Canadian pavilion while lingering for close to an hour at Quebec’s. Then, pretending to be insulted by Pearson’s remarks, he cancelled a scheduled visit to Ottawa and left for home. Mission accomplished.

Poor Pearson must have been happy when Expo ended. It is supposed to be the moment when Canada “came of age” but the prime minister spent a lot of the time cleaning up after petulant visitors. US President Lyndon Johnson was another. Arriving unannounced by helicopter, he spent an hour at the fair, in which he had no interest whatsoever (he was heard to remark that the US pavilion must have been designed by “fags”), then flew to Ottawa for a brief chat with Pearson, whom he did not like. The meeting had been arranged only the day before; I suppose it would have been too much of a slight to pull a DeGaulle and not meet the prime minister at all.

Actually Everett-Green compares DeGaulle not to Johnson but to another American president, the Donald, who is also easy to offend and loves to stir up trouble wherever he goes.

July 14, 2017

I was very sorry to learn about the death earlier this week of Vancouver writer Jim Wong-Chu. I knew that Jim had suffered a stroke a few months ago but not that he was so seriously ill.

Jim published his first book of poetry, Chinatown Ghosts, in 1986. He was a tireless advocate for the Asian-Canadian writing community, helping to found the Asian-...

July 1, 2017

A Vancouverite visiting Montreal, as I did recently, cannot help but feel that he is witnessing the giant bullet that Vancouver dodged back in the 1960s.

Driving in from the West Island, one discovers that Autoroute 20 is under reconstruction (and has been for some time apparently). The vehicle moves slowly (because it is always gridlock) through an appalling scene of destruction. Giant diggers and dump trucks lumber to and fro, carrying dirt and rock from one place to another across...

June 5, 2017

This year is a busy one for centenaries, and sesquicentenaries: Vimy, the Russian revolution, Canada 150, to name but three.

Here in BC we are commemorating a couple of hundredth anniversaries: women's suffrage and prohibition. Both came into effect in 1917. On the face of it they are an unlikely pairing. What were voters thinking? The vote for women was one of the most significant progressive reforms of the 20th century, while prohibition was probably the worst attempt at social...

May 29, 2017

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In case you've been waiting for the news,  the ballots have been counted and my history of North Vancouver, Where Mountains Meet the Sea, has won the community history prize awarded by the BC Historical Federation at its annual meeting, this year held in Chilliwack.

The Federation threw a great banquet on Saturday night and Sunday morning I got a chance to have breakfast...

May 24, 2017

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Next week, May 29-June 4 is Bike to Work Week in Vancouver. 

Everything old is new again, including bike commuting. The inaugural bicycle in the city was owned by Dr. Robert Mathison, a dentist, who imported it from Ontario in 1887. According to the first archivist, Major James Matthews, by 1900 a bicycle "craze" had swept the city. "Almost every family...

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