Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Foreign Visitors

Jul 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.