Log Cabin Chronicles

Royal Orr

It's about our institutions, stupid


Age has some comforts, I'm told. I remain unconvinced.

Last week, I was invited to give a speech to a luncheon meeting of English community leaders from across Quebec along with a number of senior bureaucrats responsible for programs that support official language minority communities across Canada.

It was a bit of a shock to realize that I am one of the elders of the anglo-rights movement, wizened and hoary with experience. To protest that I started very young only makes me sound more codger-like.

But the challenge of thinking of something to say to an audience is always a useful one. It got me thinking about the beginnings of English community activism back in the late 1970's, about great leaders like Warren Grapes and Jim Ross, and about how much we took for granted about how a community should work.

In fact, I don't recall that we even used that word "community" very often to describe who we were as English-speaking people in the Eastern Townships. Certainly creating a shared identity as "Townshippers" was one of the major tasks (and perhaps the greatest success) facing the people who came together in 1979 in the newly minted Townshippers' Association. Richmond, Lennoxville, Stanstead, and Cowansville felt like "Four Solitudes" in those first few months of organizing.

It was only when I headed into Montreal in 1981 and '82 to begin working with groups like Positive Action and the Council of Quebec Minorities that I began to hear the word "community" a lot. The Montrealers talked a lot about community. And among the Montrealers, it was the members of the Jewish community who seemed to have the smartest take on it all.

Now I suppose it makes sense that the Jewish community would know more than a thing or two about how to survive and thrive as a minority. The Jewish Montreal activists had a very clear understanding of what was needed - strong, dynamic, community-based institutions.

For them it was almost a litmus test for the quality of community action: if it makes your institutions stronger, it's a good thing. If it doesn't make them more secure and better able to serve their community, it's probably wasted effort.

I think this insight should become the mantra of English-language community groups in Quebec. To steal a page from Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign: "It's about our institutions, stupid."

There are, of course, a number of difficult challenges facing our schools, our health and social service organizations, our churches, and our other community institutions. Many of them are "structural," for example, an aging and declining population. Others are external, most critically a tendency toward greater centralization and bureaucratization of management and control of community services including education and health care.

But some challenges are internal to our community. There is, for example, limited coordination of efforts between leaders of our institutions and the leaders of community associations and networks. The associations like Townshippers' and VEQ are not, of course, the sine qua non of community representation, but the institutional leaders often see themselves as more beholden to their sources of funding (usually the provincial government) than to their community and sometimes reject outright any notion that have any particular responsibility to that community. That needs to change.

There continues to be, as well, regional tensions, particularly between Montreal and the rest of the province. In part, it's the old rivalry between country and town, but it's a rivalry that we cannot afford as a minority community. The English community's institutional resources in Montreal can be a great support for us, socially and culturally, and historic stand-offishness has no place here.

The federal government is in the process of putting in place very substantial resources for the support of Official Language Minority communities across Canada, including our own. The temptation will be strong to set up new programs and new organizations to spend the millions that are to be made available. It's a temptation to be vigorously resisted, even rolled back where it has already started to happen.

It's about our institutions, stupid. Let's make that our watchword for community development over the next decade.

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