WHEN PRIME MINISTER Mackenzie King addressed both Houses of Parliament in Westminster in May, 1944, the Speaker of the British House of Commons introduced him with what was intended as a high compliment. Mr. King, said Mr. Speaker, was the leader of a nation of “twelve million Britishers.”
The immediate audience was politely silent, but its reaction was mixed. The French-speaking Canadians were highly amused. It was the English-speaking Canadians who were furious — notably the Prime Minister himself, who had made it a major goal of his long career to show that Canadians were not “Britishers,” just Canadians. But the whole incident was so trivial, and so commonplace, that it was not even mentioned in most news reports of the occasion.
Now that the President of France has so neatly fitted the shoe to the other foot, English Canadians might do well to remember the true effect of this sort of thing on their own hearts and minds. There have always been some among us (perhaps there still are) who would applaud these expressions of British Imperialism as loudly as the young separatists of Montreal applauded General de Gaulle. But it is a safe guess that for most French Canadians, it was no more flattering to be greeted as “we French” by the head of a foreign state than it was to the rest of us to be called “we British.”
The effect on English Canadians might have been very different, though, if French Canada had gone into a temper tantrum every time some Empire-minded visitor made this sort of remark. In the main, French Canada ignored these recurrent episodes, and that was good. English-speaking Canada was left to deal with its own visitors in its own way, undiverted by local bigotries.
Luckily, the first reaction to President de Gaulle’s gaffe took a similar course. It was the French-Canadian mayor of French Canada’s metropolis, Jean Drapeau of Montreal, who told the General in very plain French how badly he had misinterpreted the warmth of his welcome. No one could have put it better. Let’s just say Mayor Drapeau spoke for all Canadians, and let the whole matter drop.
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