Quebec Nationalism in the 1960s

Document 1: René Lévesque, 1960

Source: Lévesque, René. <<Pas plus bêtes que les Arabes>> Cité libre, 11, no. 27 (May 1960): 17-18.

Not dumber than the Arabs

René Lévesque

Obviously, the Arabs are not dumb. They have, once already – once more than many others – shown that they were able to carry almost alone, with the help of just a handful of Jewish and Greek advisors, the famous torch of civilization. That role they held from about the year 800 [C.E.] until just after the beginning of the thirteenth century. At the time, for example, when Charlemagne and Harun al-Rashid were exchanging vague pleasantries. In his palace at Aix-la-Chapelle, the emperor [Charlemagne] droned sedately through his first ABC’s before his illiterate court, while in Bagdad, the best poets and artists, geniuses and thinkers of the era, installed in laboratories, libraries and great schools, of which the Islamic state appreciated the vital importance, a thousand years before Mr. Sauvé, Barrette and Co. found themselves on the road to Damascus.

For this reason, at school, chemistry, algebra and the numbers themselves starting from zero, and at home, satin and cotton, sofas and sugar, are all Arab words, while at the zenith of the sky sparkle stars we call Altair and Aldebaran.


But the wheel never stops turning. Just as before them Greece and Rome, and after them the Venetians, the Spanish and the kings that made France, the Arabs had to resign themselves to decline. They are not dumber today than they were before, except they have become so terribly poor in this world in which this is considered the most unforgivable of all foolish acts. For the rich, whether a people or an individual, the poor are always faking: “I worked hard to get where I am. Well, they should do the same!” It is so easy to forget that, while not all rich men are daddy’s boys, all rich countries are almost without exception daddy’s countries.

Therefore, Arabs today are poor. Like us. They are, at the bottom of the Mediterranean, poor people in burnous and turbans, and we are poor people in vests and felt hats on the shores of the Saint-Lawrence.


There are, of course, different levels of deprivation. When we compare our situation with theirs, we can see ourselves as the poor rich. And to believe ourselves to be naturally more refined than they are. Yet, does that advantage not stem uniquely from the fact that, from all points of view, the shores of the Saint-Lawrence are closer to the great centres of modern wealth than the bottom of the Mediterranean? Here, we are in the Christian West, the newest members of the master race. They, over there, are part of the Muslim Orient; they are not from the same family. When we open our mouths, we get the crumbs that fall from the table; they don’t.

Yet, here we both are, facing the question of the century for all the poor, the poor rich and the poor rats: how do we get out?

They, in their black misery and illiteracy and feudalism, have only one important resource: oil. We, in our liveable grey misery, basic level of instruction and the assorted autonomy of democratic institutions, we possess a whole splendid array: forests, titanium, iron, hydro-electric power (most in Canada), asbestos (most in the world), and also gold, silver, copper, zinc, sulphur, etc.

Arabs do not have the capital required to exploit their oil; it is foreigners that have generously offered to take of it, creating a gigantic Anglo-French-Dutch-American cartel. We don’t have capital either – and our forests, our paper, our iron, our titanium, our asbestos, our gold, our copper, our silver, our zinc, our sulphur and the greatest part of our hydro-electric developments belong to Anglo-American businesses.


Those who have placed their money in these businesses, both here and over there, are businessmen. And whatever the size, from the biggest monopoly to the smallest corner restaurant, business is business. There needs to be a return on investment, that the greatest possible difference between the cost price and the sale price, between expenditures and revenues, be maintained.

But even for he who provides only a company’s primary resources and labour, business is no less business. While waiting to one day have the means to recover his resources or to actively participate in their evaluation, he also needs to monetize his contribution as much as possible. To increase the balance of expenditures and revenues in his favour as much as circumstances, good sense and the firm desire not be taken in by others will allow.


Let’s see how we are both doing, the Arabs and us. Ignoring, of course, any and all irrelevant differences in our respective situations.

It was immediately following the Second World War that the Middle East’s oil first took its phenomenal place on the markets.

It was barely five years later, in ’50-’51, that the plucked skull of Mossadegh rose to prominence. An Iranian, therefore Persian, but a neighbour of the Arabs, Muslim, oil-owning and exploited like them. Alone, laughable in the flowered pyjama he used to wipe his theatrical tears, the old Mossadegh stood up to the Anglo-Iranians and the whole international cartel. He was furious because this middle-eastern oil, that everyone needed, brought in basically nothing to its owners.

This caused a great big crisis. The Anglo-Iranians were expropriated, refineries closed, Iran boycotted, the Shah on the run. And then the Shah returns; Mossadegh goes to prison; Iran renews links with the cartel and returns to decent society.

But the crisis, from ’51 to ’53, had given Iran and all of the Arab producers the chance to finally do business. From the first to the last, they came out of the crisis with what are now classic contracts: 50/50 on crude oil, half of the profits to the country, the other half to the foreign companies. Thus, a barrel of Arab-Iranian crude, the cheapest in the world to produce, is now rigidly maintained at the cartelized price of an American barrel from Texas. The profits are astronomic. And 50%, which regularly represents $300 million for Ben Seoud, a million per day for the Sultan of Kuwait, $250 million for Iraq.

Today, 80 to 90% of budgets are based on these oil profits. In Arabia, it’s the personal budget of Ibn Saud, harems, palaces, and Cadillacs. But in Iraq, under the puppet but still semi-enlightened monarchy of the unfortunate Faisal and even further under General Kassim, they are a constituency of the Economic Commission in which foreign experts provide the plans and decide on the priorities – irrigation, schools, roads, hospitals.


What’s more, not satisfied with its 50%, Iraq obtained in 1951 the following advantages in its agreement with its mother-company (Iraq Petroleum Co.) and its diverse subsidiaries:

  • That a certain number of Iraqi citizens have seats on the governing boards of each of the companies;
  • That the companies erect and maintain at their own costs a petroleum technical school near the primary wells at Kirkuk;
  • That the companies also defray the costs for postsecondary studies, at European universities, for 50 young Iraqis a year;
  • Finally, that a foreigner only be allowed to hold a position, at any level of the oil industry, if the Ministry of the Economy first confirms that no Iraqi is qualified to fill the post.

We can admit that this arrangement might get us dreaming of the possibilities. A dream in which you can hear teeth grinding.

At home, it was also immediately after the war that the “phenomenal and unprecedented development” (from electoral slogans in 1948, ’52 and ’56) started.

But no domestic Mossadegh rose to the moment. There was Mr. Georges Lapalme who, in ’52 I believe, spoke of Quebec as the “Iran of America.” Which, again ignoring the most clearly obvious differences between our cases, did not seem to have had a great effect.

This also means that after 15 years, in all sectors that have been exploited the longest (gold, asbestos, forests), we still do not exist, just as we did not before. By ripping out its heart and pulling like a ball-and-chain the ferocious hostility of its own government, labour has finally managed to secure salaries less inferior than those that used to be offered by the Americans and Ontarians. In the town of Asbestos, for example. That’s it.

Hydro-Quebec, created by the Godbout administration, has not moved one additional inch towards retaking our own hydro-electric resources. It has been far too preoccupied, as soon as it seemed to be profitable, in selling natural gas to private interests.


As to the new developments, just thinking about the region of Nouveau-Québec is enough to make one have a burning desire to ask the Iraqis for advice. Hills full of iron, an ore rich and overabundant in a continent where the other sources are drying up. For train tracks, rolling stock, port equipment, all kinds of installations, hundreds of millions of dollars lying, rooted in our land.

And what do we get? $100,000 in rent and a maximum of 7% on the net profits! A contract renewed for 10 years in 1958. Aren’t we good people – and not at all in a hurry!

Fortunately, we are well placed at all levels of the organization. I remember, in ’55, having desperately looked to interview anyone who could speak French and who was at any level above foreman. Searching from Sept-Iles to Knob Lake and everywhere in between, I finally found one interviewee – one single person, with the title of professional engineer – whose daddy was the deputy minister in Quebec City…

Nouveau-Québec, for us, is all this. Intoxicating, no? In the hopes of, as a friendly paper in Toronto wrote a couple of years ago, inheriting the biggest hole in North America.

Don’t we look fine, with our negro kings (see André Laurendeau)? I ask myself if we couldn’t borrow from the Arabs one of their sultans or even one of their colonels.

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