Jane Jacobs Interview (2005)

An excerpt from the 2011 edition of The Question of Separatism: Quebec and the Struggle over Sovereignty by Jane Jacobs. Used by permission of Baraka Books.

Robin Philpot: How did people react to your 1979 Massey lectures and to the book, which came out in favour of sovereignty-association? Did the book get the coverage it deserved at the time?

Jane Jacobs: Reactions were from Anglophones. I’m one. But I’m terrible at French. In fact, there was practically no reaction. My husband was a hospital architect and he was working on some hospitals in Alberta, and I told him to try to find out what they thought about separatism. He would come back on weekends. He said “well, I think I found out how they feel about separatism. I brought it up at lunch in the cafeteria, and everybody at the table was silent and then somebody said ‘Let’s change the subject’.” The best thing is not to think about it. They don’t even want to engage in talking pros and cons and why people feel this way.

RP: Does that explain the lack of reaction to your Massey Lectures and your book?

JJ: It’s the same attitude. Don’t want to think about it. It’s an unwelcome subject.

RP: What do you attribute that attitude to?

JJ: It’s fear. And this I don’t have to guess at. Because there were lots of programs over the course of the two referendums and the general tenor of them was that if Quebec were to separate, then Canada would disintegrate. So that was the fear that there would be no identity anymore, for Canada. It was foolish, because there are so many examples of separatism, and nothing has disintegrated, unless they went to war.


RP: You make a convincing case about the similarities between Sweden/Norway and Canada/Quebec. You write: “To its great credit, Sweden neither then nor afterward banned the Storting or tried to suppress its elections, never attempted to censor its debates or interfere in its communications with the Norwegian people, and did not poison Norwegian political life with spies and secret police or corrupt it with bribes and informers.” Can we say the same thing about Canada?

JJ: No!

RP: Please expand.

JJ: Well let’s see in those indictments you can’t level at Sweden, they never tried to ban the constitution or undermine the settlement that they wanted. Well you can’t say that of Canada. Any indication of revolt on the part of Quebec was either bought off, with a good deal of corruption—this is not a new thing [reference to the sponsorship scandal]1 — or suppressed in some other way. And very often by trying to, and succeeding, in undermining the self-confidence of Quebecers. That’s exactly what [Pierre] Trudeau did. That was his whole method. And unfortunately [René] Lévesque had so little self confidence in Quebec and in the people themselves, that he fell for that and, yes, he’d say, you know, it might be ruinous for us economically.

RP: So he fell for that because he lacked confidence in the Quebec people?

JJ: Yes and also because he didn’t understand why things do collapse. It’s usually a very banal reason why things do collapse. It’s not a grand reason, why they collapse economically, at least in the West. The reason is usually that the entrepreneurial investors of the time just want to repeat themselves indefinitely and don’t know when to stop. You can’t do that. And so finally the housing boom, or the auto boom, or whatever it is that’s been carrying things along, runs out of customers.


RP: The Yes side campaigned in the 1995 Quebec referendum on the slogan “Oui et ça devient possible” “Vote yes and it will be possible.” Symbols or images of peace, work, flowers or a map of the world represented what would be possible. In your opinion, what would have become possible if Quebec were sovereign?

JJ: Well. Lots of things are not possible for municipalities, suburbs, or collections of them now. They are not possible and they would become possible, because they would have more authority. They would have the same authority as a province now.

RP: If Quebec became sovereign, Montreal and Quebec City would be granted greater powers?

JJ: Yes well, there would be one level of government that would be missing, one less level of government. The municipality would become the second level.

One of our troubles now is that we try to make municipalities that are totally different from each other all act as if they were the same kind of creature, with the same kinds of possibilities. Not so. Some of the large ones in Quebec can contain within them most of the answers to their own practical problems. And so lots of different possibilities for doing things in a practical and different way become available.

It’s not true of very small places. They just don’t have the skills, the connections, the diversity.

RP: You refer to Montreal’s becoming a regional city with regard to Toronto. If Quebec were sovereign, would Montreal take on a different role within Quebec?

JJ: Just the way in Europe, Paris, Copenhagen, and Stockholm, and Frankfurt, possibly and Berlin, certainly, all had important roles, because of independence. Because they were depending on themselves.

RP: Not feeders for another metropolis?

JJ: You see, cities never flourish alone. They have to be trading with other cities. My new hypothesis shows why. But also in trading with each other they can’t be in too different stages of development, and they can’t copy one another. Backward cities, or younger cities, or newly forming cities in supply regions, have to develop to a great extent on one another’s shoulders. This is one of the terrible things about empires. Empires want them only to trade with the empire, which doesn’t help them at all. It’s just a way of exploiting them.

RP: Would you describe the logic of the relationship between Toronto and Montreal, the Golden horseshoe and Quebec, as one that resembles that of an empire?

JJ: Yes!


RP: You wrote Quebec and the Struggle over Sovereignty, The Question of Separatism book in 1979 and 1980. If you were to write it again today, would you come to the same conclusions?

JJ: Yes, not because it’s in my head, but because that’s the way it is in the world, and it still holds.

1. The interview was conducted shortly after public hearings held by the Commission of Inquiry into the Sponsorship Program and Advertising Activities, known as the Gomery Commission. The “sponsorship scandal,” which rocked the Government of Canada, revealed that millions of dollars were funneled into Quebec to promote “Canadian identity” over Quebec identity. Leaders of Canada’s Liberal Party and PR firms linked to it had also set up a kickback schemes to help fund elections campaigns.