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Monday, September 27, 1999

Quebec's suicide rate blamed on separatist tension in new book
Unrest reflected: author: Province 'mired in a host of social pathologies'
David Stonehouse
Ottawa Citizen

After years of playing the victim in a "paranoid" war against English-Canada, Quebec separatists are paying the price with social plagues like high numbers of suicides and unwed mothers, a new book suggests.

"Perhaps it's only fitting that a province whose politics has descended to such paranoid depths should also be mired in a host of social pathologies," author Ian Dowbiggin says in his new book Suspicious Minds: The Triumph of Paranoia in Everyday Life.

"Is it coincidence that a province afflicted with so many social problems should also be gripped by so many collective delusional fantasies and persecution complexes?" asks Mr. Dowbiggin, an associate professor of history at the University of Prince Edward Island.

In his book, he criticizes separatists and Lucien Bouchard, the Quebec Premier, for practising what he calls "the politics of paranoia" in the fight to break from Canada. And he links that with social ills like the decline of the church, the breakdown of the family and Quebecers killing themselves.

In an interview, however, he appeared to back away from blaming separatists for Quebec's social ills.

"I don't think they are directly connected," he said. "But I think they do reflect a certain unrest, dissatisfaction, unease, that exists in Quebec right now. And I think the nationalist intelligentsia are very good at exploiting this and co-opting it."

The problems point to "an erosion of the sense of community" which can lead people to be more susceptible to paranoid thinking, he said.

"When we lose our boundaries, our defences against other things in life, that's when paranoia takes root. In many ways, political paranoia is an offshoot, if you will, of the destruction of the sense of community in society."

Quebec has struggled with a high rate of suicide for years. Statistics Canada figures for 1997 show there are 18 suicides for every 100,000 people -- the highest of any province in the country. Alberta is second with 14. Ontario is the lowest at eight.

Gerry Harrington, the executive director of the Suicide Information and Education Centre in Edmonton, says Quebec has had the highest rate since 1993. He suggested it could be blamed on any number of factors -- including separatism.

"It could be political, it could be economic," he said. "Their unemployment rate is high."

However, a Montreal expert dismisses the notion that anxiety over separatism can be blamed for anyone killing themselves.

Dr. Brian Mishara, director for the Centre for Research and Intervention on Suicide and Euthanasia at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal, studied the numbers of suicides in the province in the six months leading up to the referendum in 1995.

"If there was a change, the rate seems to have gone down a bit," Dr. Mishara said, although he could not recall the exact numbers. "There is no empirical evidence that I have seen to support that type of reasoning. There is no proof of it. There is not even the slightest indications of it."

"And at an individual level, we don't have any case of people who write notes saying 'I can't stand the uncertainty about separation, I'm going to end my life' or 'The referendum was lost so I'm going to kill myself.'

"People are killing themselves for the same reasons people kill themselves in most places in the world: They suffer losses, they have mental health problems, they have all sorts of complications in their lives."

In his book Mr. Dowbiggin also lists the other "social pathologies" that plague Quebec, saying:

- almost half of Quebec children are born to unwed mothers;

- nearly 65% of Quebecers between the ages of 25 and 29 are living in common-law relationships, double the rate in Ontario;

- Quebec has a marriage rate that dropped by 49% between 1971 and 1991, while its rate of divorce is one of the highest in Canada;

- the province has the highest number of high school dropouts.

In his book, Mr. Dowbiggin said the Quebec separatist ideology is based "on a skewed version of history that depicts French-Canadians as the perpetual victims of English-Canadian chicanery and outright exploitation dating back to Great Britain's conquest of New France in 1763."

"It's based largely on this view of history that the French-Canadians are the victims, the English-Canadians are the abusers and this has continued to be the familiar script right down to the present day," he said in the interview.

"And to my mind, this is a sign of a paranoid ideology -- it divides the world into the innocent good and the evil persecutors. I think Quebec nationalism is punctuated by these kind of paranoid themes," he said.

"I think there is a certain element of desperation, I think you would agree, that is catching up to the separatists and the nationalists. They sort of feel that the clock is running out for them. They can only have so many referenda, they can only try so many times to get their Yes vote."

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