University of Toronto Press
  • Bilingual Conundrums: A Study of the Use of Subject Headings Pertaining to Québec as a Distinct Society1/Équivalences énigmatiques : représentation du Québec en tant que société distincte dans les systèmes de vedettes-matière

Using a theoretical framework inspired by Pierre Bourdieu and Hope Olson, the discursive space of the Canadian bilingual cataloguing system is examined for its application of subject headings to documents which discuss Québec as a distinct society. A historical warrant for this status is presented along with an overview of the principles underlying the development of and relationship between the Canadian Subject Headings and the French-language vocabulary Répertoire de vedettes-matière. Through the use of specific examples, bilingual equivalencies pertaining to people, identity, history, and society are discussed.


S’inspirant des théories de Pierre Bourdieu et Hope Olson, cette étude se penche sur les vedettes-matière employées pour décrire des documents portant sur le Québec en tant que société distincte dans l’espace discursif bilingue du système de catalogage canadien. Le contexte historique du concept de « société distincte » est présenté, ainsi qu’un survol des principes qui régissent tant le développement des Canadian Subject Headings et du Répertoire de vedettes-matière que leur relation. Des exemples précis illustrent certaines divergences dans l’utilisation de termes portant sur les gens, le concept d’identité, l’histoire et la société.


Répertoire de vedettes-matière, Canadian Subject Headings, Library of Congress Subject Headings, bilingual cataloguing, distinct society


Répertoire de vedettes-matière, Canadian Subject Headings, Library of Congress Subject Headings, catalogage bilingue, société distincte


To describe everything—such is the distilled, succinct evocation of one of librarianship’s modi operandi and most deceivingly complex tasks. Labels, coherence, psychology, culture, and trends (not to mention the unpredictable revisions of language) are the often forbidding and contradictory tools with which the cataloguer has to work, moulding meaning, shaping relationships, mirroring ever-evolving realities, and conceptualizing things that haven’t even been imagined yet. [End Page 1]

The Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) have undoubtedly become the international standard for subject access; that being said, the terms and syndetic structure of this foundational controlled vocabulary have been both adulated and reviled—at times in the same breath. Scholars such as Hope Olson (2000, 2002), Steven A. Knowlton (2005), and Joseph Deodato (2010, 82–83) will often refer to Sanford Berman’s seminal 1971 text, Prejudices and Antipathies: A Tract on the LC Subject Heads Concerning People, in order to measure the amplitude of change or to illustrate possible readings of LCSH as a semantic construct.

Still, many national libraries adopt LCSH as their standard cataloguing tool, while adapting certain headings to better suit their collections, history, and user communities. Canada’s situation, though not unique, is embedded in a bilingual context which requires specific accommodations. Library and Archives Canada (LAC), Canada’s national library, uses LCSH but amends the system through the use of another list known as the Canadian Subject Headings (CSH). The Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) now includes this list in its Terminologies Service (McKeen 2010); furthermore, many CSH headings are listed, though not authorized, in the Library of Congress Authorities online. The latter also goes for the Répertoire de vedettes-matière (RVM), a French-language vocabulary developed by the Bibliothèque de l’Université Laval in Québec and adopted by LAC to fulfill its bilingual mandate. RVM is a full translation of CSH and a partial translation of LCSH; it further contains original terms, as well as translations of certain terms from the Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) and the Art & Architecture Thesaurus (AAT) (Dolbec 2006, 105; Université Laval n.d.; Bélair, Bourdon, and Mingam 2005, 2).

Using a theoretical framework inspired by Pierre Bourdieu and Hope Olson as well as the writings of important Canadian scholars and thinkers such as Charles Taylor, Guy Laforest, Daniel Francis, Joseph Facal, and André Pratte, this paper looks at the concept of “distinct society” as it pertains to Québec’s history and culture to then assess how it is represented in the Canadian bilingual cataloguing realm. Works which study and analyse this issue are used as a starting point to offer a review of historical and social considerations; these, in turn, provide essential contextual information against which the problematic absence of this term in current indexing practices can be measured. The principles outlined in official documents describing the processes and ideological tenets behind inclusions, exclusions, and the creation of subject headings in both CSH and RVM are examined, so as to clearly set the stage for the case studies to follow. Key terms are then placed in relation with each other through their uses in various Canadian online catalogues; this allows for an analysis of bilingual equivalencies, a review of parallel constructions, and a discussion of the meaning created by the coming together of two, single-language systems in one bilingual discursive space.

It should be noted that while it addresses the question of the Québécois identity, this study does not, as could and should be done elsewhere, look at the representation of Aboriginal peoples or of the multiple other peoples and Canadians living in the country or in the province. [End Page 2]

Theoretical framework

The representation of any culture in subject headings constructs a system which becomes socially and politically significant through the attribution and choosing of labels as well as through the relationships within the taxonomies. As cultural studies scholar James Carey ([1989] 2009) once pointed out, language not only expresses realities but actually shapes the world: “Language—communication—is a form of action—or, better, interaction—that not merely represents or describes but actually molds or constitutes the world” (64). This view of language as a powerful force is further espoused by Charles Taylor (1993), who wrote of “languages and cultures” being “continually re-created through expression, be it through works of art, public institutions, or just everyday exchange” (49, italics added.)

Precisely because they are rooted in language and because “they have a natural slant toward the culturally standard,” “indexing and retrieval can ultimately be defined as political” (Abbott 1998, 438). For Hope Olson, subject headings, through their prescriptive nature, are a pragmatic representation of the world to which cataloguers would like users to adhere. By instructing users to utilize certain terminology, to use x instead of y, subject headings impose a worldview, shaping the world by adding a layer of meaning to the very content, scope, and nature of the documents. In so doing, LCSH2 “constructs the meanings of documents for users” (2000, 54), thereby participating in the construction of the reality hence named (2002, 6). Olson (2002) chooses the word “naming” to denote the creation and attribution of subject headings because “it connotes the power of controlling subject representation and, therefore, access” (4). Through an imposed system of labels, controlled vocabularies produce legitimacy and induce belief in a constituted reality. This act of naming thus enters the realm of Pierre Bourdieu’s ([1982] 1991) language as symbolic power by giving it the capacity “of constituting the given through utterances” and of exerting force because it is “capable of producing real effects without any apparent expenditure of energy” (170). As Bourdieu ([1982] 1991) states, the social sciences,

must examine the part played by words in the construction of a social reality and the contribution which the struggle over classifications, a dimension of all class struggles, makes to the constitution of classes—classes defined in terms of age, sex or social position, but also clans, tribes, ethnic groups or nations.


While one could argue that Bourdieu did not use “classification” (“classements” in the original French; Bourdieu [1982] 2001, 155) in the strict sense of the librarians’ use of taxonomies, it could also be argued that the use of this term is much more than a coincidence, revealing the scope of the symbolic linguistic and social impact of our systems.

One of the specific issues pertaining to Québec is that it is often defined, for reasons which will be discussed below, as a nation within the nation-state of Canada. The fact of having been historically and legally subjugated to Britain through military defeat, of being a colonizing or settler nation and yet not being, as the Québécois expression goes, maîtres chez nous (“masters in our own home”), has created a type of postcolonial malaise, but one which can be best [End Page 3] understood when tempered through the notion of the Bourdieusian “class,” precisely because of classes being thereby defined as “clans, tribes, ethnic groups or nations” (Bourdieu [1982] 1991, 105). In the practice of translation, the hierarchy between the classes is reflected through the establishment of one group’s language as “primary” or source—in the case of subject headings, the dominant English language, embodied in the production of an English-language controlled vocabulary, CSH, by the national institution, LAC, in Ottawa; the other group’s language is hence the “second” language—here, RVM, built in French outside of the national institution by an “other” organization in Sainte-Foy, Québec. In the case at hand, the relationship can show instances of reciprocity, since equivalencies can “occur when a heading is translated from English to French, or vice-versa, thereby creating a French language or English language ‘equivalent heading’” (LAC 2010b); however, this paper and the review of the literature surrounding RVM will show that the balance tips heavily in the favour of the English-French class hierarchy, for both historical and pragmatic reasons.


Like most of the research done around specific themes and nomenclatures within LCSH (Berman 1971; Olson 2000, 2002; Strottman 2007), the list of terms studied here is purposive in nature. Given the fact that the terms “distinct society” and “société disctincte” are not present in the vocabularies, other terms used when attempting to represent the aboutness of documents pertaining to this issue were studied. A historical and cultural review of the “distinct society” concept was conducted by consulting historical, scholarly, and political documents pertaining to the history of Canada as a nation and Québec as a perceived or “stateless nation” (Fricker 2005, 169), gathered through title and keyword searches for “distinct society” and “société distincte.” These documents, used to discuss the social and cultural aspects of the distinct society throughout this paper (and which figure in the reference list), were then searched in five online catalogues:

  • • Library of Congress, as the source of the vocabulary from which the Canadian Subject Headings and the Répertoire de vedettes-matière were created;

  • • Library and Archives Canada (AMICUS), as the national catalogue and main locus of the bilingual system;

  • • Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (Iris), as the official voice of the Québécois nation;

  • • the University of Western Ontario (Western Libraries), as the originating place of research and a representative of English-language post-secondary institutions; and

  • • the Bibliothèque de l’Université Laval (Ariane), as the originating place of RVM and a representative of French-language post-secondary institutions.

The study of alternate terms found by pulling on threads emanating from the documents themselves then helped deconstruct certain bilingual conundrums. To this was added a careful review of the LAC website and the Guide pratique du Répertoire de vedettes-matière de l’Université Laval, so that the underlying [End Page 4] precepts, beliefs, and assertions made by the two institutions would provide the context necessary to the understanding of the choices made in the development of the controlled vocabularies. This led to the inclusion in the study of other terms which can shed further light on some of the gaps encountered by the user when searching for pertinent literature on the “distinct society” question.

“Distinct society”: Two colonies, one defeat, and a nation made province

The defeat of the French troops on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 is described by Daniel Francis (1997) in these terms: “If most Quebeckers consider the Conquest to be a wound that will not heal, most English-speaking Canadians consider it a scab which the French should stop picking” (93). Never, in its history as part of a British colony, has Québec behaved like, or been treated as, other provinces (Taylor 1993, 33, 164); some historians have claimed that the French-language population was already recognized as a “distinct people” in the 1867 British North America Act (see O’Neal 1995a, 3–4).

The actual term “distinct society” was first introduced in 1965 by the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (O’Neal 1995a, 6), which led to the Official Languages Act of 1969, in which French was instituted as an official language at the Canadian federal level, alongside English. This was one of the outcomes of a chapter in Québécois history known as the Quiet Revolution (la Révolution tranquille), which took Québec out of the Great Darkness (la Grande noirceur, corresponding mainly to the second government of Premier Maurice Duplessis, 1944–1959 [SAIC 2004]). The newfound pride inspired a cultural reawakening but also led to the terrorist acts perpetrated by the Front de Libération du Québec during the October Crisis (la Crise d’octobre, 1970).

The election of the Parti Québécois in 1976 brought the agenda to separate Québec from Canada into focus. The first Québécois referendum on the national question was held in 1980, with the “No” vote winning by 60% (O’Neal 1995a, 11). A proposition for a clause to be added to the Constitution Act, 1867, which would have recognized and designated Québec as a “distinct society” was a key component of the failed 1990 Meech Lake Accord. The Charlottetown Accord led to a national referendum (excluding Québec, as it conducted its own) in 1992. The accord, which again included a proposition to adopt new wording which recognized a “distinct society” in Québec was rejected by 54% of voters nationally although it was approved by most voters in four provinces and one territory (Gall 2012a). Québec voted “No.” The last Québec-initiated referendum on sovereignty, held in 1995, went to “No” by 50.56% (Gall 2012b).

To this day, Québec sends clear messages to the world that it is a nation. Its legislative body is called the Assemblée nationale (the National Assembly), its library and archives are grouped as the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (National Library and Archives of Québec), and its government has delegations acting as cultural embassies all over the world. The existence of the Bloc Québécois as a federal political party (and former Official Opposition in the House of Commons) speaks volume in terms of defining the status of Québec as [End Page 5] distinct in the national landscape; its current political platform includes the statements “All Quebeckers without exception form a nation” and “Only the Bloc Québécois stands for the Québec nation” (Bloc Québécois 2011, 12).

Nation, Bilingualism, and Aboutness

Because of this context, the study of subject headings pertaining to the identification or non-identification of Québec as a distinct society must be grounded in the “nation” paradigm. In an 1882 seminal lecture entitled precisely “What Is a Nation?” (“Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?”), Ernest Renan ([1882] 1990) told an assembly at the Sorbonne that “a nation is a soul, a spiritual principle” and that its components are the heritage of the past and the desire to live in the social embodiment of that heritage (19). This paved the way for thinkers like Benedict Anderson (2006), who proposed that a nation is “an imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (6), echoing the stance of Homi Bhabha (1994) who posited that “affiliative solidarity is formed through the ambivalent articulations of the realm of the aesthetic, the fantasmatic, the economic and the body political” (230).

The Québécois solidarity in “otherness” is often placed in opposition to its counterpart—the “Canadian perspective.” In an article from 1970 (“Alternative Futures”), Charles Taylor (1993) stated that the main impediment to an all-encompassing Canadian perspective was the constant reaffirmation of the Québécois identity through language—a feeling “that the majority of English-speaking North Americans find unfamiliar” (100).

Interestingly, whether it is called a “Canadian ... social experience” (LAC 2012), a “Canadian perspective” (LAC 2010b), or, as it is by Guy Laforest, a “Canadian experience” (in Taylor 1993, xv), the debate about a clear sense of identity in the Canadian people is fundamental to the aboutness of the literature. In a later text, first published in 1991, Taylor (1993) came to the conclusion that “accommodating difference is what Canada is all about” (181).

Canadian federal institutions are, obviously, caught in the constant balancing act of catering to their national mandate while articulating this difference— in both official languages. While this could have led to the creation and parallel development of one national, bilingual controlled vocabulary, the (then) National Library of Canada chose to continue developing the English portion of the system, and to entrust to the Université Laval, who had already begun a translation of LCSH, the responsibility for the French portion. By 1974, RVM had been officially recognized and adopted as the national standard (Bélair et al. 2008, 7; Schweitzer 1995, 14). While it is possible to view the Canadian Subject Headings and Répertoire de vedettes-matière as “parallel” taxonomies due to the modalities of their development, they cannot be perceived as entirely autonomous since they co-exist as national standards to create one integrated, bilingual discursive space; indeed, the practice of bilingual cataloguing has, historically, been branded as “the specialty par excellence of the National Library of Canada” (Rolland-Thomas and Mercure 1989, 142). Furthermore, it is impossible to refute the fact that many catalogue users may, in fact, be bilingual themselves, [End Page 6] and may thereby be looking for and finding meaning not only in individual terms but in their relationships.

Overview of RVM in LIS literature

Seminal articles by RVM contributors Pierre Gascon (1993, 1994) and Denise Dolbec (2006) both relate the impressive history of RVM. The most authoritative document on the development processes and practicalities of RVM is the Guide pratique du Répertoire de vedettes-matière de l’Université Laval, also produced by the RVM team at Laval with the addition of Michèle Hudon of the Université de Montréal (Bélair et al. 2008).

Interestingly, the LIS literature doesn’t provide much analysis of the pragmatic intricacies of the controlled vocabulary, especially where Québécois questions are concerned. Robert Holley’s 2002 article has a section entitled “Francophone and Quebec Aspects of RVM,” which discusses some of the inherent difficulties of basing French headings on a foreign tool (LCSH) and of having to serve the Canadian (understood as “English”) community as well as the French (140–41). In 2008, Holley followed up by purporting that while translation and harmonization are certainly complex issues, “the situation is more complex for English language subject access in Canada because English-speaking Canadians share a common language, albeit with some difference in spelling and meaning, with the United States” (30). The fact that an adaptation in a shared language was deemed more complex than a translation into a whole other language and culture can be disconcerting; nevertheless, the noted problems of equivalencies between cultures and of accommodations between linguistic variants do bring up the crucial question of whether parallel, adequate representation can, in fact, be achieved within a bilingual dialogue.

RVM has known an astounding international success: In 1993, a meeting was held by key players from Francophone countries in North America and Europe to discuss their indexing practices (Buntschu, Nicoulin, and Nuvolone 1993) and it was clear that no discussion would ever be had again in the French controlled-vocabulary world without the mention of RVM. Perhaps the most celebrated victory was the export of RVM to France in 1976 (Jouguelet 1989, 214) and its crucial role in the development of France’s own controlled vocabulary, the Répertoire d'autorité-matière encyclopédique et alphabétique unifié (RAMEAU; Bélair, Bourdon, and Mingam 2005). RVM’s influence has been felt outside the Francophone world as well; in 2006 Dolbec estimated that about one hundred national libraries had acquired RVM (99).

Today, RVM is an online, subscription-based resource. It is used in over two hundred institutions all over the world (Bélair et al. 2008, xxi); this, of course, means that RVM has a truly diversified public, which also happens to be made up of different cultures:

  • • the United States, through the reference to the source vocabulary LCSH;

  • • the different national French-language libraries, even as they adapt the tool to their own needs (Holley 2002, 147); [End Page 7]

  • • the Canadian, English-driven national catalogue, which is in turn meant to serve the information retrieval needs of a bilingual and culturally diverse society (Schweitzer 1995, 17); as well as

  • • the specifically Québécois institutions (its own university, first, and the provincial national library by extension).

This leads Dolbec (2006) to state that the RVM adaptation caters to the needs of all the Francophone institutions it serves3 (101). Dolbec further positions RVM as the only French-language headings list to be international in scope (108), building on the discourse of Anita Schweitzer (1995), who claimed in 1993 that RVM was “a universal list of French language subject headings covering all fields of knowledge rather than only Canadian topics” (24).

Of course, claims of a “universal” language that is based on a biased (Berman 1971, Olson 2000, 2002; Strottman 2007; Williamson 1996) and American system can be perceived as problematic, even as we accept the need for compromise in cooperation. As Bourdieu ([1982] 1991) points out, while there are no purely neutral words, “recourse to a neutralized language is obligatory whenever it is a matter of establishing a practical consensus between agents or groups of agents having partially or totally different interests” (40).

Formally, then, it can be established that RVM, along with LCSH and CSH, is an enunciative part the “neutralized language” which enables the obligatory dialogue between the various cultures that attempt to share a common organization of the world of knowledge.

Neutrality and ownership in the position discourses of the institutions

The “neutralization” of language is not an easy task, especially when vocabularies are created specifically to accommodate differences—and therefore to counter certain cultural angles or perceived inadequacies. For example, CSH is not branded as an autonomous tool but, rather, as a sub-system of the American vocabulary, “designed to be used in tandem with LCSH” (LAC 2010a): “In short, CSH complements LCSH headings by offering Canadian content, but does not provide a stand-alone list of subject headings” (LAC 2010b). Yet another part of the LAC website forgoes the subjugating reference to LCSH, relegating the relationship to one of “compatibility” and stating that “Canadian Subject Headings (CSH) is a list of access points in the English language, using controlled vocabulary, to express the subject content of documents on Canada” (LAC 2010a). In other places, the two controlled vocabularies (or source list and extension) are compared as though they were equivalent in nature while different in scope: “CSH differs from LCSH particularly in the way various racial, ethnic and language groups are described. CSH also provides unique chronological subdivisions” (LAC 2010b).

LAC offers this explanation for the creation and development of the controlled vocabulary: “Differences in headings or policy in CSH are sometimes necessary to provide appropriate subject access to materials on Canada. However, it is the aim of the National Library of Canada4 to minimize those instances” (LAC 2010a). [End Page 8]

This policy is not new; it was presented in similar terms by both Ingrid Parent (1995, 13) and reiterated in more detail by Alina Schweitzer (1995, 17) at the IFLA Satellite meeting in Lisbon in 1993. It is stated on the LAC website that “coverage focuses on the Canadian cultural, economic, historical, literary, political and social experience,” while offering “in-depth coverage of Canadian topics, including those recently in the news” (LAC 2012). The latter phrase is of particular interest, for two reasons: It infers that current events may supersede literary warrant in establishing headings, and it suggests that headings relevant to recent history should already be in use.

Another important statement is, of course, “While the headings in CSH are only in the English language, they have French language equivalents in Répertoire de vedettes-matière (RVM), published by the Bibliothèque de l’Université Laval” (LAC 2010a). This implies a one-to-one equivalency, which is not, in fact, the current practice. On page 7 of the RVM manual, it is stated that most headings have a one-to-one correspondence from French to English. Page 21, however, tells of how, at times, the RVM team may choose to translate a heading into, for example, five French ones. This type of cultural positioning helps set the stage for understanding how the “neutralization” of language, while it is easily achieved for noncontentious terms, can be much more complex when cultural perceptions collide.

Identity through language: Terms pertaining to people and identity

It is not always easy to identify the labels by which a people, a culture, or a movement wishes to be identified. Bhabha (1994) asks how, in the negotiation of hegemony through iteration and alterity, “does the language of the will accommodate the vicissitudes of its representation, its construction through a symbolic majority where the have-nots identify themselves from the position of the haves?” (29). For her part, Olson (2002) tells us that “the power to name, then, determines whether or not a subject will have an identity” (74). By negotiating our perception of the world, naming and labelling also participate in our habitus,5 shaping individual views of self, society, and power relations (Hussey 2010, 42). This is intrinsically linked to the notion of connotation, which “refers to the singularity of individual experiences” and which is inexorably linked, in turn, to the “symbolic appropriation” of discourse (Bourdieu [1982]1991, 39).

The historical setting provided above explains why in 1962, when Laval published its first, one-volume, 260-page edition of RVM, there was no Québécois heading at all (Bibliothèque de l’Université Laval 1962, 14). There was a Canadiens français (French Canadian) heading but nothing remotely resembling “Canadiens anglais” (English Canadian); the extra qualifier, “français,” reproduced the dominant culture’s identification of the French as “other,” requiring specification by opposition. By its ninth edition, in 1983, RVM did have a Québécois heading, but the English equivalent remained Canadians, French-speaking (Bibliothèque nationale du Québec and Bibliothèque de l’Université Laval 1983, 977), a less specific heading which lumped together people in and out of the province of Québec. Meanwhile, under the English heading, Canadians, French-speaking, the cataloguer found both Canadiens français and Québécois—a [End Page 9] two-for-one equivalency which forced the cataloguer into a choice that could not have been more political in the wake of the 1980 referendum.

To this day, there is no standard term for someone who lives in Québec: Among the headings in use in AMICUS, LAC’s catalogue, one finds Quebecers, Quebeckers, Québécois, and even Canadiens français Québec (Province) (LAC 2008)—the latter being a clear non-equivalency or mishap since LAC’s policy is to use the CSH term Canadians, French-Speaking rather than LCSH’s French-Canadians (LAC 2010a). The Québécois heading is labelled by LAC as an RVM heading, while CSH favours Quebecker. A consensus has been reached, however, on the spelling for Québec: The webpage for CSH notes that “Québec (both the city and the province) is accented” (LAC 2010b); this follows a resolution adopted by the National Library of Canada in 2003 (LAC, n.d.) to adjust all headings related to the historical period “1974–” to include the diacritical sign.

Of course, the very public described by these terms is not necessarily a homogenous entity; for that reason, the various terms can also serve various instances of identification, inclusion, and exclusion in the literature itself. In their co-authored epistolary book Qui a raison? Lettres sur l’avenir du Québec6 (2008), André Pratte, the federalist editor-in-chief of La Presse, and Joseph Facal, a former member of Québec’s National Assembly and a declared separatist, make judicious use of the different labels. Nationalist Facal uses mainly “Canadiens anglais” (“English Canadian”) in opposition to “Québécois,” even going so far as saying “les Québécois francophones et les Canadiens anglais” (“Francophone Quebeckers and English Canadians”) (137), as though French-speaking Québécois and English Canadians were the only possible combinations. Pratte adopts this latter phrase in his answer (141) but tries to encompass all, opting for the use of “Québécois,” “Canadiens” (which doesn’t specify a spoken language; 22), and “Québécois et Canadiens francophones” (“Quebeckers and Francophone Canadians”—an interesting choice, made alongside the more usual “Francophones hors Québec,” or Francophones living outside of Québec, and thereby attenuating the relation between the language and the province; 130).

Bourdieu ([1982] 1991) writes that showing through discourse (like Olson’s “naming”) can be either “critical or complicitous” and that “this is as true of classification into social classes as it is of classification into ‘regions’ or ‘ethnic groups’” (225). He further tells of the scientific world’s struggles in a way that is inherently applicable to classification in the social sciences:

Nothing is less innocent than the question ... of knowing whether one has to include in the system of pertinent criteria not only the so-called “objective” categories (such as ancestry, territory, language, religion, economic activity, etc.), but also the so-called “subjective” properties (such as the feeling of belonging), i.e. the representations through which social agents imagine the divisions of reality and which contribute to the reality of the divisions.


In RVM and CSH, the balance of division doesn’t always tip in favour of the same cultural group. In a telling example, there is no Québécois [End Page 10] anglophones heading—or rather there is one listed, but it is not to be used; Canadiens anglaisQuébec is the authorized term. Yet Francophones are not labelled Canadiens françaisQuébec—that term is obsolete. According to the RVM terms, identity is then based on a linguistic divide: Anglophones living on the Québec territory are labelled Canadiens anglais while Francophones living in the same space are Québécois. Furthermore, the details page for the Québécois heading in RVM lists Quebeckers and Canadians, French-speakingQuébec (Province) from CSH as equivalents.

On the national stage, linguistic relations can be accommodated through such headings as CanadaRelations entre Francophones hors Québec et Québécois, which would translate as “Canada—Relations between Francophones living outside of Québec and Québécois”—but that heading does not exist; instead, the English-language cataloguers can choose between Canada, French-speakingRelationsQuébec (Province) and Québec (Province)RelationsCanada, French-speaking, both of which take the relationship away from the people and place it into the hands, so to speak, of the political and geographic entities.

Finally, in French, “québécois” without the capital letter is an adjective. The book Theatre and Politics in Modern Québec, by Elaine Nardocchio (1986), has two records in LAC’s catalogue. The heading TheaterPolitical aspectsQuébec (Province) or its French equivalent are common to both records, as is shown in table 1.

Table 1. Headings applied to Nardocchio, Theatre and Politics in Modern Québec
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Table 1.

Headings applied to Nardocchio, Theatre and Politics in Modern Québec

[End Page 11]

The second record, in French only, further employs the Théâtre québécois heading, also used by the Québécois institutions Bibliothèque de l’Université Laval (BUL) and Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BAnQ); but the first, bilingual record uses Canadian drama (French) and Théâtre canadien-français to accommodate the equivalency to English-language headings, despite the clear aboutness of the book as pertaining to one province only. LAC’s record for Yves Jubinville’s Une étude de Les Belles-Sœurs de Michel Tremblay eliminates the theatre content altogether by focusing on Literature and removing Québec from the equation; BAnQ, however, proudly reinstates Théâtre québécois. Therefore, even as the linguistic sign Québécois/québécois moves from person to object and from noun to adjective, the persistent tension between perception and representation continues to appear.

A federalism state of mind

The concept of “distinct society” is obviously inextricable from the topic of federalism. In LCSH, the stand-alone, geographically-divisible heading Federalism is only listed through references to RVM and the French RAMEAU. The result is that RVM’s FédéralismeCanada term is listed as having the English equivalent Federal governmentCanada; yet LAC’s Authorities list FederalismCanada as having two French equivalents. Not surprisingly, these are FédéralismeCanada and Gouvernement fédéralCanada.

This lapsing equivalency has direct effects on the catalogues, as shown in the case of the book La société distincte de l’État by Anne Légaré and Nicole Morf (see table 2).

In English, LAC and UWO used Federal governmentCanada; BUL and BAnQ, using RVM, chose Fédéralisme. The book’s aboutness, therefore, depends on the language of the search: To an English user, it may be about the governing body, the apparatus, or the idea; to a French user, it is about the broader social political considerations but not the governing apparatus—an aboutness which is further confirmed by other headings such as State (or État) and CanadaSocial policy (or Sociologie politique).

The heading Québec (Province)HistoryAutonomy and independence movements is also of interest, since it addresses the specific separatist or sovereignist agenda of certain Québécois groups. Working in tandem with Federal governmentCanada, it does represent the political tension and even, to a certain extent, the notion of perceived or desired nationness; it seems to fall short, however, of representing the complexities and specificities of the “distinct society” impetus.

The Federalism to Federal government dichotomy subsists in the French and English subject headings for Library of Parliament Background Papers, documents produced in both languages to get members of parliament up to speed on pressing political topics. When this topic is associated with O’Neal’s Distinct Society: Origins, Interpretations, Implications or either of the English and French versions of Carson’s The Meech Lake Accord: A Constitutional Conundrum and The Meech Lake Accord: Linguistic Duality and the Distinct Society, the [End Page 12] Federal government heading is used in the English records while Fédéralisme is used in the French records. Therefore, a French user searching for “Gouvernement fédéral” might not find these titles, just as an English user might be led astray by a search for “Federalism.” To a bilingual user, the equivalency might be confusing, given that all these terms exist in both languages.

Table 2. Headings applied to Légaré and Morf, La Société distincte de l’État
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Table 2.

Headings applied to Légaré and Morf, La Société distincte de l’État

Nationness and distinction

In 2007, aforementioned federalist and journalist André Pratte edited a book of essays by federalist thinkers and activists, Reconquérir le Canada: Un nouveau projet pour la nation québécoise—literally, “Reconquering Canada: A new project for the Québécois nation.” When the book was translated, the subtitle became, Québec Federalists Speak up for Change, removing implications of Canada as a [End Page 13] “project” and of Québec as a “nation,” and thereby branding the book differently for a different market—not only linguistically, but ideologically. In the English version’s foreword, John Ralston Saul writes, “This has never been about nationalism” which “exists everywhere”; he goes on to say that “British Columbians and Newfoundlanders are just as nationalistic as Quebecers, each in their own way” (ix).

The catalogues’ treatment of this work is quite revealing. In general, they adhere to the use of the Federal-provincial relations (Canada)Québec (Province) (although LAC is missing “Canada” in the French record); UWO opts to add Federal governmentQuébec (Province)—which is, of course, erroneous if slightly ironic. However, and despite the stated lack of a nationalist angle in the English translation, all of the catalogues, without exception, also use NationalismQuébec (Province) or NationalismeQuébec (Province)—or both—for all the versions they collect. Basically, the catalogues go against the English version’s stance in translation, reverting to the French version’s aboutness —or perhaps simply applying the same labels as they previously had to the original French book.

Obviously, a heading such as Nationalism is important to the questions at hand, especially since it depends on geographic subdivisions such as —Québec (Province) to identify the locale and give it specific, contextual meaning. The level of pertinence of such a subdivision is illustrated by the book Qui a raison ? Lettres sur l’avenir du Québec, by Facal and Pratte (2008). This particular book’s aboutness lies in the irreconcilable allegiances to the federalist or separatist views, explored in the form of an epistolary debate. While it is not assigned a Nationalism heading in the Library of Congress (LC) catalogue, it is assigned this heading in the Canadian and Québécois national libraries of LAC and BAnQ. Interestingly, while all three catalogues offer some specificity regarding Québec as a topic, none of them provide an access point pertaining to the other place, the other geographic and political entity at play in the book’s aboutness: Canada. Making the book about Québec (Province)HistoryAutonomy and independence movements (as is the case in all three instances) forgoes Pratte as an equal partner in the discussion since the opposing movement, federalism, is not represented. These indexing choices thereby remove this book from set results which would yield not only the Background Papers mentioned above but titles by Laforest and Taylor examining the same question, the latter being catalogued under, among other headings, Federal governmentCanada, FédéralismeCanada and, fittingly, NationalismCanada.

Naming events pertaining to national cultures can also convey clashes in perceptions. Québec has had a national holiday since 1977, and the RVM heading Fête nationale du Québec reflects its official name. In English, the equivalent is John the Baptist’s DayQuébec (Province) (LCSH) and it refers to the religious holiday which occurs on the same date, June 24; this holiday is also associated with a heading in French, Saint-Jean-Baptiste (Fête), which can be subdivided geographically to include —Québec (Province) and has a further English equivalent in CSH, St. Jean Baptiste Day. The issue here, of course, is [End Page 14] that the national status of the holiday is only recognized in French. In English, the day does not exist as such.

Representing the “Distinct Society”

To remedy the omission of this term, one can turn to the LCSH heading Cultural pluralism (which is related to Multiculturalism). BiculturalismeCanada is the accepted term yielded by a search for “société distincte” in RVM, but while it might reflect the notion of two co-existing cultures, it does not address the issue of political dominance. LAC states that, “Topical headings included in CSH appear solely in their Canadian context, via the addition of the subdivision—Canada or other qualifier (but neither is added if the topic is unmistakably Canadian)” (LAC 2010b). In other words, it would seem that topical headings are created to accommodate topics, subjects, or aboutness deemed necessary or important in the Canadian context; furthermore, some may be so “unmistakably Canadian” as to not require geographical or national specifications. It thus becomes imperative to try and understand why Distinct society, a heading listed in LAC and linked to one record but declared not applicable, does not qualify, and what results this decision has in the catalogues.

The literary warrant is there. The parliamentary documents such as The Meech Lake Accord: Linguistic Duality and the Distinct Society (Carson 1989d), The Meech Lake Accord: A Constitutional Conundrum (Carson 1989c), and Distinct Society: Origins, Interpretations, Implications (O’Neal 1995a) might have been considered too narrow in publication scope to constitute literary warrant (although they all have ISBNs and are part of LAC’s collection), but titles such as Ian McGilp’s The Distinct Society Clause and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1992) or Guy Laforest’s Pour la liberté d’une société distincte (2004), both of which refer directly to this term, demonstrate that this notion is, in itself, an aboutness.

For the McGilp book, present only in the LAC and UWO collections, the emphasis in headings is placed neither on the accords that debated this status nor on the distinct society itself but on the provincial laws, the minority groups who felt threatened by them, and the federal language and constitutional laws. In LAC, the only heading this book has in common with Carson’s Conundrum is CanadaConstitutional lawAmendments; it has no subject headings in common whatsoever with Carson’s Linguistic Duality. McGilp’s book is perceived to be about MinoritiesLegal status, laws, etc. and CanadaLanguagesLaws and legislation, while Carson’s is labelled as being about BilingualismCanada and Linguistic minoritiesCanada. The only way to bring these books together in a set of search results in either LAC or UWO is through a keyword search for, not surprisingly, “distinct society.”

The terms used in the French-language catalogues are also revealing: Though McGilp’s book is not collected by BUL or BAnQ, Carson and O’Neal’s Background Papers are. For L’Accord du lac Meech: Une énigme constitutionnelle, by Carson, LAC is alone in using CanadaDroit constitutionelAmendements, a string which reverts from geographic to topical in BUL and BAnQ, as they both opt to use ConstitutionsAmendementsCanada. For L’Accord [End Page 15] du Lac Meech: La dualité linguistique et la société distincte, also by Carson, BilinguismeCanada in LAC becomes BilinguismeDroitCanada in BUL and BAnQ. Relations fédérales-provinciales, with some variations, is the most common heading in the catalogues for all the Background Papers. FédéralismeCanada is second, appearing in all of BAnQ’s records, with one variation: FédéralismeCanadaHistoire is used for both versions of O’Neal’s paper. FédéralismeCanada also appears in LAC’s catalogue for both of O’Neal’s versions and in BUL for Carson’s L’Accord du Lac Meech: Une énigme constitutionnelle. LAC is the only library to use Federal governmentCanada, again for O’Neal’s paper. Québec (Province)HistoryAutonomy and independence movements is once more reserved for O’Neal’s work, but appears in three catalogues: LAC, BAnQ, and UWO. Finally, the proposed RVM alternative to “distinct society” appears solely in BUL, albeit in three variations: BiculturalismeCanada (for the French version of O’Neal’s paper and Carson’s L’Accord du Lac Meech: La dualité linguistique et la société distincte), BiculturalismeCanadaHistoire (again for O’Neal) and BiculturalismeQuébec (Province) (for Carson’s Dualité). The confusion and lack of common perception around these works, like that around so many books, seems to yield “subjects so diffuse that they sprawl across categories in a haphazard or amorphous way” (Olson 2002, 91); however, this conundrum is resolved when considering the one common topic treated therein: the distinct society label.

If avoiding this label created some chaos in more technical documents, it causes a truly awkward situation for Guy Laforest’s book Pour la liberté d’une société distincte—a book precisely and unavoidably about this proposition. Therefore, new headings are thrown in the mix (as shown in table 3).

The first, used by LAC, is Identité collectiveQuébec (Province). This official RVM heading does indeed bring together the notion of self-definition and cultural belonging. Its LCSH counterpart, Group identity, is not as intuitive as the French, placing the key notion (“identity”) after the word “group.” Furthermore, “group” is a looser term than the French “collective,” and other texts have shown that the notions of “collectivity” and “community” are hard to translate from culture to culture.7 BAnQ brings in another term with Droit des peuples à disposer d’eux-mêmes, the equivalent of LCSH’s Self-determination, National. While neither of these headings is as specifically Canadian and Québécois as the more historical term “distinct society,” they both do refer to underlying political tensions of the type which led to the phrase “distinct society” being coined.

Chronological subdivisions are also telling. LAC has long been developing chronological subdivisions to reflect Canadian history (Schweitzer 1995, 22). Practitioners like William E. Studwell (1987) also proposed more detailed additions or amendments for specific regions, provinces, and territories. In the practical use of chronological subdivisions for Québec, string constructions range from the broad Québec (Province)Politique et gouvernement20e siècle to more precise constructions, such as the following headings used for Laforest’sbook. While LC remains vague, with Québec (Province)Politics and gouvernment1960-, BUL opts for Québec (Province)Politique et gouvernement [End Page 16] 19942003. BAnQ uses the similar Québec (Province)Politique et gouvernement19942003 and Québec (Province)Politique et gouvernement19932006. BAnQ therefore makes use of dual periods: 1994–2003 and 1993– 2006.

Table 3. Headings applied to Laforest, Pour la liberté d’une société distincte
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Table 3.

Headings applied to Laforest, Pour la liberté d’une société distincte

If the Quiet Revolution is acknowledged in the “—1960–” subdivision, the 1980 referendum is only hinted at as a reference point (for the Légaré and Morf book, in LC); this is interesting, given the fact that no matter which political side one sits on, the referenda of 1980 and 1995 created clear historical fault lines in Canadian politics, and their effects were certainly discussed in the works studied here. The referenda are also a part of RVM’s controlled vocabulary. [End Page 17] RVM states that the team can create original headings for French-specific and Québécois-specific subjects—if justification can be found in “current affair magazines, Québécois and international newspapers” as well as tools from the publishing industry—in order not only to respond to a demand for headings but to “foresee this demand” (Bélair et al. 2008, 58; author’s translation). The manual gives the examples of Québec (Province)Histoire1995 (Référendum constitutionnel)8 as well as Tempête de verglas de janvier, Québec, 1998 (for Québec’s historic ice storm), and Bactérie mangeuse de chair, a vernacular term which refers to the English heading Streptococcus pyogenes. Searches performed at time of writing in the three catalogues that use French headings (LAC, BUL, and BAnQ) found that Québec (Province)Histoire1995 (Référendum constitutionnel) was used 0 times in LAC, 30 times in BUL, and 45 times in BanQ. Tempête de verglas de janvier, Québec, 1998 was used in the same catalogues 0 times, 0 times, and 5 times. Bactérie mangeuse de chair was used 0 times, 0 times, and 4 times (although the BAnQ records actually display headings built from Streptococcus pyogenes, thereby overriding the vernacular-based heading).

The obvious outlier is the heading pertaining to the referendum of 1995. Part of the reason why LAC doesn’t use it may lie in the fact that there are no specific English equivalents in CSH, only the LCSH heading ReferendumQuébec (Province), which reverts the perspective from geo-historical back to sociopolitical. This illustrates the complex linguistic workings behind the notion of equivalency. LAC’s policy states that “the equivalent in the other language may be a heading rather than a subdivision.” (LAC 2010c). However, a heading and a subdivision clearly do not have the same weight. In cases like these, where equivalencies shift the focus (and point of view), cataloguers are confronted not only with the aboutness of the historical event but also experience and perspective.


Brian O’Connor (1996) once posited that “representation works only to the degree that any user knows the code and to the degree that the code is capable of embodying useful elements and procedures” (45). In the context of a bilingual country, one could argue that the professional user, the cataloguer, must, in fact, know two codes to create at least a semblance of equity.

There are two levels at play here. At the conceptual level, equivalency work is inextricable from the process of integration, which is crucial to the “political domination that is endlessly reproduced by institutions capable of imposing universal recognition of the dominant language” (Bourdieu [1982] 1991, 46). This is exacerbated by the fact that, as the LAC website points out, CSH is offered to the Canadian public (and to Canadian professionals) through “free, up-to-date access to over 6000 subject authority records in the English language” (LAC 2012), while RVM is a proprietary tool, produced and managed by the Université Laval. Librarians, students, academics, and researchers must therefore purchase access to the French national standard controlled vocabulary while the English-language vocabulary is freely accessible. [End Page 18]

At the language level, semantic choices are significant and culturally charged. If that weren’t the case, there would be no need for a CSH extension to LCSH, and multiple French-language vocabularies, such as Québec’s RVM and France’s RAMEAU, would not be, as they are—in the words of Québec’s Jo-Ann Bélair and France’s Françoise Bourdon and Michel Mingam (2005)—“a necessary luxury.”

A little over 10 years ago, LCSH was hailed as “a national treasure” “on her way to becoming a significant force for bibliographical control at an international level” (Svenonius 2000, 28). While this has proven true in many ways, Olson (2002) has posited that our systems were “the found objects of our art and the focus of our work. To understand their shortcomings is the basis for developing their potential” (240).

That potential, on which she ended her book, is the power to name. As with all classification systems, “the authority of the catalogue confronts the individual with a reflection of his or her reality. The mirror may be cracked or crazed to send back a distorted image, affecting self-esteem for some and just making others angry” (Olson 2000, 55). The labels studied here, whether French, English, or bilingual, Canadian, Québécois, or foreign, have shown how divergent and similar headings assigned in different collections create multiple and at times conflicting representations of the societies which produce them. The issues thus remain rooted in perception. Interestingly, that is precisely what keyword searching accommodates, allowing for individualized utterances of perceived aboutness. The concept of “distinct society,” as used by authors and scholars, is best found through keyword searches; bending it to become NationalismQuébec (Province) or Relations fédérales-provincialesQuébec (Province) or BiculturalismeCanada doesn’t seem to create a practical consensus.

One can either take solace or find despair in the fact that the landscape of nations and culture is ever changing; it will continue, as Bhabha (1990) points out, to generate “other sites of meaning and, inevitably, in the political process, [produce] unmanned sites of political antagonism and unpredictable forces for political representation” (4). But even as it does, national catalogues in particular remain part of our national cultures’“locality,” since national institutions are, as the word suggests, “instituted” into the privilege and duty of representing our community—and communities.

Neither Canadian nor Québécois societies are today as they were in yester-years. Dealing with ever-changing social realities is an inherent function of the power to name. Institutions which work in information and access are, to borrow the title of a chapter from Bourdieu’s Language and Symbolic Power, social agents of “Description and Prescription.” While our perceptions of our self, ourselves, the other, and the others will inevitably create clashes, we can still strive to espouse the rightfully complex confluence of practicality and difference, and continue to reflect on the honing of our tools as an ever-evolving modus vivendi. This is the true value of the ongoing dialogue—a word which, marvelously, is the same in French and in English ... at least in its Canadian spelling. [End Page 19]

Nadine Desrochers
professeure adjointe, EBSI, Université de Montréal


1. An earlier and shorter version of this work is available on the Canadian Association for Information Science 2011 conference website. The author would like to thank Dr. Gloria Leckie, who inspired and guided this research; Melanie Mills, former manager of the Graduate Resource Centre at the Faculty of Information and Media Studies (University of Western Ontario), and Marni Harrington, her successor, for granting the author access to the Répertoire de vedettes-matière; Alexandre Fortier, for sharing the stage of his RVM workshop with her; the students at FIMS who participated in the lively discussion that followed; and Jen (J. L.) Pecoskie for her comments and insight.

2. Here, this would extend to CSH and RVM.

3. “On voit donc que, d’une manière générale, les adaptations proposées par le RVM assurent une adéquation maximale au contexte francophone et répondent aux besoins de toutes les institutions francophones qu’il sert” (Dolbec 2006, 101).

4. The institution’s merger with the National Archives of Canada and name change to Library and Archives Canada is not reflected in this document (as of January 15, 2013).

5. This notion, although quite complex, can be summarized as a system of underlying predispositions and principles that lead to unconscious and preconditioned social behaviours and attitudes. Stéphane Chevallier and Christiane Chauviré offer a good overview of this key Bourdieusian concept through direct citations in Dictionnaire Bourdieu (2010); see also Hussey (2010, 42–43), who defines the Bourdieusian habitus as “how individuals create their worldviews, generally through the unconscious recognition of patterns, rules, and expectations based on one’s social class, family history, gender, education, and interactions with others at all levels within society.”

6. This title could translate as “Who Is Right? Letters on the Future of Québec.”

7. The problems of translating the notion of “community” are well illustrated through the process by which Anderson’s Imagined Communities became L’imaginaire national in French. See Anderson (2006, 217–18).

8. It should be noted that there is a similar heading for the 1980 referendum.


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