Quebec Independence: A Retrospective Look

Often, when we think of active separatist movements, euro-centric narratives arise of ardent fanatics flying the Saltire of Scotland, or general unrests on the streets of Barcelona. Yet what has mostly been forgotten within political commentary is the contention of Quebec nationalism.

Twenty-five years ago, Canada almost came to breaking point. By a margin of only  54,000 votes (a one percentage point) Quebec, Canada’s sole French-speaking province, rejected independence in return for maximum devolution over its affairs.

In the time since the referendum, Quebec has always lingered in the background of all Federal administrations. To this day, Quebec has still not signed on to the Canadian Constitution, whilst all attempts of promoting federal values have been opposed on arguments that these measures promote an influx of peoples, norms and values which threaten Quebec’s way of life.

Quebec, in short, remains an enigma to a non-Canadian. It is, de facto, still a part of Canada and continues to indulge in its euro-centric myth of Canada being founded by two founding nation’s (England and France). Yet it also projects itself as a sovereign nation with its own outlook and exclusive cultural norms.

And as we saw in last year’s Federal election, a possible resurgence of Quebec nationalism may be around the corner. What no one saw coming was the sudden resurgence of the Bloc Quebecois - Canada’s own SNP separatist party. Out of nowhere, the Bloc secured 32 seats and became the third-largest party in the House of Commons.

All this begs several questions: What exactly is Quebec Nationalism 25 years on? And what have been consequences of Canada accommodating a reluctant partner to commit to an Anglo-centric vision of the country? Is such a resurgence a liberal and inclusive form of nationalism or does it underpin intolerable undertones of Quebec culture?

From ‘Maîtres Chez Nous’ to “Le vote ethnique”

Quebec’s Separatist narrative is mostly a recent phenomenon. Born out of the radical politics of the late 1960s, its exclusive nature has long been infused with violent and illiberal undertones. You only have to look at the October crisis of 1970 and the first tenure of the Parti Quebecois to see precisely how Quebec nationalism projected a vehement project of exclusive national sentiment.

During the October Crisis, when a Marxist paramilitary group (Front de libération du Quebec) kidnapped a British trade ambassador and assassinated a Federal Government Minister, anti-Canadian sentiment only emboldened in subsequent response to Pierre Trudeau’s handling of martial law.

With the election of the Parti Quebecois in 1976, Francophone Canadians embraced a narrow populist rhetoric of ‘Maîtres Chez Nous’ (Masters of our own house) to mitigate the presence of non-Francophone citizens.

This was achieved specifically through the passing of Bill 101, which eliminated constitutional guarantees to English legal proceedings, as well as the elimination of the English language in areas of business, provincial services and education.

In 1980 an independence referendum was called but was rejected 55-45%. Yet ultimately the high point of the Quebec nationalism emerged during the early 1990s, following the inability of Conservatives to reconcile Quebec participation in national affairs.

The subsequent rise of the Bloc Quebecois in the 1993 federal elections, combined with provincial success in 1994, ensured a mandate for another independence vote. Although nationalists fought the referendum on the grounds of civic-inclusion, they narrowly lost the vote again. They blamed  “l’argent et le vote ethnique” (money and the ethnic vote) for their losses. ‘Money and the ethnic vote’, in this case, referred to the grievances of non-francophone electorates, notably Anglo-Quebeckers and Indigenous groups.

The overt blame of these groups by nationalists resulted in mass controversy and a significant decline for the nationalist cause between 1995 and 2011. After the New Democratic Party’s orange sweep of Québec in the 2011 federal election, most commentators, had written off the prospect of a reasserted nationalist movement.

Nationalism today

Although the last widescale opinion poll concluded that 82% of Quebecers supported remaining within Canada, this does not imply that Quebecker’s favour the status quo in Ottawa. As one pollster, Jean-Marc Leger commentated on The Globe and Mail, “Quebeckers want a strong Quebec nationalism, within Canada… They want to stay in Canada, but they do not want to be told what to do”.

This was reinforced just last year with the upsurge in support for the Bloc Quebecois, who offered a “convenient place for Quebecers unimpressed by Trudeau’s commitment to the French language or Quebec identity”.

Also, we can measure directly how a predominant illiberal form of nationalist sentiment only enhanced. This is most notable when we break down different statecraft approaches to several non-Francophone groups.

Take, for instance, Indigenous Quebeckers, including Mohawk and Inuit groups, who have continuously been subject to formal discrimination. This is notable when considering successive laws and moves passed by several Parti-Quebecois Governments to deny indigenous rights to access provincial services including; youth protection programs, social housing, legal resources and higher education services. Just last year, a high profile Commission concluded that the current Quebec Government should apologise for decades of systematic discrimination. Yet a lack of coherent response from the Quebec National Assembly, in adhering to the Commission’s ruling, has only widened tensions and have downplayed genuine attempts to reconcile historical disputes.

It is not just indigenous who are subject to indifference. In recent years, moves to secularise public places through Bill 21 (A law prohibiting freedom of religious expression) have only enhanced Islamophobic rhetoric. This is evident in the rise of Islamophobic hate crimes and targeted mass shootings of prominent Mosques, as seen back in 2017 when Islamophobic shooting left six dead and 19 wounded.

And as addressed earlier, there is an inherent bias towards preserving a minority French status, increasingly within a continent that is becoming ever more diverse, both ethnically and linguistically. Even though Cantonese and Punjabi speakers vastly outnumber native French speakers in many western provinces, French upholds a privileged position because of nationally enshrined bilingualism, whilst the language itself remains uncontested within Quebec. Head to rural parts of the province today and you’ll find an overt discouragement of bilingualism.

The fact remains that if you wish to teach, practise law, conduct business, work in provincial services, work for Government or public broadcasting, it is not sufficient enough for you to speak fluent French. Indeed, to properly get ahead in modern Canada, you have to come from a narrow family background that has ties to respected Québec institutions or family dynasties.

In sum, whilst the independence question may be settled, for now, tensions between Ottawa and Quebec will only progress in due course. The actual cost of Ottawa reconciling with a reluctant partner (Quebec) has resulted in Canada turning a blind eye to controversial rulings that threaten the livelihoods of non-Francophone Quebeckers. Additionally, federal efforts to safeguard Quebec sovereign interest continue to widen the divide between Francophone and non-Francophone Canadians.

William Gould

9 Nov 2020

POLSIS in Colour /

Quebec Independence: A Retrospective Look