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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
17.2 (Spring 2017)
The Polis vs. Progress
Whither Québec? Past, Present, and Future
The surprising results of Québec’s provincial elections in 2014 seem to signal a return to a kind of regionalism observable elsewhere in the world and, as such, may imply that Canada as a whole is headed in a more grounded and realistic direction.
The results of the provincial election in Quebec on April 7, 2014, were somewhat unexpected. It was a huge win for the Liberals, led by Philippe Couillard, who won 70 seats. The Parti Quebecois was crushed, winning only 30 seats. The Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) won 22 seats, while the left-wing Quebec solidaire, won 3. Since a strong majority was won, this means that an election is unlikely to occur for at least four years.
The 2014 election results were in very marked contrast to the 2012 election results. In the provincial election in Quebec on September 4, 2012, the Parti Quebecois won 54 seats; the Liberals, 50; the new, right-leaning Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), 19; and the left-wing Quebec solidaire, 2.
It should be noted that CAQ is basically a successor to the ADQ (Action democratique du Quebec), which had largely collapsed in the December 8, 2008 provincial election. In that election, the Liberals won 66 seats; the Parti Quebecois, 51; the ADQ, 6; and Quebec solidaire, 1.
In the earlier, March 26, 2007 provincial election, the Liberals had won 48 seats; the ADQ, 41; and the Parti Quebecois, 36.
This series endeavours to place these election results in the context of long-term trends in Quebec and Canadian politics.
One should begin a discussion of Quebec by looking at the role of Quebec in federal elections. Since 1896, at the end of the nineteenth century, Quebec had, in federal elections, almost always voted for the Liberal Party. At the federal level, Quebec was almost always a Liberal Party stronghold, until the emergence of the Bloc Quebecois in the 1993 election.
Indeed, English-speaking Canada, as a whole, had voted Liberal only once in the 1960s to 1980s period, in the 1968 election (and by a very narrow margin, in that case), as Peter Brimelow has noted in his book on Canada, The Patriot Game (Key Porter, 1986). Without their Quebec bastion, the Liberals would have usually been a minority party in Canadian federal politics, perennially losing federal elections. From 1896 until the 1993 federal election, Quebec and the federal Liberal Party were almost inextricably intertwined (as the prominent Canadian Tory historian Donald Creighton had noted) — Quebec ensured the perpetuation of the Liberal government in Ottawa, while the Liberal Party ensured an increasingly eminent position for Quebec in Confederation.
In his book, Brimelow had tried to understand the dynamics of Quebec in Canada, and Quebec politics, without silly “happy-talk” and “sugar-coating”. Brimelow distinguished between the Liberal “Federalistes” in Quebec (who aspire to give the French-Canadians a semblance of power from coast to coast) — and what he considered the more honest Quebecois nationalism. One of the main reasons that long-serving Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau was a committed “Federaliste” was because he feared that real Quebec nationalism would probably move into more right-wing channels, as had been the case under Maurice Duplessis, known as “Le Chef”, who had kept the liberals and socialists at bay in Quebec for over a quarter-century, and had delivered the Quebec vote to the staunch Canadian Tory Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in the federal election of 1958.
In 1987, Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had signed the Meech Lake Accord with the provincial Premiers. In exchange for Quebec’s acceding to the Constitution Act, 1982 (whose most salient aspect was the Charter of Rights and Freedoms), there would be another document incorporated into the constitution, whose main point was the recognition of Quebec as “a distinct society.” Quebec had refused to accede to the Constitution Act, 1982, in 1982, since it considered that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms would undermine its “collective rights” to uphold a distinctive, French-speaking society in Quebec.
Pierre Elliott Trudeau (Canada’s Liberal Prime Minister from 1968-1984, except for nine months in 1979-1980) argued against the Meech Lake Accord presumably because it could – from his perspective—weaken over-all French power in Canada (i.e., the “Federalistes”), while strengthening the Quebecois position (“Separatistes” – “a distinct society”). Trudeau clearly preferred a liberal-socialist Quebec dominating and deriving economic benefits from a continent-wide polity, as opposed to an “ourselves alone” (and possibly right-wing) national state limited to Quebec. It could also be noted that (ironically enough) a more traditional, Catholic, and inward-looking Quebec would have a far greater chance of survival in North America, than the cosmopolitan, wide-open, and socially liberal one which left-wing Quebec intellectuals have striven to create. With the decline in traditional ethos, the traditionally-high Quebec birthrate has plummeted, and abortion rates have soared, thus undermining the previous demographic achievements of the French in Canada. French Quebec had earlier celebrated their demographic triumph as “the revenge of the cradle” (against the British conquest). It may be argued that, because of the demographic collapse, the Francophone (French-speaking) leadership is forced into ever more drastic, and increasingly artificial, “social engineering”-type measures, to maintain “the French fact” in North America.
It may be remembered that during 1986 to 1987, there was a revolt against John Turner, the leader of the federal Liberal Party, led by the Quebec wing of the federal Liberal Party, and exacerbated by the media. It arose mostly from Turner’s perceived conservatism (at least in his image), as well as from the fact that Francophone Liberals were not particularly willing to accept anyone who was not a full Francophone (or Trudeau loyalist), as leader of their party, regardless of his fluency in “Paris French”—as opposed to the colourful Quebec dialect of French. It appeared at some points that Turner was indeed close to ouster. According to the conventional wisdom of that day, only a Quebecker could compete with another Quebecker for control of that vital province in federal politics, without whose support no Canadian government could really be considered as fully “legitimate”—setting aside what the other three-quarters would ever want or decide. When in the 1990s, the Reform Party used a highly-charged political advertisement, objecting to the election of “another politician from Quebec” as Prime Minister of Canada, the negative fall-out against the Reform Party continued for years.
The fact that Brian Mulroney’s stance towards Quebec was seen as highly partial generated much dislike for Mulroney in English-speaking Canada. Viewed in the context of the debate between the “Federalistes” and Quebecois nationalists, Mulroney’s attempts to disentangle Quebec and the Liberal Party, by offering even more benefits to Francophones everywhere in Canada, and even more bilingualism in the federal civil service, and in every English-Canadian province, were futile.
These efforts only confirmed the viability of the liberal “Federaliste” option in Quebec, and also alienated much Progressive Conservative party support in English Canada, particularly in the Western and Atlantic regions. However, the Meech Lake Accord, by strengthening the “collective rights” of Quebec and pointing towards arrangements where Quebec could exist within a far more decentralized Confederation, seemed to be a helpful evolution.
In the 1980s, one issue very rarely discussed was the situation of the approximately 20% (combined Anglophone—persons whose first language is English—and “Allophone”—persons whose first language is neither English nor French) minorities in Quebec. Quebec Anglophones were practically the only minority group in Canada that were not encouraged to assert themselves vis-a-vis the majority community. Indeed, it could be argued that they were made to feel rather uncomfortable in a Quebec dominated by regnant Quebecois nationalism. This minority was at that time larger in absolute numbers than any comparable Francophone minority in English-speaking Canada, and percentage-wise, was second only to the Acadian French minority in fully and officially bilingual New Brunswick (35%). Ontario is only about 5% Francophone, but its administration moved to de facto bilingualism (with a wide range of government services and publications available in both official languages) as early as the 1970s, and became officially bilingual in the 1990s. Yet, in Quebec, it is illegal to put up a sign in English only, and the Protestant/English education system had for a long time been under pressure. The Quebec civil service in the 1980s employed virtually no Anglophones (a total of 1.6%), and even in the Quebec federal civil service, a similarly low ratio had existed. In Ontario, on the other hand, fully 5% of the provincial civil service was Francophone by the 1980s. (Figures cited by Peter Brimelow on p. 208 of The Patriot Game.)
One might well ask if this does not create some kind of disjunction in what claims to be a free and pluralistic society? Can one ever imagine equivalent measures being introduced by an English-Canadian Premier—a legal, formal ban on public signs in languages other than English? It could be argued that Canada today is thus characterized by extensive coast-to-coast official bilingualism—and official French unilingualism in Quebec itself.
Furthermore, it could be argued that the huge preponderance of Liberal seats in Quebec (apart from rare instances), has allowed for a skewing of the democratic process against the legitimate interests and desires of English-speaking Canada. Until the definite movement in Quebec federal voting patterns that began in 1993, it was difficult, if not impossible, for English-speaking Canada to elect a government in accord with the beliefs and interests of the majority of its inhabitants. As Brimelow has pointed out, English-speaking Canada, taken as a whole, has voted again and again for the Conservatives, only to find that the Liberal preponderance in Quebec gave the over-all federal victory to the Liberals.
In the case of a long-serving Liberal Prime Minister like Mackenzie King, and a Liberal Party that could be called “centre-traditionalist” or “traditionalist-centrist” – the consequences of Liberal government were more-or-less salubrious for most Canadians, and did not imply the revolutionary transformations of “regime-change”. However, from 1963 forward, the federal Liberal Party came under the spell of revolutionary-transformative ideas. Indeed, some have argued that Trudeau largely “hijacked” a “centre-traditionalist” Liberal Party as a vehicle for his agenda of radical, total transformation. In the years 1968 to 1980, it was indeed supremely important whether Trudeau’s party continued to win elections. Unlike some governments that come to power with modest goals, Trudeau’s every year in office was driven by a wide-ranging, thoroughgoing program of radical, total, social and cultural transformation. To the extent that Trudeau was able to so drastically alter the social and cultural environment, a situation was reached where the deep radicalism of the changes became mostly imperceptible to most persons, because something like the very nature of the perceived social, political, and cultural reality had shifted. Indeed, almost everyone in Canada now exists within Trudeau’s social, cultural, political, and juridical matrix – which some critics have termed “the Trudeaupia”.
Quebec continued to overwhelmingly vote for Trudeau over the five most critical federal elections of 1968, 1972, 1974, 1979, and 1980.
It might be argued in hindsight that perhaps the formal construction of Canadian Confederation was faulty from the start – as a “dualist” concept of two separate Parliaments – one for Quebec, one for the rest of Canada – might have worked better. Nevertheless, the consequences of the Quebec Liberal bastion in federal elections, could be seen as one where three-quarters of the country had largely been submerged into a system which they, for the most part, did not vote for, and fundamentally disagreed with. This makes a mockery of the ideal of Canada as originally founded on a partnership of the French and the British.
It could be argued that Canadian Confederation was originally established on the premise of two nations joining together in a state-structure, but retaining their prior cultural traditions, heritage, and identity. Quebec was the centre of the French nation, and the rest of Canada, of the English. (Or what can be functionally considered to be “English” or “British”, in the North American context.) The unifying factors were to be the federal structure of the country, the state symbols and institutions (including the Monarchy, an institution considered at that time as standing above particular nationalism), and the necessity of uniting against the American behemoth to the south. While minorities in the two parts of the country would have certain well-delineated rights, there would be no question as to what the dominant culture in each area would be. (The legal grounds for some kind of special status for the Aboriginal peoples had long ago been implicit, by their close relationship and long-standing association with the Crown.) Thus, it could be argued, Canada could properly exist and thrive as a country only as a partnership between two equally strong and vital nationalisms, the British and the French, both warily co-operating with each other for the sake of avoiding absorption into America, while extending a reasonable tolerance to their respective minorities.
The evolution of the Liberal Party and its co-optation of Quebec had allowed, by the 1980s, for a fundamental dislocation of the premises and underpinnings of Confederation, along with the shift of most federal political power to the Liberal Party and Quebec. In the 1990s, further lines of fracture opened, with the intensifying of multiculturalism in English Canada, and the rise of radicalism among the Aboriginal peoples. All these forces are attenuating to almost nothing the traditional sense of national identity in English-speaking Canada.
In the 1990s, just as their influence in Quebec waned, shifting mostly to the Bloc Quebecois, the Liberals were able to establish a new bastion – Ontario. The Liberal triumph in Ontario was based mainly on three factors – the annihilation since the mid-1960s of “Tory Toronto” through mass, dissimilar immigration and cultural fragmentation; the deep suspicion of most Ontarians of the new Reform Party, which was considered as far too Western-Canadian-based, right-wing, and anti-Quebec; and many Ontarians’ desire to vote for the party that they believed would have the best chances of accommodating Quebec, and of “keeping the country together.” As the political seismic shifts of the 1990s and early 2000s have continued, it is clear that the federal so-called “Centre-Right Opposition” have become far, far more astute in their policies towards Quebec.
With the Bloc Quebecois supporting the Conservative federal budget in 2007, it appeared that Quebec had become at least somewhat friendly towards the federal Conservative Party. The emergence of the ADQ (Action democratique du Quebec) in the provincial election of 2007, could have been seen as the rise of a centre-right Quebec party that could hopefully negotiate with the federal Conservative government a more “autonomous” status for Quebec, without having to go on the far more potentially disruptive statehood/sovereignty route. The ADQ at that time could have been seen as a party that consisted largely of “non-separatist nationalists” and that resented the increasingly “anti-nationalist nationalism” of the 2007 Parti Quebecois (especially such as that expressed by PQ leader Andre Boisclair in his constant weepy speeches about “inclusiveness”). Insofar as ever greater degrees of leftism and “political correctness” had overtaken the Parti Quebecois, to that extent it had become less and less attractive to its nationalist core base, especially in rural and suburban areas. Boisclair chose to hew to the most extreme forms of “political correctness.”
In earlier years, the Quebecois nationalists had declared that “the social question is the national question.” Insofar as the bureaucratic structures of the Quebec provincial administration, Hydro-Quebec, and the Caisses depot (Quebec credit unions) manifestly served so-called “old stock” Quebecois, and attacked the status of the long-time anglais exploiters, Quebecois nationalism could clearly be seen as having discernible traditionalist elements. Now, however, when Montreal has been almost as demographically changed as Toronto, it is perceived that an extensive welfare-state is increasingly operating on behalf of the newcomers – very few of whom have any interest in Quebecois nationalism. That may be one reason for an increasing interest in “the free market” in Quebec.
While, in earlier decades, Quebecois nationalism was one of only a few nationalisms in the Western world that were highly valorized by the Left – there has been a considerable shift from the 1990s onward. Overwrought accusations were made in the 1990s that Quebecois nationalism represented something like “Catholic tribal racism”. As successive waves of “political correctness” rolled over the Western world, the Parti Quebecois ever more intensively embraced extreme anticlericalism and multifarious minorities – until it had by 2007 become – it is possible to argue – something which embodied what could be called an almost entirely “anti-nationalist nationalism.” This gave an opportunity to the ADQ to portray itself as at least somewhat less nationally self-hating than the PQ – something which would naturally appeal to the more authentic Quebecois nationalists.
While rejecting the drive for full statehood/sovereignty – which it probably perceived as too chimerical—it could be argued that the ADQ was working towards policies that would ensure the persistence of a far more socially and culturally substantive Quebec – a Quebec that would retain at least some relation to the historic Quebec nation that has existed for four previous centuries. And such national preservation and thriving through time and space would appear to be one of the main goals of any more authentic nationalism.
In 2007, it could have been argued that the ADQ, although non-separatist, was more substantively Quebec-nationalist than the Parti Quebecois.
Clearly, the Parti Quebecois drew some lessons from its third-place finish in 2007, and re-fashioned itself in a direction that could appeal far more to its core nationalist base.
The Québécois nurse a great number of grievances against what has ironically been dubbed “TROC” (“the rest of Canada”). (“Troc” apparently means “rump” in French.) The term has an interesting significance – giving the impression that Quebec wants to see itself as both the most quintessentially important part of Canada – as well as separate from Canada. It also points to the unwillingness of TROC to call itself “English Canada” or “English-speaking Canada.” Indeed, the term “English Canada” is frequently rendered in quotation marks in many of the more recent Canadian English-language political works, as it would today be considered presumptuous to assert the existence of such an entity, considering the supercharged multiculturalism that especially characterizes such major megalopolises as current-day Toronto and Vancouver.
As in the case of most so-called “recognized minority” groups today, the Quebecois have amplified in their collective memory, a long catalogue of wrongs that were committed against them by the anglais. However, the Quebecois cannot just be seen as a “recognized minority” – they have a huge area of land to which they could be considered “native” – they are a nation – and, were they to separate, they would form a territorial nation-state.
For the Quebecois nationalist today, everything bad begins with the battle of the Plains of Abraham, and the resultant Conquest—the conquest of French Québec by the British in 1759. This primal wound has haunted French-English relations in Canada. However, the French of an earlier Quebec seemed to be better able to reconcile themselves to their fate. The British had ironically been relatively tolerant to the institutions of Ancien Quebec, especially in regard to the Roman Catholic Church which was allowed to continue to flourish – something that was virtually unheard of in most British realms. Some may remember that phrase from an American Revolutionary ditty – “if Gallic Papists have the right, to worship their own way, what hope then, for the freedoms, of poor Americay.” George III’s toleration of Roman Catholicism in Quebec was read in as an article of indictment against him in the Thirteen Colonies. In the nineteenth century, the British constitutional monarchy was not seen as alien to Quebec, as it has latterly become perceived.
From the 1960s forward, as modern, progressive-minded nationalists, the Québécois have had to find a way to repudiate much of their earlier, Catholic-centred, rurally-focused history, and to simultaneously blame what is today seen as this unfortunate backwardness exclusively on the English. The artifact which fulfills this function is the idea of the so-called “roi negre” (which could be politely translated as “local chieftain”). It is assumed that first the prelates of the Church, and then such figures as Duplessis (a long-serving Premier of Québec in the 1930s to 1950s, called “le Chef”, somewhat similar in style to America’s Huey Long), were actually tools of the English in maintaining social control over Québec. The English were not interested in improving Québec society, so long as they had a “local chieftain” they could rely on to enforce order among the locals – about whom the English couldn’t care less. The English did dominate commerce and industry in Québec up to the 1950s, largely confining French-Canadians to the rustic, but it is not often considered that many at that time might have preferred such a life.
One of the great focal events of Québec, for the Québécois nationalists, is the 1837 Rebellion of the Patriotes, led by Louis-Joseph Papineau, which was brutally suppressed by the British. Although the Rebellion actually had comparatively little support at the time, across a Church-bound Québec, it is seen as a harbinger of secular nationalism.
The execution of Louis Riel, the leader of the half-French/half-Indian Métis in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, is seen as another atrocity. The fact that Riel had decades earlier executed an English-Canadian in rather gruesome circumstances – which made it difficult for Canadian Prime Minister John A. Macdonald to show clemency—is rarely mentioned. Salt was also rubbed into the wounds when French-language schooling in Manitoba was done away with, and failed to be enacted in other provinces with French minorities. The execution was certainly a baneful event, which turned Québec away from the once-powerful Bleus/Conservative Party in the federal election of 1896.
Relying on a solid bloc of seats from Québec, and a minority of seats from English Canada, the Liberals have almost always formed the government of Canada in the Twentieth Century. While Québec remained a very conservative society until the so-called “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s, it generally voted Liberal federally. This trend was continued with its support of the chameleon-like Pierre Elliott Trudeau, first elected in 1968. English-Canadians believed that Trudeau would “put Quebec in its place”, while French-Canadians voted for him because he was seen as a “native son”. The idea of Trudeau’s toughness against the Quebec separatists was reinforced by his declaration of martial law in Quebec in October 1970, against a small, extremist separatist faction, that had kidnapped (and later murdered) the Quebec Minister of Labour, as well as kidnapped a British trade official.
Trudeau enacted the policy of coast-to-coast bilingualism (French and English) in Canada, which was said to be the price of keeping Québec in Canada. Ironically, the Québécois nationalists cared little for bilingualism, and moved to make their province unilingually French. Trudeau’s individual rights, multiculturalism, and aboriginal rights policies came to be seen as diluting and undermining the now undisputed place of French-Canadians as one of the “two founding peoples” of Canada.
The 1980 Québec referendum on “sovereignty-association” failed by a ratio of 60 to 40. In 1982, Trudeau “patriated” the Canadian Constitution, including within it the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, within the Constitution Act, 1982. The Parti Québécois provincial government, led by René Lévesque, which had just lost the referendum, refused to accept this. The so-called “patriation”, and the maneuvers of Trudeau and the other Premiers concerning its initial announcement to the public, are often seen as an anti-Québec conspiracy, sometimes described in Quebec, rather too flamboyantly, as “the Night of the Long Knives”.
In an attempt to have Québec accede to the new Canadian Constitution, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney negotiated the Meech Lake Accord in 1987. A strange kind of fury seized English Canada, especially in opposition to the legal recognition of Québec as “a distinct society”, an obvious historical and social reality, but a blow to absolute individual rights, as well as to the notion that so-called “group rights” are normally afforded only to visible minorities (a term of official usage), as well as to Aboriginal peoples in Canada. The Accord failed in 1990, when it was rejected by the recalcitrant legislatures of two smaller English-Canadian provinces.
In 1992, the Charlottetown Agreements were cobbled together by Mulroney and the ten provincial Premiers. They were in many ways similar to the Accord. They were put to a countrywide referendum. The Québécois nationalists opposed them because they did not offer enough to Québec, whereas TROC opposed them because they offered too much. The Agreements were solidly defeated across the country.
Written in 1840, Lord Durham’s famous Report had accurately warned that the future of Canada might consist of “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state”.
Jacques Parizeau’s Parti Québécois won the September 1994 provincial election with about two-thirds of the seats (but with only 44% of the popular vote, under the “first-past-the-post” system of geographic ridings). Also, in the October 1993 federal election, the Bloc Québécois, running candidates exclusively in Québec, won 54 seats in the federal Parliament, ironically becoming the Official Opposition. Together with a smaller party in Quebec, the ADQ, the PQ and BQ launched a coordinated effort to win the Quebec referendum of 1995. A “Yes” would have authorized the Parti Quebecois government to begin negotiations towards Quebec sovereignty. The referendum failed by an extremely thin margin.
One of the possible reasons why separatism is a major but not overwhelming force in Quebec, is that Québec receives substantial economic benefits for remaining in Canada, a process which has been ongoing for at least four decades. Considerable numbers of so-called non-separatist nationalists feel that the Québécois are already maîtres chez nous (“masters in our own house”), especially in terms of the now-current, mostly linguistic focus of identity.
Robert Bourassa, a long-serving Liberal Premier of Quebec, had talked about “federalisme rentable” – a term which has sometimes been translated as “booty federalism”.
Some exasperated English-Canadian right-wingers have argued that the interaction between the so-called federalists and so-called separatists in Quebec is nothing but a stratagem to maximize the amount of federal funds flowing to the province. The Quebecois never seem to want to embrace their nationalism overwhelmingly. Perhaps they want to maintain the pretense that, if English-speaking Canada does enough for them, they might just choose to remain in Confederation.
When Justin Trudeau spoke to Quebeckers that they should want to be a part of a country stretching to the Rockies, and so forth, this was the classic Quebec federaliste appeal. While this may sound like “Canadian patriotism” in English-speaking Canada, what this really means is that French-Canadians should be filled with the desire to dominate a continent-wide polity, rather just confining themselves to dominating Quebec. I believe that Jean Chretien, too, had once spoken of “our Rockies” to a French-Canadian audience.
The fact is that English-speaking Canada expends enormous amounts of political energy (as well as economic resources), just “to keep Quebec in Confederation”. Indeed, English-speaking Canada has surrendered vast amounts of its own traditional culture, which is said to be “the price of keeping Quebec in Canada.” But Quebec separatism does not seem to be going away. Perhaps this is because there really are two nations in existence, and all of English-speaking Canada’s sacrifices and efforts are going to be futile in the end, anyway. Some English-Canadian right-wingers have suggested that a way to cut through this Gordian knot, is not to approach Quebec as abject, groveling supplicants, but actually threaten to expel the province from Confederation.
It could also be argued that some of the attitudes of Quebecois nationalists towards Quebec sovereignty have been curious, indeed. For example, they have sometimes proposed to leave the armed forces under federal jurisdiction. This blatantly contradicts the notion of national sovereignty at its most basic.
It is often enough stated that we live in a “post-modern” world of fluidity and amorphousness. One could ask the question whether, in this “post-modern” context, some kind of accommodation could be negotiated between Canada and Quebec that would not need to stand hard on notions of “hard sovereignty”.
The 2007 provincial election gave a lot of play to the then-resonant message of ADQ leader Mario Dumont. The ADQ tended to see the notion of full separation as too chimerical – but wished to negotiate a so-called “autonomous” status for Quebec within Canada. It also attached great importance to notions of what could be called “cultural sovereignty”.
One of today’s ironies is the fact that secularization and modernization have given Québec one of Canada’s lowest birthrates and highest abortion rates—creating a demographic crisis (and sense of psychological siege) in a society once known for its very large families, and for its “revenge of the cradle” against the English. It could be argued that Québécois nationalists will have to re-evaluate their relationships to TROC, to North American technological civilization, to their own traditionalist past, and to the rapidly-increasing Third World immigration into Québec, if they are indeed seriously interested in their survival as a nation and a people over the coming centuries.
Many of the problems of Canada derive from the fact that the country is, in essence, “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state”. The “two nations” are, of course, English-speaking and French-speaking Canada (i.e., Quebec). A great number of problems of the Canadian polity can be traced to this initial dualism. English-speaking Canada traditionally often tried to pretend that Quebec simply did not exist; then it moved, probably too late, into a stance of extreme accommodation; and finally, when English-speaking Canada became generally very ideologically liberal, it moved to oppose Quebec in the name of so-called universal rights, and with a suspicion about Quebec’s “illiberalism”.
In the October 25, 1993 federal election, the Bloc Québécois, under the leadership of Lucien Bouchard, which was going to take the case for Quebec sovereignty to the Parliament of Canada, won 54 seats. It thus became the Official Opposition in the federal Parliament. The Bloc Québécois, of course, ran candidates only in Quebec. The Liberal Party won 19 seats in Quebec, almost all of these from largely non-Francophone (non-French-speaking) areas. However, the Liberal Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, was also a Quebecker, though of course despised by the Québécois nationalists. One former Tory running as an independent (who had been forced to resign from the P.C. party over corruption charges) was also elected. Finally, Progressive Conservative leader Jean Charest won one seat in Quebec, one of only two P.C. seats in the whole Parliament of Canada.
In the September 1994, provincial election in Quebec, the main separatist party, the Parti Québécois, formed the government with a two-thirds majority of seats, although with about 44 percent of the popular vote, because of the “first-past-the-post” system of geographic areas called ridings. Again, most of the support for the provincial Liberal Party came from non-French-speaking areas of Quebec.
The Parti Québécois set the stage for the critical referendum on sovereignty, which took place on October 30, 1995. A number of factors have to be considered when discussing the run-up to this referendum.
First of all, there is the fact that the famous French-Canadian “revenge of the cradle” has ceased to operate. In traditional Roman Catholic Quebec up to the 1950s, families of fifteen children were not uncommon. Today, Quebec has one of the lowest birth-rates, and highest abortion-rates in Canada, if not the world. Indeed, the situation is so acute that some Québécois nationalists had dared to hint at instituting pro-natalist policies focussed on “old-stock” Québécois. The proportion of Quebec’s population in Canada is quickly dropping below 25%, and the demographic battle of the Québécois is clearly being lost, which constitutes a profound psychological blow. There was the article in The Globe and Mail, April 7, 1995, pp. A1 and A8, “Quebec population drop fuels talk of political weight loss: Province may not be able to reverse trend, demographers say”.
Throughout the run-up to the campaign, the Parti Québécois was faced with the obvious fact—which, however, could barely be discussed in public—that virtually all recent immigrants were going to vote overwhelmingly for Canada. The Parti Québécois did argue that 200,000-300,000 votes in the 1994 Quebec election might have been cast illegally, and wanted to crack-down on this abuse. A prominent Bloc Québécois party member and M.P. even dared to suggest that recent immigrants should not be allowed to vote in the referendum. Bouchard, of course, repudiated him right away—relieving him of his special parliamentary functions. The PQ did, however, modify the procedure of compiling the electoral lists, which, according to the federalists, tended to work somewhat in the separatists’ favour.
Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau spoke to the Canadian Club in Toronto on November 22, 1994. (See the Toronto Star, November 23, 1994, p. A23, “’Your national will and ours no longer converge’.”). It appeared to me at that time as a rather forthright, fairly subtle, and quite sensible statement of a type of nationalism which was certainly far more meaningful than anything to be found in English-speaking Canada in the 1990s.
The liberal English Canadian media indulged in such taunts at Quebec as the Macleans cover of a Cree Indian chief, dressed in military-style fatigues, shouting “NO!” English-Canadian liberals anticipated with relish turning the Cree in Quebec’s north, and all the other minorities in Quebec, against the Québécois cause.
On September 8, 1995, the referendum question finally came out: “Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership, within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?” (Toronto Star, September 8, 1995, p. A1 and A28). The agreement of June 12, 1995 had included the Bloc Québécois, led by Lucien Bouchard; the Parti Québécois, led by Premier Jacques Parizeau; and a smaller sovereigntist party in the Quebec National Assembly (the Parliament of Quebec is now formally called the Quebec National Assembly), led by the young Mario Dumont.
Jean Chretien, for most of the campaign, managed the federalist side abominably. When the federalists led in the early polls, he thought the issue settled, and said little about it. On September 18, 1995, he said he would not accept a “Yes” vote for sovereignty as valid, because he considered the referendum question to be too ambiguous.
On October 15, 1995, Lucien Bouchard, who had been recently nominated as the chief representative of the “Yes” side, was considered by many to have made a truly huge “gaffe”, when he said that the Québécois were “one of the white races whose birthrates were very low, and that it would be a good idea if Québécois women had more children”. He was immediately assailed for being both racist and sexist. Interestingly enough, his condemnation by feminists was probably even more vociferous than that by anti-racists. Some typical comments were that he was, “telling women to have babies”, and “trying to force women to have children regardless of their own preferences”, etc.
The October 30, 1995 referendum in Quebec could be seen as “a turning point that failed to turn”. In a remarkably close result, with only a fraction of a percentage between them, the federalists won. (It might be pointed out that there were two other extremely close results in 1995 — the striking down of the anti-divorce law in Ireland—which has been interpreted as a signal for massive secularization of that society; and the election of the former Communist Aleksander Kwasniewski, over former Solidarity hero Lech Walesa, in Poland.)
In an unbelievably quick development attesting to the prevalent left-liberal climate of Canada, Jacques Parizeau was forced to resign in ignominy a day after his speech on the evening of October 30, where he had said that “60% of us [i.e. French-speakers] voted ‘Yes’”, and that the defeat was due to “money and the ethnic vote”. For this, he was called a “fascist”, an “Adolf Hitler”, and an “ethnic nationalist”, in a massive wave of denunciation that swept the media countrywide, and was attacked even by some members of his own party.
Another casualty of the referendum defeat was Bernard Landry, Quebec’s Deputy Premier, and Minister responsible for Immigration. He was forced to resign from his immigration duties after railing in private against immigrants on the night of the defeat—which was apparently reported to the media by two immigrant hotel-workers.
Bloc Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard, who was widely acknowledged to be Quebec’s most popular politician, then headed for the Premiership of Quebec (and leadership of the Parti Québécois).
Because of the tightness of the race in the last few weeks of the campaign, Jean Chretien had hastily
promised, five days before the vote, to try again to push through the constitutional recognition of “Quebec’s distinctiveness”—the issue on which two previous constitutional agreements, the Meech Lake Accord (signed 1987; failed 1990) and the Charlottetown Agreements (1992), had foundered. After appearing to simply renege on his promise, he indeed brought down, in the Parliament of Canada, a recognition of this distinctiveness. However, the Parliament of Canada is no longer a sovereign body—all its acts are referred to and interpreted by the Canadian Supreme Court in light of the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which means that such a measure means substantially less than some might imagine.
Some rather jaundiced and exasperated English-Canadian traditionalists might well have thought that the “No” vote (i.e., No to Quebec sovereignty) was probably actually worse for English-speaking Canada, as a “Yes” vote might well have begun a process of salutary shock-therapy in this country. To wipe that perennial self-satisfied smirk off Chretien’s and Liberal party-hacks’ faces, the next day after a “Yes” victory, would have been hugely satisfying. Whatever else it was, the “No” victory was implicitly a vindication of the last thirty years of Canadian history, and of the Liberal vision which has so thoroughly dominated it. Chretien did indeed coast to another majority in 1997, in the afterglow of the “No” win. (Although that was certainly not the only element that contributed to his comparatively easy victory.)
From a more broadly world-historical perspective, some might argue that a “Yes” win could have been the catalyst for the restarting of true history in North America—for the resumption of some kind of movement in history in North America, which was certainly preferable to the status-quo. The success of Quebec separatism might have had some unexpected impacts on the U.S. While on the one hand, it might well have strengthened Hispanic separatism in the U.S. South-West, on the other, it might have led to a questioning by the long-marginalized hinterlands of the U.S. just what kind of benefits they derive from being under the control of the centralizing, bicoastal elites.
Quebec’s possible re-association with France and Europe might also have strengthened Europe as a whole, in its perennial attempts to resist North Americanization. At that time, it was not as clear as today in which direction the European Community (as I believe it was called then) was heading. Perhaps such a triumph for the EC might have positively altered the whole trajectory of Europe’s future development.
As was suggested earlier, a vote for Quebec sovereignty in 1995 might have actually been salutary for English-speaking Canada. One is left to ponder what the long-range effects of Quebec’s particularism in Canadian history have actually led to: the coming triumph of an integral Quebec (and the dissolution of English-speaking Canada into “North America”); or the eventual cultural attenuation of both founding peoples?
Is it too late at this point for some kind of “dualism” as a path to save Canada? This “dualistic solution” would be heavily predicated on the recognition of “two nations” in Canada, the English-speaking and the French-speaking. It could be argued that the interests of Quebec have for a long time had an undermining effect on English-speaking Canada—could this factor, at such a late date, be reversed? An absolute requirement for this “dualism” would be the establishment of separate Parliaments for English and French Canada. It might be something like the “sovereignty-association” proposed in the 1980 referendum by the Parti Québécois. Whatever the commercial and economic arrangements, Quebec would under no circumstances send elected representatives to Ottawa. (Any joint institutions would consist of government boards and commissions.) At that point, almost for the first time since 1963, there would be a considerable chance of forming a majority, small-c conservative government representative of a more traditional English Canada.
Although Quebec had remained socially ultraconservative until the 1960s, it has, throughout the Twentieth Century, generally voted in federal elections for the Liberal Party (apart from some exceptional elections), which has generally prevented any long-term, continuous period of Conservative government emerging from English-speaking Canada. Under Mackenzie King, Canada’s longest-serving Prime Minister, the Liberal Party was mostly “traditionalist-centrist” or “centre-traditionalist” so it was not especially important whether the Liberals or Conservatives held power. However, from 1963 onward, the successive elections became of absolutely vital importance as to the kind of society that Canada would or would not become.
The very sharp political skill of Pierre Elliott Trudeau (who was Canada’s emphatically Liberal Prime Minister from 1968-1984, apart from a brief, nine month, Tory interregnum in 1979-1980) had been to convince English-speaking Canada (at least in his first critical election victory of 1968, during which the term “Trudeaumania” was coined) that he would – so to speak—“put Quebec in its place”; and to convince Quebec to vote for him because he was the native son, and would enhance the status of French-Canadians in Confederation. In Trudeau’s conception, the common ground on which French and English Canada would meet would be the rights of the individual. Ultimately, of course, it could be argued that the Trudeau regime had highly negative effects on both French and English Canada. Early in his career, Trudeau had written: “There is some hope that in advanced societies, the glue of nationalism will become as obsolete as the divine right of kings”. (Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Federalism and the French-Canadians. Toronto: Macmillan Press, 1968, p. 196.)
It could be argued that a possible alternative to “dualism” would be some form of general “provincialization” or regionalization in Canada. It is the Liberals that have usually held a majority in the federal Parliament. Especially in the 1990s, the Liberal government of Jean Chretien was frustrating whatever somewhat sensible measures the provinces were attempting to undertake to get their fiscal houses in order. For example, in that time period, the government of British Columbia, which was at that time an NDP government, attempted to impose a three-month waiting requirement for welfare, for persons coming to that province. Since B.C. had some of the highest welfare payments in Canada, persons seeking welfare were coming there in massive numbers from the rest of Canada. The Federal Government threatened to cut off much of its funding to the province, if these measures were enacted in B.C. In Alberta, where Progressive Conservative Premier Ralph Klein attempted to introduce private healthcare clinics outside of the official public system, the Federal Government also threatened to cut its funding to that province. The chief effect of the Liberal federal government at that time appeared to be the prevention of any kind of commonsense initiatives to improve Canada’s fiscal situation. Although the federal deficit was eventually wrestled to the ground, it was as a result of a confluence of circumstances that favoured the government of the day – such as most notably the revenue from the GST – Goods and Services Tax — (the Canadian equivalent of a value-added tax or VAT), which Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had enacted virtually in the last year of his government, but which only the Liberals benefited from, as far as allowing them to fairly easily balance the federal budget. Chretien had explicitly promised to get rid of the GST in the 1993 election campaign – but he was not excessively censured for reneging on that promise.
Given Western Canadian provinces’ insistence on “the equality of provinces” in Canada, and their unwillingness to recognize Quebec’s distinctiveness (the distinct nature of Quebec is simply a historical and sociological fact), perhaps they would be more satisfied as an independent country or countries, where they would no longer have to worry about entanglements with so-called Central Canada (Ontario and Quebec). (In Western Canada, the term “Eastern Canada” usually refers to Ontario, Quebec, and very secondarily, the Atlantic provinces. So-called “Easterners”—meaning mostly Ontarians—are frequently disparaged in Western Canadian political rhetoric. In Ontario and Quebec, so-called “Westerners” are also frequently criticized. In Ontario, the term “Eastern Canada” is frequently taken to mean the Atlantic provinces. People in the Atlantic provinces also apply the term “Eastern Canada” to themselves.)
Surprisingly, even NDP provincial governments in Western Canada sometimes have appeared to be more conservative than the Liberal government in Ottawa. For example, the NDP government in Saskatchewan had in the 1990s balanced its budget. The Maritimes (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island) and Newfoundland (now frequently referred to as “Newfoundland and Labrador”) (all these together constituting Atlantic Canada) have traditionally tended to vote Liberal, both provincially and federally, but their Liberal governments have usually had a degree of fiscal prudence. Atlantic Canada is also probably the most socially conservative region in Canada, with genuinely rooted local cultures. Perhaps the last bastion of a more authentic identity in English-speaking Canada is some form of mostly Atlantic-based “Celticism.” The politics of the Atlantic provinces have largely continued in an earlier Canadian mode, where it makes comparatively little difference whether Liberals or Conservatives or the NDP form the government. The Atlantic provinces are somewhat tied to the federal government because it is seen as a source of fiscal support. An intriguing hypothetical possibility for the future of the Atlantic region would be to join the EU.
It is possible to perceive that (at least until 2006) the federal government – despite occasional Conservative electoral victories – was effectively “owned by” the Liberal Party. After 1968, this was, it must also be remembered, the Trudeau and post-Trudeau Liberal Party, and emphatically not the Liberal Party of (for example) Mackenzie King.
However, in the October 2015 federal election the Conservatives decisively lost their majority. The Liberals under Justin Trudeau have come roaring back to power, and they are so confident today, that it almost seems like they had never lost office. The Conservative Party under Stephen Harper, it could be argued, had made strenuous efforts to be “ultra-moderate.” When Canada arrived at the stage where Stephen Harper finally won a majority government in 2011, the so-called “promised land” Canadians had arrived in appeared to be nothing spectacular. Because of all the massive social and cultural transformations in Canada since the 1960s – many of them carried out by the federal Liberal Party—it appears that the combined percentage of Liberal and NDP votes will always be significantly larger than the Conservative vote. However, under the “first-past-the-post” system (with three main parties), a very strong majority can usually be won with about 40% of the vote. The said to be enormously popular Jean Chretien, won decisive majorities with about that percentage in 1993, 1997, and 2000.
In the 1990s, when Ontario elected virtually 100% Liberals federally, the province also had (after 1995) a Progressive Conservative government that was more discernibly right-leaning than the Liberal government in Ottawa. However, as the social and cultural transformations in Ontario have continued, even the “ultra-moderates” like John Tory have been hard pressed to make any inroads in Toronto and other highly urban areas. For example, in a by-election on September 6, 2012, the Progressive Conservatives were routed in a riding (Kitchener-Waterloo) that they had held for 22 years. (The NDP won that riding, and the Liberals were in second place.) During the 1950s and earlier, Toronto was considered so conservative and British-focussed, it was nicknamed “Tory Toronto.” In the June 12, 2014 provincial election, the Liberals, led by Kathleen Wynne, won 58 seats; the Progressive Conservatives, 28; and the NDP, 21. Territorially, however, the Liberals were concentrated almost entirely in the Greater Toronto Area, and Ottawa – virtually all of their seats were urban or suburban.
What is the essence of so-called “Canadian nationalism” today? It is typically expressed through such institutions as “our vaunted social programs”, “free healthcare”, multiculturalism, as well as the state-funded “cultural industries.” It could be argued that most of these so-called “cultural industries” – as far as the putatively Canadian element in them goes—have virtually no authentic existence outside of a few narrow Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and Ottawa “arts cliques.” Indeed, large sectors of the general public are either indifferent or openly hostile to most current-day products of the “official” Canadian culture. Having deliberately cut itself off from its traditional roots, such a culture can exist only through massive state-subsidies.
The possibility of regionalization could be a clarion call towards the re-discovery of more authentic roots, and the curtailing of what could be seen as an almost entirely artificial system. This system might, indeed, be seen as giving rise to various syndromes of a failed culture. Regionalization might constitute a move towards general cultural and social renewal in this northern half of North America.
Perhaps it is possible that Quebec, which has frequently been such a hugely problematic presence in Canadian Confederation, might in some circumstances give rise to a set of events where it could point all of Canada towards a better path for the future.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian freelance journalist, based in Toronto, who has frequently and faithfully contributed to these pages over the past decade.