Quebec Separatism:
Why Bother?

The Canada eZine - Quebec

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If Quebec Separates from the rest of Canada...

First and foremost, it will be an expensive process. It will require a lot of paperwork, a lot of lawyers and legal advice. Its difficult to even begin to estimate the amount of time and all the costs that could result.

Undoubtably the government of Quebec would have to raise taxes (or go into severe debt) because quite frankly the rest of Canada won't want to pay the bill for the cost of such a lengthy "divorce".

Indeed I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of Canadians/Canadiens feel that the entire Quebec Separatist movement is a FUCKING WASTE OF TIME AND MONEY.

There I said it. Its what almost everybody is thinking.

Quebec is like a little child who keeps asking for more, more, more. It whines and complains and eventually gets it. Well frankly I'm tired of their whining and complaining. Just separate already and get it over with!

Yes, Quebec still wants to be "part of Canada" and part of the Canadian military and use our Canadian money.

And yes, they still want hand outs from Ottawa.

But frankly in my opinion if they want to separate then they bloody well should get it over with and just leave. They can pay for it themselves and we can stop giving them so much money as handouts.

Its just like a parent tossing their unruly 20-something year old "child" out of the house. You don't live here anymore! Go live by yourself and don't come asking for money! Go stand on your own two feet for once!

There is also the economic and social turmoil it will cause.

  • #1. People leaving Quebec to live in a different part of Canada.
  • #2. Natives feeling that they will be poorly treated under a Quebecois goverment.
  • #3. Whole businesses and companies leaving Quebec or business partners pulling out of Quebec as a region.
  • #4.The Quebec school system ceasing to teach English as a Second Language.
  • #5. The school systems of other Canadian provinces cancelling French classes.
  • #6. Border concerns. Should we build a fence around Quebec?
  • #7. Families ripped apart by boundaries or even by disagreements.
  • #8. Violence.

    A good illustration of this social gap is the 1995 Referendum... Montreal voted against separation, Quebec City voted in favour. The people of Montreal are bilingual and on the border of Quebec and Ontario. Quebec City is isolated and in the middle of nowhere.

    So to some extent Quebec Separatism is really about isolationism (and also ethnicism and racism). Isolated French-Canadiens are jaded against English-Canadians. And ethnic foreigners. This can be best shown in Jacques Parizeau's quote after the 1995 Quebec Referendum: "C'est vrai, c'est vrai qu'on a été battus, au fond, par quoi? Par l'argent puis du vote ethnique, essentiellement." (Which means: "It is true, it is true that we were beaten, but in the end, by what? By money and ethnic votes, essentially.") He blamed the ethnic voters and the English voters for the failure of the 1995 Quebec Referendum.

    A Brief History of Quebec Separatism

    Beginning in the 1960s Quebec was the center of militant agitation to separate it from Canada and establish a French-speaking nation. In 1969 French and English were both declared the official languages of Canada. In 1970 terrorist acts by alleged separatists were climaxed by the kidnapping and murder of Quebec's minister of labor and immigration, Pierre Laporte. The federal government sent in troops and temporarily suspended civil liberties. In 1974 French became the official language of the province.

    A party pledged to Quebec separatism won the 1976 provincial election and passed several measures to strengthen the movement. Under a controversial law adopted in 1977, education in English-language schools was greatly restricted. The charter also changed English place-names and imposed French as the language of business, court judgments, laws, government regulations, and public institutions.

    Although the separatist party retained power, a referendum to make the province an independent country was rejected by the Quebec voters in 1980. The Quebec government opposed the 1982 constitution, which included a provision for freedom of language in education, and unsuccessfully sought a veto over constitutional change. In 1984 the Supreme Court ruled against Quebec's schooling restrictions.

    In 1987 the Meech Lake constitutional accord recognized Quebec as a "distinct society" and transferred extensive new powers to all the provinces. Quebec promised that it would accept the 1982 constitution if the accord was approved by all the rest of the provinces. The House of Commons ratified the Meech Lake accord on June 22, 1988, but the accord died on June 23, 1990, after Newfoundland and Manitoba withheld their support. A new set of constitutional proposals hammered out by a parliamentary committee was agreed upon in 1992. They called for decentralization of federal powers, an elected Senate, and special recognition of Quebec as a distinct society. In a referendum held in October 1992, Canadians decisively turned down the constitutional changes. Quebec voters narrowly rejected secession from Canada in a 1995 referendum.

    Read More about Canadian Unity Vs Quebec Separatism Here.


    French Canadian nationalism took the form of a movement for enhanced status for Quebec: special status within confederation, a new form of association on the basis of equality with English Canada, or complete independence as a sovereign nation. During the late 1960s, the movement was motivated primarily by the belief, shared by many Quebec intellectuals and labour leaders, that the economic difficulties of Quebec were caused by confederation and could only be ended by altering--or ending--the ties with other provinces and the central government. By the late 20th century economic conditions had begun to improve, and cultural and linguistic differences became the primary motivation for the resurgence of Quebec separatist sentiment in the 1990s. Quebec separatism was deeply rooted in Canadian history: some Québécois maintained a perennial desire to have their own state, which in a sense they had possessed from 1791 to 1841, and many French Canadians had long felt a sense of minority grievance, stimulated by the execution of Louis Riel in the west, given substance by the Manitoba Schools Question, and given voice in the nationalism of journalists such as Jules-Paul Tardivel and Henri Bourassa.

    French Canadian nationalism was also the outcome of profound economic and social changes that had taken place in Quebec since about 1890. Until that time French Canadians had lived by agriculture and seasonal work in the timber trade. The middle-class French of Quebec and Montreal acted as intermediaries between their humbler countrymen and the English masters of commerce and industry. The coming of hydroelectric power and the wood-pulp industry as a result of the successful national policy of protection in creating Canadian manufacturing plants in Quebec and Ontario created a labour force that brought French Canadians as workers into the cities, particularly Montreal. The rate of growth of the French Canadian population and the lack of good workable land outside the narrow St. Lawrence and Richelieu valleys contributed to the rush to low-paying jobs in urban industries and to the growth of slums, particularly in Montreal. By 1921 Quebec was the most urbanized and industrialized of all Canadian provinces, including Ontario, which remained, however, the most populous and the wealthiest. The Quebec government, devoted to the 19th-century policy of laissez-faire, recklessly encouraged industry and did little to check its worst excesses. With few exceptions the new enterprises were owned and directed, in the English language, by English Canadians or by U.S. businesses.

    At the same time industrialization destroyed the myths by which French Canada had survived: that of the Roman Catholic mission to the New World and the cult of agriculture as the basis of virtuous life. Ever more Québécois had to make their way as best they could in quite a different world, in which the old values were mockeries and the obstacles not to be overturned by the old powers of endurance.

    This clash of old and new came to a head in the last years of the regime of Premier Maurice Duplessis, an economic conservative and Quebec nationalist who led Quebec from 1936 to 1939 and from 1944 to 1959. As leader of the Union Nationale party--which he had helped create--Duplessis's first term in office ended when he lost the 1939 election after challenging Ottawa's right to intervene in provincial jurisdictions during wartime. Reelected in 1944, Duplessis refused to cooperate with most of the new social and educational initiatives launched by the King and Saint Laurent governments. He favoured foreign investment, supported the Roman Catholic church as Quebec's chief agency of social welfare and education, and strongly opposed trade unionism.

    Quebec society was changing dramatically in the late 1940s and '50s. Montreal and other urban centres grew rapidly after the war. A burgeoning French-speaking urban middle class was entering business and the professions. Increasing numbers of students completed high school and entered Canadian colleges and universities. A prolonged and bitter strike by asbestos workers began a period of labour conflict and gave young idealists (one of them Pierre Elliott Trudeau) a chance to combine with labour in a struggle for a free society of balanced interests. A new Quebec was emerging, despite Duplessis's best efforts to keep it Catholic, agrarian, and conservative. At the time of his death in 1959, the province was ready for a change in politics as well.

    In June 1960 the Quebec Liberal Party, under Jean Lesage, took power at Quebec. The new government launched a number of new legislative initiatives aimed at reforming the corruption that had become widespread during the Duplessis years, transforming and improving the social and educational infrastructure, removing the Roman Catholic church from most secular activities, and involving the provincial government directly in economic development. The Quebec government nationalized the province's private power companies and consolidated them into one government-owned company. It launched a new provincial pension plan, creating a large pool of investment capital. Much was done quickly; the period of Liberal activism became known as the "Quiet Revolution."

    After the Liberals were defeated by the Union Nationale in 1966, the extremes widened in Quebec, and the elements of opinion began to crystallize. The Liberal Party was federalist; it held that the reforms needed in Quebec could be obtained within the federal system. The Union Nationale also remained fundamentally federalist, but it stressed the importance of remaining Québécois and of obtaining greater provincial power. To the left of the traditional parties, however, opinion ranged from a demand for a special status for Quebec to the demand for separation and independence. An active minority of leftist Montrealers broke with the Liberals and began advocating independence as a first step to social change. From their efforts came the Parti Québécois with a platform of secession from confederation. Under René Lévesque, a former Liberal, the Parti Québécois won 24 percent of the popular vote in the election of 1970, but the Liberals, because of an antiquated distribution of electoral districts, won 72 seats out of a total of 95. Constitutional reform was to be tried once more.

    Other social revolutionaries, inspired by refugees from Algeria and by the Cuban example, began to practice terrorism. Bombings began in 1963 and continued sporadically. This mode of action most French and English Canadians felt was "un-Canadian," but it illustrated both the social ills of Quebec and the ties of the French intellectuals with the world outside Canada. In October 1970 a terrorist group kidnapped the British trade commissioner, James Cross, and Quebec's labour minister, Pierre Laporte, who was subsequently murdered. The government of Quebec called in the federal government for help, and the War Measures Act was proclaimed. The usual civil liberties were suspended, some 500 people were arrested, and troops were moved into Quebec. The Canadian public generally approved of the invocation of the act, but few convictions followed, except of those accused of the murder of Laporte.

    English/French Tensions & Quebec Separatism

    The current debate about Quebecois separatism is the culmination of centuries of tension between English-Canada and French-Canada. Quebec was originally discovered and colonized by the French, but surrendered to the English following the French and Indian Wars and Treaty of Paris of 1763. The English were actually rather magnanimous in their treatment of the Quebecois (in stark contrast with the brutal deportation of the Acadians from Nova Scotia). The Quebecois were allowed to keep their religion and language, but could not hold public office unless they converted to Protestantism, which for the Catholic Quebecois was out of the question. As more English-Canadians (Anglophones) began to move into Quebec with the onset of industrialization, Quebec found itself with an Anglophone minority largely controlling a linguistically, culturally, and religiously distinct majority. As the Quebecois had always resented the English conquest of Quebec, this situation was bound to cause resentment and tension between the two groups.

    With the 1867 founding of the Dominion of Canada, French was given status as official language in the federal government and in the provincial government in Quebec. Despite this, in 1870 New Brunswick, with its substantial Acadian minority in the Saint John Valley, abolished all Catholic schools, and later Manitoba banned French schools. This led to violence in Quebec as they became more focused on the plight of French-Canadians outside of Quebec. This sentiment is epitomized by Quebec's refusal to send troops to support Great Britain during World War I until they "got their schools back."

    Quebec society was undergoing considerable changes in the 20th century, moving away from its agrarian, Catholic, and conservative past and becoming increasingly urban and middle class. Premier Maurice Duplessis of the Union Nationale, a Quebecois nationalist and economic conservative, tried to keep Quebec agrarian and conservative, but the pressures to reform were too much. In the 1960s the movement to defend Quebecois culture and language moved into the political arena with Liberal Premier Jean Lesage's "Quiet Revolution," which included reforms to the social and educational infrastructure, controls on corruption, nationalization of power companies, and limiting the Catholic church's influence on politics, all designed to modernize Quebec society. But with the Union Nationale's return to power in 1966 certain cleavages in Quebec's politics could be seen between the federalist Liberals who thought that any reforms could be completed within the current federal system, while the Union Nationale, though federalist, was a firm believer in gaining more provincial power for Quebec (the slogan of Union Nationale Premier Daniel Johnson was "Equality or independence". From the left fringes of this cleavage a movement began to emerge that thought that Quebec would never be able to realize its goals within the federalist system, or within Canada, and began to push for independence from Canada. As a result, the separatist Parti Quebecois was formed, led by Rene Levesque, a former Liberal. It was also around this time, at the 1967 Worlds Fair in Montreal, that French President Charles de Gaulle closed a speech with "Vivre le Quebec libre!" ("Long live free Quebec"), drawing anger from the Canadian government and the adoration of separatists. It was then that the modern separatist movement began in earnest.

    This was also when the Front de Liberation Quebecois (Quebec Liberation Front, or FLQ) began its campaign of bombings across the province. They were inspired by Marxist ideology, especially by the Cuban Revolution, and sporadically planted bombs, including at the Montreal Stock Exchange, beginning in 1963. The FLQ's campaign came to a head in 1970 with the kidnappings of British trade commissioner James Cross and Pierre Laporte, Quebec's Minister of Labor. The kidnappings prompted Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to declare martial law in Montreal and suspend some civil liberties. Although the crisis ended with Laporte's murder (Cross was released unharmed), Canadians, both French and English, approved of Trudeau's actions and viewed the FLQ as a rogue band of extremists, which they were.

    The Parti Quebecois became the Official Opposition to Premier Henri Bourassa's Liberal government in 1973 and finally took power in 1976. The Parti Quebecois instantly introduced measures to strengthen and protect the use of the French language in the province, making it the official language of government and the courts, as well as the language of business (all shop signs in Quebec must have French twice as large and twice as prominent than English). Most infamous was the passage of Bill 101, which in addition to restricting English-language education, it required that all immigrants moving to Quebec enroll in French-language schools, regardless of the language they previously spoke. Finally, the Parti Quebecois called a referendum in the province on the question of separation from Canada in 1980, but it was defeated with only 40% voting in favor.

    However, this did not settle the question of the situation of Quebec in Canada as Parti Quebecois Premier Rene Levesque adopted a strategy known as the "beau risque" which believed that a political solution short of separation would be possible with Canada. Quebec did not approve the 1982 Constitution which the other provinces approved and ratified with the Constitution Act of 1982. Quebec's refusal of the Constitution Act prompted the federal government to pursue what would be known as the Meech Lake Accord, designed to increase the power of the provinces and recognize Quebec as a "distinct society" within Canada. While the House of Commons ratified Meech Lake in 1987, Manitoba and Newfoundland withdrew their support in 1990, and the Accord was dead. A second attempt was made, this time referred to as the Charlottetown Accord, which included Meech Lake as well as a "Canada Clause" (providing for ethnic duality instead of bilingualism), a right to negotiate for autonomy with First Nations, and some other additions. However, this failed with 54% opposed nationwide, and only New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Ontario and the Northwest Territories approved it.

    This period also saw considerable change in the dynamics of Quebec politics. At a Parti Quebecois policy convention in Montreal in 1985 a majority of delegates voted not to fight the next election on the question of sovereignty. This led to many enraged hard-line delegates walking out of the conference. Soon after, Rene Levesque resigned as Premier and leader of the Parti Quebecois. Pierre-Marc Johnson succeeded him as leader of the Parti Quebecois, but was defeated by the Liberals led by Robert Bourassa only a few months later. The Bloc Quebecois was also founded with the intention of representing Quebec's interests in Canada's Parliament, becoming a sort Parti Quebecois on the national level. Gilles Duceppe became the first Bloc MP in the House of Commons following a 1990 by-election. The Bloc enjoyed almost instant success, becoming the Official Opposition in 1993, the same election that saw the Liberal Party and Jean Chretien come to power. One year later, the Parti Quebecois, now led by Jacques Parizeau, came to power in Quebec and promised to hold a referendum on sovereignty.

    The stage was then set for the 1995 referendum. The sovereignty law began to be drafted almost as soon as the Parti Quebecois came to power and three political parties, Parizeau's Parti Quebecois, the Bloc Quebecois led by Lucien Bouchard, and the Action Democratique led by Mario Dumont agreed on a final law and to hold referendum on the question. The referendum was finally held on October 30, 1995. The vote was even closer than the 1980 referendum, with 49.4% voting in favor, and 50.6% voting against. When the results of the vote were released, a visibly enraged Jacques Parizeau blamed the defeat on "money and the ethnic vote." He resigned as leader of the Parti Quebecois and Quebec Premier one year later and was replaced by Lucien Bouchard.

    Recent events have led some to question the future of the sovereignty question. One would be that the coming generation of young Quebecois does not remember the time when the Quebecois were almost treated as second-class citizens virtually unable to use French in public places. Since the language laws passed in the 1970s protected the use of French in Quebec, Quebecois have achieved, at the very least, equal status in Quebec. The sense of anger that fueled the first two referendums has accordingly dropped. Another issue is that of Montreal, which is increasingly bilingual and multiethnic and not the separatist hotbed that it was. In fact, the defeat in the 1995 referendum could be blamed on several ridings in east Montreal that while traditionally separatist, voted against the referendum. As for the political scene, Lucien Bouchard resigned as Premier and leader of the Parti Quebecois in 2001 following the Bloc Quebecois's poor performance in the federal elections and a scandal involving anti-Semitic remarks made by a member of the Parti Quebecois. Bernard Landry became Premier following the resignation of Bouchard, but lost power to Jean Charest and the Liberals in April 2003. Many thought that this signified the beginning of the end for the Parti Quebecois and by extension the sovereignty question. However, the Bloc Quebecois, led now by Gilles Duceppe, enjoyed considerable success in the most recent federal election, becoming the Official Opposition. It is difficult to say if this is a sign of renewed interest in separation, or simply a way for Quebec to rattle its saber to Ottawa and get attention. The Parti Quebecois and the Bloc Quebecois both say that the sovereignty question is not off the table and will wait until the time is right before holding another referendum.

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