Quebec Nationalism Essay Research Paper It is

Quebec Nationalism Essay, Research Paper

It is sometimes hard for English Canadians to grasp how deeply many French Canadians feel the loss of control over their identity. A generation ago, it was summed up in a book by FLQ philosopher Pierre Vallieres, who compared the plight of Quebecers to the oppression of blacks in the United States in his book White Niggers of America. In his manifesto, Vallieres discussed the determination of the workers in Quebec to put an end to three centuries of exploitation, of injustices borne in silence, of sacrifices accepted in vain; to bear witness to their new and increasingly energetic determination to take control of their economic, political, and social affairs (1971). Although most French Canadians do not see themselves as victims of slavery, most do believe they and their culture have been subjected by oppression at the hands of English Canada. Quebec nationalism finds its roots in a nation’s struggle to protect its culture, its language, and ultimately its identity. In the eyes of nationalists, the term “province” serves to equate Quebec with Canada’s other territorial units when in fact, for many francophones, Quebec is not just a province with a difference, it is a nation and deserving of recognition as such (McRoberts, 1995).

In this paper, I intend to prove that the rise of Quebec nationalism and of Quebec’s political community, is a direct result of Canada’s failure throughout history to address and resolve the issues and problems that are inherent to Quebec. Quebec’s political institutions command an allegiance among Quebec francophones that has no clear parallel in the other provinces. Underlying this allegiance is the simple fact that while the federal government is responsible to a predominantly anglophone electorate, the Quebec government is responsible to a predominantly francophone electorate (Parti Quebecois, 1994). By tracing the origins and development of nationalism since Confederation, as well as the critical events that took place during the Quiet Revolution, I will ascertain that to Quebec francophones, only the Quebec government can be entrusted with their distinctive interests.

As Canadians today continue to agonize over the shape of the nation, it is instructive to recall our nation’s history. It explains why Canada is still locked in a seemingly endless constitutional debate, as well as why some francophones want Quebec to separate from the rest of Canada. From the beginning, Confederation created a gulf in perception between English Canada and French Canada. It has been argued that for the English Fathers of Confederation, the descendants of the conquerors of Canada, Confederation meant the creation of a strong central government over four provinces; while for the French Fathers of Confederation, the proud survivors of that conquest, Confederation meant the union of two founding nations (Janigan, 1990). John A. Macdonald wanted to create a strong central government for Canada as he was appalled by the Civil War raging south of the border, whereas Georges-Etienne Cartier insisted upon strong provincial powers to protect Quebec’s language and its Roman Catholic school. The result was a fascinating compromise whereby Ottawa received powers over matters such as the regulation of trade and commerce, while the provinces received control over such areas as education and the administration of justice. In Quebec, the Catholic Church was afforded a privileged position within these formal institutions, and the Civil Code was entrenched within the legal structures. In clerical hands, the essence of the French-Canadian nation became Catholicism, as citizens were to rely on the institutions of the Church rather than on governments and politicians (McRoberts, 1995). Implicit in this ideology was that nation greatness was to lie in godliness and spirituality rather than in material accomplishments.

From the beginning of Confederation, Quebec tried to develop a new Canadianism that would embrace the cultures of both founding nations and provide the foundation for a bicultural country. However, soon after Confederation, French Canadians began to wonder if they were destined to be relegated to Quebec. As early as 1868, French schools were threatened with closure in New Brunswick, and they were ultimately closed in Manitoba in 1890 and in Ontario in 1916. When Saskatchewan and Alberta achieved provincial status in 1905, they made no provision for a publicly supported French-language school system. Clearly, a belief in the importance of dualism, which French Canada considered to be the cornerstone of Confederation, was not shared by all Canadians. The English group made it very clear that they still considered themselves descendants of the conquerors, as they emotionally refused Canadian duality outside Quebec (Dufour, 1991). Louis Riel, who led the struggle to ensure the rights of francophones in the west during the 1870s and 1880s, learned the brutal reality of Canadian expansion in the western provinces. He was hanged for his efforts and soon became a symbol to Quebecers of the prospects for francophone cultural survival outside of Quebec. Historian Real Belanger theorizes the Riel affair coupled with the threat of school closures in other provinces produced a strengthened conviction that Quebec was really the heart of the French Canadian nation – the place where, for the time being, they were most protected (Gougeon, 1993). These actions made them increasingly aware of the fact that the federal government was not the great protector of their rights. Nevertheless, French Canadians continued to argue for a bicultural duality and proposed to English Canadians that they all work together to form a new country that reflected both the cultural and geographic realities of the country. They argued that this new Canada should be based upon cultural and linguistic equality – a country espousing its own ideals and value system, with which all Canadians could identify (Boucher, 1997). English Canadians were not so sure as Canada had been a British colony for about a century before Confederation and had modeled its political and judicial institutions squarely on those of Great Britain. Such Imperialist sentiments in English-speaking Canada began to contribute to a parallel French-Canadian nationalism in Quebec. Honore Mercier founded the Parti National in 1871 based on the belief that Confederation would lead to a loss of Quebec’s influence, and in 1904, Abbe Lionel Groulx founded the Association catholique de la jeunesse canadienne-francaise (ACJC). They saw the Roman Catholic Church as playing an important role in shaping Quebec nationalism.

Quebec nationalism began to flourish even more during the conscription crisis of 1917. For many Quebec residents, the Great War was Britain’s war and Canada was merely Britain’s conscript. Similar to the Boer War two decades earlier, Canada had no part getting involved. And so, when Prime Minister Robert Borden wrestled conscription though the House of Commons, riots broke out in Quebec. Conscription played a very large part in Quebec nationalism as the tensions between English Canada and Quebec reached a climax. The English Canadians called their French counterparts ‘traitors,’ as the number of enlistees were minimal. Henri Bourassa, the founding editor of Le Devoir most accurately described French Canadian sentiment in an open letter reply to Capt. Talbot Papineau who was fighting in Europe, and questioned French Canada’s loyalty to its country. He rebutted:

To speak of fighting for the preservation of French civilization in Europe while endeavouring to destroy it in America, appears to us as an absurd piece of inconsistency. To preach Holy War for the liberties of the peoples overseas, and to oppress the national minorities in Canada, is, in our opinion, nothing but odious hypocrisy (Francis, 1994; Pg.333).

It was at this point in history that the two different visions of Canada collided, as many French Canadians began to realize how wide a gulf separated them from English Canadians, and how little they had to look forward to in terms of their own future and place within Canada. As the English Canadian leaders called for measures to make the ‘traitors’ conform to ‘Canadian’ values, French Canadians turned increasingly toward a conservative Catholic Church to protect their culture. And while French Canadian culture was able to survive in an increasingly English world, it did so by turning inward. The narrow scope of its school curriculum, coupled with church-guided social values and collective aspirations, reflected the determinations to ’survive,’ which became the hallmark of French Canadian culture in the first half of this century (Dumont, 1971). French Canada paid a price, however, and was unable to evolve a great deal in the modern sense during this period.

The Quiet Revolution, when it came at last in the 1960s, began as an outbreak of hope. Suddenly, after a century of withdrawal and retreat into the past, Quebec decided to join the modern world. It utterly changed the province’s character, erasing the old way of life, with its dedication to spiritual values, rural attachments, classical education, and church-controlled social welfare institutions, and erecting in its place secular institutions, state-run welfare programs, an educational curriculum that was oriented to the needs of a technological society, and a modern economy (Coleman, 1984). Across the province, French Canadians turned away from the Catholic Church and towards the state – a movement that, combined with nationalism, produced a potent force that changed the province forever. McRoberts theorizes that French Canadians finally realized that the greatness of this Quebec nation was to lie not in the past, as represented by traditional French Canadian nationalism’s glorification of the ancien regime, but with the future, as represented by an urban, industrial, and secular society (1993). Others such as Dumont and Dufour suggest that the Church served as a substitute for Quebec francophones until the further development of their still unseasoned provincial and municipal political structures (Dumont, 1971; Dufour, 1990). As the Quebec state was responsible to a primarily francophone electorate, it was the one institution that could enable the Quebecois to achieve these objectives. As such, the agent and political engine of the Quiet Revolution was the Liberal government of Jean Lesage.

Surrounded by a dynamic and inspired team of ministers, including Rene Levesque and Paul Gerin-Lajoie, Lesage promoted the welfare state and overhauled the education system, expanding the role of the government exponentially in the process. Lesage wanted to use the Quebec ’state’ to defend francophone rights and to promote francophone interests (Comeau, cited in Gougeon, 1993). In 1963, Quebec’s private hydroelectric enterprises were nationalized so as to give Hydro-Quebec a virtual monopoly over the productions and distribution of electricity in the province. The government further became actively involved in sponsoring economic development through agencies such as the Caisse de Deport, and Rexfor. For the first time the Quebecois, as they now called themselves, experienced heady success in a previously alien world. If mere survival was the hallmark of the first half of the twentieth century, growth, development, and modern cultural evolution defined the aspirations of the postwar years (Janigan, 1990).

The process of using government intervention, when necessary, to help Quebec take its place in the modern world, now established a precedent. Such action was not limited to the economic sphere though as Quebecers later turned to state intervention to safeguard their cultural and social rights as well. This increasingly began to strain relations with the federal government, as Quebec demanded a further decentralization of powers, in order for them to become “maitres chez eux” or “masters of our own house.” The sharpest clash with Ottawa took place in 1964, when Lesage forced the federal government to accept Quebec’s withdrawal from several federal-provincial cost-sharing programs, such as hospital insurance and immigration, and to offer compensation to Quebec. Control over immigration was thought to be essential, as it was a means of strengthening the provincial economy and counteracting the decline in the birth rate. But Quebec wanted to achieve these goals without undermining the francophone nature of Quebec society. The key to that goal was to gain control over the selection and integration of immigrants. To that end, the government negotiated a series of agreements with the federal government, culminating in the Canada-Quebec Accord on Immigration which grants Quebec almost all the power that it had been seeking. Other significant government initiatives that materialized during the Quiet Revolution included the establishment of a Ministry of Education in 1964, control over health and social services, and a Quebec Pension Plan. As Quebec nationalism intensified, calls for constitutional reform, stricter language legislation in Quebec, more bilingualism in the federal government, and an increased francophone presence in Quebec’s economy were also demanded.

This resurgence in nationalism allied with a stern demand for more powers sent a strong message to the federal government and to the rest of Canada. If Canada could not protect Quebec’s identity and interests from anglophone influence, then Ottawa had to impart the authority to the Quebec government in order to do so. Many Quebecers have viewed the Quiet Revolution as the birth of a modern Quebec or, as sociologist Marcel Rioux expressed it poetically, “the reappearance of a spirit of independence that had frozen in the course of the long winter that had endured for more than a century (Rioux, 1969). According to the Allaire Report, the defining characteristic of Quebec as a nation was the triumphant emancipation brought about by the Quiet Revolution (1991). This emancipation flourished, as the Quebecois found in their government, a political engine that not only protected their identity, but also furthered their goals and aspirations – their federal government did not. And as the Quebecois were to stride into the future with this newfound sense of nationalism, these feelings would only be strengthened as any attempt they made to preserve their culture and identity would be thwarted by the rest of Canada. Disappointment, frustration, and anger would set in at various times throughout their future including ‘the night of the long knives’ when with the signing of the 1982 Canada’s constitution, Rene Levesque said his province was betrayed by having its right to veto constitutional change removed. He refused to add his signature to the agreement, and Quebec has not since signed the deal. There have been two attempts since to bring Quebec onside. The failure of the Meech Lake Accord in 1990 confirmed a refusal to recognize Quebec’s distinct character, while in 1992, the rejection of the Charlottetown accord by both English and French Canada confirmed the conclusion for many that no redress was possible (Parizeau; 1995). With the collapse of both initiatives, an even greater polarization of the views of the two groups has occurred – English Canada perceiving that they are giving too much, while French Canada perceiving it is not enough. Lucien Bouchard writes:

what Quebec wants; what we need, with respect to the Constitution, we know we cannot expect from either the federal government or English Canada. We know that we are the only ones who can give it to ourselves, take it for ourselves, and to the extent that our future as a people, the remedy for our present problems, the flowering of our economic, social, and cultural identity, is linked to our status as a people. We know now, from the message we are receiving from English Canada that it is up to us to give ourselves the status of a people (1995).

To answer the question from the perspective of a Quebec nationalist as to why Quebec provides a sense of political community that cannot be found in Canada as a whole seems quite evident. Quebec is trying to become as French as the rest of Canada is English, in order to safeguard the French-speaking community, in order to insure the survival of French in Canada. The loyalty that the Quebecois feel towards the Quebec government far outweighs the loyalty felt toward the federal government and the territorial symbols of Canada for one simple reason – in their eyes, Canada has never been deserving of it (Bernard, 1978).


Allaire Report, The Constitutional Committee of the Quebec Liberal Party, A Quebec Free to Choose: Report of the Constitutional Committee, Montreal:1991, Pg. 4, 25, 31, 35-56

Bernard, Andre, What Does Quebec Want?, Toronto:1978, Pg. 71-99.

Bouchard, Lucien, Why Separatists Reject ‘Distinct Society’ Status, Canadian Speeches, December 1995, Vol. 9 (8), Pg. 7-13.

Boucher, Marc, The Struggle to Save Canada: a Quebec Perspective, ORBIS, Summer 1997, Vol. 41 (3), Pg. 445-458.

Coleman, William D., The Independence Movement in Quebec 1945-1980, Toronto:1984,

Pg. 91-157.

Dufour, Christian, A Canadian Challenge / Le Defi Quebecois, Halifax:1990,

Pg. 17-60, 73-87.

Dumont, Fernarnd, The Vigil of Quebec, Toronto:1971, Pg. 23-56, 116-122.

Francis, Douglas and Richard Jones and Donald Smith, Destinies: Canadian History Since Confederation, Toronto:1996. Pg. 1-17, 42-48, 109, 218, 396-418.

Francis, Douglas and Donald Smith, Mr. Bourassa’s Reply to Capt. Talbot Papineau’s Letter, Readings in Canadian History: Post-Confederation, Toronto:1994, Pg. 327-334.

Francis, Douglas and Donald Smith, Readings in Canadian History: Post-Confederation, Toronto:1994, Pg. 101-124, 318-334 523-558.

Gougeon, Gilles, Interview with Real Belanger and Interview with Robert Comeau, A History of Quebec Nationalism, Toronto:1994, Pg. 29-54, 67-70, 97-106.

Granatstein, J.L. and Normal Hillmer, Quiet Revolution Changed Quebec Forever, Maclean’s, July 1, 1999, Vol. 112 (26), Pg. 44


Grant, George, Lament for a Nation, Ottawa:1991, Pg. 1-37.

Janigan, Mary, In Search of a Nation’s Heart, Maclean’s, June 11, 1990, Vol. 103 (24),

Pg. 19-25.

McRoberts, Kenneth, Quebec: Province, Nation, or “Distinct Society,” Canadian Politics in the 1990s, Ed. Whittington and Williams, Scarborough:1995, Pg. 80-101.

McRoberts, Kenneth, Quebec: Social Change and Political Crisis, Toronto:1993,

Pg. 38-60, 128-172, 424-440.

Parizeau, Jacques, The Time has Come: Excerpts from the Preamble to Quebec’s Proposed Separatism Law, Maclean’s ,September 18, 1995, vol. 108 (38), Pg. 20.

Parti Quebecois, Quebec in a New World: The PQ’s Plan for Sovereignty, Toronto:1994,

Pg. 29-65.

Vallieres, Pierre, White Niggers of America


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