In Depth

The 39th Parliament

Quebec nationalism, a long history

Last Updated November 23, 2006

The notion of Quebec as a nation, as a distinct entity unto itself perhaps even within the confines of a larger Canada, has been part of our collective custodianship of this awkward chunk of North America probably since the Conquest itself in 1760.

Lord Durham's elegant report in 1839 found "two nations warring in the bosom of a single state," and some would say not much has changed since then.

Fearful of being assimilated by an increasingly larger English-speaking counterpart, each generation of Quebecers put forward its nationalist champions as the need — Confederation, Riel, the Conscription Crisis, education rights, the list goes on — arose.

Today's sense of the term should probably be seen as emanating from the 1960s when the concept of Quebec as a nation took a quantum leap forward.

It was a period of tremendous transformation within Quebec and Canada as a whole. In both cases, new generations were coming to power with new ideas and new ways of defining what they wanted from political life.

Some argue that the transformation within Quebec was particularly acute, though the advent of multiculturalism along with the rise of Western wealth/alienation was nothing to sneer at.

But Quebec seemed to suddenly awake from a long church-controlled stupor. Its industry charged forward onto the international stage, it education system was completely redone and its political elites — whether Liberals or Union Nationale — vied with each other to see who would be the most nationalistic voice.

Deux Nations

The slogan of the day in Quebec was Deux Nations (Two Nations), which was both a nod to the so-called compact theory of Confederation (that Canada was a pact between its two founding European peoples) and the fearful recognition that blossoming, multicultural Canada was growing so fast it could leave Quebec in its dust.

Deux Nations was not a separatist threat. Separatism was still a fringe element in those days in Quebec, even as the FLQ was setting off bombs in mailboxes in Westmount.

Depending on who was doing the talking, Deux Nations was an attempt to insinuate Quebec more concretely into the highest levels of federal decision-making; or, more commonly, an attempt to wrest new constitutional powers for the province so that it could be "master in its own house," another arresting slogan (of the Quebec Liberal party) at the time.

What's more, the two nations concept didn't lack for federal supporters. At its 1967 leadership convention, the Progressive Conservative party adopted it as official policy (over exiting leader John Diefenbaker's strenuous objections).

It can be seen then as an intellectual strain in the party that ran from Robert Stanfield through Joe Clark to perhaps a subsequent generation of Red Tory politicians such as Jean Charest, currently the premier of Quebec.

Trudeau's Canada

One politician who didn't buy the idea, of course, was Pierre Trudeau, the new Liberal leader who became prime minister in 1968 on the platform that Quebec was "a province like all the others," not a special entity requiring extra powers or coddling.

Trudeau's resolute one-Canada approach resonated strongly through a country that was basking in the international glow of Expo '67 and an emerging social liberalism. It was also, presumably, what attracted a legion of young, super-bright reformers to his cause, including then University of Toronto students Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff.

But Trudeau's approach also brought with it nearly 16 years of constitutional warfare, the rise of the Parti Québécois government in Quebec in 1976 and the first referendum on Quebec sovereignty in 1980.

By that point, the two nations concept had morphed into sovereignty-association, the René Lévesque notion that Quebec would be its own sovereign "nation" (he was ambiguous at first over whether this meant a breakaway state) that would be in a formal association, sharing currency and other obligations like defence, with the rest of Canada.

Sovereignty-association was defeated in a highly emotional referendum campaign in the spring of 1980, during which Trudeau promised to reform the Constitution in a way that he implied would take account of Quebec's desires.

A host of constitutional reform proposals quickly flowed, from the West, from Quebec (the provincial Liberal party's Beige Paper was a staggering grab bag of new power demands), from almost anyone with a pen. But when the dust cleared 18 months later, Trudeau had pushed through a new Constitution with all the old power arrangements intact, a new (centralizing) Charter of Rights and Freedoms and an amending formula in which Quebec had lost what it had considered its historic veto.

Not surprisingly, there was a backlash to this in Quebec, which led to a crushing defeat for the federal Liberals and a new way of looking at the nationalist issue.

Distinct society

Succeeding Trudeau, Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney was determined to make amends with Quebec, and with a federalist ally in Quebec premier Robert Bourassa, he cooked up the Meech Lake Accord in 1987, a set of Quebec's so-called minimalist demands.

Among them was the constitutional recognition of Quebec as a distinct society, a phrase that came to light in the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in the mid-1960s but was largely forgotten.

The distinct society was a reference to Quebec's unique language, culture and set of laws (held over from the pre-Confederation era), and the province's National Assembly was charged with protecting these values.

In many respects, the idea could be seen as a way of toning down the nationalist rhetoric and moving back to the era when Quebec's national ambitions meant something other than separation.

Mulroney often said distinct society represented a sociological recognition of the reality that was Quebec and that the concept would be largely symbolic, an argument that is being made today in the case of Parliament recognizing Quebec as a nation within Canada.

Bourassa, however, said that constitutionalizing the idea could be very important for Quebec because it would help tilt the balance of argument in Quebec's favour when it pleaded its case before the courts or on the world stage.

Scholars were divided. But Trudeau and his followers were vigorously opposed. Trudeau came out of retirement twice to fight the distinct society idea in Meech Lake and its successor, the Charlottetown Accord.

Supporting distinct society were then Ontario premier Bob Rae and Stéphane Dion, at that time a Quebec academic.

Opposing it, strongly, were Preston Manning and the Reform Party, which saw the concept as conferring separate status on Quebec. In that camp was then Reformer Stephen Harper, Manning's policy adviser for much of that period.

The failure of Meech and Charlottetown led directly to the creation of the Bloc Québécois, the demise of the Mulroney government and the second Quebec referendum in 1995, which brought the country to the very brink of collapse. By now, the PQ was calling for outright sovereignty with association being desirable but not necessary.

In 1997, looking to help patch things up, the premiers of the other provinces came together in Calgary and agreed to have their legislatures recognize "the unique character of Quebec society." Within Quebec, the notion was virtually laughed out of town.

Today's nation debate

The collective trauma of the 1995 referendum put the Quebec nation debate on hold for a decade. It was only revived in September by Michael Ignatieff, the front-runner in the Liberal leadership contest and a man with impressive credentials who has been out of the country for the past 25 years.

Apparently seeking to firm up his support in Quebec, Ignatieff backed a resolution from the federal Liberals' Quebec wing demanding the official recognition (whatever that means) that Quebec is a nation within Canada.

The Quebec National Assembly passed a very similar motion earlier this year. But when asked about it in June, during a visit to Quebec, Harper refused to endorse the idea, saying at the time that it was "a semantic debate that doesn't serve any purpose."

Meanwhile, the Liberals were tearing themselves apart over the Ignatieff declaration. His chief competitors, Bob Rae (now a Liberal) and Stéphane Dion, took him sharply to task for rupturing the party's unity on the Quebec issue. (Trudeau's sons also jumped all over him.) Dion, who had supported the idea in the past of Quebec as a "sociological nation," now says "nothing can justify our renouncing our Canadian identity."

The Liberals are set to vote on this motion on Nov. 29, during the leadership convention.

Seeking to make political hay, the Bloc put forward a motion in Parliament for Tuesday asking the Commons to recognize that Quebec is a nation. Seeking, for some reason, to take the wind out of that sail, Harper put forward his own surprise motion for Monday asking Parliament to recognize that "the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada."

Ignatieff's position is that Quebec is a civic nation, whatever that means exactly, not an ethnic one of simply French-speaking Quebecers. Harper's is notable for referring to "the Québécois" (in both his English and French statements) as forming a nation, not Quebec or the Quebec government.

Probably Harper is being mindful of possible objections from other provinces that wouldn't want to see Quebec being given some sort of extra authority by such recognition that they won't have. But his position does beg elaboration.

Who exactly are the Québécois he is referring to here? (Everyone in Quebec?) And does recognizing Quebecers as a nation give that province any additional weight in, say, the international scene, where it might now claim its voice has a legitimacy it might not have had in the past?

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Reality check:

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