Reflections on the Quebec nation

Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared Quebec a “distinct nation within a united Canada” on Nov. 22, 2006. It was an impressive moment, and unfortunate that Harper gave the declaration with his usual partisan invective instead of as a statesman and leader. Perhaps the only upset camps were the Bloc–for having had their motion co-opted–along with a smattering of staunch Canadian nationalists and ultra-Conservatives who would rather see Quebec separate than catch another whiff of pandering. Quebecois and Quebeckers now live in a nation, however symbolic.

All can agree that Quebec stands on the outside; consensus is, however, lacking on whether being on the outside is a good thing. This is the most interesting area of inquiry. There are clear benefits to Quebec’s cultural and political autonomy, but one cannot overlook the regressive elements within Quebec on this St-Jean-Baptiste Day.

Speaking to the positive elements of the nation, Quebec is the anti-war bulwark in an increasingly hawkish country. The common refrain that Quebec is a militant province may be true, but militarism in its more savage form exists not in Quebec, but in the rest of Canada. The Canadian national anthem is rooted in militarism. “O Canada” proclaims “true patriot love in all thy sons command…God keep our land glorious and free! / O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.” Quebec’s informal anthem, however, could not serve as a stronger counterbalance. Gilles Vigneault’s “Gens du pays” overflows with love, bountiful harvests, celebration and laughter throughout. Yet Quebec is somehow the malcontent militant.

These lyrics extend themselves into popular opinion in the province as well. Quebec’s chorus was certainly more interventionist in the overthrow of democratically elected Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, but the population is almost consistently non-interventionist. Canadian aircraft extensively bombed Kosovo in 1999 under Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien with strong objections from Quebec.

This remains the case today with Canada’s hawkish stance on the frontlines of Afghanistan. Popular support for the war in Afghanistan stood at 15 per cent in Quebec, far and away the lowest in the country, based on an EKOS poll conducted in July, 2009. The second lowest level of support is in Atlantic Canada at 36 per cent. The level of opposition to the war is markedly higher in Quebec as well.

A useful anecdote was provided by Bloc Quebecois MP Meili Faille (Vaudreuil-Soulanges). In 2008, Meili informed me that Canada’s combat role in Afghanistan would be over had the Bloc received five more seats in the House of Commons. This claim can be brought into question, however. Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe has stated previously stated that Quebec would be present in Afghanistan if the province were an independent country.

Despite its strong anti-war stance, Quebec still has some deeply conservative social traits that must be addressed. On this St-Jean, it is worth remembering last year’s mild upset. The implied threat of violence against two anglophone bands leading up to the St-Jean celebrations–however inflated by the anglophone press–exposed a knot in the nation’s history that can be traced back at least to Maurice Duplessis, the ultra-conservative premier from the 1930s to 50s.

Sovereigntists have every right to thrive in a democracy, but a sovereign Quebec under present conditions would be bleak. Nineteen per cent of Quebeckers and Quebecois “strongly agree” that cultural life is enriched by people of minority cultures, compared with 39 per cent in Alberta, according to a 2008 Léger Marketing poll. In other words, the supposedly leading social democratic province is far more conservative when it comes to race relations than the country’s most commonly perceived conservative province. To provide one more statistic from this poll, 42 per cent of Quebecers prefer to live in neighbourhoods with people of the same ethnic origin, three times the level in British Columbia.

Many if not most anglophones in Quebec are equally guilty in this respect. Just as the francophone minority is closed to outsiders, the anglophone minority in Quebec is closed to the majority. Most anglophones disappear on the province’s national holiday, only to come bursting out with the maple leaf on Canada Day just days later (the inverse can be said for Quebecois nationalists).

This has some serious consequences. By denying themselves and their children their national identity, anglophone Quebeckers are creating the conditions for a further decline of anglophones in the province. There is a common refrain that the “brain drain” of medical students and other educated Quebeckers is caused by cumbersome bureaucracy and linguistic division, but an equally likely cause of this “brain drain” is simply that generations of anglophone Quebeckers have been denied their national heritage–songs are forgotten after elementary school, many English parents do not facilitate their children’s development in French by fostering strong friendships and the education system is heavily polarized on linguistic lines.

One could criticize the present state of politics in Quebec–the Charest Liberals certainly provide ample grounds–but St-Jean is best marked by looking toward the future. To this end, Bernard Landry has called for unity among left and right towards a shared goal of a sovereign Quebec. This is a viable argument, but lacking in social principles. The only underlying conviction of Landry’s argument is for an independent state. The state’s political leanings will supposedly take shape in the National Assembly once independence has been achieved. This idea is highly unlikely from being achieved under present circumstances, but the proposal is also weak. Nations should be built on principles, and any movement for independence should have certain core beliefs. Fighting for a sovereign Quebec with clear political leanings and convictions will create a far more solid foundation than Landry’s proposal.

Quebecois want their autonomy, and that cannot be denied. And more importantly, the political outcomes of increased autonomy are often encouraging. At the federal level, let us remember that Margaret Atwood gave a word of support for the Bloc Quebecois in the last federal election. If it were not for Quebec, a Conservative majority under Harper was plausible if not likely. On this St-Jean, all progressive Canadians have something to celebrate.