Gambling with Canadian Unity

The Attorney General has intervened in the  judicial review of Bill 99 in Quebec and revived the debate over Quebec sovereignty. For nearly fifteen years the law has not been challenged by the Federal government and languished in the courts through stalling tactics.  In the lead up to an election in 2015 and the rising popularity of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, the federal intervention on the law is playing a dangerous political game.

Bill 99 was originally passed in response to Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien's “Clarity Act,” which was crafted in the 1990s  after Quebec's failed referendum on sovereignty in 1995.  The federal legislation outlined exactly how Quebec could achieve independence from Canada. In turn, Parti Quebecois Premier Lucien Bouchard passed Bill 99 in 2000.  The Quebec law was an “Act respecting the exercise of the fundamental rights and prerogatives of the Québec people and the Québec State.” Effectively arguing that only Quebec, not Canada, had a right to define the process through which they could achieve sovereign independence.  Since it was passed, the federal government (or Quebec's Liberal provincial government) had little interest in correcting the contradiction between Bill 99 and the Clarity Act. Now, with a PQ minority government in Quebec and a Conservative majority in Ottawa, the federal Attorney General is calling on the court to declare that “that (1) under the Constitution of Canada, Quebec is established as a province of Canada, and (2) the impugned Act does not and can never provide the legal basis for a unilateral declaration of independence… or the unilateral secession of the ‘Québec State’ from the Canadian federation.”  By 2014, Canadians will know for certain who sets the legal standards that must be met to separate from Confederation. 

It is an interesting political manoeuvre.  If the court case becomes a politcal issue for Quebec, the Conservatives have little to lose.  Since the Liberals originally created the Clarity Act, they have cannot differentiate their stance from the governing Conservatives. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, as a former member of Jean Charest's Quebec Liberal Party, also has to be careful, though the NDP has already clearly defined their stance on future Quebec referendums.  The Conservative support in Quebec is so low that they have little concern about losing more votes in the provinces.  It might simply mean the Bloc Quebecois gain more seats in the next federal election, which may help the Conservatives remain in government.  Though it is a long time until we know the ramifications of the Conservative tactic in Quebec.

Still, it is dangerous to play political games with Canadian unity.  Quebecois have a long history of defensive nationalism.  At Confederation in 1867, equality between Canada's two French and English speaking peoples was promised. Sections of the British North America Act outlined how the French language would be preserved in provinces that were not French speaking (effectively every province but Quebec). The ensuing crises over provincial schooling in New Brunswick, Manitoba, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario over the next fifty years isolated French speaking Canadians from the rest of the country.  Province after province limited access to French language education.  Education fell under provincial jurisdiction, so any federal intervention was voluntary and often muted for fear of angering English-speaking voters. Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier compromised in Manitoba and the prairie provinces, pleasing neither side.  Prime Minister Robert Borden smartly refused to intervene when Ontario restricted French language education in 1912, knowing that he had few votes to gain among French Canadians.  The policy, known as Regulation 17, fueled the flames of French Canadian resentment. When the First World War broke out in 1914, French Canadians remembered their treatment which in part weakened their support for the war.  After all, why fight for a country that didn't even allow their children to learn their own language?

Faced with a war they did not support, French Canadian enlistment was understandably lower than that of their English-speaking comrades. Having lived in North America for three centuries, most did not have the same connection to Europe as the English Canadians and certainly not as much as recent British immigrants.  The enactment of forced military service in 1917 only furthered isolated French Canada.  Again, they had been promised some level of equality between French and English at Confederation. Forcing them to fight (and die presumably) in a war they had rejected proved that once and for all the imbalance of the Canadian confederacy.  Riots broke out across Quebec on Easter weekend in 1918 in protest.  For a brief moment, it seemed as if Canadian unity had been irredeemably broken.  Luckily, the Quebecois took a step back and the riots subsided. 

The Easter riots of 1918 were by one of the most violent outbursts of Quebec's defensive nationalism.  After the war, Quebec nurtured a provincial nationalism that would eventually develop into the separatism we know today.  Opposition to conscription in the Second World War once again rallied the people around a common cause, though without rioting this time.  It was clear that Quebec had become culturally separated from its fellow provinces.

Political neo-nationalism, or separatism, emerged after the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s.  This “revolution” helped bring about the end of the Catholic Church's influence in the province and liberalized its governance under the Liberal Premier Jean Lesage.  Most understood that Quebec was catching up to other provinces and joining the 20th century.  Some saw it as an opportunity for the province to finally achieve independence.  In 1968, René Lévesque became the leader of the newly formed Parti Quebecois, a provincial party aimed at securing Quebec sovereignty.  He believed that Quebec could separate through political means, such as a referendum.  The Front libération de Quebec however did not agree with Levesque and pursued a violent campaign of bombings throughout the 1960s to force Quebec's independence. 

The FLQ eventually kidnapped two government officials in October of 1970, Quebec's Minister of Labour Pierre Laporte and British Trade Commissioner James Cross. Eventually Prime Minister Trudeau was asked to send in armed troops and he implemented the War Measures Act.  Soldiers patrolled the street as police arrest anyone suspected of a being a FLQ supporter.  In turn, the FLQ cell holding Pierre Laporte executed the minister. James Cross was eventually released unharmed.  The “October Crisis” and Trudeau's decision to use the War Measures Acts to arrest Quebec citizens without cause had a significant impact on the province. Again, the attack on their rights spurred the defensive nationalism of the province and encouraged separatist sentiments.  Levesque and the Parti Quebecois won the 1976 provincial election, leading to holding a referendum in 1980 that they lost.

These are clearly extreme examples of defensive nationalism among Quebecois.  There are many others with less dangerous outcomes.  Yet, they remind us that as the sole bastion of French speakers in North America, Quebecois have a different perspective and political  culture than the rest of Canada. The decision to revive the debate over Quebec sovereignty may seem like a smart political move, but it could have unforeseen consequences.  For many Canadians (and Quebecois) the question of Quebec separation had become unpopular in the 21st century.  The Parti Quebecois no longer campaigns on trying to hold a referendum, while its federal counterpart the Bloc Quebecois lost most of its seats in the last election.  Currently the PQ have a tenuous minority government. Will this case revive the fortunes of these two parties?  Will it help the Conservative Party achieve another majority or at least a minority in 2015?  Will it divide the country once again as we debate who has the right to define the process of Quebec's separation?  It is never worth gambling Canadian unity for political advantages.  In the past, such manoeuvres have been last resorts of federal governments pushed into a corner.  We will see if the current government has better luck.