Quebec Election Night: The Dream of a Nation

As you read this, Quebecois are voting for their next provincial government. The polls suggest that the Parti libéral de Québec will win and Phillipe Couillard will be the next the Premier. Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois has seemingly done everything wrong this election. She dropped the writ believing her party could win a majority, but political missteps such as raising the possibility of another referendum or tacking to the right on the political spectrum has turned voters away from the PQ. For Canadians outside of Quebec, the expected results are called a firm condemnation of Quebec nationalism, be it a desire for sovereignty or as it was expressed through the much criticized charter of values. Such lines of thought are simplistic and today we delve into some of the concepts behind the continuing longevity of Quebec nationalism.

The title to our post today, borrowed from a famous history of Quebec nationalism by Susan Mann Trofimenkoff, speaks to a sometimes ephemeral but always present Quebec nationalism.  Ramsay Cook, a prominent English Canadian historian of Quebec political history, wrote that every French Canadian is a nationalist, if nationalism means the continued survival of a cultural and linguistic identity. Don't be fooled by the labels of federalist or sovereigntist – few (if any) Quebecois are not staunch defenders of their historic and separate place on the North American continent. Instead, they disagree about whether that survival is best served as an independent state or within the Canadian confederacy.

Any student of Quebec history would not be surprised by this statement. Quebecois were the first Canadians, or rather canadiens. The founding of Quebec City in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain marks the beginning of their presence in North America and the French colony of New France, centuries before Canada or Canadians of any sort. Though canadien was originally applied to the Indigenous people (the Huron, Mohawks, and others) along the St. Lawrence, it eventually became associated with the French colonists themselves. By the time of Great Britain's conquest of New France in 1759 or the colony's annexation negotiated in the 1763 Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Year's War, canadiens had established the beginnings of a separate identity from their European motherland. Suddenly the Catholic French-speaking peoples of the colony were living under British Protestant rule as much of their ruling aristocratic elite returned to France. The majority of those who remained were ordinary inhabitants who had neither the wealth or desire to leave their hard-earned land. One notable group that did not abandon the colony was the Catholic Church, whose priests became one of the guiding forces of the new society under British rule. By 1867 and Canadian Confederation, Canadiens had become French Canadians (or if you like, canadiens français) and joined the newly formed Dominion.

The history after the Conquest and Quebec's entry into Confederation is highly contested by Quebec historians of the last half century. Quebec's Quiet Revolution that led to its emergence as a “modern” state in the 1960s pushed many to ask why it had taken so long. Did English-speaking domination, through the Conquest and later Confederation, arrest French Canadian development? Or, was it French Canadians themselves that impeded progress by accepting the power of the Catholic Church or other influences? The question famously divided the Quebec City and Montreal Schools of historians. Quebecois struggled with the question as well. Was Quebec a victim of oppression at the hands of Britain and its successor, English Canada, or was Quebec a victim of its own internal historical developments?

It almost goes without saying that the history of and embedded within Quebecois nationalism is more complex than we can discuss here, but for our purposes it neatly explains the historical impetus behind the development of modern Quebec nationalism. You might have noticed that both scenarios have Quebec as a victim. This is by no means accusatory or pejorative. It's important to remember in the context of the 1960s, when much of the Western world had “modernized” after the Second World War, Quebec remained “backwards.” The revolutionary part of the Quiet Revolution was Quebec's transformation into a modern state that aligned with the policies of the rest of the Western world. In this context, modern means that countries like Canada, Britain and the United States had mobilized the state to provide social welfare, be it education, unemployment insurance, pensions, etc. The modern democratic state actively participated in the day to day life of its people. Thus Quebec before the 1960s was not yet “modern.” The Catholic Church still controlled education and exerted influence on the government, while the state (largely by the infamous Union Nationale Premier Maurice Duplessis) actively attacked or opposed “modern society.” Most famously, their position against unions was incisively analyzed by a young Pierre Trudeau in the book that first made him famous, La Grève de l'Amiante (The Asbestos Strike), that looked at a strike from 1949. Thus, “backwards” Quebec was a victim by the 1960s of its failure to transform alongside the rest of the Western world.

The question of why it had taken so long and who was to blame was immediately relevant to its citizens. “Maître chez nous” was the rallying cry of Quebec politicians in the 1960s – master of our own house. Implied is a simple question: If Quebecois were not masters in their house, who was and why? For some it may have been the Catholic Church, for others, American corporations, or English-speaking Canadians. Quebec was catching up and many justifiably sought someone to blame for holding them back. Politicians of all stripes argued over Quebec's modernization to win elections, while a growing separatist movement argued further steps had to be taken.

So as English Canadians were divesting their historical connection to Britain and forming a new Canadian identity in the 1960s and 70s, Quebecois were fighting political battles and asking questions that were intrinsically tied to their history. New histories examining New France, the Conquest, and Confederation were published by historians from universities in Montreal and Quebec City. They explored the historical narrative that shaped Quebec politics then and today: were Quebecois better or worse off as a result of Conquest and Confederation? Your answer, as you might guess, placed you as a federalist or sovereigntist. The Parti Québecois was formed in 1968 by René Lévesque as an amalgamation of other separatist parties. They won their first election a short eight years later in 1976, asking many of the same questions about Quebec society as Liberals and the now defunct Union Nationale had done – of course they had much different answers for them.

In 2014, Quebec and Canadian society have changed but the answer to those questions remains relevant. The charter of values, which mandates societal secularism in powerful new ways, represents an interesting shift. Quebec was largely left to its own devices as it restricted anglophones within the province, perhaps by nature of the discussion outlined above and Ottawa's sentiment that it had fought and won enough battles over referendums in the province. The charter expands the sovereigntists' cross hairs to a broader segment of the population along more stringent ethnic lines and is surely informed by contemporary history rather than the long history stretching from 1608. It has been met with much criticism inside and outside of the province.

Regardless, the charter still represents a discussion over cultural survival, which as Ramsay Cook noted, is always a relevant topic for Quebecois. Though survival is defended in different ways today than on the frontiers of the 17th century, or the political battles of the 19th and 20th centuries, all Quebecois want to ensure that their people will not be assimilated or forgotten. This time less seem to agree that the charter is a suitable vessel for that defence, though we will see what Quebec voters think tonight. For those gleeful commentators who are declaring the death of separatism with Marois' defeat, perhaps they should study their history more closely. They discuss Quebec separatism as one and the same with Quebec nationalism. The PQ may be faltering, support for sovereignty may be weakening, but Quebec nationalism remains strong. They continue to be a unique presence in North America, with a history, culture and identity separate from their English-speaking neighbours.