The Unfulfilled National Aspirations of Quebec and Scotland

Last week’s guest post presented the Scottish National Party’s vision of an independent Scotland.  The results of the referendum on independence were clear: 55% No, 45% Yes.  During and after the campaign, many have made comparisons between Scotland and Quebec’s national aspirations.  Both have sought independence through referendums, and both have failed. Today we offer a brief historic comparison of the roots of these two movements.

Quebec and Scotland’s entry into the British Empire were different in character and intention.  Scotland, as Jocelyn B. Hunt discussed last week, arguably entered into a partnership with England and formed the United Kingdom.  A lesser partner, to be sure, but one that allowed for the Scots to exist within the greater whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Their disproportionate role in the local and global affairs of the UK as diplomats, soldiers, engineers, etc., reveals their influence and at least some measure of autonomy, though it was cultural, not political. Both Scots and English were nominally subordinate to their British identity. Many Scots had a role in Canadian history, such as the former Jacobite soldiers on the Plains of Abraham whose knowledge of French allowed them to stealthily maneuver behind the forces of Louis de Montcalm, or Quebec’s first governor, James Murray.

French Canadians had a different experience.  They entered the British Empire through conquest. After the victory of James Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham and the British victory in North America during the Seven Years’ War, France relinquished their colony of New France to Britain. The colonists’ French language and their Catholic faith (alongside the power of the Catholic Church within the colony) was a stark contrast to Britain’s Anglo-Saxon identity.  Their first loyalty was to Canada as Canadiens, not to Britain or the British-Canadian states that eventually formed in North America in the late 18th and early 19th century.

By the late 19th century, the nature of the British Empire was changing. The growing weight of imperial financial and military obligations, matched by the expansion of other imperial or quasi-imperial states, like Russia, Germany, and the United States, pressured Britain to reform the relationship between its various imperial subjects. They wanted imperial solidarity on issues of defence, tariff preference, and foreign policy. The supporters of a more united Empire, imperialists, appeared in Britain as well as its former colonies, and they expressed a vision of the future where prosperity and success could only be assured by economic and military participation on the Empire. One solution presented as an Imperial Federation, where each Dominion would have representation in an imperial parliament, like provincial seats in the House of Commons.

Both Scots and French Canadians reacted different to the emergence of imperialism as new nationalist movements emerged.  In Scotland, the “Young Scots” advocated for “Home Rule,” where a United Kingdom parliament would exist alongside a local parliament for Scotland (and Ireland, and Wales). They were inspired by the Irish campaign for Home Rule. The Irish nationalists had successfully argued for an Irish Home Rule Bill in 1914, but it was unfortunately overshadowed by the outbreak of the First World War. Irish nationalist leader John Redmond agreed to delay its enactment, and the ensuing pressures of the Great War eventually caused Ireland to violently separate from Great Britain.

The Young Scots under the leadership of William Cowan sought a federation for the United Kingdom like that found in Canada. Provinces had their own elected governments that could oversee provincial legislation, a freedom which Scotland did not yet possess.  Within the United Kingdom however, Westminster in London controlled the shape and form of governance in Scotland, a situation which remains to this day.  In comparison, this would be akin to the House of Commons in Ottawa passing laws on education for Manitoba, or any matter we consider a provincial responsibility. The Young Scots wanted the ability to enact legislation relating to Scotland without having to depend on the English majority at Westminster to consider their concerns. Reflecting on support for Imperial Federation, they claimed that federalism was the new policy of the Empire in the 20th century.

Meanwhile, French Canadians had entered into the federation of Canadian provinces in 1867 as part of the Dominion of Canada. As one of the first “self-governing” colonies of the Empire, Canada was a success story that demonstrated how self-government did not weaken its connection to Great Britain. Within that confederation, French Canadians existed in an uneasy partnership with their English Canadian neighbours. In short, while French Canadians could control their circumstances within the province of Quebec where they controlled government, in English-speaking provinces their rights were not respected.  Numerous limitations on their linguistic rights, notably the right to have French language instruction in school, revealed that even within a federation, equality was not assured.

In 1899, Canada sent volunteers to fight in the Boer War. Among the most vocal opponents was Henri Bourassa, a Liberal French Canadian MP who rejected Canadian participation as a matter of fact and law.  Not only was the British war unjust and immoral, Bourassa argued, Canada also had no legal obligation to join it. It was a British war, not a Canadian one, and had little value for Canadian interests.  Bourassa resigned from the Liberal party of Sir Wilfrid Laurier over the issue, and turned to his fellow French Canadians for allies.

Bourassa found other French Canadian intellectuals and journalists who agreed with his position, and in 1904 they formed the Ligue Nationaliste.  These nationalistes countered the imperialist sentiment and argued that Canada’s future was tied to Canadian interests and Canadian values – not British ones. They demanded even more autonomy within Canada’s federal system.  Bourassa and the nationalistes understood Confederation of 1867 as an equal partnership between French and English for the entire nation of Canada, not just within provincial boundaries.  They wanted clear coalition government between French and English, a binational government that gave equal weight to both cultural communities.  Every aspect of Canada’s federal institutions had to reflect that partnership.

It’s easy to compare these two groups of nationalists who existed parallel to each other. Dr. James Kennedy has written much about these two groups.  He characterizes both as liberal nationalisms, and distinguishes the difference between the Young Scots as liberal nationalists, and the Quebecois as liberal nationalists.  The Scots were less concerned with securing their national aspirations so much as reforming the relationship between Scotland and Great Britain.  The nationalistes wanted to protect a French national community within the Canadian Confederation by a federation that adhered to the values and principles they saw as implicit in its constitution.

Neither wanted to dissolve the British Empire, or the Union of Crowns, or the Canadian Confederation.  Yet the failure of both the Young Scots and the nationalistes gave way to movements that believed the rights they demanded could only be secured outside of their current political partnership.  The Parti Quebecois and the Scottish National Party have failed to convince the majority of their people to support complete independence, but that does not weaken their strength as expressions of their national cultures.  Both have energized their people to preserve and protect their culture, and importantly have spurred active political participation. 

It’s worth noting the point of Irvine Welsh, who recently wrote in The Guardian, that “the Scots have just reinvented and re-established the idea of true democracy” as 97% of voters participated in the Scottish referendum.  Quebecois are also politically active, while their voter turnout was 71% in 2014, it was 81.85% in 1994 in the aftermath of the last referendum on independence. Compare this to English speaking provinces like Ontario, which celebrated the increase of voter turnout in 2014 to 52.1% from 48.2% in 2011, and had been falling since the mid-1990s.

While both nationalist movements in Quebec and Scotland have not achieved their goals, either then or now, they have had an impact on their nations.  In Canada, continuing debates over Quebec’s place in Confederation has defined much of our political history. Our historic and more recent constitution both reflect the often turbulent relationship between French and English Canada, for better or for worse. Today, the United Kingdom faces a difficult path forward since Westminster conceded to demands for more Scottish autonomy. Perhaps they will soon achieve the federal state that the Young Scots demanded nearly a century ago.