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Explaining Quebec Separatism

By Scott Proudfoot
February 1996

The following is drawn from an effort to explain something about Canadian politics to a foreign audience.

New California

Imagine a different United States!  In this America, the State of California is larger and includes the contiguous South-Western states.  Seventy five percent of the population of this New California is Spanish-Americans descended from the original Spanish settlers. A majority are still uni-lingual Spanish.

Due to its size and cohesive voting pattern, New California has been critical to selecting Presidents and party majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives.  Since the turn of the century, New California has provided almost every second US President and supported those Presidents with majorities in the legislative assemblies.  Often, New California has had more political presence than economic power.  For much of its history, English Speaking Americans dominated its economy.  They were the “bosses”; they had the big houses; the workers and bosses spoke different languages and they didn’t mix.

That has changed in the last four decades. Using its political base, the Spanish majority has gained control of the economic levers in its state.  With state support, many large and small indigenous businesses have been created.  New California now generates more MBAs per capita then any other region of the country.  Previously an insular society built around agriculture, the mill, the village and the church; it has become an urban, highly secular and more outward-looking society.  A close relationship exists between the Spanish American business and political elites, which allows them to work together successfully, if somewhat incestuously. Despite New California’s political and business success, or perhaps because of it, a movement to create New California as a separate country has emerged.  In the sixties, this manifested itself in terrorism and bombing.  When society recoiled, the independence option was subsumed in a democratic political party.

The broader American society has reacted to this independence threat by a variety of means.  Bilingual federal services have been provided across the country in the hope of making Spanish-Americans feel comfortable dealing with the government in all regions of the country.  There has been a concerted attempt to promote Spanish-Americans to important political and bureaucratic posts throughout the federal government. Because of their political clout, federalist new Californian politicians have also been very adept at getting state projects and programs federally funded.

Initially, these efforts won the day.  In 1980, the federal forces defeated a state referendum on independence by a respectable margin.  However, in the last decade and a half there have been three failed attempts to provide constitutional recognition of the distinct nature of New California and to provide its citizens with a sense of security concerning its culture, language and state powers within the broader federal state.  The independence movement in New California has flared up again. Federalist forces recently defeated another referendum on independence by only the slimmest of margins. 

The narrowness of the federalists’ victory has created a crisis of confidence in the country. Americans living outside New California are increasingly frustrated by their politicians’ preoccupation with what New California wants. They are in no mood to compromise.  Most of them do not want New California to leave the republic but they want closure on the issue.

The above allegory may sound far-fetched, but replace the words New California with Quebec, Canada for the US, and French-Canadians for Spanish-Americans and an inconceivable scenario in one part of North America is the political reality in another.

Nationalism is the Starting Point

Somewhere along the way, the Separatists won the battle of semantics.  A nationalist perspective has always been a political reality in Quebec.  In recent decades, it has become the only acceptable starting point for any French Canadian provincial politician, whether federalist or separatist.  In Quebec, all politicians are obliged to be opposed to the Status Quo

During a referendum, Quebec politicians, in the habit of criticizing the federal system, must do an about-face and explain to Quebec voters that the current system is not so bad after all.  This flip-flop tends to create a credibility gap in the voters’ minds.

This Quebec version of political correctness inevitably marginalizes French Canadians who toil within the federal system in Ottawa. A pan-Canadian perspective and a willingness to engage in give-and-take with other regions would seem to be a basic requirement of any federal politician.  By acting more Canadian, however, French Canadian federal politicians are seen as less Quebecois.  Their considerable power and accomplishments are dismissed in their home province.  Their attachment to Quebec is denigrated or dismissed by their provincial counterparts.  Prime Minister Chrétien is one of the principal victims of this particular political pathology, but he is not alone.

Consequently, it is difficult to find a credible political champion for Federalism in Quebec who does not appear compromised.

The first key to winning a debate is controlling the definition of the terms.  The separatists have been able to do this.

A Lie Repeated Often Enough . . .

• The Federal Government takes more money from Quebec than it gives back.
• An independent Quebec would be able to create more jobs.
• A separate Quebec would have no problems becoming a member of NAFTA.
• If Quebec separates, Quebeckers will keep their Canadian citizenship and passports.
• An independent Quebec would provide better education and healthcare.
• A separate Quebec will absorb all federal civil servants in the province.
• Independence costs Quebeckers nothing.
• An independent Quebec will be able to use the Canadian or US currency.
• A separate Quebec could keep its present territorial boundaries.
• An independent Quebec would offer its citizens a better quality of life.
• Quebec cannot control its own affairs in Canada.
• Quebec is in debt because of the federal system.
• Once Quebec declared independence, the rest of Canada would rush to form an economic association.
• Quebec agriculture would still have access to the Canadian market after separation.
• Quebec could pay the interest on its share of the national debt but not assume any responsibility for the principal.

Minimally, these are problematic statements.  Some are delusional. Yet, they are stated repeatedly by Quebec Separatists and there is widespread acceptance by a majority of French-Canadian voters.                                                

That politicians can lie and voters may be fooled is not a revelation.  But, in Quebec, the lies have been bundled together to perpetuate a cohesive Separatist position.

The Romantic Appeal of Oppression

American Blacks, Armenians, Ukrainians Kulaks, European Jews, Gypsies, Asian-Canadians, Aboriginal-Canadians, Tibetans, Palestinians, Chechens, Hutus, and Turkish guest workers in Germany have all been subjected to discrimination, outright brutality and, in some instances, physical extinction.  In terms of pain and suffering, French Canadians rank well down on the oppressed minorities food chain.  That does not prevent Quebec politicians from portraying themselves as Canada’s underdogs and to believe it to be true.

French Canadians have been treated badly in the past and occasionally, still are.  Jobs and opportunity have been denied.   Commitments on rights have not been honoured.  In some establishments, they could not get served in their own language, in their own province.

Times, however, have changed. French-Canadians in Quebec do not live and work within a society that discriminates against them.

As a minority within Canada and more especially within a broader North American economic space, it is valid to argue that the French language and culture are at risk.  The forces of globalization are imposing homogenization everywhere.  We are all starting to dress, talk and act like each other with similar tastes and preoccupations. It is understandable that this might be more threatening to six million French-Canadians surrounded by several hundred million English-speaking North Americans.  However, from the perspective of preserving the French culture and language in North America, it is difficult to comprehend how Canada is the problem and an independent Quebec is the solution.  Just as convincing an argument can be advanced for the opposite position.

Many Quebeckers do not want to let go of their the sense of betrayal, a disadvantaged minority, subjected to prejudice and slights, a people never properly recognized or granted their due.

There is nothing attractive about oppression.  It is small and ugly.  It diminishes the humanity of both the victim and the victimizer.  But, oppression mythology has enduring romance and appeal.  Defining yourself as the underdog provides a strong sense of identity.  If a people are determined to maintain an oppression mythology, they will find the examples they require. 

Separatist politicians and the French language media have become the curators of Quebec’s oppression mythology.  They see humiliation everywhere.  They nurse grievances like a mother nurses her baby.

The Politics of Hypochondria

Canada is a mess!  It is hopelessly over-governed!  We lurch from constitutional crisis to constitutional crisis! We cannot solve any problems!  The Federal system is unworkable!

These statements must be true because they are endlessly repeated on television, on radio and in the newspapers. They have been repeated so often that most Canadians believe them.  Most evidence suggests the opposite conclusion.

Canada is a healthy country convinced it is sick.  Although the evidence of our good health is all around us, we ignore it!  The UN has determined Canada is the best place in the world to live and few Canadians are lining up at the border to leave.  We are no more over-governed than most other western nations.  Our political system is quite good at solving problems and it frequently does so in a low key, pragmatic fashion.  Each day, Canadian governments deliver mail, health care, education, public safety, political freedom and a host of other services.  This is usually done well, and sometimes better, than other comparable political systems. Our track record on constitutional problems is not stellar but these debates are of marginal importance to most people’s day-to-day life.

Canadians are determined to believe the worst about their government.  Maybe the long cold winters have created a strain of melancholy in our collective psyche.  Perhaps our political system rewards professional complainers!  Or, could it be human nature to see big problems where only little ones exist?

As Montreal humorist Josh Freed has observed, “Canada works in practice; it just doesn’t work in theory”.  Unfortunately, too many of our politicians and political commentators are theoreticians.

Nationalist monomania, chronic fibbing, the romantic appeal of oppression, and political hypochondria — these factors pre-condition the debate that occurs in Quebec between separatists and federalists and, in Canada, between Quebec and the Rest of Canada. 

Many Federalists recognize these obstacles to selling federalism in Quebec but they are at a loss to deal with them.  Politicians operate with a limited set of communication tools built around the methodology of election campaigns: speeches, staged events, commercials, photo opportunities, etc.  These tools seem inadequate to the task.

All political cultures perpetuate lies and false histories.  No matter how well reasoned and supported, it can be difficult to advance a position that challenges these prevailing political mythologies.  Canadian federalists are now finding it an uphill struggle to reclaim ground vacated in the past.


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