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Quebec Separatism

The current debate about Quebecois separatism is the culmination of centuries of tension between English-Canada and French-Canada. Quebec was originally discovered and colonized by the French, but surrendered to the English following the French and Indian Wars and Treaty of Paris of 1763. The English were actually rather magnanimous in their treatment of the Quebecois (in stark contrast with the brutal deportation of the Acadians from Nova Scotia). The Quebecois were allowed to keep their religion and language, but could not hold public office unless they converted to Protestantism, which for the Catholic Quebecois was out of the question. As more English-Canadians (Anglophones) began to move into Quebec with the onset of industrialization, Quebec found itself with an Anglophone minority largely controlling a linguistically, culturally, and religiously distinct majority. As the Quebecois had always resented the English conquest of Quebec, this situation was bound to cause resentment and tension between the two groups.

With the 1867 founding of the Dominion of Canada, French was given status as official language in the federal government and in the provincial government in Quebec. Despite this, in 1870 New Brunswick, with its substantial Acadian minority in the Saint John Valley, abolished all Catholic schools, and later Manitoba banned French schools. This led to violence in Quebec as they became more focused on the plight of French-Canadians outside of Quebec. This sentiment is epitomized by Quebec's refusal to send troops to support Great Britain during World War I until they "got their schools back."

Quebec society was undergoing considerable changes in the 20th century, moving away from its agrarian, Catholic, and conservative past and becoming increasingly urban and middle class. Premier Maurice Duplessis of the Union Nationale, a Quebecois nationalist and economic conservative, tried to keep Quebec agrarian and conservative, but the pressures to reform were too much. In the 1960s the movement to defend Quebecois culture and language moved into the political arena with Liberal Premier Jean Lesage's "Quiet Revolution," which included reforms to the social and educational infrastructure, controls on corruption, nationalization of power companies, and limiting the Catholic church's influence on politics, all designed to modernize Quebec society. But with the Union Nationale's return to power in 1966 certain cleavages in Quebec's politics could be seen between the federalist Liberals who thought that any reforms could be completed within the current federal system, while the Union Nationale, though federalist, was a firm believer in gaining more provincial power for Quebec (the slogan of Union Nationale Premier Daniel Johnson was "Equality or independence". From the left fringes of this cleavage a movement began to emerge that thought that Quebec would never be able to realize its goals within the federalist system, or within Canada, and began to push for independence from Canada. As a result, the separatist Parti Quebecois was formed, led by Rene Levesque, a former Liberal. It was also around this time, at the 1967 Worlds Fair in Montreal, that French President Charles de Gaulle closed a speech with "Vivre le Quebec libre!" ("Long live free Quebec"), drawing anger from the Canadian government and the adoration of separatists. It was then that the modern separatist movement began in earnest.

This was also when the Front de Liberation Quebecois (Quebec Liberation Front, or FLQ) began its campaign of bombings across the province. They were inspired by Marxist ideology, especially by the Cuban Revolution, and sporadically planted bombs, including at the Montreal Stock Exchange, beginning in 1963. The FLQ's campaign came to a head in 1970 with the kidnappings of British trade commissioner James Cross and Pierre Laporte, Quebec's Minister of Labor. The kidnappings prompted Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to declare martial law in Montreal and suspend some civil liberties. Although the crisis ended with Laporte's murder (Cross was released unharmed), Canadians, both French and English, approved of Trudeau's actions and viewed the FLQ as a rogue band of extremists, which they were.

The Parti Quebecois became the Official Opposition to Premier Henri Bourassa's Liberal government in 1973 and finally took power in 1976. The Parti Quebecois instantly introduced measures to strengthen and protect the use of the French language in the province, making it the official language of government and the courts, as well as the language of business (all shop signs in Quebec must have French twice as large and twice as prominent than English). Most infamous was the passage of Bill 101, which in addition to restricting English-language education, it required that all immigrants moving to Quebec enroll in French-language schools, regardless of the language they previously spoke. Finally, the Parti Quebecois called a referendum in the province on the question of separation from Canada in 1980, but it was defeated with only 40% voting in favor.

However, this did not settle the question of the situation of Quebec in Canada as Parti Quebecois Premier Rene Levesque adopted a strategy known as the "beau risque" which believed that a political solution short of separation would be possible with Canada. Quebec did not approve the 1982 Constitution which the other provinces approved and ratified with the Constitution Act of 1982. Quebec's refusal of the Constitution Act prompted the federal government to pursue what would be known as the Meech Lake Accord, designed to increase the power of the provinces and recognize Quebec as a "distinct society" within Canada. While the House of Commons ratified Meech Lake in 1987, Manitoba and Newfoundland withdrew their support in 1990, and the Accord was dead. A second attempt was made, this time referred to as the Charlottetown Accord, which included Meech Lake as well as a "Canada Clause" (providing for ethnic duality instead of bilingualism), a right to negotiate for autonomy with First Nations, and some other additions. However, this failed with 54% opposed nationwide, and only New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Ontario and the Northwest Territories approved it.

This period also saw considerable change in the dynamics of Quebec politics. At a Parti Quebecois policy convention in Montreal in 1985 a majority of delegates voted not to fight the next election on the question of sovereignty. This led to many enraged hard-line delegates walking out of the conference. Soon after, Rene Levesque resigned as Premier and leader of the Parti Quebecois. Pierre-Marc Johnson succeeded him as leader of the Parti Quebecois, but was defeated by the Liberals led by Robert Bourassa only a few months later. The Bloc Quebecois was also founded with the intention of representing Quebec's interests in Canada's Parliament, becoming a sort Parti Quebecois on the national level. Gilles Duceppe became the first Bloc MP in the House of Commons following a 1990 by-election. The Bloc enjoyed almost instant success, becoming the Official Opposition in 1993, the same election that saw the Liberal Party and Jean Chretien come to power. One year later, the Parti Quebecois, now led by Jacques Parizeau, came to power in Quebec and promised to hold a referendum on sovereignty.

The stage was then set for the 1995 referendum. The sovereignty law began to be drafted almost as soon as the Parti Quebecois came to power and three political parties, Parizeau's Parti Quebecois, the Bloc Quebecois led by Lucien Bouchard, and the Action Democratique led by Mario Dumont agreed on a final law and to hold referendum on the question. The referendum was finally held on October 30, 1995. The vote was even closer than the 1980 referendum, with 49.4% voting in favor, and 50.6% voting against. When the results of the vote were released, a visibly enraged Jacques Parizeau blamed the defeat on "money and the ethnic vote." He resigned as leader of the Parti Quebecois and Quebec Primier one year later and was replaced by Lucien Bouchard.

Recent events have led some to question the future of the sovereignty question. One would be that the coming generation of young Quebecois does not remember the time when the Quebecois were almost treated as second-class citizens virtually unable to use French in public places. Since the language laws passed in the 1970s protected the use of French in Quebec, Quebecois have achieved, at the very least, equal status in Quebec. The sense of anger that fueled the first two referendums has accordingly dropped. Another issue is that of Montreal, which is increasingly bilingual and multiethnic and not the separatist hotbed that it was. In fact, the defeat in the 1995 referendum could be blamed on several ridings in east Montreal that while traditionally separatist, voted against the referendum. As for the political scene, Lucien Bouchard resigned as Premier and leader of the Parti Quebecois in 2001 following the Bloc Quebecois's poor performance in the federal elections and a scandal involving anti-Semitic remarks made by a member of the Parti Quebecois. Bernard Landry became Premier following the resignation of Bouchard, but lost power to Jean Charest and the Liberals in April 2003. Many thought that this signified the beginning of the end for the Parti Quebecois and by extension the sovereignty question. However, the Bloc Quebecois, led now by Gilles Duceppe, enjoyed considerable success in the most recent federal election, becoming the Official Opposition. It is difficult to say if this is a sign of renewed interest in separation, or simply a way for Quebec to rattle its saber to Ottawa and get attention. The Parti Quebecois and the Bloc Quebecois both say that the sovereignty question is not off the table and will wait until the time is right before holding another referendum.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:29:19 ZULU