The Quebecois movement of the late twentieth century was the product of long-standing strained relations between the francophone (or French Canadian) and anglophone (or English Canadian) populations of Canada. From these deep historical roots, the Quebecois movement grew into an important force shaping Canada’s current social, political, and economic conditions. Although the movement has at times sought sovereignty for Quebec, recent developments suggest that such an outcome is highly unlikely.
Tensions between anglo- and francophone settlers in colonial North America mirrored those among the imperial powers of the period but took on their own character. For example, French settlers interacted more easily with Native Americans than did the British, and this relationship both affected and reflected the balance of power each European group perceived in eighteenth-century North America. In fact, the war known variously as the French and Indian War (in the United States), the Seven Years War (in Europe and English Canada), or the War of Conquest (in French Canada) had been raging in North America for two years before European powers actually declared war on one another in 1756. One decisive element of that war was the rapid and thorough defeat of French forces by the English at the Plains of Abraham, upstream from Quebec City, on September 13, 1759. That defeat led to the withdrawal of French imperial governance from Canada and set the stage for British domination. While the British did make some conciliatory gestures toward French Canadians, notably in the 1774 Quebec Act, cultural and economic competition and hostility between English and French Canadians continued unabated. In a report to the British government, Lord Durham, the governor general of British North America from 1837 to 1838, famously described the two groups as “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state.” As a remedy, he suggested aggressive assimilation of French Canadians into the British system.
French Canadians balked at being anglicized and resisted repressive moves by English Canadians, such as abolition of bilingual and Catholic schools in New Brunswick and Manitoba, respectively, in the 1870s. By this time, Canada was independent from Britain, and French Canadians soon found themselves united in opposition to Ottawa’s alignment with British military policy. The 1899 Boer War was particularly odious to French Canadians, who regarded it as simple British imperialism, a phenomenon they themselves had experienced as oppressive. In this political climate, French Canadians continued to experience everyday humiliations and bigotry at the hands of English Canadians, who generally regarded them as inferiors.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier emphasized that the Canadian confederation had been founded on the concept of “two nations.” The obvious domination of one nation by the other was antithetical to the logic of confederation. When the Great Depression struck, French Canadians were much harder hit than their English counterparts, giving painful evidence of the terrible economic disadvantage under which the Quebecois labored. Crises over conscription in both world wars showed the depth of French Canadian distrust of Canadian military policy. For example, a 1942 plebiscite showed that nearly 80 percent of English Canadians supported entering World War II, while the same margin of French Canadians opposed doing so.
Arguably, the contemporary Quebecois movement began in the 1960s with the Quiet Revolution. This was a trend in French Canadian politics toward more aggressive political demands for special status within Canada and a new emphasis on the Quebec provincial government as the instrument of change. The Liberal provincial government of Jean Lesage began the process in 1960 under the slogan “Maîtres chez nous ” (“Masters of our own house”), demanding that Ottawa recognize Quebec as having a “special status” that afforded the province economic and social powers unique in Canada. At the national level, the Liberal Party under Prime Minister Lester Pearson responded to these developments in part by recruiting more French Canadians, including Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who would later serve as prime minister and be an important figure in Anglo–French relations. Trudeau entered federal politics in 1965, believing that neither Quebec separatism nor a special status for the Quebecois was in the best interest of Canada. He swiftly rose through the ranks of power, succeeded Pearson as leader of the Liberal Party, and in 1968 became prime minister. In the same year, several provincial parties advocating varying degrees of Quebecois separation from the rest of Canada joined forces to create the Parti Québécois (PQ, or Péquistes ), under the forceful and charismatic leadership of René Lévesque. The Péquistes advocated a plan of sovereignty-association, in which Quebec would be politically independent from, but economically linked to, the rest of Canada.
Quebec’s 1970 provincial elections were a watershed, passionately debated and anxiously watched throughout Canada. If Lévesque and the Péquistes gained control of the provincial legislature, separation seemed sure to follow. In fact, the provincial Liberals, led by Robert Bourassa, won handily, and the Péquistes took only 7 of 108 seats. Sparked by this loss, the terrorist Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) kidnapped James Cross, Britain’s trade commissioner in Montreal, and Pierre Laporte, a cabinet minister of the Quebec government. In exchange for the hostages, the FLQ demanded funds, the release of FLQ-sympathizing prisoners (whom Trudeau referred to publicly as “bandits”), and promulgation of their manifesto. This became known as the October Crisis. Trudeau’s government responded by passing the War Measures Act, which gave police and government extra leeway to use force domestically and led to the unusual circumstance of tanks and armed soldiers in Canadian streets. When asked by a reporter how far he would go to defend his position, Trudeau famously responded, “Just watch me.” While the majority of Canadians did not sympathize with the FLQ, the War Measures Act was highly controversial. The crisis ended when Cross was freed, Laporte was killed, some kidnappers were given safe passage to Cuba, and others were captured. Nonetheless, a significant minority of French Canadians sympathized with at least some of the FLQ’s position, and the federal government still had to address Quebec’s concerns.
In 1974 and 1976, Quebec’s provincial legislature passed two laws—Bill 22 and Bill 101 (the latter also known as the Charter of the French Language)—declaring French the province’s official language, mandating French-language schools for immigrants, and requiring the use of French in the workplace. These laws were generally well received by francophone residents of Quebec but were highly controversial among English-speaking and other Quebeckers and in Canada as a whole.
Trudeau’s Liberal government was reelected in 1980, and the prime minister set a high priority on patriating the Canadian Constitution. Canada had been created in 1867 by the British North America Act, an act of the British Parliament. Arguably, then, Canada existed only with another state’s permission. A true sovereign declares its own sovereignty, and Trudeau believed Canadians’ own sense of nationality hinged on this distinction. For these and other reasons, Trudeau’s government wished to change Canada’s founding document from an act of the British Parliament to an act of the Canadian Parliament. The process of shifting from the British North America Act to a truly Canadian document was known as patriation of the Constitution.
Trudeau’s government had reason to hope Quebec would not be a stumbling block in this process. Also in 1980, the Parti Québécois introduced a provincial referendum asking for a mandate to negotiate a new relationship between Quebec and the rest of Canada; the referendum failed. The Liberals’ optimism must have vanished quickly, however, since the following year the Parti Québécois was reelected with substantially increased support. The referendum was not a clear indicator of the complex situation in Quebec. Ultimately, the federal government formulated a new Constitution (in the Constitution Act of 1982), with a Charter of Rights and Freedoms to address some of the human-rights concerns of, among others, French Canadians. The Constitution Act, which represented compromise by the national government as well as the provinces, was accepted by Ottawa and every provincial government except Quebec’s.
In 1984, the Liberals lost control of Parliament to the Conservatives. Brian Mulroney, the new prime minister, made a priority of resolving constitutional tensions with Quebec and met with Robert Bourassa at Meech Lake, Ontario, in 1987. As a result of the Meech Lake conference, the national government agreed to propose constitutional changes recognizing Quebec as a “distinct society” within Canada; stating that the coexistence of French and English speakers is fundamental to Canadian society; and affording Quebec a role in choosing supreme court justices, making immigration policy, and vetoing constitutional amendments. Bourassa was satisfied with the Meech Lake Accord, but the agreement rankled some nonfrancophone Canadians by seemingly giving the Quebecois a privileged position ahead of other groups, such as aboriginals and women. Although Ottawa and eight provincial governments approved of the accord, holdouts in Manitoba and Newfoundland succeeded in killing the agreement in 1990.
The Quebec government announced another referendum on sovereignty for 1992. In hope of preempting separation, the national government proposed a new conference, this time at Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, to work on constitutional issues. Ottawa hoped to reconcile Quebec’s demands with those of aboriginal groups, social groups protected under the charter, and various economic demands of the provinces. This proved a monumental task, and the result pleased few parties. Ultimately, only four provinces approved the Charlottetown Accord, while six (including Quebec) rejected it.
In 1995, the Quebec government held its second referendum (the first being in 1980) on separation. The margin of victory was almost the smallest imaginable: 49.4 percent favoring sovereignty for Quebec, 50.6 percent opposing. The run-up to this vote spurred passionate discussion across Canada about what it means to be Canadian, and the reporting of election returns was both politically and emotionally fraught. In 1998, charismatic politician Lucien Bouchard of the Bloc Québécois (a political party with candidates at the national level, whereas the Parti Québécois stands candidates only at the provincial level) began calling for the people of Quebec to consider asking Ottawa for a new deal. The national government responded by requesting an opinion from the Supreme Court of Canada on the domestic and international legality of Quebec’s secession. In 2000, the Court ruled that Quebec could not unilaterally secede from Canada and that the conditions facing Quebec did not constitute persecution under international law. However, a “clear expression of a clear majority of Quebeckers” for sovereignty would require a serious response from the national government or else would call into question the democratic legitimacy of the Canadian government. Since the Court’s ruling, separation seems unlikely, although the Bloc and Parti Québécois remain important voices in Canadian politics.
SEE ALSO Assimilation; Ethnocentrism; Identity; Minorities; Nationalism and Nationality; Parliaments and Parliamentary Systems; Partition; Secession; Separatism; Sovereignty; Terrorism
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Gougeon, Gilles. 1994. A History of Québec Nationalism. Trans. Louisa Blair, Robert Chodos, and Jane Ubertino. Toronto: James Lorimer.
Saywell, John. 1999. Canada: Pathways to the Present. Rev. ed. Toronto: Stoddart.
Thorburn, Hugh G., and Alan Whitehorn, eds. 2001. Party Politics in Canada. 8th ed. Toronto: Pearson/Prentice Hall.
Lisa L. Ferrari