The elections are at our door. Get ready. Economy, health, education: these are buzzwords you hear over and over in any election, and not necessarily used with any context whatsoever. But in Quebec, we have an extra word to brood over: independence. Whether you’re in favour of it or not, it never goes without mention in an election in Quebec. But what explains its importance in Quebecois culture? Why can’t we just put it to the side when we debate the future of our nation? Quebec’s independence is not a question that everyone agrees on, and for every Quebecois, myself included, it is an issue that we struggle with at least once in our lives in Quebec. Is it possible to be fully nationalist and open-minded? Separatist without necessarily being nationalist? In order to fully understand the scope of these questions, we need to first take a step back into history.
Understanding our history
The story I’m going to tell doesn’t fall in line with the history of Quebec that most of us have heard. This truth is not one that we usually gather from studying Quebec’s history. Contrary to popular belief, history in Quebec is much more complicated than we’re normally taught that it is. If you do not take the time to understand its twists, a lot can be misunderstood.
The conflict between the francophone and anglophone community in Quebec comes from a long history of rivalries between their colonizing nations, France and England, and are the source of Quebec’s independence movement; however, the story of the movement goes back even further. In fact, it really started with a bilingual anti-monarchist movement: the 1837-38 rebellions. Even though the vast majority of the protagonists were French-Canadians, their rebellion was directed against the colonial institutions more so than against the anglophone community itself. The conflict had more to do with class; a struggle between the people of Canada and their far away rulers. The fact that most of the supporters of the colonial system were freshly-arrived loyalists from the U.S. helped to shape its narrative into a linguistic one, similar to the francophone-anglophone conflict that we now know so well. But at the time, rebels’ objectives were similar to those of the American Revolution, and had little to do with the construction of a strictly francophone nation.
In the following years, there were many unsuccessful rebellions, and all of the rebel leaders ended up sentenced to death or deported to the far-away colony of Australia. The government in place insured that the supporters of the rebellions would stay enclosed within the limits of the province of Quebec. Thus began the construction of the so-called ‘distinct identity’ of Quebec, around which the independentist discourse would come to be organized.
Following the democratic Quebecois nationalism proposed by the rebellions, the repression of its proponents led the movement away from secularism, and closer to the Catholic church. Until the mid-20th century, the Church was the central institution for the French-Canadian community, a difference with the anglophone community that was partially responsible for a greater ethnolinguistic divide. Almost the entire francophone population lived in Quebec following the Confederation, and francophone-anglophone relations were tense. Anglophones controlled the financial and industrial sectors in Quebec, and francophones made up the working proletariat. This division in the social sphere wasn’t necessarily reflected in the political one.
Maurice Duplessis, chief of the Union Nationale and Prime Minister of Quebec from 1936 until 1959, was a Quebecois nationalist, and great defender of the provincial jurisdiction. Although he worked very hard to keep the power of the federal state out of the province, he emphasized his support for both French and English industries (although the latter was much more powerful), because they were both part of Quebec’s economic structure. Duplessis’s form of Quebec nationalism did not necessarily mean that he prioritized Catholic French-Canadians over everyone else who lived in Quebec, even though he was extremely religious and kept a close relationship with the Church.
Like a puzzle
The first concrete independentist movement appeared with the Rassemblement pour l’indépendence nationale (RIN – Rally for National Independence) in 1960, a radical nationalist-separatist group whose militancy was axed toward total independence for Quebec (a step which would be, according to their manifesto, the logical continuity of French Canada’s history). Their case dealt with the need for the French-Canadians – now referred to as Québecois – to fight the oppression put upon the minority they represent within Canada. This rather extreme discourse was slightly toned down as the RIN joined the much more moderate Parti Quebecois (PQ) which asked for associative sovereignty rather than complete separation from the rest of Canada. At the time, though, the RIN represented one of the most radical-left political approaches to Quebecois independence.
Although the sovereigntist movement began to group around the figure of René Lévesque, a moderate social-democrat, and of his former centrist political organization, the Movement Souveraineté-Association (MSA), it nonetheless contained groups from all over the political spectrum. The Ralliement National (RN – National Rally), for example, was a group within the PQ that represented a much more conservative perspective of independence, since most of their members came from the dying clerical-nationalist coalition of the Union Nationale.
This political diversity within the sovereigntist movement has continued through the years, although it’s generally dismissed or ignored. The PQ, Québec solidaire (QS), Option nationale and even Genération nationale are all members of the sovereigntist movement that represent radically different ideologies. There are indeed independentists – such as the current PQ government – who seem to advocate for an homogenous francophone Quebec and present a narrow-minded view of the world. But anti-separatists who throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater and dismiss the entire separatist movement as narrow-minded, are being just as narrow-minded as the PQ. And when they dismiss the movement in this way, anti-separatists are ignoring those who are both nationalist and open to diversity (like QS, for example). They dismiss those who believe that forming a new country means making everyone a part of it, not just the francophones, those who do not want a part in the Canada Stephen Harper is building; and even those who fight for Quebecois independence as one step towards dismantling a system they fundamentally don’t believe in.
I, for example, do not believe in the concept of nation, but would undoubtedly vote “yes” if there was a referendum tomorrow. The two aren’t irreconcilable, just as being nationalist and federalist isn’t irreconcilable. But it isn’t an easy question to answer for yourself, and the PQ’s rise has made it difficult for many young Quebecois to assume a nationalist stance, because they might be seen as (among other things) racist, chauvinistic, or both. All of the terms surrounding sovereignty require a great deal of nuance in understanding them because they do not have one single, straightforward meaning.
We have to be very careful in the way we endorse or fight the independentist movement. It is easy to fall into lazy rhetoric and demagogic discourse like the Parti libéral du Québec’s. Separatists are more than a monolithic bloc, and they are anything but one united voice. They differ greatly on the objectives they promote, and their motives for advocating independence. I cannot stress enough how diverse its supporters are, and how affected the movement is by a black and white, anti- versus pro-sovereignty, narrow-minded vision of the issue. Those involved in the movement for Quebecois independence span the political spectrum from anarchist to social democrats, conservative to liberal. There are as many words to describe its advocates as there are visions within this ideal they all look up to. Hopefully, this review of our history will help you see that Pauline Marois’s vision isn’t necessarily one all independentists aspire to, and that there are as many ways to approach independentism as there are to federalism.
To see a parallel piece on separatism, from an anti-colonialist perspective, see Another idea of sovereignty.