Explaining Québec separatism

On October 30, 1995, the Québécois were asked a simple "yes or no" question. The collective answer to this simple question was a resounding "maybe!"

The event stirred some attention, to say the least. In the aftermath of the 1995 referendum, a few attempts were made at explaining what motivates Québec separatism. Hillwatch, a service government relations firm, wrote an article to explain this peculiarity of Canadian politics to a foreign audience.

The article builds on an analogy using a fictitious New California and Spanish Americans to draw a parallel with the Canadian situation. Although interesting to read, there is a very significant difference between the USA and Canada that the article fails to acknowledge. Americans quickly drifted away from England and they are the ones who basically "invented" their country, not the Spanish Americans. In contrast, British North Americans have only recently embraced their own canadianity, an identity that was mainly forged by French Canadians (see The Québécois aren't truly Canadians).

The article also lists some preconceived ideas that it identifies as lies Québécois politicians have been feeding residents of the province. I remember 1995 quite well and, although I've heard most of the statements listed, I can't say I heard them from the sovereigntist leaders in the way they are being presented in the article. These statements (in italics below) deserve to be commented:
  1. The Federal Government takes more money from Québec than it gives back. In 2006, the Québécois sent $38.4B to Ottawa and received $12.8B in transfers from Ottawa. Québec obviously receives other federal services that aren't accounted for, but either way... if the economic discrepancy between both parties were so clear, wouldn't have the demonstration been clearly made?
  2. An independent Québec would be able to create more jobs. Maybe, or maybe not... who knows exactly what would happen in a sovereign Québec? If all economic ties were to be severed, jobs would obviously be lost.
  3. A separate Québec would have no problems becoming a member of NAFTA. Then again... maybe, or maybe not... but with such a well integrated economy, why is that so hard to believe? And if NAFTA didn't work, perhaps the European Union would be interested; France still seems to be very much attached to Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon.
  4. If Québec separates, Quebeckers will keep their Canadian citizenship and passports. Why are the Canadian citizenship and passport such a big deal? There are plenty of countries the size of a sovereign Québec would be that have an appealing citizenship and passport (Finland, Danemark, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland...).
  5. An independent Québec would provide better education and healthcare. That depends on the resources it would have at hand. It probably wouldn't change all that much.
  6. A separate Québec will absorb all federal civil servants in the province. Well... unless federal civil servants aren't doing anything productive, someone would be required to carry on the added work that comes with being sovereign.
  7. Independence costs Quebeckers nothing. Has anyone really being saying this? Independence comes with a price.
  8. An independent Québec will be able to use the Canadian or US currency. Why not?... as long as it adheres without a say to the monetary policies that comes with it, any state can use any currency.
  9. A separate Québec could keep its present territorial boundaries. Obviously, if the country can be divided, so can a province. But it's safe to assume that Ottawa would want to maintain its own territorial integrity along current borders to prevent other claims.
  10. An independent Québec would offer its citizens a better quality of life. Again, that depends on the resources it would have at hand. It probably wouldn't change all that much either.
  11. Québec cannot control its own affairs in Canada. Canada has to deal with the USA's influence, so does Québec. Let's just say that the challenges would be different.
  12. Québec is in debt because of the federal system. Like any province, part of Québec's debt is under federal control. A sovereign Québec would be in debt on its own.
  13. Once Québec declared independence, the rest of Canada would rush to form an economic association. Probably not... some sort of backlash is to be expected. However, is it so hard to believe that Canada would come to reason after a while?
  14. Québec agriculture would still have access to the Canadian market after separation. See NAFTA above.
  15. Québec could pay the interest on its share of the national debt but not assume any responsibility for the principal. I've never heard this one. Like it does today, Québec would assume its share as any other province. The challenge would be to find a transition formula that's respectful of both parties.
Some of these statements lack background to be taken seriously; others are simple exaggerations or embellished perspectives. Federal politicians don't have monopoly over such techniques; sovereigntist politicians obviously use them as well.

The article pretends to explain Québec separatism, but it builds on the premise that its foundations are faulty. As it is too often the case in English media, the article doesn't give the idea of sovereignty a fair shot. It does give, however, Francophone readers a very good idea of how Anglophones rationalize the sovereignty movement. Still, explaining Québec separatism is a lot simpler than the length this article goes into (see Québec's ethnocentric nationalism):
  • Over the centuries, French Canadians developed their very own culture. A culture based on French, but a culture which is very different from what you'd find in other French-speaking states.
  • In the last century or so, French has been steadily declining in the majority of provinces without great concern. With its French-speaking majority, Québec has been able to use its provincial legislative platform and oppose this assimilation trend.
  • Canadians who fail to see the value of this important asset to the Canadian identity are putting Ottawa in front of a Gordian knot. They are forcing Québec to keep using its provincial leverage and they are fueling the sovereignty movement.
Those who value Canadian culture and feel Canada's independence towards the USA is justified should understand this.


"Wouf!" goes Snowy

I just finished reading Hergé Foundation's latest publication, Colocs en Stock [Google translation], a Québécois adaptation of The Red Sea Sharks. I'm always wary of these regional adaptations.

This venture into Canadian French territories is a fine example of how things can go overboard. The author of the adaption is obviously more preoccupied with stuffing as many Québécois expressions as possible than giving life to the characters in a Québécois setting. Everyone speaks Québécois like an old uneducated person, even the custom officer at a Middle East border.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying there isn't anything funny to do with the way French is spoken here. I'm simply saying this book misses the appropriate dosage to make it feel natural and enjoyable. Anyone interested in reading colloquial Canadian French should try Paul dans le métro [Google translation] by Michel Rabagliati, a much better representation of the way French is spoken in my part of the world nowadays.


The Québécois aren't receptive

So... the Conservatives settled the fiscal imbalance, recognized the Québécois nation and gave it UNESCO representation. Despite these gestures of good faith, Québec sent only ten members of the governing party to Ottawa in 2008. Even worst... a recent EKOS Research survey puts the Tories at 40.7 per cent support compared to 25.5 per cent for the Liberals nationwide, but gives the Bloc 50 seats, up from 47.

What's wrong?... are the Québécois ungrateful?... why aren't they receptive?

The fiscal imbalance is a discrepancy between means and responsibilities. This situation was particularly acute during Paul Martin's tenure as finance minister in the late 90s, while Ottawa experienced repeated surpluses and the province experienced repeated deficits. In March 2002, the Report of Commission on Fiscal Imbalance (a.k.a. the Séguin Report) recommended three steps for eliminating the fiscal imbalance:
  1. Stopping financial pressure by increasing transfer payments for health and education;
  2. Freeing a new tax room for the provinces;
  3. Restricting "federal spending powers" to prevent overlaps with provincial jurisdictions.
In March 2007, the Conservatives provided a package to settle the fiscal imbalance. It included a new, enriched equalization formula, increased transfer payments for post-secondary education, training and infrastructure, and key reforms to the way health and social spending is structured. The package did provide some fresh air, but transfers for post-secondary education still aren't at the levels they were in the early 90s and measures to address the second and third steps recommended by the Séguin Report remain to be seen.

In November 2006, the Conservatives passed the Québécois nation motion (see The Québécois form a Nation). For many Canadians in other provinces, the motion is a major breakthrough for Québec. For the majority of Québécois, the motion simply is an acknowledgement of what they already know. French Canadian culture is a prominent defining characteristic of the Canadian identity and Québec is an important component of this culture. The Conservatives' motion is a step in the right direction for Canada, but what will come out of it in practical terms remains an unanswered question.

In May 2006, the Québec-Canada agreement on UNESCO entered into force. It gives the province permanent representation to Canada's mission to UNESCO. In practical terms, it guarantees access to all official documents and participation to internal efforts before Canada takes a position or votes.

The Canadian identity has been marked by French Canadian stubbornness (see The Québécois aren't truly Canadians). When it comes to popular culture, the Québécois watch and listen to more homegrown productions than other Canadians (see Canadian content, Part 2 and Part 3). With its rich production, Québec contributes more than its share to Canadian cultural exports. The province was also instrumental in UNESCO's 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (see Cultural diversity).

The Québec-Canada agreement on UNESCO now ensures that, before taking a stand on cultural issues, Canada will hear Québec's point of view. When it comes to asserting its own cultural distinctiveness, Canada doesn't have much to show off. Shouldn't one render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's?

The Québécois aren't being receptive. Is anyone wondering why?... and what are they doing about it?


Québec is shrinking

Demographics are playing against Québec. Birth rates and net immigration aren't high enough for the province to keep its relative weight in the Canadian bosom.

As if it weren't enough, the province's contribution to the government's mix has been depleting since the Conservatives' arrival at the helm in 2006. At first, Stephen Harper courted Québec, hoping the province would give him the edge he needed to achieve majority. But unfortunately, settlement of the fiscal imbalance, recognition of the Québécois nation and UNESCO representation haven't touched voters as expected and didn't translate into enough votes for a majority Conservative government in the 2008 election. Many irritated Conservatives see the Québécois as ungrateful.

In recent months, Stephen Harper has been pushing another alternative to boost his representation in the House of Commons, an alternative that thrives on the higher growth rate of western Canadian cities. A first attempt last year, at riding redistribution, died amid howls of complaint from Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty; his province received far fewer new seats under the proposed bill than its fast-growing population warranted. But the fruit is now ripe for many and a recent proposition may well suit Ontario's concerns and leave Québec with the highest population per electoral district, a proposition that would leave each Québec voter with the weakest say at the House of Commons.

Canadians seem to agree with Stephen Harper's plans. A recent EKOS survey done for the CBC has the Conservatives at 39.7 per cent and the Liberals at 25.7 per cent. A Strategic Counsel/Globe and Mail/CTV poll released earlier this week had similar results. Ontarians are now turning their back to the Liberals, even in Toronto, and Québec may very well pay the price. A Conservative majority government with minimal Québec representation is kind of like a blank check; it doesn't call for a disproportionate number of Québécois ministers to go forward.

Such a scenario might very well be the beginning of a vicious circle. Who would want to play the part of the token Franco in a government who doesn't need Québec? A federal government with low Québécois representation would become even less appealing for politicians of the province and would drift away from the rich heritage the province has contributed to the country. Through time, Québec has often been instrumental in governmental decision making for prioritizing political, social and economical issues such as free trade, not following the USA in Iraq and gay marriage.

For many Conservatives, and even many Canadians, Québec remains the unbearable spoiled child of the Canadian federation. What a treat it would be not to have to cater to it! As much as a fantasy this may be for some, many sovereigntists are rubbing their hands at the thought. They believe that a Harper majority will serve their cause better than 20 years of patient education to the Québécois.

Inspired by a column by Vincent Marissal, "Le Québec ratatiné?" [Google translation] published in La Presse, October 9th, 2009.


Cultural diversity

Canadian culture is more or less a variation of a greater North American whole. Roughly put, Canada's English speaking population comes up to 24.7 million people, less than a tenth of the USA's population. Canadians know exactly how it feels to be concerned with the perpetuation of a culture confronted with the overwhelming domination of another. Rightly so, they generally welcome initiatives intended to bolster opportunities to appreciate the country's cultural production. They're not alone.

On October 20, 2005, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopt the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. The convention seeks to strengthen the five inseparable links of the same chain: creation, production, distribution/dissemination, access and enjoyment of cultural expressions, as conveyed by cultural activities, goods and services. The Convention was adopted with 148 yeas and 2 nays. The USA and Israel are the only countries that voted against the convention. It entered into force on March 18, 2007.

Why and how did UNESCO come to this?... well... as early as 1984, while the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was being drafted, Québec deemed it a good idea to exclude cultural industries from the agreement.

On June 16, 1999, the Péquiste government officially declares that an international agreement allowing states to support their artists and creators would be a good idea. Louise Beaudoin, then Minister of International Affairs, did particularly good a job in convincing Lucien Bouchard, Premier of the province, and Lionel Jospin, Prime Minister of France. As a result, the Québécois government convinces Sheila Copps, then Minister of Heritage, and the federal government to join this important battle. Mrs. Copps rallies Ministers of Culture from many countries. Elected in 2003, Jean Charest carries on the work initiated by the Péquiste government.

In October 2003, the Director General of UNESCO is appointed to draft a project that would address the issue, a project to be debated at the 2005 General Assembly. At first, countries such as Chile and Argentina join with the USA against it, but they soon drop their reserves and work in favor of the project.

The final convention proclaims the right to set out and implement cultural policies, and to create the proper environment for their circulation. It also proclaims that such policies can't be superseded by other international agreements, namely free-trade agreements.

Upon its adoption, the convention is celebrated by many countries, including Canada. It legally allows them to control any cultural invasions, for example, by establishing quotas and by subsidizing local artists and producers.

Of course, Québec didn't do it alone, but it played a major role in promoting an important agreement that serves countries like Canada particularly well with its Canadian Content Regulations (see Canadian content, Part 2 and Part 3).