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.


Tony Kondaks said...

In the final analysis, Quebec will become a nation if its people truly believe that they constitute a nation...and any silly parliamentary resolutions declaring the Quebec people to be a nation within the wonderful bosum of Canada will ultimately backfire and be shown for what it is: an insult to a people striving to be a REAL nation, not a fake, papered one.

I not only want Quebec to separate and become an independent country but I want what remains of Canada to dissolve. Canadians don't deserve a concept such as Canada.


Because successive federal governments that the Canadian people have elected have let stand race laws in this country...laws that divide its citizens into two, separate civil rights categories. Indeed, it has gotten to the point at which the federal government not only tolerates these laws but encourages and defends them, all to appease Quebec and for that lofty idea of "Canadian Unity".

Well, I for one would rather Canada be sacrificed for individual rights than the other way around.

Here is documentation of Canada's and Quebec's race laws. Read it and weep:



CK said...

I just finished reading the dumbest article from probably the dumbest writer in Alberta in a very dumb paper, the Calgary Herald today.
It's these damned media outlets outside Quebec, particularly the right wing media under the bankrupted Asper, who incite more hatred than French Quebec ever could.
Today's article in CH is not only inflammatory to us, but it's also erroneous.
I am an Anglophone in Montreal who isn't separatist simply because I don't see Le Pays du Quebec being economically feasible.
However, I am a realist. We do things differently and I wish that these idiotic journalists would stop putting stereotypes on us. That Calgary reporter should answer this question: can a new immigrant who chooses to educate their children in French do so in Calgary? Or anywhere in Alberta? Of course not, so why do they meddle when we strongly encourage immigrant children in Quebec to go to school in French?
I don't think the separation question will come up again just because of the Supreme Court decision. After all, they agreed with bill 104 in principle; it just needs to be tweaked a bit.
Folks like Marois need to huff and puff a bit. Charest's liberals have always had trouble getting the support of Rural French Quebecers, so they too have to put on their show. If these damned reporters outside of Quebec can let this go, the show will stop too and life would go on.
As for NAFTA in a separate Quebec. Do we really want to be a part of that? Particularly in health care, which was not grandfathered enough when Mulroney signed it years ago. With the private sector in health care growing, thanks to Chaoulli, we don't want an American health care system here.
I guess, other than a show of economic feasibility, the only way Quebec separation would work is if we do not have links with the United States and their capitalist greed and imperialism.

Anonymous said...

Re point #5: An independent Québec would have to pay for all the services of the federal gov't without the ability of bringing down those costs through burden sharing with the other 9 provinces and 3 territories. The provincial, now national, treasury would be burdened more than it was before, not less. Either an independent Québec would increase taxes to pay for federal services it currently enjoys, or drastically reduce those same services. This would affect the social programmes Québecers currently have, most definitely, and probably for the worse. Québec would likely be even more highly taxed and thus less competitive vis-a-vis its main trading partners, or it would receive many fewers services than it currently enjoys with much less international representation. There is a reason why Québec receives substantial equalization payments.

Re point #6: How can it be assumed Québec as an independent country would have the resources necessary to absorb the federal civil servants who are paid by, for services supported by, the entire federation? Are all of those services just related to the federal gov't's role in Québec, or do many of them deal with a national pan-Canadian role? What of the army, etc., which many sovereigntists do not even want in an independent Québec? No, it seems rather clear there would be more workers than could financially be absorbed, and many who would work for programmes that may no longer be wanted or needed. There would be an increase in the number of unemployed.

Re point #8: Yes, Québec could artificially declare its currency equal to the Cdn $ or use the Cdn $, but without any of the ability of affecting policy on the dollar that it currently enjoys. Québec would in effect be ceding sovereignty, because it would now be leaving the choices regarding something as fundamental as its currency to another nation. I suppose Quebecers could just count on the kindness of Canadians to look out for their interests just as they would be more focussed on what's good for them, right? How does one fight for independence for more power and then cede power? This is overall indicative of the intelligence of the argument, IMO.

Re point #9- There are no serious claims against large portions of Canadian territory by other gov'ts (Hans Island- tiny; a few islands with the Americans-tiny; an argument with America that the islands in the North are Canadian but the seaway is open internationally). A separation of a province would breach the integrity of the national borders anyway, and allowing the self-determination of peoples in Québec who don't want to be part of an independent Québec is just as justifiable and reasonable as allowing French-Canadians in Québec to separate (how sovereigntists can speak out of both sides of the mouth on this issue is truly a sight to behold! What hypocrisy!). A federal gov't facing the pressure of the nation to allow its compatriots in Québec to stay in its borders is going to bend, and will probably ensure its popularity in doing so. It is highly likely that Québec would be partitioned, particularly the North, where the Natives signed a treaty with the Queen of Canada and not the country of Québec. How could the international community recognise a vote of Quebecers to secede, but not that of the nation of Natives in the North? Québec likely would be partitioned. If there's an argument for self-determination on the basis of colonisation under international law, it's with the Natives and not the Québecois!

Anonymous said...

Re point #11- How deluded must these people be to say such! Québec and its politicians have dominated the national scene for over 40 years. Most PMs in that time span have been from there. Separatist political parties like the one in Scotland think Canada works wonderfully and don't understand what Québec is upset about. The province has enormous powers in one of the most de-centralized federations in the world. What they really mean is we want our way every single time without consideration for anybody else. Well, that's not going to happen in Canada or outside of it, and if the rest of Canada doesn't have to care about your interests because you don't form a part of the union with all of those parliamentary seats, that's a recipe for an English-Canada that will play more hardball and be less accomodating and not the reverse.

Re point #12- Québec's provincial debt is entirely its own creation and a reflection of how the province has chosen to handle its affairs. Where is the sense of responsibility that goes along with being sovereign in those making this argument?

Re point #13- What is an 'economic assocation'? A free trade deal, which would be essentially the same terms Québec now enjoys? Which would mean sovereignty accomplished nothing economically, except perhaps give the rest of Canada more ability to push Québec around as the larger trading partner, without any concerns for who Québec will elect to Ottawa? Again, this seems more an argument for being a part of Canada and not an independent country.

Michel Bolduc said...

The argumentation against Québec's independence has been (almost) exclusively economic. This particular aspect has taken more and more room in the debate, especially in English discussions. Although the economic feasibility in favor or against independence has never been clearly made, it's fair to assume that Québec is better off financially within Canada, especially recently.

If economics were the only consideration in the equation, there would end the debate. But economics aren't everything. If they were, the idea that countries such as Canada and the USA could merge would be more prevalent. Why is Canada independent from the USA? Because its similar set of values is sorted differently, because its culture is different... simply because it's a different society.

The article goes into great efforts putting forward it explains Québec separatism, but it doesn't even hint at the essential, i.e. the perpetuation of a worthwhile culture. Economics aside, the province has a better case for independence than Canada does towards the USA.