May 19, 2012 by The Editor
note to readers: this represents my first foray into writing and thinking seriously about this issue. my research on Québec separatist politics is preliminary, and I appreciate that as an American I may be missing many of the nuances, grievances, and arguments in favor and against the idea of Québec independence.
In 1995 the movement for Québec sovereignty, led by the federal party Bloc Québécois, called for a referendum on Québec independence. The vote, the second on Québec independence in Canada’s history, ended with a rejection of the sovereignist question. By a vote of 50.6% to 49.4%, the federalists won the day and Canada remained united. Hardly a sound defeat, the issue was nonetheless decided for the day.
The party’s fortunes waned over the coming elections, and with the national Bloc in tatters after a 2011 federal election it might be assumed by American observers, our knowledge of Canada being what it is, that the issue is a moot point. Yet as the fortunes of the national Bloc Québécois have waned, those of the provincial Parti Québécois have been on the rise. Under the leadership of Pauline Marois, the center-left party has brought the question back to the table and again there is talk in Canada of Québec becoming a nation of its own.
Marois, who has drawn controversy for offering bills requiring that a basic level of French be required of immigrants, is the first woman elected as Leader of the Official Opposition in Québec. Recently she has denounced the measures taken by Premier Jean Charest of Québec to quell student rioting, calling on him to sit down with students and find a solution to their grievances, and asking why the Premier is attacking the youth of Québec. However, a Forum Research poll has indicated that the 14 week standoff over tuition fees has increased support for the Québec Liberals.
Yet current events have a tendency to not determine long-term outcomes. Polling in recent years has indicated that about 41% of Québecers support independence according to polls done in 2011 and 2012 (Leger Marketing/Le Devoir and Forum Research respectively), which is up significantly from just a few years ago. In 2009 a poll by Angus Reid suggested only 28% of Québecers thought the province should completely separate from Canada. Elections for the Québec National Assembly must be held by the end of 2013.
Comments in a recent interview by the former national Liberal party leader, Michael Ignatieff, have also kindled debate about the issue, as have comments by Liberal politician Justin Trudeau, the son of the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Ignatieff, in a BBC Scotland interview, characterized the relationship between Canada and Québec as “mutual indifference” and suggested that it is only a matter of time before there is complete separation. Full independence, he said, is a logical outcome of the current trajectory of political affairs.
In February 2012 Trudeau for his part indicated that in a Canada that aligns with the vision of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, he might possibly vote for an independent Québec in order to safeguard Québec’s tradition of social equality, as embodied in its Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. Both politicians were roundly criticized for their comments, while many observers acknowledged the truths in their statements.
Many questions are inevitably raised by the prospect of an independent Québec. How would the rest of Canada remain united while geographically separate? What is the fate of Franco-phones living in the rest of Canada? What does a Québec economy and military look like? And very importantly, what is the fate of the Cree and other First Nations who see themselves as part of Canada? Can they then separate from Québec?
To form an opinion, I’ve tried to weigh what it would be like for a native French speaker (or a speaker of any language) to be faced with the prospect of a diminishing presence nationally and resistance internally through Anglophone immigration. I look at the situation in Scotland, which edges ever closer to complete independence after the process of devolution in the United Kingdom. I think of countries around the world where historically recognized groups of people with unique histories have gone the way of independence, such as Kosovo and the former Czechoslovakia.
At heart I am in favor of self-determination. To suggest that borders must remain forever inviolable flies in the face of history and progress. Where distinct cultures meet, there have historically been grand unions, grand bargains, along with conquest, and necessary alliances. I think of Yugoslavia which successfully coalesced many ethnic groups over a span of decades until a need for dominance reared its ugly head among the Serbs. I think of Palestine where the populace awaits international leadership to allow them to be masters of their own futures.
At this point, you might be asking yourself, why does this guy even care? For those who know me well, it will come as no surprise that I am interested in this issue. I am a keen researcher of my family history, the story of which is part and parcel of the history of Québec. I am very proud that my ancestors, mostly simple habitants, are part of the history of the French in North America.
Québec is the mother country of French Canadian culture and many people connect with that heritage, more and less, and in disparate ways. So while I may not agree with every political move the province makes, I also see Québec as a vital piece of the ethnic, religious, and cultural heritage of North America. That alone should be preserved as a great treasure even, in my view, if it requires secession from Canada.