Thursday, April 17, 2014

Three Conquests of Quebec

There are three events in Quebec’s history that have marked our collective consciousness as a nation more than any others: the Conquest of 1760; the Annexation of Lower Canada in 1840 following the defeat of the Patriotes in 1837-38 and the passage of the Act of Union by the Westminster Parliament in 1840, which combined Upper and Lower Canada into a united Province with a single legislature; and, finally, the Constitutional reform of 1982 to the exclusion of Quebec.

These, we may say, represent three major “defeats” in the history of a people whose name gradually changed from Canadiens to Canadiens français and most recently to Québécois. Moreover, these three defeats are defining events in our history — our political history of course but, clearly with regard to 1760 and 1840, in other dimensions as well: economic, social, and cultural. Today, the quest for the survival of a French identity in a majority English-speaking country and continent remains central to Quebecers’ identity and a reality inseparable from the Conquest. 

The first major defeat: 1759

After 1760, Canadiens not only lost their commercial empire in the West but most of their access to executive positions, to the detriment of individual socio-economic success and the capacity to shape their destiny as a people. Before 1760, Canadiens had access to most of the most important business, military, and political positions in the colony, as illustrated (toward the end of the regime) by Philippe de Rigaud Vaudreuil (1698-1778), the last governor general of New France, a Canadien born and raised in Canada.

After the Conquest, not only did the population lose some of their elites, who moved on to pursue their careers elsewhere in the French Empire, but those who remained in New France lost their handle on government, administration, big business, and the military. The Canadien gentry entered into decline. Gradually, the colony’s elites were overwhelmingly composed of the WASP minority, power residing in the hands of London and of men nominated by Britain. Later that overarching power shifted to Ottawa, an almost entirely English-speaking government before the 1970s, and one that from Quebec’s perspective remains today the expression of an English-Canadian majority, even if at times with strong Quebec contingents.

If the upper class and executive levels of Quebec society were, for the most part, inaccessible to French Canadians, the Quebec Act of 1774, resolving the status of French civil law and setting up a legislature, did leave a space for a French Canadian middle class to consolidate its position and eventually to lead a movement contesting inequalities in the colony, especially using the Legislature founded with the Constitutional Act of 1791 (for which some members of this class had petitioned in the 1780s). So much so that, having become overly optimistic, the leaders of what was first called the Parti canadien, later termed Parti patriote and led by Papineau, were for decades confident that self-determination would be obtained gradually without great difficulty, and at first within the Empire. They saw this as the natural course. If the American and French Revolutions were more radical, they believed Britain, with its liberal constitution, simply espoused the same ideals with a more moderate approach, and thus would accept the gradual and friendly emancipation of its colonies. They believed long before that they could obtain for Lower Canada the same things that in time the English-Canadian majority achieved for the Dominion in 1867.

Indeed, the North American colonial context had proven favourable toward alleviating the oppression of French Canadians. The legal exclusion of Catholics in 1763 with the Proclamation Act was reversed in 1774 with the Quebec Act. In 1791 the Constitutional Act went one step further with the creation of a Legislature to which the colony’s Catholics could be elected. Monsignor Plessis, in 1799, thanked Providence that the Conquest had saved Canada — French Canada — from the French Revolution (as well as the American one). 

The leaders of the Catholic Church were not the only ones to develop a positive outlook on the Conquest or on British rule. Even though the constitution of 1791 was gained at the expense of the loss of considerable fertile land to Upper Canada, the Canadiens’ new political leaders, after 1791, were generally optimistic. They believed British imperial policy would evolve positively, that democracy and self-determination, through gradual autonomy, were achievable for Lower Canada. London could even be an ally, they believed, against the more rabid representatives of British imperialism within the colony, hardline elements that had clashed with governors Murray and Carleton in the early days of the British regime. This proved to be wrong: the emancipation of Lower Canada garnered a strong and vehement opposition from British colonists. Lower Canadian independence, they argued, was not in Britain’s interest. Lord Durham would state this explicitly in his report in 1839, proposing  a plan that would ensure French-speakers were a minority in a merged province. Based on his report, the Union Act of 1840 placed the French in a minority. 

What had brought about Durham’s report and the Union Act? In the 1830s, after decades of political struggle with few substantial gains, the dominant leaders of the Patriote party, following Papineau, had begun to lose confidence in the peaceful path to democracy and self-determination. Increasingly, they believed London had to be challenged — especially given that the Governor’s powers remained little changed since 1791, while the colonization of new lands was being monopolized by the government to the exclusion of the Canadiens. The firm rebuttal they received in 1837 with the Russell Resolutions and the violent repression that ensued in the Rebellions of 1837-38 under General Colbourne, put an abrupt end to naive optimism. Canadiens would no longer envisage their independence as part of an easy and gradual evolution, in the natural course of things. As an immediate consequence of the failure of the Patriotes to overthrow British rule in 1837-38, Lower Canada was subordinated to the United Province. 

Ever since the Union Act, which took effect in 1841, Quebec has remained part of a larger jurisdiction in which the English-speaking element is a majority  in fact a majority that has increased along the way. This is largely due to the rapid pace of population growth through immigration when new Canadians integrate, culturally, to the English-Canadian majority in much greater numbers than to Quebec’s francophone majority.

For decades, most French Canadian leaders would either partake in pan-Canadian politics, adapting to the English majority’s vehicles, the federal Liberal or Conservative parties, or reverting to cultural nationalism and resistance to assimilation. The latter, the nationalists, attempted to find long-term solutions to their economic exclusion that came to fruition in the 1960s and 1970s.

The ‘second conquest’: 1840

The renewed “conquest” of 1840 was a defining event in Quebec history. It sealed, for more than a century, the destiny of the French-speaking nation, reducing it to minority status in a manner that shaped its national consciousness. French Canadians henceforth conceived of themselves as a national minority, developing complexes about disadvantages and the economic and political leadership set over them, to the extent that they became afraid to make claims for themselves. The governing elite pronounced them to be inferior, and French Canadians adapted to a world in which their exclusion from certain circles and executive positions was almost a given, to the point of interiorizing some of these complexes. This inferiority complex had not yet crystallized before the failure of the Rebellions and the ensuing annexation of 1840, which may therefore be regarded as a turning point. 

It might seem surprising, but confederation only furthered the sense of inferiority because even though a provincial “nation state” of Quebec was reinstated in 1867 with a capital and legislature at Quebec City, French Canadians continued to participate in its governance as if they were a “minority” in a British-dominated province. This is best illustrated by the fact that their political formations, Liberal and Conservative, were in every way incorporated and subordinate to the federal, Canada-wide party structures. In a province with 75% or 80% Catholic francophones since 1867, finance ministers were usually anglophone and Protestant, up to Maurice Duplessis’s return to power in 1944.

The only real exception before the advent of the Union Nationale movement was Honoré Mercier’s parti national coalition after the hanging of Riel in 1885. Mercier was elected in 1886 but the passing of the reins of power was delayed by the lieutenant-governor, who toppled the newly re-elected government in 1891. Indeed, Mercier’s government, which actively pursued national assertion and provincial autonomy, had already met with serious federal opposition. Apart from Mercier, most Quebec politicians did not rock the boat. After all, economic power still eluded the majority of Quebecers. 

Instead, nationalism found expression mainly in intellectual movements such as those founded by admirers of Henri Bourassa in the early twentieth century or in the influential network of movements around the priest-historian Fr. Lionel Groulx. His latter movement found a political expression in the Action Libérale Nationale whose reformist programme was popular in the 1935 and 1936 Quebec elections. They wanted to overthrow the “colonial order” in Quebec and make French Canadians “masters in our own house” through provincial legislation, such as by nationalizing hydro-electricity. Their alliance with Duplessis conservatives, though, which bore fruit in the Union Nationale under his leadership, resulted in the abandonment of all the more radical changes proposed in their programme after the 1936 election victory, in favour of a more restrained defense of provincial autonomy.

It is only with the Quiet Revolution that governments renewed a more aggressive programme, including the nationalization of hydro in 1962. This new dawn launched a fast-paced “emancipation” movement that had been advancing slowly, almost subterraneously, in the preceding decades, but which had for the most part been stalled or sidelined politically since confederation. 

Where was all this leading? The provincial Liberals under Jean Lesage and the more conservative Union Nationale under Daniel Johnson both believed that not only were they competing for a “national” government, but that Quebec’s status required a wide-ranging modification of the Canadian constitutional order which Johnson summarized in the slogan “Equality or Independence.” 

In its own way, René Lévesque’s Parti Québécois, established in 1968 and advocating “sovereignty-association,” proposed another version of this remodelling of the constitutional order. Short of outright independence, they seemed to espouse a form of national self-determination of Quebecers without breaking altogether from Canada, much like the status gradually achieved by the Dominion of Canada within the British Empire. 

A third ‘defeat’: 1980-82

At first, there even seemed to be openness to this in Ottawa. It is not impossible to imagine negotiations between Daniel Johnson and Robert Stanfield had they held power simultaneously in Quebec City and Ottawa — in contrast to the brick wall presented by Pierre Trudeau. For a brief moment, Quebec appeared to be confidently on the path toward freeing itself from two hundred years of subordination.

Instead Trudeau, ensconced as Prime Minister, emerged as the herald of those who staunchly opposed devolution. French Canadians voted both for Trudeau and Lévesque, seeming to believe that both could be their champions. Trudeau promised a “renewed” Canada. Rather than a negotiated association between two nations, he advocated one Canada, bilingual and multicultural, that would break away from its two national traditions (British and French) in favour of a new identity. 

The advent of Trudeau would lead Ottawa and Quebec City to clash, and Ottawa to enter into a long-lasting organizational mould of blocking as far as possible any devolution while at the same time always expanding the role of the federal government. Faced with the opposition of a French Canadian Prime Minister opposed to negotiation, and aptly pushing all the buttons of Quebec’s inferiority complexes since 1837, Lévesque’s strategy failed in the 1980 referendum. The prerequisite of Lévesque’s strategy was reciprocal English-Canadian goodwill, open to negotiation, which meant that the 1980 referendum was doomed to fail once Trudeau returned to power.  

This sealed the defeat of national affirmation, with Trudeau imposing a new constitution on Quebec that saw his vision triumph: bilingual (for individuals and services, but not truly bicultural or binational), multicultural, and centered on the federal government. In practice, this new constitution has been made very difficult to reform, blocked first by Trudeauists’ influence on public opinion during the Meech Lake fiasco, then by various laws limiting the possibility of constitutional reform under Chrétien, according to principles of regional veto that hadn’t been respected in 1981-82. 

Quebec now seems stuck, half-in, half-out in national terms, without any clear view of feasible solutions to this renewed subordination in an order that it does not really accept. As was the case after 1840, Quebecers seem resigned to having to evolve as an unwilling national minority. The persistence of a sovereigntist or separatist movement in Quebec leaves open the possibility of new movements in the future — but at present Quebecers seem not only divided but very hesitant as to what path to follow. 

Perhaps what is most striking though, in 2012, more than the election of the PQ with a small plurality of seats, is the overly aggressive reaction to the Quebec campaign and the PQ’s nationalist programme in much of the English-speaking media. Measures that are commonplace in many Western democracies are suddenly presented in serious editorials as the most viciously racist policies in the West. This surely is a indication that old colonial complexes and relationships between English and French Canada linger on.

In the 1950s, historian Maurice Séguin used to say that French Canada (or Quebec) was too strong to assimilate, but too feeble to break away. In the 1960s and 1970s, with the Quiet Revolution, increasing numbers of Quebecers — and even foreigners, notably De Gaulle of France — believed this to be no longer the case. Most strikingly, René Lévesque himself, in his 1967-68 essay Option Québec, claimed that sovereignty would be achieved easily and soon, as a natural process. The rise to power of Trudeau proved him wrong and, since the imposition of a new constitutional order in 1982, together with two referendum defeats and the electoral collapse of the Bloc Quebecois, Séguin’s conclusion would seem to enjoy a renewed resonance.

An excerpt from Three Conquests of Quebec by Charles-Philippe Courtois published in the Dorchester Review December 20, 2012

Sunday, April 13, 2014

On elections and wishful thinking

Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated

Mark Twain

On May 10, 1976, Pierre Elliott Trudeau proclaimed “the end of separatism.” Six months later, the Parti Québécois came to power for the first time. The death of Quebec’s independence movement has been declared many times over the years. By the mid 1980’s the beast of separatism was clearly dead. Lévesque’s sovereignty association referendum had failed. His decision to take what is called the "beau risque" which was basically a deal with Brian Mulroney, the leader of the Progressive Conservatives, to accept an amended version of the 1982 Constitution and give Canadian federalism another chance led to the unraveling of the PQ. Clear skies were ahead for a united Canada… A decade later, we had another referendum which came within an inch of victory.

The recent defeat of the Parti Québécois at the polls after only 19 months in power has led to new proclamations of “the end of separatism.” This time it’s true, it is said, because it’s talk of independence that sank the PQ’s campaign. All the pundits agree that when media mogul Pierre Karl Péladeau (aka PKP) joined the PQ as a candidate and raised his fist in the air saying that he wanted to make Quebec a country, the PQ’s poll numbers began to drop. The reason: no one wants another referendum.

A closer look at the poll numbers show that support for the PQ began dropping before PKP’s sovereignist coming out and did not really plunge until about a week after the incident. Why is that? Well, one reason could be that one of Pauline Marois’ campaign promises in 2012 was to introduce fixed election dates. This was to stop governments from calling elections at an opportune moment favorable to the ruling party and basically riding the election out on a single issue. Jean Charest did this in 2008 and 2012. In 2012, Charest was hoping to ride the student protests to another victory but the issue of Liberal corruption could not be buried.

In fact, Marois’ government did manage to pass a bill in June of last year that establishes fixed election dates to be held on the first Monday in October of the fourth calendar year following the dissolution of the National Assembly. Of course a minority government can be taken down by the opposition in a no-confidence vote before that but that's not what happened here. Marois called this election. She claimed she needed a majority government in order to pass her controversial secularism charter.  In reality, she could have gotten over 90 percent of it passed with the support of the CAQ but she insisted on keeping the most controversial parts of this charter intact. Violating her own “fixed election date” law hurt Marois’ credibility.

Polls showed that a majority of Quebecers supported her charter so she decided to ride this issue to a majority government. It didn't work. PKP’s arrival changed the subject and Pauline Marois allowed herself to start musing over the borders and currency of an independent Quebec. Gilles Duceppe added a few thoughts on passports. These statements were ridiculed in the media and Marois’ credibility was further eroded.  The drop in support for the PQ in the polls began to increase. Marois quickly went back to the topic of the charter which probably just reminded people of how cynical it was for her to call an election on this in the first place.

There were other factors like a news story about an anonymous affidavit several days before the election alleging that Marois’ husband may have illegally raised tens of thousands of dollars in political donations for his wife and a last minute promise to cut taxes that was probably believed by no one and simply further eroded her credibility. All of these details are being ignored and we are being sold by the media the narrative that the PQ lost because no one wants another referendum.

Obviously federalists don’t want another referendum but sovereignists don’t want another losing referendum and to be honest a referendum with Pauline Marois as the head of the Yes side would make me extremely nervous. Bringing about the independence of Quebec is a big task and so the people who are proposing to do it and asking Quebecers to join them have to be credible. On this point, Pauline Marois failed. The rejection of the PQ on April 7th was the rejection of a government and that’s all. You would think that after being wrong so many times before, the prophets of doom for Quebec’s independence movement would be a little more cautious with their predictions.

Patriots, Loyalists and fence-sitters

Addressed to future English Canadians
It’s estimated that at the time of the American Revolution the population of the American colonies was divided into three camps. There were the Patriots who were committed to independence, the Loyalists who were loyal to Great Britain and would later become English Canadians and there were the fence-sitters. For years it was widely believed that each camp represented one third of the population. This stems from an estimate made by John Adams in his personal writings in 1815. Historians have since concluded that Adams was referring to American attitudes toward the French Revolution. The current thought is that about 20 percent of the colonists were Loyalists. However, the Patriots, people for whom there was no alternative to independence, were probably no more numerous than the Loyalists. It's the fence-sitters who made up the largest group.

The Americans settled the question on the battlefield in a revolutionary war but had there been a referendum at the time, accompanied with a British campaign of fear with predictions of economic collapse and threats against American territorial integrity, which side would have won? It’s hard to say. Quebec society is split is a similar way. There are the Patriots (sovereignists), Loyalists (federalists) and the fence-sitters. The sovereignists have a far more difficult task on their hands as what they are proposing is something new and uncertain. Federalists have inertia on their side and can simply use fear to keep the fence-sitters in their place. It’s for this reason that credibility is all important for the sovereignist side. Pauline Marois and her approach to sovereignty lacked credibility. That is the real lesson of April 7th. We are still a nation of Patriots, Loyalists and fence-sitters on the independence question and that has not changed. For sovereignists, the struggle continues, as it must, but we've grown accustomed to hearing predictions about our demise.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Quebec Nationalism and Canadian Federalism

My purpose in this talk is to try to explain why there is, within Quebec, a strong nationalist movement seeking for independence and for a renewed partnership with Canada. This might seem, at first, surprising since Canada is after all a federal state and Quebec is a province within that state. Therefore, Quebec enjoys some level of self-government and it is, for that reason, in a better situation than Scotland, Wales, Catalonia, Gallicia or the Basque Country. These nations would love to be federated states in a true federation. So how do we explain Quebec nationalism? Does the example of Quebec prove once and for all that nationalists, in general, are never going to be happy with less than full sovereignty, no matter how hard we try to accommodate their needs? This is what I want to refute in what follows. I want to show that the choice for independence can be explained despite the fact that Quebec seems to enjoy a certain amount of self-government as a province within Canada. I shall make observations in order to explain what appears to be a very puzzling situation. How do we account for the fact that Quebec is still unhappy within Canada even if it is a federated state?

I shall first show that Canadians refuse to recognize the existence of a Quebec people and I shall then prove that the federal government is engaged into a process of nation building. It wants to create a Canadian national identity while ignoring the Quebec identity.


I must first illustrate Canada’s rejection of the existence of a Quebec nation. In order to achieve this aim, we must first distinguish between territorial federalism and multinational federalism. When Canada was created, it might have looked as a multinational federation because Quebec was one of the four founding provinces, and that province was composed by a majority of francophones. So it might be argued that the frontiers of the province of Quebec were up to a certain point created in order to respect the existence of a national majority of French Canadians and to provide for Quebec some kind of self-government.

Indeed, some Quebeckers thought at that time that Canada saw itself as a multinational country, a country with two founding peoples. When the constitution was adopted - without a referendum - by a close majority of deputies in 1867, the newspapers within Quebec (was it La Minerve?) described the event as the creation of new agreement between the two founding peoples. But it has been argued since then, and in particular by the historian Ramsay Cook, (who happens to be a consultant in this huge TV series on the history of Canada which is now being shown on Canadian TV networks all through the country in both French and English) that this constitutional order had never been interpreted in this way by English Canada. The acknowledgment of a province containing a majority of francophones can thus be seen not as an acknowledgement of Canada’s multinational character, but rather as a realistic proposal that Canada was forced to make in order to deal with the French Canadian problem after the failure of a forced union, in the decades that had preceded the creation of the Canadian federation.

So I would disagree with Will Kymlicka who tries in a recent paper to draw positive consequences from the fact that the Canadian federation initially contained a certain multinational dimension, in contrast with the USA where no state were never allowed to be composed of a majority other than Anglophones. We could thus describe the USA as a territorial federation. But I want to claim that even from an historical point of view, Canada was never meant to be a true multinational federation. There is no mention of two founding peoples in the Canadian constitution, and history was never interpreted in such a way by English Canadians. So I’m afraid that Kymlicka is imagining, ex-post facto, a situation that never quite existed at the time. In any case, in the very same paper, Kymlicka recognizes that Canada is no longer a multinational federation, and he quotes Philip Resnick as a political scientist who has prescribed to turn Canada into such a multinational federation. Unfortunately, however, this point of view is now held only by a very small minority of intellectuals in Canada.

Canadians, for the most part, see themselves as forming a single nation composed of all Canadian citizens. Their nation is Canada as a whole. Canada is seen by them as a single nation-state, and not as a multination state. The idea of a Canadian multination state has not yet entered the minds of most Canadians. There is a Canadian nation, but there is no Quebec nation. This was the view of the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau who saw Canada as composed of one nation, two linguistic communities, five economic regions, ten provinces, two territories and a multicultural mosaic. Nowadays, most Canadians endorse that view, and so most of them reject the existence of a Quebec nation. They even reject the idea of a Quebec nation within the Canadian nation.

The demand for recognition of the binational and bicultural character of Canada has been initially made by the Royal Commission’s report on bilingualism and biculturalism in the 1960s, presided by Laurendeau and Dunton. It has then been made by all successive Quebec governments.

Of course, Canada has adopted a policy of multiculturalism. Isn’t this a way to accommodate the needs of Quebeckers? It must be emphasized that the policy of multiculturalism was adopted in 1971 under Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s government as an answer to the prescriptions contained in the Laurendeau/Dunton’s commission. Instead of accepting the binational and bicultural character of Canada, Trudeau responded by adopting a policy of multiculturalism that celebrates the cultural diversity of immigration. So it cannot be interpreted as a recognition of the existence of a Quebec people.

However, according to Kymlicka, the policy should be described as a policy of multiethnicity and not as a policy of multiculturalism. Trudeau in a way made a mistake by describing this policy as a policy of multiculturalism. And Trudeau also apparently made the mistake of describing the welcoming communities not as cultural or national but rather as linguistic communities. But this is according to Kymlicka what he meant. If we follow Kymlicka’s reading, and if we accept, in addition, the purely cultural account of Quebec’s nation according to which it is essentially composed of francophones, and thus as Québécois, to use Kymlicka’s own phrase, then we could be in a position to argue that the policy is after all compatible with the existence of a Quebec nation. According to Kymlicka, the Canadian multicultural policy is in effect a bicultural policy. It respects the Quebec’s national culture.

But I am afraid that this reasoning won’t do. First, the Quebec nation is a political community composed of all Quebec citizens, and it also includes Anglo-Quebeckers. Second, the policy of multiculturalism asserts the value of immigrant cultural diversity and not the value of polyethnicity. Third, it does not assert the existence of two welcoming national cultures but rather of two linguistic communities. The policy stipulates that immigrants must integrate into either of the two linguistic communities, and it does not talk about the bicultural or binational character of these two welcoming communities. Kymlicka would have us believe that Trudeau was in effect trying to accommodate the existence of the Quebec people in this policy. But nothing could be further from the truth. I told him about this problem eight years ago in a conference that I organized on nationalism, but Kymlicka keeps on saying that Quebec nationalists were wrong in interpreting the Canadian policy of multiculturalism as a way to ignore the existence of a Quebec people.

In effect, this is exactly what is happening. With this policy, any immigrant arriving in Quebec is free to integrate either into the francophone community or the Anglophone community. But this goes against the recognition of a Quebec as a nation, for if we were to accept the national character of Quebec’s political community, then we should ask immigrants to acquire the common public language of this political community, namely French. Of course, if they want to, immigrants can integrate into the English community. But they must also acquire the language of the political community as a whole. But this is precisely what they can avoid if they follow the Canadian policy of multiculturalism.

The failure to commit oneself toward the existence of a Quebec nation is even reflected in the Supreme Court reference on secession that was published in August 1998. In that document, the judges refuse to commit themselves to saying that there is a Quebec nation. They deal with the issue of Quebec secession as a particular instance of a more general problem, namely the secession of any province within Canada.

Canada is a de facto multinational federation, but it is not a de jure multinational federation. And if Canadians do not want to turn Canada into a de jure multinational federation, it is because they do not perceive themselves as part of a multinational federation.

Indeed, in perfect coherence with the preceding remark, Canadians reject the idea of giving to Quebec a particular status as a province within Canada. The demand for recognition of a particular status has been made since the 1960s, but it has always been ignored.

All Canadians assert the principle of the equality of the ten provinces. This principle has been endorsed explicitly in the July version of the Charlottetown Accord in 1992, namely in the provisions regarding the triple E senate, which had to be efficient, elected and equal. It has once again been reaffirmed in 1997 by the nine other provinces in the Calgary declaration. It was then also endorsed by the nine legislatures. The document states that Quebec is a unique society but this expression has no implication whatsoever, since it has to be made compatible with the principle of equality of status of all ten provinces.

This would be incoherent if we recognized the existence of a Quebec people. The province of Quebec would then be very different from all other provinces, and it would only be natural to give it not only a different treatment, but also a different juridical status. But since Canadians refuse the existence of a Quebec people, it is only natural to refuse also the existence of a special status to the province of Quebec.

Canadians also reject the principle of asymmetric federalism. By asymmetry, I mean the existence of a distribution of powers between the federal government and the provinces that differs from one province to another. There is now, of course, a certain de facto asymmetry in the Canadian federation. Contrary to other provinces, Quebec has its own civil code, its own income tax system, its own pension plan, its own linguistic laws. It has a certain control over some of its immigration and it has also control over its manpower training. But for most Canadians, this tendency must now be stopped, because asymmetric federalism is now unacceptable to them.

Needless to say, it should not be entrenched in the constitution. Canada must not therefore become a de jure asymmetric federation. Any power that is offered to a particular province must now be offered to all provinces in accordance with the principle of equality of the ten provinces. In perfect coherence with the rejection of a particular status, Canadians refuse the formal recognition of an asymmetry present in the distribution of powers. So a fortiori, the asymmetry cannot be increased to meet the other traditional demands of Quebec.

The demand for asymmetric federalism has been repeatedly made in the nineteen seventies. It is one of the main recommendations contained in the report of the Pépin / Robarts commission.


As I just mentioned, Canada rejects the existence of a Quebec people, rejects a particular status and rejects an asymmetric federalism. But the federal government does not simply remain passive in its refusal to accommodate Quebec. It is constantly on the move. And it is hard to resist the temptation to describe what is going on as a process of nation-building.

There are a certain number of events that took place in the last twenty years that are of a particular importance in this regard. First, we have witnessed, increasingly, some federal spending in Quebec’s provincial jurisdictions, that is, even within those jurisdictions that were recognized in the constitution of 1867, as exclusively provincial. According to the Constitution of 1967, Quebec like all the other provinces has an exclusive jurisdiction over health care, hospitals, education and natural resources. But the federal government is using its own spending power to intervene in all those provincial jurisdictions. Quebec has contested this abusive use of the federal government’s spending power, but the Supreme Court has ruled that it was constitutional.

Second, Canada has imposed upon Quebec a new constitutional order in 1982, despite the fact that the vast majority of Quebec deputies in Quebec’s national assembly voted against it. To this day, no Quebec government, federalist or sovereignist, has ever accepted to sign this revised constitution. By ignoring Quebec’s rejection, Canada has denied Quebec’s right to internal self-determination within Canada. They treated Quebec as a province, not as a nation. It was, according to them, nine provinces out of ten who had accepted to patriate the constitution.

Third, this new constitutional order denied to Quebec the veto that it had before on any constitutional reform. Before 1982, there was a constitutional convention that gave Quebec a veto on any modification to the constitution. But the Court denied the existence of such a veto when Quebec protested after the patriation and this is why this new constitutional order was declared legal by the court.

Indeed, it must be emphasized, and this is my fourth point, that the judges of the Supreme Court are all appointed by the federal prime minister. So in general, they tend to approve most of the things that are done by the federal government. The Court has, for instance, approved most of the laws that were introduced by the federal government, but it has rejected many laws that were introduced by the provincial legislatures. They approved the patriation of the constitution in 1982 and that they denied the existence of a constitutional convention that gave Quebec a veto. And as I've just said that they approved the federal government’s spending power. I could also mention the fact that in the reference on secession, the court says that the secession process must involve an accommodation between the two majorities, the one in Canada and the one in Quebec. But they apparently did not think that things should be the same when it was time to adopt a new constitutional order in 1982.

So the court is playing an important role in the nation building process that has characterized the policy of the federal government of the last twenty years.

Fifth, the new constitutional order of 1982, the one that was imposed upon Quebec, also included a new amending formula to the Canadian constitution. Any substantial modification to the constitution now requires the unanimous consent of all the Premiers of the ten provinces, and it must be ratified by each provincial legislatures within a period of three years. So in effect, although individuals are able to express themselves in referenda on different political reforms, Quebec as a people cannot choose its own political organization within Canada. It has thus no internal self-determination as a people. It is forced to accept a constitutional order that it did not choose and it is incapable of implementing any substantial reform that it would choose.

Sixth, the Meech Lake Accord, which contained five modest provisions, including the one stating that Quebec was a distinct society, was finally rejected by two provinces in 1990. So even this minor reform was not made possible. It appears that Canadians did not want to accept to recognize Quebec as a distinct society. For 60% of them, in polls that were conducted few months before, the word ‘distinct’ meant ‘superior’. That clause would have enabled Quebec to protect and promote French language within the province.

So there is no formal recognition that the Quebec government can make sure that French is the common public language within Quebec. Because of that, Quebec’s linguistic policies are always contested in the Courts by a federally funded political organization called Alliance Quebec. This group receives each year one million dollars from Heritage Canada, Sheila Copps’ Ministry. They recently went in the Courts trying to defend the principle of the equality of the two languages, French and English, on commercial signs, going against the Supreme Court’s ruling according to which French could have a priority without violating freedom of expression. They also argued in another case that the obligation to send one’s children to French schools was a violation of the freedom of choice of French parents. They fail to see, as the Quebec judge of the Superior court emphasized, that this feature of the Quebec linguistic Charter reflects a reasonable equilibrium between the collective rights of the Quebec people and the individual rights of its citizens. Even if Alliance Quebec lawyers lost those two battles in the courts, they are making an appeal in the supreme court of Canada. And they just won another battle in the courts regarding the accessibility of Canadian children in English schools within Quebec. The Quebec law supposes that in order to have their child in an English school in Quebec, the parents themselves or one of their children must already have been educated most of the time in an English school in Canada. But the Canadian charter of rights prescribes more vaguely that their other children must have frequented an English school, without specifying any duration. The Quebec superior court judge interpreted this provision in a very surprising way, by allowing that a child could attend English schools in Quebec, as long as one of his brothers or sisters would be educated for a couple of weeks in an English school somewhere else in Canada.


The offensive does not stop here. The recent accord on the Social union reached in 1999 between the federal government and the nine other provinces approves the federal government’s intrusions in exclusively provincial jurisdictions. Quebec was left alone, once again, isolated, in trying to defend the possibility of opting out of any federal program with financial compensation. This demand has been repeatedly made in the last forty years. It was made by successive Quebec governments, federalist or sovereignist. The federal government and all other premiers rejected that principle. The nine provinces had initially accepted the principle, but now they decided to go against the agreement that they had reached with Quebec and that they had signed. They initially had approved the opting out principle defended by Quebec, but they were now going against their own signatures. This reversal is not new. It reminds us that the provinces had done the same in 1981, when eight of them turned their back on Quebec and went against their own signature to approve the patriation of the constitution.

In any case, in the social accord, the federal government and the nine provinces only accept the possibility of opting out of any new shared programs. The federal government is thus allowed, for the first time in Canadian history, by the nine other provinces to spend as much as it wants, after consultation, in exclusive provincial jurisdictions, as long as these programs are financed exclusively by the federal government. And provinces are not allowed to opt out of those programs. For the federal government, this is a perfect deal. With the enormous surpluses that it now has, it is no longer interested in shared programs. So the agreement, in effect, allows the federal government to intervene as much as it wants in education and health care. The Accord on Social Union has been denounced by many federalists, but their voice has not been heard.

There used to be a time when Quebec could perhaps find among some of the other ten provinces allies for an additional devolution of powers. But provinces have now capitulated and are willing to let the federal government interfere within their own provincial affairs. So this argument can no longer be used to counter Quebec sovereignists.

The Canadian government is therefore forcing its way into provincial jurisdictions like never before. The Millenium fund, the Chairs of excellence, the program for parental leave are all recent examples of federal intrusions. All these programs fail to respect a subsidiarity clause.

So is Canada the most decentralized federation? Perhaps on paper, but there is no jurisdiction which has not been invaded by the federal government in the last twenty years. So in effect, the federal government is increasingly becoming centralized. Is it fiscally decentralized ? The growing surpluses of the federal government announces the turn of the tide. In less than twenty years the federal government will be spending more in Quebec than the Quebec government itself. In addition, Quebec must assume all the fastly growing costs of the health care system, while the federal government is accumulating huge surpluses with programs that do not grow as fast as the provincial programs.

In recent years, the nation building process went back at the juridical order. As you probably know, there was in 1995 a referendum on sovereignty and partnership within Quebec. 50,6% voted against this option and 49,4% were favorable to it. After the referendum, the federal government went to the Supreme Court hoping that the judges would declare that secession was illegal if it was done without having to conform to the usual procedures described in the new Constitutional order. They wanted the Supreme Court to rule that the only way for Quebec to leave the federation would be with the unanimous approval of all provinces and the federal government.

So the Supreme Court had to manage a delicate political situation and, perhaps because of that, the document that they produced in 1998, the reference on the secession of Quebec, as an answer to three queries of the federal government, was a fairly well balanced judgment. The Court expressed the opinion that a clear result on a clear question would create a constitutional obligation to negotiate secession, in accordance with four underlying principles. Among those is the principle of the primacy of the constitution. In order to comply with the principle, negotiations with a seceding Quebec must lead to a constitutional amendment. In other words, Quebec cannot leave without an amendment to the Canadian constitution that would adapt Canada to its new situation.

However, the Court also says that in the absence of a clear willingness to negotiate, the international community could be led to recognize an unconstitutional declaration of independence by Quebec. So the Court innovates in an important way, because it formulates in the 1998 reference, a procedural recognition of the right of Quebec to secede, even if Quebec is not a colony or not an oppressed people.

Indeed, the Court argues that if the federal government does not behave in the right manner after a positive vote, the international community could be led to recognize the sovereignty of Quebec, even if the declaration of independence is unconstitutional. The international community could be led to recognize the sovereignty of Quebec by evaluating the legitimacy and the legality of the claims. A unilateral declaration of independence is therefore possible and could even be legitimate according to the Supreme Court.

But the Court’s ruling has been used by the federal government as suggesting that a unilateral declaration of independence would not be acceptable. The Court itself also does not entirely close the door to an abusive use of its own prescriptions, because the question concerning what amending formula would be required for a constitutional amendment, in the event of Quebec’s secession, is left unanswered. In paragraph 103, the Court says that although the issue is not yet justiciable, the federal government could return to the Supreme Court if a referendum on secession were to take place in the near future.

And the Court could, on that occasion, be led to say that the appropriate amending formula should be the one which requires the unanimous consent of all premiers, and the ratification of all the ten legislatures, within a period of three years. In short, in order to be able to secede in accordance with the Canadian constitution, Quebec could be forced to comply with the amending formula that was imposed upon Quebec against its will in 1982. Quebec’s right to self-determination would once again be severely undermined.

I now come to my last claim. It provides additional evidence to the effect that the Supreme Court’s reference on secession is used in a distorted way by the federal government in order to pursue its nation building policy. The so-called “clarity bill”, bill C-20, was adopted by the federal House of Commons in March 2000. It was introduced by the federal government as an implementation of the Supreme Court’s prescriptions on the clarity of the question and the clarity of the results.

Bill C-20 stipulates that an absolute majority of votes on sovereignty, that is 50% +1 vote, no longer holds as an interpretation of the democratic principle. If the YES option wins a referendum on sovereignty in Quebec, the federal government will consider whether the majority of Yes voters is sufficiently high enough. So Yes voters do not have the same importance as No voters. The rules of the game that made the No side win with a small margin in 1995 no longer hold for the next referendum. The rules of the game that were valid for Newfoundland’s inclusion in the federation in 1948 (the vote had been of 52%), are no longer valid if a province wishes to leave.

Furthermore, C-20 also states that any referendum question that would include a reference to a partnership offer with Canada would be an ambiguous question, no matter how it is formulated. According to the federal government, the question has to be on secession and on nothing else. So for the federal government, one cannot consider the possibility of a partnership offer. They cannot make clear sense of an economic union between sovereign countries, or make sense of a confederation between sovereign countries. The referendum question must be on complete independence, even if the sovereignist movement in Quebec was, from its very inception, linked to idea of making a partnership offer to Canada. Nowadays, all sovereign countries entertain close economic and political relations with one another. But the federal government knows that such a proposal would win the approval of a clear majority of Quebec voters, and this is the reason why it is forcing Quebeckers to choose between an old fashioned nation-state and the status quo.

Finally, Bill C-20 also stipulates that negotiations will have to include the partition of Quebec. This last provision, of course, is only meant as a way to frighten Quebeckers, and to prevent them from exercising their right to self-determination.


So let me now conclude. As we have seen, Canada is defending a territorial conception of federalism. The federal government has been engaged in the last forty years in a nation-state building that denies the existence of the people of Quebec. They have asserted repeatedly the principle of equality of all the provinces and thus rejected the idea of a special status to the province of Quebec. They have rejected the asymmetric federalism. They have imposed upon Quebec a new constitutional order in 1982, thereby treating Quebec as a province and not as a nation. This new constitutional order denied the already existing veto that Quebec had, as a matter of constitutional convention. Since then, there has been an increasing use of the federal government’s spending power in Quebec’s exclusive jurisdictions. The Supreme Court has played an important role in supporting this nation building. The recent accord on social union has been a further step in the transformation of the federation into a single nation state, since all the provinces, except Quebec, are favorable to the federal government’s use of its spending power in exclusively provincial jurisdictions. We have also seen that the new amending formula makes it impossible to modify the constitution. We noted that the Meech Lake Accord which involved a recognition of Quebec as a distinct society, was rejected by Canada. We remarked that the linguistic policies of the Quebec government were always contested in the Courts. We mentioned that the Supreme Court’s reference on secession has been used by the federal government to declare unacceptable any unilateral declaration of independence. And finally C-20 has been introduced as a means to frighten the population and as a means to discourage any attempt to secede. Meanwhile, as this nation building process unfolds in Canada, Quebec increasingly becomes economically self confident and self assured. The Quebec culture is flourishing, the economy of Montreal is rapidly growing and Quebeckers are increasingly unhappy by the intransigence of the federal government.

Of course, a majority of Quebeckers still prefer ignoring the above facts. There are those who do not know what’s going on, and who are indifferent. Others say that they are tired of constitutional debates, and they conveniently invoke their apathy in order to avoid having to confront the provocations of the federal government. A chronic sense of morosity often serves as an alibi that conceals the fear felt by many. There are those who find it more easy to join the ones that they can’t beat, and they engage in the usual and very trendy Quebec bashing. There are also those who find it more useful for their own careers to be above those endless battles. They distribute the blame equally between sovereignists and federalists, and claim that they found a third way. There are idealists who believe that we must envisage a reform of federalism but they fail to realize that any such reform is a complete utopia, much less practical than sovereignty. There are also cynics who are completely apolitical and who think they know better. And finally there are federalists who claim they understand our difficulties but who remain silent and turn their heads whenever they see the federal government exerting a domination upon Quebec.

But in spite of all those centrifugal forces, Quebec is slowly and surely becoming self-confident. So it should not come as a surprise to learn that a growing number of Quebeckers are now seeking for independence, and even if Canada is a “federation”. Many Quebeckers come to believe that if Quebec cannot be recognized as a nation within Canada, it will assert itself by becoming an independent state.

The criticisms that I have raised against the federal government are not made only by sovereignists. They have also been made by federalists such as Claude Ryan. It is fashionable nowadays to describe critics of the Canadian government as radicals and hard liners. But if I am right, although Canada has a fairly enviable and good reputation at the international level, there is another side to this coin. Most Quebeckers would much prefer some arrangement within the Canadian federation, if only Canada was willing to recognize the existence of a Quebec nation and was willing to grant an improvement of its self-government. But as we have seen, Canadians are also as a matter of fact practicing what Claude Ryan himself has described as a “dominating form of federalism”. The official Canadian federation conceals the fact that Canada is exerting a domination upon the Quebec people. So I guess one should not be surprised to find so many sovereignists within Quebec.

By Michel Seymour,  January 2001 at Cambridge University

Sunday, March 9, 2014

A Stolen Land of Immigrants

Spanish Conquistadors... conquisting!
There is a certain argument that you invariably hear when advocating independence for Quebec which basically says that Quebec has no right to claim its independence since it is built on stolen land. It takes a jaw-dropping level of hypocrisy for an English Canadian to throw that accusation at us but it does happen… regularly. After all if that makes Quebec illegitimate, it should also make Canada illegitimate. I guess being the default position bestows legitimacy. In any case, from my experience, the person who most often makes this accusation is someone from an immigrant background with a limited understanding of our history. They just know that nasty things were done to the Native people and they see us as a bunch of white people who have been here a while so we must be guilty. Personally, I get somewhat annoyed with this type of simplistic narrative which basically says “white people exterminated the Native people”. It’s a bit like saying “white people exterminated millions of Jews during World War II”. I’m not saying that my ancestors were all saints but I don’t like seeing other people’s crimes being attributed to them nor do I accept the claim that they came to this land as thieves.

Who knows what brought the Innu, Cree, Inuit or Mohawk to this part of the world. It may have partly been warfare or bad directions but I would bet that the main reason was resources. Resources (the fur trade) are what lured my ancestors here.  The fact that they came late to the party doesn’t seem relevant to me since the inhabitants of Quebec at the time did not object to their arrival.  Over seventy years separated the first known European contact with the St Lawrence valley by Jacques Cartier and the first permanent European settlement established by Samuel de Champlain in 1608. During that time, Europeans (Scandinavians, Bretons, Basques, Normans, etc.) began arriving to fish and trade with the native people. European goods were very much coveted by the native people who began competing for access to them turning the St Lawrence valley into a kind of war zone. In fact, by the time Champlain arrived, the people and settlements encountered by Jacques Cartier had all disappeared. 

The fate of these people, known as the St.Lawrence Iroquoians or Stadaconans, is unknown. However there is evidence that they may have been eliminated by the Mohawk, who lived to the south. The Mohawk had no easy route to participate in the fur trade and may have decided to take one by force. Evidence shows that some Stadaconans survived among the Algonquin and others found refuge with the Huron. Archaeologists have found St Lawrence pottery among the Huron, evidence that some of them at least were adopted by Huron villages. 

When Champlain established permanent settlements in the St Lawrence valley, this wasn't seen as an invasion by the native people but rather as greater access to European goods. Champlain began establishing alliances with most native people he encountered. The only enemies he made were the Iroquois and the reason for the conflict was Champlain’s alliance with the Huron. The first thing the Huron asked of their newly found French allies was the use of their guns against their Iroquois enemies. Unfortunately, the Iroquois were the most powerful people in the region at the time and Champlain’s alliance with the Huron would result in decades of war with the Iroquois Confederacy.

As any glance at a map of the time will show you, the French claimed a huge part of North America. This does not mean that they militarily invaded every inch of this land and subjugated its inhabitants. Europeans of this time considered any land not claimed by a Christian monarch as “Terra nullius” and therefore up for grabs. The St Lawrence leads to the Great Lakes and other river ways are not too far off, including the Mississippi basin. The French explored these regions and established forts and trading posts along the way. The English colonists, on the other hand, had established themselves on the east coast and were only slowly moving westwards. However, their growing numbers was creating pressure to expand. New France was standing in the way of this.

Seven Years’ war and its consequences

If you look at the list of belligerents in the Seven Years’ war (North American version) otherwise known as the French and Indian War, you’ll notice that most Native people were on the side of France. I think they probably understood that the main threat to their lands and way of life came from the growing English colonies. This war had profound effects on Native Americans, particularly those in the Ohio River and the Mississippi River regions. After the war, the Ohio Valley tribes lost a powerful ally in France, and therefore their ability to counteract English colonial intrusions into their territories. 

The defeat of the French in this war essentially began the process of opening up the American frontier for British and later American settlers. The French no longer stood in their way, and no longer served as a counter-balance used by the native tribes to curtail English settlement. The tide of settlers sweeping west across the Appalachians proved devastating for tribes already weakened by warfare and dispossession. They were also being stressed by other, Eastern tribes being pushed west into their territories. Inter-tribal warfare erupted in the Ohio River Valley and soon spread to the Mississippi region.

The British took retribution against Native American nations that had fought on the side of the French by cutting off their supplies and then forcibly compelling the tribes to obey the rules of the new mother country. Native Americans that had fought on the side of the British with the understanding that their cooperation would lead to an end to European encroachment on their land were unpleasantly surprised when many new settlers began to move in. Furthermore, with the French presence gone, there was little to distract the British government from focusing its attention on whatever Native American tribes lay within its grasp. All of these factors played into the multinational Indian uprising called "Pontiac's War" that erupted directly following the end of the French and Indian War.

So what's your point?

My point is that for most of human history, the entire planet was a big game of musical chairs. Shit happened, people moved around and they ended up where they ended up. Quebec is no different and is no more a "stolen land" than Algeria or Japan. There certainly was plenty of nasty stuff done to Native Americans, I don't deny that. Some Native peoples were enslaved and worked to extermination, others had their way of life deliberately destroyed in order to drive them to starvation. Even when the Native people basically submitted, their children were taken away from them in order to beat the "Indian" out of them in residential schools. France is not without guilt in all this. Native tribes that stood in the way of their fur business like the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi were dealt with harshly. 

But overall, any rational person has to admit that France also play a positive role in North America in regards to the Native people. Perhaps the best that can be said is that they delayed the inevitable but I'll take that over the legacy of Cortés or Pizarro any day. In any case, my ancestors came to this land because of the lucrative trade in fur. Their arrival was not very different from the arrival of all the other people who came to this land before them. They certainly were no more land thieves then the Mohawk whose arrival in the St Lawrence valley was likely more violent and less welcomed than that of my ancestors.

A land of immigrants

You'll often hear that Canada is a land of immigrants. There's no denying that immigration has played an important part in Canada's history but to simply say that this is a country full of immigrants seems to be a whitewash of a big part of our history unless you redefine the word "immigrant" to apply to everyone. Calling Canada (and Quebec) a land of immigrants implies that it is a land that belongs to no one (except for the First Nations but we can ignore them) and it is therefore a land that belongs to everyone. Quebec nationalism is then portrayed as something illegitimate because it is supposedly claiming a part of this land for a group of people who came over from France. I would argue that we are claiming Quebec for all Quebecers regardless of their origins but as with many countries, there is a certain ethnic group that forms the backbone of this nation. And in Quebec's case this group would be the decedents of the French settlers of New France. But is our history in this land really so different from every other country? So different, in fact, as to render our desire for independence illegitimate? Let's compare with another country...

Hungary, a land of immigrants?

The Hungarians, otherwise known as the Magyars arrived in the Carpathian Basin roughly a thousand years ago. That land was already occupied by a number of peoples (Avars, Slavs, Bulgarians, Vlachs, etc). Nonetheless, the Hungarians established themselves there and built a kingdom which later became a regional power. Centuries later, Hungary was conquered by the Ottoman empire. The 150 year occupation decimated the Hungarian population. The Turks were eventually driven out by the Austrians and Hungary was then ruled by the Habsburgs until the 20th century. During that time Slavic and Germanic people from other parts of the empire settled in Hungary. Somehow the Hungarian culture and language survived all this. In more recent decades, Hungary has welcomed immigrants from countries like China, Vietnam and Mongolia. These last groups are clearly immigrants but can we say that Hungary is a land of immigrants? Are the Hungarians themselves immigrants since their ancestors came from the Russian Steppes a thousand years ago? The Hungarians certainly don't see themselves that way. They see Hungary as their country, as the country that they founded and built.

I don't think Quebec's history is so different. However, unlike Hungary, there are still other nations that exists in Quebec and their cultures, languages and rights should be respected and valued but their existence does not invalidate ours. We aren't trying to rewrite history or fight old battles. We aren't claiming all the land that was once part of New France nor are we claiming the predominantly French-speaking parts of Ontario or New-Brunswick. We live in a state which is currently a province of a federation. We believe this province should leave the Canadian federation and become an independent country. Everyone who lives in Quebec gets a say and there is absolutely nothing illegitimate about that.