Scotland recently had a referendum on whether to become independent. (SPOILER: they didn’t.) I’m interested in comparing the separatist efforts in Scotland to those in Québec, where I live. In Québec, particularly as an out-of-towner and an English speaker, separatism is a matter of some practical concern. Coming from Australia, a country which is fairly monocultural on a region-by-region scale, I find these dynamics of regional identity fascinating.
First, though, as background, in this two-part post I’m going to briefly describe the situation in Québec, as best as I’ve been able to piece it together over my time here.
The backstory – New France
The shores of the Saint Lawrence river were settled by French-speaking colonists in the 16th-century. The chief raison d’être of the colony of ‘New France’ was the fur trade. The locals of Algonquian and Huron tribes would bring beaver furs to French merchants on the river, who paid for them with European manufactures and sold them in Europe for a healthy profit.
The fur trade was not manpower-intensive, and French settlement numbers were far outstripped by settlement in the warmer English colonies to the south. During one of France and England’s many wars, the English invaded New France and conquered it in 1760, but the colony’s fate was sealed only in 1763, at the negotiating table. France preferred to keep their lucrative sugar islands in the Caribbean over ‘a few acres of snow’ in the north, and New France became the Province of Quebec under English rule.
Upon which the sun never sets
Over the subsequent century or so, relations between the French Catholics of Quebec and their English colonial overlords was marked above all by pragmatism. After the American Revolution (which the Quebecois largely stayed out of; they remained under English control once again thanks to the hazards of the negotiating table), the English were wary of losing their remaining foothold in North America. To keep the Quebecois sweet, the English crown allowed them to largely maintain their laws and customs intact, including the practice of Catholicism, which was still heavily repressed in England itself. For Quebec’s part, as a neighbour of the land-hungry and Manifestly Destined United States, independence could not have seemed a practical option. Continued membership of the English empire was judged the lesser of two evils.
As for the all-important question of demographics, Quebec received an influx of largely Anglophone immigrants in the 19th century, most of them to Montreal during its high point as an industrial port. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the needle shifted back in the other direction, as birth rates fell amongst Anglophones but stayed high in the still largely rural Francophone population.
That brings us to the 20th century, which is a good place to pause. In the second part I’ll take up the story of the modern independence movement in Quebec.