Separatism in Quebec – part 4

In the last post we discussed the political potency of language. Before that, we followed the 20th-century trajectory of the Quebec separatist movement up until the first Parti Québécois government in 1976.

Let’s bring it home and follow the course of the movement from 1976 up until the present.

The PQ wasted as little time as possible, bringing a referendum on the subject of independence to the people of Quebec in 1980. Here we first observe a trend both intriguing and persistent: the Québecois electorate are much more willing to vote for pro-separatist political parties, than to vote for separation itself. The referendum was soundly defeated by 60% of the vote.

The defeat put the sovereignty movement on ice for a decade, but the referendum gave renewed urgency to the federalist project of assuaging Quebec’s demands within the existing Canadian framework. There followed what I think of as the ‘bollocksing around with Accords’ period.

The opening act was Trudeau passing the Constitution Act in 1982. This was intended to improve the slightly forlorn state of Canada’s constitution, which was basically a hand-me-down from the colonial era. It was also intended to shore up Quebec’s position within the confederation; the Quebec provincial government refused to endorse the Constitution Act, however, rather denting its symbolic force.

The Meech Lake Accord, a sit-down between the prime minister and the premiers of the ten provinces, was held in 1987 to hammer out a constitutional agreement that Quebec could agree to. Constitutional amendments were proposed which would explicitly recognise Quebec as a ‘distinct society,’ and devolve greater power to the provinces. Meech Lake was popular in Quebec, but less popular in the Rest Of Canada: Anglophone sentiment was resentful of the perceived special treatment granted to Quebec, and indigenous groups claimed to have been left out of the process, and, with some justice, that they had just as good or better a claim to ‘distinct society’ status, whatever exactly that meant. The Accord failed to pass in two provinces, which meant it didn’t pass at all.

The second attempt was the Charlottetown Accord in 1992. Despite a greater attempt at inclusion, it was even less popular still, and was torpedoed in a national referendum in August, 1992.

One thing I’ve had trouble understanding, at a distance of more than 20 years, is why all this monkeying around caused so much ire. Constitutional reform is a rather abstract subject. Why did people get so upset? What did all that dry verbiage even mean?

In that regard, I found this statement from A Brief History of Canada by Roger Riendeau illuminating:

 The reality was that too few Canadians actually understood the complexities of their constitution, and after decades of federal-provincial disputes on the issue, too many of them had become cynical about the priorities of their politicians.

Translation: people at the time weren’t really sure what it meant either, but they were quite sure they were getting screwed.

The failure of the Charlottetown Accord, combined with the return to power of the Parti Québecois, set the stage for a new referendum on independence, held in 1995. Unlike the first referendum, this one came down to a photo finish. When the votes were tallied, the ‘No’ (to independence) side nosed ahead by barely 1%, keeping Quebec and the ROC together for a little while longer. The campaign, at the time and since, generated plenty of scandal. The ‘No’ side was accused of breaking electoral laws by bussing in numerous out-of-province supporters for a large pro-federalist rally. After the results came in, then-premier and leading separatist Jacques Parizeau infamously summed the causes of defeat up as “l’argent et des votes ethniques” (money and the ethnic vote), letting a glimpse of the uglier side of nationalism come to light.

The PQ government didn’t venture another referendum after 1995, and then spent nearly a decade out of power between 2003 and 2012. They returned, under the recent government of Pauline Marois, to a starkly transformed political landscape, where the mere mention of another referendum seemed to be electoral kryptonite. The Marois government’s showcase policy was the ‘Charter of Values,’ a controversial proposed law which would bring French-style laïcité to Quebec, banning the wearing of visible religious symbols by government employees. (The Charter bears all the marks of a wedge tactic designed to invite intervention by the Canadian federal system and thereby rekindle support for an independent Quebec.)

The fateful fist-pump.

The fateful fist-pump.

The reluctance of the Québécois public to reconsider the question of sovereignty was revealed in the 2014 provincial election campaign. The PQ had a modest lead in the polls when they unveiled their ‘star candidate,’ local media mogul Pierre Karl Péladeau. At the end of his speech, PKP professed his desire to ‘faire du Québec un pays’ (make Quebec a country), accompanied by an emphatic fist-pump. This violation of the PQ’s tacit ‘don’t mention the referendum’ policy was seized upon by the opposition Liberal party, who told everyone who would listen that the PQ planned to drag the province into sectarian strife once more. The PQ campaign slumped, the Liberals won a decisive victory, Pauline Marois even lost her own seat.

Why has the sovereignty movement fallen so low? What’s changed? This leads us away from ostensibly-objective history and towards speculative analysis; but to my mind, the main factors are prosperity and contentment. Put simply, relative to 1976 or even 1995, Quebecers have much more to lose, and less to gain, from a split with Canada. But I’ll look at this more closely in a future post comparing the respective independence movements of Quebec and Scotland.


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