Jackson Doughart
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The myth of separatism's death

C2C Journal, 24 April 2014

On both occasions that the Parti Québécois was previously stripped of power, it was replaced by a Liberal majority government. Yet neither the 1985 nor the 2003 election destroyed the ambition of secession, suggesting that the victory of Philippe Couillard’s Liberal Party this month will likely provide only a temporary reprieve for Canadian federalists. Why, then, do nearly all political commentators believe the result to be favourably anomalous—a definite break from business as usual and an epochal defeat for the loathed Quebec nationalists?

This mass unison of joy—“The Epic Collapse of Quebec Separatism” (Martin Patriquin), “Quebecers not only just said no to separation, but yes to the 1982 constitution” (Andrew Coyne), “Separatism feels so good when it stops” (Kelly McParland), “As grievances shrink, sovereignty’s risks to Quebec grow” (Jeffrey Simpson), “PQ could be party of a single generation” (Chantal Hébert)—is more indicative of hope and faith than of sober analysis. Importantly, the names on this short list transgress the left-right divide—a sign that the abstract vision of a truly-unified Canada transcends the political spectrum.

Their idol is the legacy of Pierre Trudeau’s vision of the country, which first posited that the Québécois would cease to be nationalists once Canada adopted “bilingualism and biculturalism”, thus breaking with its imperial past and electing an identity of French and English equality. Since the publication of Federalism and the French Canadians in 1968 and the passage of the Official Languages Act in 1969, history has proved Trudeau dead wrong in this prediction. Nevertheless, the romantic sentiment that his theory produced remains very prevalent among Anglo-Canadian elites. Like the inveterate gambler who believes that this time he will surely win the jackpot, we believe that this time the Francophones will finally convert and the vision will be realized. In both cases, the odds and the history suggest an unwise bet.

As in the past, such optimists will doubtless be rudely awoken by reality. Canada’s French and English speakers remain two distinct peoples, whose historical co-existence has been far from rosy, and whose cultural utopias could not be more disparate: Quebec nationalists envision a homeland country serving as the mère patrie of an uncompromised francophone culture; meanwhile, Canadian federalists envision an equal investment of both peoples in a bilingual and bicultural nation, and a magical disappearance of the Francophones’ centuries-old ethnic instincts and attachments.

Utopias are by their nature unattainable, but I’ve always thought that the Québécois version was more realistic, if only because of its simpler prescriptions. Apart from attaining independence, the remaining challenge is to convince the Anglophones to leave Quebec. Nationalists have already partially succeeded at this with Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language, whose central purpose was to condition Anglophone citizenship upon knowledge of French and acceptance of the Québécois’ right to rule without interference from Ottawa. Doing this again will be more than possible: they only need to keep squeezing people with pestilential inconveniences until they eventually say “Screw this place” and leave.

The Canadian utopia, by contrast, requires a complete reordering of the political and cultural mindset of Quebec society, a project that is about as plausible as making a leopard change its spots. All existing and aspiring countries are animated to some extent by the concept of national identity, with Quebec being so to a hyper-charged degree. How exactly do we think that these strong ethnic ties, fortified as they are by an active historical memory, will somehow just go away for good?

This also relates to the common theme of generational change in Quebec. According to our commentators, young people have abandoned the nationalism of their parents and will henceforth favour “rational” politics that focus on “the real issues”. This doesn’t reflect my experience of the young Québécois, but even if it were true, the idea that this election result can be relied upon to support a pan-Canadian future is pretty dubious and quixotic. After all, it is the indelible mark of a true progressive to blindly assume that each generation will increasingly agree with him, and that the world is gradually moving toward his own vision of perfection.

There was a definite strain of this in Trudeau’s philosophy of the country. No doubt he assumed that the generation of French speakers who came of age in the 1960s would be nothing like their parents, so long as the federation recognized their language’s legal equality with English. Likewise, today’s progressives assume that the next generation of Francophones just must agree with them—a belief more indicative of faith than of reason.

Such baseless idealism also pervades the hope that, with Couillard now donning the Captain Canada cape, Quebec will eagerly sign on to the repatriated constitution. On the one hand, it is wrong to interpret such a wide federalist mandate from a single result, assuming that the new Liberal government would even aim to pursue anti-nationalist action to this extent.

One doubts strongly that Anglophone federalists would concede a mandate for secession upon the election of a hypothetical Péquiste majority. On the other hand, Couillard’s campaign references to the Meech Lake negotiations portend more troublingly than one might expect. Meech Lake and Charlottetown were division-breeding remedial projects necessitated by Trudeau’s intransigence in 1982, when he pursued constitutional ratification without Quebec’s consent—an act that has surely not been forgotten, and won’t be anytime soon.

Regardless, I am glad that the PQ was defeated this time and that no referendum will be in the immediate cards. And to be fair, none of the above-referenced authors state that secessionism has been entirely crushed. But all err in drawing some ultimate and positive lesson about federalism from this spring’s election. I think that there are different lessons here: first, there is much more to Quebec politics than the question of independence; and second, the previous concessions made to Quebec (greater autonomy, the distinct society declaration, etc.) —all of which contradict the spirit of Trudeau’s philosophy—have doubtless made it possible for nationalists to “vote on the economy” without compromising their beliefs about independence, at least for the time being. On the greater, long-term questions of sovereignty and secession, however, future conflicts between Canada and Quebec are certainly far from over.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com