Learning About Quebec and Canada
Quebec has one of the highest rates of unionization in North America. Quebec's unions have engaged in militant actions including province wide general strikes, and tend to have a broad agenda of social and economic policies and programs. In spite of the fact that there are three union centers in Quebec – the Quebec Federation of Labour (FTQ), the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CSN) and the Union Center of Quebec (CSQ) – the unions are able to come together in common cause. In addition to the labor movement, Quebec has a strong women's movement, many environmentalist, indigenous peoples, and social justice organizations all with a long history of activism and popular engagement and education. However, somewhat surprising for many from the US who will be visiting Quebec for the first time, a majority of the French speaking progressives in Quebec are nationalist.
As general background and context to a discussion of Quebec nationalism, it's useful to begin with some general comments on Canadian society and the Canadian federal state. Similar to the US, Canada was established as a colonial settler state by European colonial powers. England and France fought over the territory for many years with the British finally winning in 1759 in the battle of the Plains of Abraham (Quebec City). This rather obscure battle between two imperial powers over possession of the Northern most colonies has lived on in popular culture as an epithet flung at Quebecois whenever Quebec seeks rights or recognition of its unique character. “Don't they know they lost the battle of the Plains of Abraham?”
Beyond the historic imperial battles, Canada as an emerging state has always had to tread very carefully, surviving first as a colony of Britain, the greatest imperial power of the 19th century, and then coming of age next door to the new major imperial power, the United States. Never far from the mind of Canadians was the threat to their existence by the giant to the South, though this threat played out somewhat differently for each nationality.
Quebec, as a home to the French minority within North America, has been concerned with preserving their language and culture against the pressure of English language and cultural dominance in both the US and Canada. Historically, the fear of assimilation has generally pushed the Quebecois into an uneasy alliance with English Canada as a weaker assimilationist force. For example, when the British permitted Quebec to maintain its religion, language and civil code, this fact was listed as a grievance by the rebellious 13 colonies in their Declaration of Independence. As is so often the case when dealing with issues of nationalism – one nations liberty was another's grievance. Britain's policy towards Quebec assured the loyalty of the newly conquered colony during the American revolution.
English speaking Canadians take great pride in their national identity and see themselves as quite distinct from US citizens – in culture, political institutions and community. But lacking the barrier of a separate language, English speaking Canadians often find themselves on the defensive being required to explain how they are “different” from their neighbors to the South, as if the US constituted the norm and all others are required to explain deviations.
Countries and nations are, of course, conscious socially constructed communities. A limited but sharp contrast of the different beliefs and goals of Canadian society in comparison to the US can be found in the values outlined in the founding documents of the two countries. While the US founders proclaimed a country dedicated to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Canadians united under the promise of “peace, order and good government.”
Countless history books describe the development of the Canadian state as the peaceful passage from “colony to nation,” though since the adoption of the Canada/US Free Trade Agreement and later the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) some have suggested it might better be characterized as “colony to nation to colony.” While the “peaceful” characterization of the development of the Canadian state is somewhat exaggerated – the settlement of Canada was hardly a peaceful process when view from the perspective of indigenous people – in contrast to the US, however, there was no revolutionary break from the colonial power, no civil war, and few battles with the indigenous people.
Canada's founding document, the British North America Act of 1867, was an act of the British Parliament which unified British North America into a single federal state and set out the division of power between the federal state and the provincial governments. In contrast to the U.S., Canadian provinces are relatively strong with considerable legislative power and have been innovators in public policy. Most social policy areas, including education, health care, labor law, and welfare are provincial responsibilities. The federal government is in charge of “peace, order and good government,” but the residual powers go to the provinces.
The current simmering constitutional crisis in Canada was brought on by the failure of the Federal government to achieve consensus on the bringing home (patriation) of the Canadian Constitution in 1982. Over Quebec's objections, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau patriated the constitution with the addition of a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The nationalist Parti Quebecois provincial government was excluded from the final negotiations of the legislation because of its demand for recognition of Quebec's special character and role as the home of a French nation within Canada. Following the adoption of the Constitution, there have been a numerous attempts to adopt amendments which would satisfy Quebec's concerns but these “accords” (the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Accord) have been rejected either by Quebec or in the rest of Canada.
Quebec's demand for recognition of its “distinct” character as a nation and its special role in preserving a French culture in North America, has placed Canadian federalism under considerable strain in spite of the fact that Quebec's “special status” within Canada has been a fact of life for most of Canadian history. In recent years, for example, many Canadian organizations have granted “special status” or “autonomy” to their Quebec wings as in the case of Canada's labor central – the Canadian Labour Congress – which recognizes the provincial Quebec Federation of Labour as a separate and fully autonomous labor federation. This is a right not extended to any other provincial labor federation.
In recent years there has been increased animosity towards Quebec and Francophones in Canada. While the country adopted an official policy of bilingualism and biculturalism in the 1960s, beyond certain federal government services, most of the country outside of Quebec has remained unilingual English. The bilingual policy of the federal government, as well as Quebec's actions to protect and promote the French language within the province, has lead to an English Canadian backlash denouncing the government's attempt to “force French down peoples throats.” Quebec, the most bilingual of provinces, in the 1970s and 1980s passed strong language legislation to establish French as the “official” language of the province further fueling animosity over the language issue in the country.
Quebec's demand for special status – and possibly even independence – has brought to a head contradictions within Canadian federalism and has challenged Canadians to examine both the myths and the realities of their state. Legally, within the Canadian constitution Quebec is just another province – one of ten. However, Quebec is, and always has been, more than just another province in Canada. If the term “nation” has any meaning, Quebec is a nation within Canada. It has a separate language, culture, heritage and territorial integrity. Even it's civil law is distinct – a civil law code going back to its French heritage – as opposed to the common law (of British origin) found in the other provinces. Through the powers of a provincial state Quebec has been able to develop its own state institutions and has gained practical experience in self-governance. The issue that Canadians and Quebecois must face now is whether their existing federalist structure can and should be transformed to accommodate both the national aspirations of the Quebecois and the national aspirations of the rest of Canada.