The “Quebec is a Nation” Controversy 101 for Americans

Ron writes in the comments that he’d like an explanation of what the hell is going on up here in federal politics. Given that I have found no more divisive issue (1) among Canadians (and that’s among anglophones and among francophones as well as across language divisions), I’m sure to get myself in trouble here. But that’s what blogs are for, and it never stopped me before. And it’s probably appropriate for my first post as a permanent resident. More on that later.

Right now, the liberal party is having its own election (=”primary” for the Americans reading) in which is will choose a new leader. There’s a crowded field with no obvious frontrunner, but this is a very important election since the liberals have ruled Canada for most of its history and are likely to unseat Harper sooner or later. One of the Candidates, Michael Ignatieff — an early frontrunner — recently caused a stir. Now it must be said that Ignatieff, though Canadian, is something of a recent transplant. Actually, he’s kind of a carpetbagger, like GW Bush or Hillary Clinton. A professor of political science at Harvard (and one whom my friends and colleagues who read political theory have read), Ignatieff moved back up and got elected in a riding in a suburb of Toronto in the last election (at least I think that’s where he got elected). Ignatieff is now running for the liberal leadership, and that’s where the trouble started.

Quebec has never officially signed on to the Canadian constitution. Indeed, my copy of Learning About Québec: Guide for My Successful Integration (a text I hope to cite regularly in this space), refers not to the Canadian charter of rights and freedoms which has become a model around the world, but instead says that “To adapt to and participate in this new environment, you must be prepared to discover and respect the fundamental values expressed in the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. This may seem weird, but it’s even weirder to me that Canada has really only been constitutionally independent from Britain for a couple decades. Okay — let’s review:

    The constitution was recently made up
    Quebec never signed
    This is a big issue for all involved

Now of course all this is tied up with nationalism within Quebec — the two referenda on independence (1980 and 1995) and the ongoing debate concerning Quebec’s status in Canada. Should it have special privileges as a province because of its francophone majority? Or the distinctive culture that comes from having a francophone majority (yes, this is a different thing and an effort to move away from the appearance of Quebec nationalism as an ethnic nationalism)? What about language rights? Submerged in all of this is whether Quebec is a “nation.”

Nobody knows what “nation” means in this context. Is “nation” some kind of ethnic designation? A cultural designation? Does it mean that Quebec should be independent, or does it mean that Quebec simply has a “special status” in Canada? The answer depends upon whom you ask. As far as I can tell there is really as much disagreement among federalists and separatists as there is between them. Some federalists believe that the way to keep Quebec in Canada is to give it some kind of special status (2), while others want no part of that. Some separatists believe that Quebec should become an independent nation, while many others believe that it should become independent officially but have sme kind of “sovereignty-association” with the rest of Canada. Some of these people have now taken to using the European Union as a model. More than once, I’ve heard people suggest that the United States would cut Quebec a better deal than Canada. I am completely comfortable saying that those people are really catastrophically wrong. I have two words for them: Puerto Rico.

Anyway, traditionally, the federalist parties have refused to budge on the question whether Quebec is a nation, given that nobody knows what it means but it sounds like it might open the door for sovereignty. During the last election, it was spectacularly bizarre to watch a debate where liberal PM Paul Martin stammer around the question of whether Quebec was a nation when the question was put directly to him by Gilles Duceppe, head of the bloc Quebecois. That’s what is changing now.

Ignatieff proposed and the Quebec wing of the liberal party adopted a motion that says “Quebec is a nation.” Nowhere does is specify what this means or what its implications are. It is also ambiguous as to whether it’s talking about the province of Quebec and everyone in it or whether it’s talking about the francophone Québécois who live here.

Then Gilles Duceppe, the head of the non-federalist federal party the Bloc Quebecois, proposed a similar motion in parliament. Stephen Harper then scooped them all and proposed a motion that says that the Québécois are a “nation within Canada” so it gives national recognition but within a federal framework. Sort of — because it pointedly does not say that the province of Quebec is a nation. Very clever, Mr. Harper. Either way, nobody can really say for sure what any of these motions mean. It is clearly costing Harper, who lost a minister over it (and indeed nobody would have predicted that a conservative party would have sponsored a motion to affirm Quebec’s nationhood) and it may also cost Ignatieff his shot at the liberal leadership. But the motion passed yesterday.

The sad thing is that for all of this grandstanding, I don’t expect much if anything concrete will change, at least not in the near term. Because the implications and interpretation of the motion are entirely unclear. And many other important issues in the liberal party will be eclipsed by this one issue. Granted it’s a big one and it matters to a lot of people, but this was not the result of a grassroots movement. This began as a calculated attempt by a liberal leadership candidate to separate himself from his competition, and it was then opportunistically taken up by other parties. It does, however, make for good news coverage. And so now you have a national controversy.

For now, I will spare you my own pronouncements about nationalism in Quebec beyond what I’ve written here. I am, however, certain that Montreal is a wonderful, special place unlike anywhere else in the world.

You can check out Maisonneuve Media Scout for more.

So ends my dissertation. I am happy to answer questions from Americans in the comments and to hear objections from Canadian readers. I will have to correct my typos and poor choices of phrasing at a later date.

1. Though my hypothesis is that if people really did seriously start talking about race here, it would catch up to language pretty quickly.
2. It must be pointed out here that Quebec already has special status on many matters in Canadian policy, and since Harper has come into office, has even been able to represent itself — separately from the rest of Canada — to some international bodies.

One reply on “The “Quebec is a Nation” Controversy 101 for Americans”

  1. And now the question of Quebecois french speakers vs. international french speakers here as well, from middle eastern, african, west indian, haitian areas. As much as the govt “welcomes” french speaking immigrants, there are plenty of cultural biases still well in place to forsee exclusion of non-quebecois on some pseudo-cultural basis. I deal with the public daily, and I hear tidbits of their feelings, and well, people have fears (irrational or not) and prejudices and lack of contact to fuel the us/them cultural construct. Anglo-Quebec residents- nonentities?
    Need I even mention the First Nations people being shafted in all this discussion of Nationhood?

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