In 1995, on the eve of the second Quebec independence referendum, Jean Chrétien the 20th Prime Minister of Canada, either through fear of an independent Quebec or through appearing traitorous to his home province, mentioned rather bizarrely, his desire to having been present at a seemingly innocuous battle fought nearly 236 years ago.
The battle in question was that of the Plains of Abraham, located on a farm a few minutes east of Quebec City. The battle lasted only 20 minutes, and through one volley of British musket fire, the fate and identity of North America had been entirely transformed.
Chrétien’s wish to having been in New France in 1759, so to awake the French commander-in-chief, thus alerting the Quebec garrison to the British threat (a feat that would have almost certainly won the French the battle) may not seem so controversial when considering the plight of the Franco-Canadian. They had already suffered forced deportation in Acadia, with some academics even going so far as to call it genocide. Soon after, they would face government-mandated assimilation and the stark humiliation of colonialism.
Chrétien’s comments, however, may not be so simple. This, after all, was the Prime Minister of Canada, the de facto leader of the Federalist campaign, and the man who threatened martial requisition of Quebec if the province chose to invoke independence. The very fact Chrétien expressed desperate remorse over an event that leads directly to a Canadian Quebec suggests a rather more complicated relationship between English and French Canada.
This speech rang like the desperate concession a Middle-Eastern dictator might give to an ethnic minority: yes, your nation was grouped with ours for the sake of geographical efficiency, or simply through an act of spectacular colonial ignorance, but you’d have a lot more money if you stayed!
The awkward Anglo-French relationship has been at the crux of nearly every major Canadian issue since the idea of the colony began to form in the minds of British and French aristocrats. From Voltaire in the 18th century, despairing at the loss of human life over “a few acres of snow,” up until Justin Trudeau’s lawless desire to placate the Quebecois, resulting in the SNC-Lavalin scandal; the preservation of a Canadian Quebec has come to define the identity of Canada.
The consequences of Quebec’s artificial grouping with English Canada has been overt ever since the October crisis in 1970. Since then, relapses of separatist sentiment have occurred almost methodically; resurfacing every decade or so. Bear with me, dear reader, as I illustrate this point: ten years on from the October crisis was the first Quebec Independence referendum, which the sovereigntists lost by a margin of ten percent. 15 years later, came the second independence referendum, which the sovereigntists lost by a margin of a single percentile. Another 17 years goes by and we have the most recent scare in 2012.
If those decreasing margins are anything to go by, Canadians should let out a collective sigh of relief that no referendum was ever materialized in 2012.
It comes as a surprise, then, that after each of these crises, political commentators could be so brash as to declare the separatist movement dead. One, perhaps, could be forgiven for saying so after Pierre Trudeau’s cooly handled October crisis, yet to say so after 1995, or even after Jacques Parizeau’s immigrant-bashing, is either an act of extraordinary hubris or laughable historical ignorance.
Quebec’s Dormant Separatism
When the CAQ came to power in 2018, political commentators and politicians again failed to take note of history. Throwing caution to the wind, they described the CAQ’s electoral victory, which arguably derived from their apathy towards separation, as being “the end of the [sepratist] dream.”
Again, this argument can be somewhat justified. For the first time in over half a century, a provincial election was not a vote between federalism or separatism, but instead, economic and political preferences. Additionally, the strongly pro-separation Parti Quebecois were all but wiped out, losing in the process its official party status. Perhaps, after all this turmoil, Quebec separatism had indeed given out its last sickly cough.
I’m afraid that this is nothing but blind optimism. The very same arguments made by those wishing to dismiss separatism, like those mentioned above, are ironically the best points of attack for those who see separatism as dormant. The mouth-opening success of the radical Quebec Solidaire, for example, who favour separatism, and who performed strongly amongst the youth vote, suggests a new generation of pro-separatist voters.
Admittedly, Quebec’s independence has never been further away. The separatist parties are divided, and by having a Quebecois Prime Minister in Ottawa, it is difficult to argue that Quebec is being taken advantage of. However, sentiment does change, as does the political climate, and if independence ever does occur, and if the infeasibilities are ever overcome, then the very survival of Canada is at risk.
I mean not to ring the words of those reactionary prophets of doom, but after the fall of the Soviet Union, western politics has slogged down a path of fragmentation in reaction to globalization. If the once non-existent, buried emotions of nationalism can rumble from the depths as it has in Scotland, Catalonia, Flanders, and Bavaria, and from supranational organizations like the EU and the USSR, then who can reasonably suggest that it will not erupt in Quebec, where differences are so overt, and from Canada, a country that seems to personify globalization itself.