Learning About Quebec and Canada

government leaders to negotiate a Free Trade Areas of the Americas (FTAA).

There’s been much talk about the security and anti-protest measures being taken

by the Canadian government. But Quebec is much more than simply a location for a

protest against the corporate neo-liberal agenda. It would be a pity if

activists didn’t use the opportunity of traveling to this home of French

language culture in the Americas to explore with Quebecois protesters the

history of their national struggles and discuss with them how they envision

Quebec’s place within the North American community.

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.


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.


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.


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.



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