Nationalism in Quebec

Essay, 2000

16 Pages, Grade: 63% (Credit)




Historical Overview

The post-war period and the Quiet Revolution

Quebec nationalism: ethnic or civic?

Future perspectives



A couple of months ago, I asked a fellow exchange student were he was from. "Canada" was his reply and after further questioning he told me that he was from Ottawa in the province of Ontario. A couple of days later, I asked another Canadian student the same question, and she replied "Quebec" in the first place, just mentioning her home province but not the country she was a citizen of; and, as it turned out, she did this intentionally.

How can we explain such a different self-perception of two residents of the same country? Why does it seem that for French-speaking residents of Quebec it is more important to be recognized as Quebecers than as Canadians? The Referendum 1995 has brought Quebec nationalism back in the headlines of the world press. Suddenly, we were aware of the existence of a separatist movements in the middle of a western liberal democracy and people were asking themselves if nationalism was not a product of nineteenth century Europe and if the nation-building process had not already ceased in the west. However, Quebec stands not alone as a minority in a western state seeking independence or more autonomy. Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Catalonia are some of the cases that received increased scientific interest in the last couple of years. With those regions in mind, we can say that we have witnessed the emergence of a 'new' nationalism that threatens post-industrialist nation-states that seemed to have finished their process of nation-building a long time ago.

This essay wants to answer the question of what kind of nationalism we can find in Quebec. I will begin with a historical overview, because history is one of the most important features the 'new nationalists' draw upon to legitimate their struggle for more autonomy. I shall then continue with a discussion of the social and economic changes in the province in the post-war years and during the Quiet Revolution. This will be followed by an analysis of the factors that shape and influence the ideology of the contemporary Quebecois independent movement. Then I will try to locate Quebec nationalism on the theoretical scale, using the two concepts of ethnic and civic nationalism. I shall conclude with an outlook on the future relations between Quebec and the federal Canadian state.

Historical Overview

In 1534, Jacques Cartier was the first French explorer who conducted an expedition to today's Canada. He also discovered the mouth of the St Lawrence River and sailed up the stream. During the remainder of the century, and favoured by lack of British interest in the region the French took hold of the Canadian territory. In 1608 Quebec was founded. The colony grew only slowly in the early years, but as early as 1615 the Church, especially the Jesuit order, (by 1625) was established and started to play an important role in the colony that had been named New France. This early influential position taken by the Church left its mark on Quebecois society and its repercussions are still identifiable today. The settlements increased their population more rapidly and by 1680, New France had firmly established itself.[1]

Early threats to the colony came from the English who had founded colonies in Virginia, Massachusetts and had taken New York from the Dutch in 1664. There was rivalry for the access to resources, trade and expansion and also tensions aroused by the wars that were being waged in Europe at the time and which saw England and France on opposite sides. This led to a series of wars and armed conflicts between the two colonies which resulted in the treaty of Utrecht (1713) after the war of Spanish Succession that saw France loosing the Hudson Bay and Acadie.

The next thirty years constituted a relatively peaceful period in which the population of New France grew to over 60000. However, the conflict with England was not solved and when the Seven Years War broke out in Europe in 1756, it spilled over to the colonies. The French were faced with an enemy whose armed forces where almost three times the size of their own (22 000 men on the French side compared to 65 000 men for the English). When Montreal fell in September 1760, the colony was finally under English control. The takeover was formally confirmed with the Treaty of Paris in 1763.

The population of the colony up to that point had grown to 70 000 and was concentrated in the two cities of Montreal and Quebec. A relatively homogenous society had developed, based on shared religion, language and institutions borrowed from the mother country. Two classes had emerged: the urban elite consisted of the clergy, businessmen and the colonial administrators, often born in France; and a peasantry that was made up mostly by inhabitants born in the colony and living in the rural areas. The Catholic Church played the dominant role in every aspect of life.

The takeover by the British brought radical changes to this French Canadian society. Its inhabitants were suddenly faced with a new colonial power bringing a different language, religion and institutional tradition. As a consequence most of the old French Canadian elite left the country and returned to France, the leadership changed into British or English Canadian hands as did the majority of the fur trade. Only the Church was able to keep its strong position through taking a cooperative attitude towards the British. The latter also pursued a course of avoiding confrontation and uprising in managing the new territory. Being under threat from the Americans, especially after the outbreak of the Revolution in 1775, the new colonial master sought the cooperation of the Church and the conservative petite bourgeoisie that consisted of the remaining French Canadian merchants and bureaucrats to stay in control of the colony. The Quebec Act of 1774, for example, enhanced the position of the Quebecois by extending the province’s territory, recognizing the Roman Catholic religion and guaranteeing that French civil law was kept in force. The foundations of a conservative and ultramontane[2] Francophone nationalism, whose afterpains would still be felt in the 1960s, were laid in this period.

In 1791, the British parliament passed the Constitutional Act which created the two provinces of Upper (Ontario) and Lower (Quebec) Canada and established representative assemblies in both provinces. The subsequent years saw an increasing separation in Lower Canada on a social and economic level between the minority of English Canadians of newly emerged capitalist class that controlled most of the trade and the industry (especially timber and fur) and the majority of French-speaking Quebecois. On a political level tension rose between the Assembly and the government of the colony. From the beginning of the 1830s the Assembly was controlled by the Parti des Patriotes, a party of radical patriots who demanded independence for Quebec and separation from Upper Canada. The conflict further intensified and finally culminated in a rebellion against the government in 1837, led by Louis-Joseph Papineau. While the uprising was put down quickly, the British government was forced to act to keep control over the colony.

The outcome of that necessity was the Union Act of 1840 that united Upper and Lower Canada and established a single Assembly. Both provinces were allocated the same number of representatives although the population of Lower Canada was significantly higher than that of Upper Canada (650 000 against 450 000). French was banned from the chamber. The intention behind that measure was to increase the English-speaking population in Quebec and to establish English language and institutions, thus forcing the French Canadians to assimilate. And in 1851, the Anglophones for the first time constituted the majority of the colony's population (952 004 against 890 261).

The defeat of the radicals in the 1837-38 rebellion allowed the conservative and reformist forces to become the dominant players in politics and society. The conservatives, supported by the Church, became the advocates of a new ideology of French Canadian society. This ideology did not involve any kind of assimilation but defined the French Canadians as a distinct cultural group based on the Catholic faith whose task it was to preserve the French language, culture and customs in differentiation to English society. Astonishingly, the Assembly was not divided along ethnic lines, securing an English majority, but parties emerged along the division between conservative and reformist. To some extent, this grouping increased stability within the political system.

But it became apparent that the Union was not able to deal with the economic developments that occurred at the time. The change of British policy to a doctrine of free trade caused serious difficulties for the colony's exporting industry, especially in competition with the much more developed economy of the neighboring United States. In the long run it became clear that the concept of the Union was too restrictive to the new form of free trade that had to be pursued. The elites in both Upper and Lower Canada supported the idea of a confederation and on 20 March 1867, the British parliament passed the British North America Act. It created a confederation between the four colonies of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and established a strong federal system with a representative House of Commons in the tradition of Westminster government. The Provinces would get their own regional parliaments but with clearly outlined competencies. The benefits for Quebec were especially the recognition of the French language both in the federal and Quebec regional parliaments and also in the courts.

After Confederation, a period of stability set in. However, the French Canadian population was faced with more problems. The inclusion of Manitoba (1870), British Columbia (1870) and Prince Edward Island (1873) to the Confederation further increased the number of Anglophones and incidents such as the Manitoba crisis[3] at the end of the 1880s led to Quebec society turning to itself and an even stronger focus on the home province. By the end of the nineteenth century, it could be seen that although Canada has been under British rule for 240 years there were still two societies in the state that differed fundamentally in terms of language, religion and customs and were also divided geographically within Quebec with the Francophones centered in rural areas and the English Canadians in the urban centers. The French Canadian society had been able to define itself against the other of the Anglophone community and, on the political level, the federal government.


[1] The overview is based on: Fitzmaurice (1985, 1-53) and Legendre (1982).

[2] 'ultramontanism' is a '[d]octrine affirming the absolute supremacy of the pope.' (Legrendre 1982: 5).

[3] The province closed French schools and abandoned French privileges in 1890. The policy was reversed in 1895 by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, but the federal Canadian government failed to carry through the decision.

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Nationalism in Quebec
Monash University Melbourne  (School for Social and Political Inquiry)
63% (Credit)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
369 KB
Nationalismus, Quebec, nationalism
Quote paper
Magister Artium Steffen Blatt (Author), 2000, Nationalism in Quebec, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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