Nationalism and Identity in Quebec

Academic Paper, 2010

11 Pages, Grade: 1:1


Nationalism and Identity in Quebec

Kaia Smith

Looking across the globe at the many different nationalistic conflicts, one can see that the case of Quebec is very distinctive. In this struggle, the Québécois have received a significant amount of control of their region and have done so without violence. The nationalism of Quebec within Canada can be explained by historical, political and economic factors, and although Canada has avoided violence by successfully enacting preemptive remedies to conflict, there are a few lingering problems in relation to the Canadian minority of Quebec that must be dealt with in order to ensure the continuation of non-violence.

The divergence of Canadian and Québécois interests dates back to the times of North American settlement in the 1700s and, in its beginnings, was predominantly based on a deepening gap in the economy. As a portion of the population that was predominantly English-speaking came to reap a majority of economic benefits, the other portion that was mostly French-speaking were behind a deepening line of class division that led to resentment, which they could most easily direct at the most recognizable difference between the groups: language. Thus, “linguistic divisions did not overwhelm sectional or class cleavages but were rather entwined with them (Hossay, 162).” Politically, there were two group divisions between those following the elitist governors of England and those who supported a more democratic form of government; the democratic group had a French speaking majority and the aristocratic one was predominantly English speaking. The group favoring democracy named themselves the Patriots and continuously fought against the aristocratic governmental structure until they reached the point of revolution. In the mid 19th century, the Durham report combined both the English and French speaking portions of Canada into a single province (Hossay, 169). After confederation, linguistic divisions deepened because Francophones outside of Quebec did not have the same rights as Anglophones (Hossay, 177). Also, for the first time, the Francophones constituted a minority of their region, and they remained behind the Anglophones in terms of urbanization despite economic and population growth (Hossay, 190); thus, they were inclined to move to a more defensive position.

In more recent times we can see the growing intensity of struggles over issues of sovereignty. Starting in the mid-20th century, the Québecois government started to demand that their province be seen as a distinct society with special status. The radical idea of independence finally surfaced in 1976 with the election of the Parti Québécois, a political party in favor of secession. In 1980 they held a provincial referendum asking citizens whether or not they would prefer sovereignty; voters chose against independence 60 percent to 40 percent (“Quebec Sovereignty”). The issue thus remained questionable, and in 1995 another referendum was held, this time with “50.6% for the NO side and 49.4% for the YES side, with a record voter turnout of 93.5% (“Quebec Sovereignty”).” Therefore, the issue of a sovereign state for the nation of Quebec still remains today.

There are many causes for the nationalistic distinction between Quebecers and English-speaking Canadians. One is the historical memories and symbols of these Francophones, including the minimal but gradually building divisions between the two communities since settlement. Stéphane Dion argues this point in his writing on French-Canadian nationalism:

“History has always been part of the nationalist credo in Quebec. The motto of the province of Quebec is “Je me souviens” (I remember). The “Québécois” share the same historical references of 456 years. They have their nationalist songs, their flag (the fleur-de-lys), and their celebrities unknown in other parts of Canada (78).”

This argument corresponds to the ethno-symbolic theory of nationalism which claims that nationalism is based on shared subjective elements of an ethnic group such as “memory, value, sentiment, myth and symbol (Smith, 57).” The motto of Quebec by itself expresses this view because it points to the idea that the Québécois unite themselves under their shared historical past and view themselves as a distinct nation who has shared these histories and sentiments since its formation.

The ethno-symbolist paradigm also claims that there has been significant “reinterpretationof pre-existing cultural motifs and ofreconstructionof earlier ethnic ties and sentiments (Smith 83).” We can see many examples of this throughout the history of this conflict. Leaders within Quebec used nationalism as a political tool to bolster unity their personal power: “State builders and their bourgeoisie allies struggled to define terms of loyalty and belonging that made sense of the existing political order and reinforced their social position (Hossay 191-192).” The Catholic Church in Canada was primarily associated with the French, so they used their leadership to emphasize the differences between Anglophone and Francophone societies in order to strengthen French-Canadian unity and secure their own power (Hossay 192). These examples also point to the instrumentalist view of nationalism, explained by Adeed Dawisha in his article on nationalism, which claims that national solidarity is “shaped and nurtured specifically for political and material advantage (5).” Also in this article, he points out the importance of the writing of history for the strength of nationalism. Glorification of the past of a group of people unites them psychologically and gives them a sense of distinctiveness from other nations. We can see this example by looking at François-Xavier Garneau’sHistory of Canadawritten after the creation of a single Canadian state, which “depicted the conquest [or creation of a single Canadian state] as the great tragedy of French Canada, and French Canadian history since then as a heroic struggle for cultural survival (Hossay, 174).” Therefore, we can see that the manipulation of history was used as a tool to form stronger nationalistic ties to Quebec.

Looking back in history, we can find one of the causes of French-Canadian solidarity in the influence of Roman-Catholicism. In Canada, Catholicism came to associate itself with the French-speaking population; thus the people supported it as their religion, and it supported them in their cultural struggles. Despite the separation of church and state in Canada, “the Roman Catholic Church has been the most important influence in the shaping of the French Canadian’s basic institutions and in the safeguarding of his traditions (Quinn 10).” Thus, adding to the linguistic and ethnic ties of French-Canadians was religious solidarity. Anthony Smith explains the importance of religion as a precursor to nationalism: “it is…in the study of the sacred foundations of nations that we can grasp the continuing hold of national identities and the persistence of nations (142). He suggests that in contrast to nationalisms produced in the West that are many times viewed as civic phenomena, there is also a presence of nationalisms based on religious ideas focused on social change (143). Thus, we can look at Catholicism as an initial unifier of Francophones in Canada.

We can also see another cause of Quebec’s nationalism in government discrimination of its minority of French-speakers. Many of the English-sponsored governors around the time of initial settlement enforced policies that pushed for a homogeneous, English society that spoke a single language. Also, after the creation of a single Canadian state, the only official language of the country was English, and Francophones living outside of Quebec were not given the same rights as Anglophones (Hossay 176). Also, employment practices discriminated against hiring French speakers, which deepened an already present economic gap between the two groups. This corresponds to Michael Brown’s article on causes of conflict within a state, in which he names one of the causes as “discriminatory political institutions” who bring about political injustices to its minority population (Brown 8). These inequities created by the predominantly English government put a lasting wedge between French and English speaking Canadians, setting Canada on the road toward separation instead of assimilation and unification.

Relating to the problem of government discrimination is the economic gap between both communities. Although Quebec has seen much recent economic advancement, the economic gap has been a source of resentment throughout history for French-Canadians. During colonization, the British provided the Anglophones in Canada with capital and resources for economic development which the French did not receive. Also, until the passing of Act 101 in the 1970s, English was the language of trade and business, guaranteeing that they would be ahead in the economy. In 1961 the income gap between the two groups was 35 percent, (Dion 97) and Montreal is currently the poorest city in Canada (“Quebec Sovereignty”). Brown also points to this problem in his article, saying that discriminatory economic policies and economic problems are some of the main causes that lead to conflict.

The final cause strengthening Québécois nationalism that I will discuss is the one that most strongly provokes secessionist sentiment: their view of themselves as a distinct society and especially their fear of dissolving into the vast and dissimilar English-speaking society surrounding them. The appearance of nationalism in Québébcois governments during the mid 20th century started with the demand that Canada recognize Quebec as a distinct society within the state. This is also suggested with the idea that half of Quebec’s citizens distinguish themselves so much from others that they desire a separate state of their own and that they place great importance on the significant amount of autonomy they have already. However, their peculiar situation in the middle of an English-speaking state to which they owe supreme allegiance is no doubt a threat to the maintenance of their identity as a unified, French-speaking nation. In his article on nationalism, Adeed Dawisha explains the importance of language for building solidarity among people. He says that a common language naturally binds people together and is a “reflection of their unique identities and of the circumstances that are peculiar to them (17).” The population of Quebec has experienced an increase in number and concentration of French-speakers, but the population outside of Quebec has done the opposite; thus, the French-speaking community is becoming more isolated within Canada. For this reason, the Québécois solidarity and their nationalistic ideology have strengthened and further separated them from the rest of Canada, partly out of fear of blurring the line between their identity and others.

This fear, according to Dion, is nothing new: “The entire history of Quebec is haunted by the fear of anglicization” (89), and leads to additional efforts for unity and distinction. Efforts include decreasing acceptance of the English language in institutions, such as the passing of Act 101 which made French the official language in schools, trade and business in Quebec, and those who spoke any language other than English were not permitted to attend English elementary or secondary schools (Dion 91), and an increasing support for secession. David Lake and Donald Rothchild argue that fear is the single most crucial cause of ethnic conflict for a nation because fear of eventual weakness brings them to extreme measures (126).


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Nationalism and Identity in Quebec
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Kaia Smith (Author), 2010, Nationalism and Identity in Quebec, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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