History - Quebec

Piotr Labenz III IB

Is there a satisfactory constitutional way of supporting French-Quebecers’ nationalism within Canada? Refer to the present question of ‘distinct society’ status and what, if anything, should it mean.



This question seems to be more of a legal or political than historical character, however having in mind the fact that the distinctiveness of the French-Quebecois society is a derivative of the history of this society, it may be said that the entire issue is in a way embedded in history and can be looked at from historical point of view. More precisely, in order to render intelligible the term ‘distinct society’- or, in other words, French-Quebecois nationalism - and its implications for the legal or constitutional solutions for the French-Quebec nationalism, the historical meaning of it may be examined, leading to the conclusion that answer to the question in topic is ‘no’.

Obviously, the French-Quebecois society had been distinct from its very origins and even after the conquest of 1763 by the British it was allowed to maintain its Catholic religion, French official language and civil code (the Quebec Act of 1774). The French-Quebecois society was rural in character (especially as after the conquest the British dominated the business) and closely bound to its language and religion. This situation lasted without much change until about 1950 (some attempts to eliminate the distinctiveness of French-Quebecois society and assimilate it into British-Canada like that of Lord Durham of 1840 were brief and unsuccessful); the French-Quebecois society was apparently distinct from the rest of Canada, which was predominantly English-speaking, non-Catholic and, especially later, not having rural nor religious character. The particularity of ‘Quebecois’ was strengthened by the fact that they were long separated from France and had no links with it after 1763, thus being neither just French nor British-Canadian but rather Quebecois.

However, in 1950-65 came the so-called ‘Quiet Revolution’. It was a major social transformation in Quebec which changed its society from backward, rural, agrarian and religious to modern, urban, industrial and irreligious. Therefore most of the traits that traditionally distinguished Quebecois from the rest of Canadians - namely religion and rural character - had vanished, leaving French language as a seemingly sole difference. However, paradoxically, that decrease of distinctiveness did not lead to assimilating Quebec into the rest of Canada but rather to increasing its nationalism and even separatism. This was so because after Church had lost its traditional position as the guardian of French language and culture, its role was to be taken up by the provincial government, simply because ‘distinctiveness’ could have been a good reason for increased independence from the federal government. Thus problems of ‘preserving and promoting’ the French-Quebecois culture and language, now assumed by the provincial government had become justification for an increased control over finance, industry and business (e.g. the ‘Hydro Quebec’ plan) at the provincial level. This marked the creation of an entirely new nationalism (or neo-nationalism) in Quebec, whose only common feature with the tradition was the French language.

However, it seems apparent that the French-Quebecois neo-nationalism is not a historically justifiable ideology. Of course the French-Quebecois society had been a distinct one, as said above, but with the Quiet Revolution this distinctiveness has diminished and currently French-Quebecois differ from the rest of Canadians only in language and some customs of minor significance. Thus there is no reasonable basis for increased independence in terms of economy or finance (which, due to the BNA Act are to be governed by the Federal government), in terms of historical justification. In other words, a clause stating that ‘Quebec has a distinct Francophone society’ in Canadian constitution should not have any nationalistic implications like increasing independence of Quebec or similar.

Yet, one might say that these competencies are necessary for the provincial government to protect the French-Quebecois culture, because if Francophone business wasn’t promoted, then French language would be endangered, and together with it the French-Quebecois society identity. Indeed, state protection is necessary in order to sustain the French-Quebecois distinctiveness as it is threatened by the influx of Anglophone culture (e.g. immigrants that spoke English rather than French had to be disallowed to settle in Quebec). However, this alone doesn’t justify the demand for a ‘distinct society’ status for Quebec, as firstly Quebec is not homogeneously Francophone (20% Anglophones) and secondly, there are other cultural groups in Canada that are in some ways distinct (e.g. the Natives, various immigrants etc.; also, in fact every province is somehow distinct). Therefore it may be said that there is no reason to favour French-Quebecers more than any other group e.g. non-French-Quebecers or Francophones from outside Quebec.

Also, one strong argument is the fact that nationalism is from the definition a political theory that says that international political divisions should be in accordance with ethnic divisions. Hence it is inconsistent to speak about French-Quebecers’ nationalism within Canada - because either French-Quebecers are a distinct nation and then their nationalism’s sine qua non is separatism, or they are not a distinct nation but a part of Canadian nation, incidentally speaking French, and then the ‘distinct society’ clause is simply a statement of fact, but not having any legal implications. And the fact is that historically the latter option is true, namely that the French-Quebecers - in fact all Quebecers - are a part of Canadian nation. Therefore it seems sensible to argue that French-Quebecers’ nationalism cannot be satisfactorily - or at least consistently maintained within Canada, and to doubt whether it has any justification except the short-term political aims of some politicians that make use of it.

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