Québécois Nationalism: Its History and Federal Government’s Responses

In light of the recent 40th and 25th anniversaries of Quebec’s two referendums on sovereignty, which marked the tensest moments in Canada’s modern history, it is imperative to recount the past struggles of the country’s distinct society as well as to speculate on their future political stances on independence.   


The photo depicts French-Canadians waving the flag of Quebec (most likely during the national St.-Jean-Baptiste Day).
Credits: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, http://links.org.au/quebec-independence-canada-left

In this blog, I will therefore trace the origins of Québécois nationalism as well as elaborate upon its two different and distinct forms- the inward (la survivance) and outward (Quiet Revolution) nationalisms- to argue that its emergence was rooted in the Anglo-French tensions around different views espoused by English- and French-speaking Canadians on what constitutes Canadian Confederation.

This blog will also address the ways the federal government of Canada tried to respond to Québec’s separatist demands. I will explain that the various mega- constitutional reforms, such as official bilingualism, the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, which were implemented before 1995 and inspired by Pierre Trudeau’s centralist views, only widened the gap between the French- and English- Canadians. This has stimulated the Government to search for a different strategy, which now involved the non-constitutional reforms, such as asymmetric federalism and decentralized ‘open federalism’, which eventually became more successful in curtailing separatism.


The photo of a cover of a certified reproduction of the British North America Act, 1867, stored in Canada's parliamentary archives.
A certified reproduction of the British North America Act, 1867, stored in Canada’s parliamentary archives. 
Credits: Canada Guide, https://thecanadaguide.com

The country created by the 1867 British North America (BNA) Act was “less a new nation than an irregular and multiform assemblage that granted some recognition and autonomy to preexisting nations.”[1]

However, different understandings of BNA Act’s interpretation of what constitutes Canadian Confederation became main sources of tensions between English- and French-Canadians.

  • The former promoted the idea of a united Canadian nation and viewed the Francophones’ beliefs of Quebec’s distinctiveness as an existential threat to Canada.
  • For the latter, on the other hand, the new federation had dualist or binational foundations and was “an arrangement that acknowledged the existence of a self-governing capacity of their own nation.”[2]

Since the federal system’s members are obliged to maintain different loyalties, besides a national, they also have a regional identity as well as a sociological sense of belonging to their communities. These factors influence different perceptions among Canadians regarding the notion of nationhood.

The dissimilar theoretical premises behind nationhood espoused by English- and French-Canadians play an important role for understanding the different views about Quebec’s role and impact on Canadian federalism.

For instance, the French cultural perception of a nation as “a shared existence rooted in a distinct race or people”[3] characterized by a common heritage, culture and language, drastically differs from the English territorial and governmental understanding of the term which instead is focused on the state as “a form of political organization encompassing governmental institutions and personnel for the purposes of governing a particular territory.”[4]

An image of the flag of Quebec
Flag of Quebec.
Credits: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quebec_nationalism

The Quebec nationalism is defined “as a feeling of primary loyalty to Quebec, emanating from the widely held notion that it is home to a distinctive French-Canadian nation.”[5] Since Quebec is home to a majority of French-Canadians, francophone Quebecers thus believe it represents one of the two founding nations of Canada. Québécois nationalists believe that Quebec is distinct and should be autonomous due to its different, as opposed to other provinces, history, culture, religion and language.

They believe that such autonomy was granted in the 1867 BNA Act which considered the Confederation a pact between the two founding nations- the English and the French. This is reflected in the conception of Canadian society known as dualism which considers the founding minority group, the French, as morally and culturally equal to the English majority.

In fact, the French understanding of nationalism refers to the feelings of commonality or “a love of one’s own kind or type, which binds us to others of a similar kind or type.”[6] This feeling might exist before the formation of one’s state, which, if eventually created, becomes the political expression of that nation with structures and mechanisms that serve it.

On the other hand, the English understanding of nationalism emphasizes upon the fact that Canada was not formed by one

nation and that its creation was not inspired by nationalistic impulses around a single culture, language or heritage. They believe that what binds different nations within Canada is their commitment to federalism which requires the equal respect and acknowledgement of all nations’ cultural, linguistic and historical differences.

Historically, however, there has never been enough consensus between the federal and Quebec’s provincial governments

The photo depicts francophone Quebecers protesting against the cultural genocide of their nation by English-Canadians. The protesters in the front of the photo are depicted holding a huge sign that reads "Génocide Culturel", while protesters at the back are holding various other signs, including the flag of Quebec which has red paint dripping down, most likely symbolizing blood.
Credits: An Sionnach Fionn, https://ansionnachfionn.com/2011/07/14/progressive-nationalism-secularism-and-quebec/

regarding the extent of the latter’s involvement in (and the representation of) Quebecer’s political and cultural affairs, since the English, which have always constituted the majority of Canadian population, saw Canada “as a predominantly English-speaking nation and culture rooted in British political and social traditions.”[7]


The widespread historical mistreatment of the French language and culture by the Anglophones turned French-Canadians inward and forced them to adopt the nationalism of ‘survival’ (la survivance) as a self-protecting measure.

The photo depicts Maurice Duplessis giving a speech during the 1952 election campaign.
Maurice Duplessis giving a speech during the 1952 election campaign.
Credits: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quebec_nationalism

The ideology of la survivance portrayed Quebec as being dominated by English Canada through its involvement in various political and economic institutions of Quebec which, in turn, infringed upon and discriminated against the French language and culture.

This ideology was promoted by the Roman Catholic Church which served as an object of collective allegiance and preached against the involvement in the ‘evil’ capitalist economy and politics and in favor of serving the God by retaining the humble farmer’s lifestyle.

Therefore, dominated by the corrupt and patronage-run Union Nationale under Maurice Duplessis (1936-39, 1944- 60), the economically poor and alienated Quebec ignored Ottawa by solely focusing on its own provincial developments and by avoiding careers in the federal government, thus even further undermining their already weakened representation there.

Thus, “rooted in the land, socialized by the church, and with few prospects for advancement in an economy dominated by an English capitalist class, Quebecers looked inward.”[8]


The photo depicts Jean Lesage- a leader of the Liberal Party of Quebec, who served as a premier of Quebec from 1960 to 1966, and is often viewed as the father of the Quiet Revolution- sitting down on a couch and posing for a picture.  
Jean Lesage (1912-1980). A leader of the Liberal Party of Quebec. He served as a premier of Quebec from 1960 to 1966, and is often viewed as the father of the Quiet Revolution. 
Credits: Le début d’un temps nouveau, http://www.larevolutiontranquille.ca/fr/jean-lesage.php

The Quiet Revolution “transferred national devotion from the church to the state of Quebec.”[9]

After the death of Duplessis in 1959 many of the functions previously administered by the Church and English business elites, such as education and economic development, were taken over by the newly elected Liberal government of Jean Lesage (1960-66). This period marked the dramatic change in the values and behavior of Quebecers, thus transforming the province’s stance from the isolationist nationalism to an outward and vibrant nationalism.



to improve the financial situation of French Quebecers, the Liberal Party promoted new educational opportunities, since the English domination of Quebec’s economy was directly connected to the low-quality economic education at the Church-influenced French universities.

The unilingual French Quebecers had their career opportunities limited to traditional French Canadians’ occupations such as priest, farmer or lawyer, while the English-speakers dominated the higher-paid positions, since their universities produced a surplus of specialists in commerce and finance. The lack of economists in Quebec was thus revitalized by the American capital and the English Canadians’ companies, which required all Francophone employees to master English in order to be hired or promoted.

The photo of a dam belonging to the Hydro-Québec, (HQ)- the electric power utility for Quebec, which is now entirely owned by the provincial government.
A photo of the Hydro-Québec, (HQ)- the electric power utility for Quebec, which is now entirely owned by the provincial government.
Credits: Frontier Centre for Public Policy, https://fcpp.org/2018/12/29/divesting-hydro-quebec-realizing-compelling-value-vs-continuing-misplaced-idolatry/

Moreover, with the nationalization by the provincial government of private power companies such as Hydro-Quebec and Caisse de Dépôt, which pooled capital for ventures by Quebecers, the province has finally attained some economic emancipation. From now on, “the state was used as an instrument of economic development within which a rising class of French Quebecers could occupy positions of authority.”[10]

Therefore, no longer economically depended on English Canada, Quebec gained more confidence to take an outward and vibrant nationalist stance in order to demand a sweeping constitutional change that would remind English Canada that “Quebec was [and still is] the home of one of the two founding nations”[11]and deserved to be treated as an equal.



it is a well-known fact that the double colonization of French-Canadians by the Catholic Church and by the English became

The photo depicts René Lévesque-a founder and leader of the openly separatist Parti Québécois, who served as a premier of Quebec from 1976 to 1985- sitting on a chair and positing for a picture.
René Lévesque (1922-1987). A founder and leader of the openly separatist Parti Québécois. He served as a premier of Quebec from 1976 to 1985. He was the first Québécois political leader to attain, through a referendum, to negotiate the political independence of Quebec.Credits: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ren%C3%A9_L%C3%A9vesque

central focuses of nationalists. Against this backdrop, the most influential critic of English domination, René Lévesque, formed in 1967 the openly separatist Parti Québécois (PQ). Lévesque was especially outspoken about the Church’s conservative vision of Quebec and la survivance, which he believed was backward, since instead of focusing on the nation’s expansion and economic development, it was mainly oriented on survival.[12] Therefore, central to the Quiet Revolution became the reversion of public passivity of Quebecers in both political and economic arenas.

It should be noted that the aforementioned economic emancipation has also allowed the provincial government of Quebec to stand for Quebecer’s interests and rights on the federal level of government as well as on an international arena. Thus, Lesage and later the Union Nationale leader Jean-Jacques Bertrand (1966-1970) began putting an immense pressure on the federal government to give the province its deserved powers.

For example, in 1964 Lesage agreed with the federal government of Lester Pearson (1963-68) on the statut special regarding the separate Quebec pension plan. He believed that “Quebec should be able to opt out of federal programs with financial compensation, establish its own welfare system, and enter new areas of taxation”[13]with the federal government.

An image depicting the logo of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF). It portrays a colourful circle containing red, purple, green, blue and yellow colours, and the writing that reads "Organization Internationale de la Francophonie".
The logo of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF). It is “an international organization representing countries and regions where French is a lingua franca or customary language, where a significant proportion of the population are francophones (French speakers), or where there is a notable affiliation with French culture.”.
Credits: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organisation_internationale_de_la_Francophonie

Likewise, Bertrand sought greater autonomy for the provincial government in various program areas such as fiscal area, social and immigration policies. He aimed for a greater constitutional authority up to a special status for Quebec and even established Quebec’s international presence by becoming a full member of La Francophoniean international organization which represents francophone countries. The membership in La Francophonie was especially criticized by the federal government which claimed Ottawa’s sole constitutional responsibility in foreign affairs.


The photo depicts a celebration of the St-Jean-Baptiste Day. The performers are portrayed playing music and singing on top of the moving stage, which is decorated with a big emblem of a blue fleur-de-lis, while the crowd watches them.
“Fete St. Jean 2017: participants entertain the crowd during the annual Saint-Jean-Baptiste day parade in Montreal, Saturday, June 24, 2017.”
Credits: Radio Canada International, https://www.rcinet.ca/en/2018/06/25/fete-st-jean-the-provincial-holiday-in-quebec/

It is important to note that these political and economic changes own their existence to Quebecers’ traditional symbolisms. The Quiet Revolution can be portrayed as “an aesthetic revolt against religious-national symbols of the nation, through which a new definition of the nation emerged.”[14]

The celebration of the traditional St-Jean-Baptiste holiday in Quebec became that critical juncture and that key opportunity for Quebecers to voice criticisms against both the English and Catholic domination.[15]

Starting in the early 1960s, a new wave of nationalists started attacking the representation of both St. John the Baptist and his lamb- sacred religio-national symbols– which symbolized a patron saint of Canadian francophones and a nation, respectively.

They believed that the religious-national narrative of the nation presented it as backward, while its representation as a child, has only emphasized its infantilization, inferiority and dependence upon English Canada.[16]

The black-and-white photo depicts a boy representing petit St. Jean-Baptiste, a national saint, with a lamb to his right and a flag that reads "Saint Jean Baptiste" to his left.
A photo of a boy who represents petit St. Jean-Baptiste, a national saint, with a lamb.
Credits: New England Historical Society, https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/6-ways-celebrate-st-jean-baptiste-day/

Critics therefore have redefined the religious-national symbolism of the lamb, which they have semantically replaced by a sheep– an animal associated with passivity and submissiveness, which now became “the symbolic foil against which a new political elite defined their national vision of progress, economic development, and political self-reliance.”[17]

A sheep’s physical characteristic- that is, the wool– has also been employed within  secular nationalists’ agendas, which now “referred to the nation as sheep allowing wolves to eat the wool off its back”[18], thus highlighting the economic exploitation of Quebecers by the rest of Canada and the world.

Generally speaking, the previously sacred symbol of a lamb, has now been turned into an object of ridicule, as more and more people started bleating loudly during protests against the double colonization.[19]

Eventually, the lamb was kidnapped on St-Jean-Baptiste Day in 1962, leading to the disruption of the parade.[20] Due to this incident and the lamb’s growing unpopularity, it was then forever removed from the traditional tableau vivant during the following St-Jean-Baptiste celebrations.[21]

Similarly, the child saint has also undergone a massive amount of criticism: besides the fact that the saint’s representation as a child underlined the infantilization of the nation, it has also emphasized its emasculation.[22] Since a lot of emphasis was placed on a child’s curls, this sometimes forced the authorities to pick a girl (instead of a boy) with more lavish curls to represent the saint (and by extension a nation) in a set community.[23]

The unpopularity of a child saint, has led to the change of its material form of representation. This is how two saints were introduced: the bronze statue of an adult saint started to lead the parade, while the statue of his ‘younger self’ was closing the parade.[24] This dual representation of the saint has stimulated critics to argue that it has created “a regressive pictorial narrative”[25]– the portrayal of a nation regressing from adulthood to childhood. For this reason, the following year a singular child saint was returned (which was later again substituted by a statue of an adult saint), while the lamb was replaced by the honor guard, which served “not only as a virile demonstration of a national authority but also as protection for the child.”[26]

The photo depicts an overturned float of the statue of St. Jean the Baptiste without a head. Riot police can be seen in the background.
“When the saint’s float was overturned, the head broke off from the body and was never found. Riot police can be seen in the background.”
Credits: SpringerLink, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11186-013-9199-7

However, with the removal of the lamb, which represented Christ, religion was also erased from the pictorial discourse, thus fully secularizing the saint.[27] In fact, without the lamb, the child could no longer be seen as St. John the Baptist, instead, “all that was left was an insignificant little boy”[28]– secular and profane.

The secularized saint has thus, in turn, now represented a secularized nation. This became especially true when some radical

The painting depicts three people, one of whom, Salome, holds the Head of John the Baptist above a large plate held by a woman.
“Salome with the Head of John the Baptist by Caravaggio, National Gallery, London, c. 1607–1610”.
Credits: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beheading_of_John_the_Baptist

nationalists captured the saint’s float and overturned it, breaking its head.[29] Since this event carried a very powerful religious significance (evoking the biblical beheading of John the Baptist), it was never believed to be an act of vandalism, but rather a statue’s inescapable destiny.[30] Unlike Jesus, St. John the Baptist was never resurrected.

It has been argued by Quebec’s nationalists that this “change of image marked a change of substance, a change in the reality of things”[31] for Quebecers, who were now seeking a new and progressive identity liberated from both English and Catholic intrusions.

The fact that these symbolic transformations occurred during the first years of the Quiet Revolution “suggest that they were not merely expressive of institutional transformations in progress but constitutive of them.”[32]


The black-and-while photo depicts the Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, 1963-1971, established under Prime Minister Pearson to examine cultural dualism in Canada.
“The Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, 1963-1971, established under Prime Minister Pearson to examine cultural dualism in Canada.”
Credits: National Archives of Canada and the Canadian Encyclopedia, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/official-languages-act-1969

To address the ‘Quebec question,’ Lester Pearson, under the influence of his Justice Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, introduced an Official Languages Bill that was aimed to promote bilingualism at the federal level. Thus, with the passage of the 1969 Official Languages Act, Canada officially became bilingual in its federal institutions, enabling French- Canadians outside Quebec to freely apply for a government job in English Canada and to work in the official language of their choice.

The Act, however, did not improve the French- English relations, which became especially problematic during Trudeau’s prime ministerial 16-year tenure.

This was mainly due to Trudeau’s centralist vision of equal Canadian provinces as well as the ascendance in 1976 of the first in Canada openly separatist provincial government- the Parti Québécois (PQ)– under René Lévesque, marking the beginning of the tensest times in Canadian history.

The PQ won on a platform of sovereignty association which aimed for Quebec’s sovereignty (although with the tight economic and political connections with Canada). Lévesque maintained that the sovereignty association with Canada would, however, only be achieved after the successful referendum in Quebec.

Besides their main goal, the PQ also continued the modernization of Quebec through the reformation of electoral laws and the passage of the 1976 Charter of the French Language (Bill 101).

Bill 101 was an extension of Bill 22 introduced by the previous government of Robert Bourassa that turned the predominance of the French language in Quebec into a mandatory policy, making French the only official language of the legislature.

Ironically, “the more Quebec moved in the direction of French unilingualism, the more English Canada resisted Trudeau’s policy of national bilingualism”[33], and the stronger grew the tension between the two founding nations.

The photo depicts a back of the former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau delivering a speech to a huge crowd of people during the 1980 referendum.
The former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau pictured delivering a speech during the 1980 referendum.
Credits: The Hill Times, https://www.hilltimes.com/2020/05/20/the-1980-referendum-campaign-a-shining-canadian-moment/248859

The 1980 Quebec referendum, however, failed to achieve the sovereignty association with Canada as 58% voted against it. The

success of the ‘non’ camp can be partially explained by the earlier Trudeau’s promise for a process of constitutional renewal in

An image of the official English version of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The official English version of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Credits: The Canadian Encyclopedia, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/canadian-charter-of-rights-and-freedoms

return for Quebecer’s vote against the separation.

This defeat of the PQ’s proposal allowed for new federal-provincial constitutional negotiations. These negotiations have finally replaced the much-debated 1867 BNA Act with the 1982 Constitution Act, while the Charter of Rights and Freedoms incorporated in the 1982 Constitution Act official bilingualism and minority-language education rights.


The image depicts Queen Elizabeth II who is signing Canada's constitutional proclamation in Ottawa on April 17, 1982, as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and other ministers look on.
“Queen Elizabeth II signs Canada’s constitutional proclamation in Ottawa on April 17, 1982 as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau looks on.”
Credits: The Globe and Mail, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/the-charter-proves-to-be-canadas-gift-to-world/article4100561/

Despite that the whole effort was primarily aimed at appealing Quebec, the province objected to the Act since it portrayed Trudeau’s vision of a centralist and symmetrical federation instead of promised by him constitutional reforms, which were assumed to recognize Quebec’s distinct status and grant it more powers.

After the Supreme Court ruled that Trudeau had to discuss with premiers the constitutional package again, he managed to meet behind Lévesque’s back with premiers of the nine provinces and to approve Charter overnight.

This was possible since the Supreme Court ruled that the unanimity was not required to reach the decision. Moreover, the addition of the notwithstanding clause, which allowed “to pass a law in violation of certain Charter rights for a maximum five-year period”[34], secured the support from some provinces that were against certain clauses of the Charter.

The amended package was approved by the Canadian and British Parliaments “as an appendix to the Canada Act (1982), and signed by the Queen on April 17, 1982.”[35]

Feeling betrayed by Ottawa, Lévesque refused to sign Charter. The provincial government of Quebec asked the Supreme Court to recognize its right to veto the constitutional amendments, however, the Court denied it, legally binding Quebec by the document. This sparked even more hatred toward Ottawa among Quebecers who now regretted the decision for Quebec to remain as a Canadian province. Therefore, “instead of unifying Canada in a common political identity, the Charter split up the country.”[36]

The photo depicts the Prime Minister Brian Mulroney who sits at the table and reads a statement after he and the provincial premiers, who stand behind him, reached an agreement in principal on constitutional grievances, after meeting at Meech Lake, April 30, 1987.
“Prime Minister Brian Mulroney sits and reads a statement after he and the provincial premiers reached an agreement in principal on constitutional grievances, after meeting at Meech Lake, April 30, 1987.”
Credits: CTV News, https://montreal.ctvnews.ca/mulroney-put-a-brave-face-on-losing-bouchard-over-meech-lake-accord-1.1742869

The premiership of Brian Mulroney (1984-1993) aimed to accommodate disillusioned Quebecers by introducing the 1987-90 Meech Lake Accord that was intended to bring Quebec into signing the 1982 Constitution Act after providing some Quebec’s demands, including the ‘distinct society’ status within Canada, the veto powers on constitutional amendments affecting Quebec, and the increased jurisdiction over provincial immigration.

Trudeau was the leading opponent of the Meech Lake Accord since it was against his vison of centralized, symmetrical and bilingual federation. He claimed that if Quebec is armed with the ‘distinct society’ status it would give the province more power to challenge and confront the federal government in many fields.

On the other hand, many believed that each of the Accord’s components can be justified within a true federation, where the federal government should not be imposing its will on one province that stands out in its linguistic and cultural terms.[37]

Unfortunately, the Meech Lake Accord failed as it was not approved by some provinces in time before the deadline.

Undeniably, Quebecers now felt betrayed for the second time in ten years and were thus even more encouraged to participate in separatist activities.

The next referendum, which was now on full sovereignty, was scheduled for 1992.

The photo depicts Prime Minister Brian Mulroney holding up pieces of paper he had torn during a speech in Sherbrooke, Quebec, on Sept. 28, 1992.
“Prime Minister Brian Mulroney holds up a piece of paper he had torn during a speech in Sherbrooke, Quebec, on Sept. 28, 1992. Mr. Mulroney was demonstrating that a No vote on the referendum would rip apart the 31 points Quebec got in the Charlottetown agreement.”
Credits: The Globe and Mail, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/elections/from-the-archives-charlottetown-accord-haggling-turned-into-marathon-polishing-a-pact/article4508519/

In order to keep the province within Canada, the federal government introduced a new vision of relationship between Quebec and the rest of the country, incorporated within the 1992 Charlottetown Accord.

The document consisted of four main parts:

  • the Canada Clause which retained the recognition of Quebec as a distinct society within Canada;
  • the Triple-E Senate which provided each province with an equal number of six Senators and with one for each territory, and compensated Ontario and Quebec with 18 additional seats in the House of Commons for their loss of 18 senators each;
  • the Aboriginal self-government;
  • the Division of Powers which retained the provisions of the Meech Lake Accord.

For the Accord to be effective, it had to be ratified by Parliament and the ten provincial legislatures. The scheduled national referendum on sovereignty was thus now to be held on the Charlottetown Accord instead, since the Meech Lake Accord was criticized for the lack of public input.

The referendum, however, failed to approve the Charlottetown Accord, since 56% voted against its implementation. The negative vote was largely caused by “the view that the accord was a dilution of Meech Lake and did not give Quebec sufficient new powers, [while] many outside Quebec argued that that province got too much.”[38]

The photo depicts a large crowd of people waiving Canadian and Quebec flags (as well as other signs) during the 1995 Referendum. A huge Canadian flag held by a large amount of people can be seen in the middle of the photo.
The 1995 Referendum.
Credits: Macleans, https://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/what-would-have-come-after-a-yes/

This was the last drop for Quebecers who now radicalized and in 1994 again elected Parti Québécois (PQ), led by the hard-line separatist Jacques Parizeau, whom then eventually scheduled the second Quebec referendum on sovereignty for October 1995. The referendum led to the ‘near death’ experience, as 50.6% voted against and the overwhelming 49.4% voted for separation.

This was truly the tensest moment in Canada’s modern history.


The bitter experiences during the previous two decades revealed that Canadians were only further divided along the national

The photo depicts Joseph Philippe Pierre Yves Elliott Trudeau-a leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and the Prime Minister of Canada from 1968 to 1984 (with a brief period as Leader of the Opposition between 1979 and 1980)- smiling at the camera.
Joseph Philippe Pierre Yves Elliott Trudeau (1919-2000). He was a leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and the Prime Minister of Canada from 1968 to 1984 (with a brief period as Leader of the Opposition between 1979 and 1980). He was Canada’s third longest-serving Prime Minister.
Credits: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Trudeau

lines over the innovative ideas of their leaders.

For instance, per Donald Ipperciel, Trudeau’s federalist solution to the ‘Quebec question’ was to create the Charter patriotism, or the universalism of constitutional principles, to serve “as a shield against national particularisms.”[39]His vision of a united pan-Canadian Charter of Rights represented “the commonness of all Canadians, regardless of the diversity composing the country”[40]and portrayed the Canadian purpose to be attached to a collective entity that spreads beyond the nation. Trudeau believed that by guaranteeing the individual rights it was possible to undermine the separatists’ collective rights appeal.

However, Trudeau failed to understand that while “Charter patriotism is addressed to the inalienable rights of individuals, nationalism is concerned with individuals’ participation in collective decision making”[41]which is expressed through their distinct language and culture which, if subdued, jeopardize the establishment of a common popular will. Moreover, for Quebecers, their different history, perceptions of the world and religion only necessitated the distinct society status and anything less would have seemed unfair to the province.

Therefore, the aims of the constitutional patriotism should not aim to prevent or completely overshadow nationalism.

For this same reason, the innovative ideas implemented by the federal governments of Trudeau and Mulroney such as official bilingualism, constitutional patriation and amendments (which subsequently failed) only created more national debates, which pitted regions and provinces against each other.

The photo depicts Joseph Jacques Jean Chrétien-a leader of the Liberal Party of Canada from 1990 to 2003, and the Prime Minister of Canada from 1993 to 2003- looking away and smiling.
Joseph Jacques Jean Chrétien (born 1934). He was a leader of the Liberal Party of Canada from 1990 to 2003, and the Prime Minister of Canada from 1993 to 2003.
Credits: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Chr%C3%A9tien

As more and more Canadians have started to get tired of dealing with crises rooted in those mega-constitutional reforms, the new solution had to be invented. This stimulated the Prime Minister Joseph Jacques Jean Chrétien (1993-2003) to stop making them the centerpiece of executive federalism and to switch to the non-constitutional approaches.

After the 1995 referendum results, Chrétien launched ‘Plan A’ to undermine the separatists’ support, and ‘Plan B’ to prepare for the potential Quebec’s separation from Canada.

Plan A included:

  • the recruitment of the two top candidates from Quebec- Stephane Dion and Pierre Pettigrew– to Chrétien’s cabinet, as well as the resolution declaring Quebec a distinct society (it was finally approved by Parliament in 1995);
  • a series of measures aimed to decentralize federal responsibility for a variety of policy areas such as forestry, tourism, social housing and labor-market training, which were now informally transferred from federal to provincial jurisdictions;
  • the amendment in 1996 of the 1982 Constitution Act, which specified that for any proposed constitutional amendment to take place it was required to achieve the consent of Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia and two+ each of the Atlantic and Prairie provinces;
  • the presentation to Quebecers of the idea that Canada was a great place to live through the major advertisement campaigns between 1996-2004, which promoted the federal government’s attributes and achievements.


Plan B was to clarify the legal grounds for secession. Chrétien’s government asked the Canadian Supreme Court to determine the constitutionality of the unilateral declaration of independence.

While in 1998 the Supreme Court ruled the impossibility of the unilateral secession of the province, it recognized that the Canadian constitutional order could not be indifferent to “a clear majority vote in Quebec on a clear question in favor of secession [which] would confer democratic legitimacy on the secession initiative.”[42]

Thus, despite the fact that the unilateral session is illegal under the law, “the possibility of an unconstitutional declaration of secession leading to a de facto secession is not ruled out”[43] and the success of such an action is determined to depend on its recognition by the international community.

The 1999 Clarity Act (Bill C-20) translated into the law the 1998 Supreme Court’s decision and established the rules which the Canadian federal government has to follow after any successful separatist referendum.


The photo depicts the successful 2012 student strike in Quebec against austerity policies at universities. At the front of the photo we can see students holding a big red sign that allegedly reads "les neoliberales", and a huge crowd of people following them with big red flags.
“The 2012 student strike in Quebec is a lesson in successful struggle against austerity policies. The strike was sparked by the announcement by the governing Parti Libéral du Québec (PLQ) of Premier Jean Charest that tuition fees would increase 75 per cent, from $2168 per year to $3793 by 2017.”
Credits: The Bullet, https://socialistproject.ca/2012/12/b752/

After 2000, however, there was no need to invoke any formal constitutional negotiations on Quebec sovereignty since the separatist aspirations have significantly waned.

There are three important explanations behind the curtailment of Quebec’s separatist activities:

  • The first one has to do with the social movements that shifted their focus away from Quebec’s sovereignty to social justice aimed at addressing poverty and wealth redistribution, since Quebec’s domestic economy has deteriorated due to the earlier provincial governments’ focus on the welfare state’s cuts which subsequently weakened the unions.
    • Moreover, on a related sociological note, the Quebec youth of 2000s became largely depoliticized and stopped identifying with the sovereignty project.[44]
  • The second explanation behind the curtailment of separatism is the neoliberal direction taken by the federal government. The neoliberal state has facilitated co-operation between both levels of government, which, in turn, has changed the character of federal-provincial agreements, thus allowing for Quebec’s demands to be seen as more acceptable and attainable.
    • For instance, the heavy-scale federal spending power that was central to Quebec’s discontent with the Canadian federation in 1960-70s, has been largely reduced during the current neoliberal era. Influenced by the forces of globalization, “the neoliberal pattern of continental integration”[45] has promoted free markets and constrained the federal government’s intervention.
    • This has largely influenced the shape of federalism, since the neoliberal withdrawal of some federal economic pressures has shaped its economic agenda to give provinces more powers to develop their own economies.
      • This allowed for province building, which made Quebec more assertive vis-à-vis the federal government and subsequently appeasing its separatist desires.
  • The last explanation behind the decline of separatism is the approval of most of Quebec’s recent demands.
    The photo depicts Stephen Joseph Harper-a leader of the Conservative Party of Canada from 2004 to 2015 and the Prime Minister of Canada from 2006 to 2015- smiling at the camera.
    Stephen Joseph Harper(born 1959). He was a leader of the Conservative Party of Canada from 2004 to 2015 and the Prime Minister of Canada from 2006 to 2015.
    Credits: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Premiership_of_Stephen_Harper
    • The aforementioned informal asymmetric arrangements under the Chrétien’s government in which Quebec was treated differently is called asymmetrical federalism. This policy contradicts the traditional Trudeau’s belief of symmetric federalism, in which all provinces should be treated equally.
    • Stephen Joseph Harper’s Conservative government (2006-2015) has also appealed to Quebec with his promise of ‘open federalism’. His government has founded Quebec’s formal role at the UNESCO, recognized the fiscal imbalance between the two levels of governments, acknowledged that “Québécois form a nation within a united Canada”[46], and approved the provinces’ rights to exercise their full jurisdictional responsibilities in fiscal areas and provincial jurisdictions without the federal government’s intervention.
    • Therefore, with diminished specific policy criteria by which provinces must abide, the most obvious areas of disagreement between Quebec and federal governments (including the appeal of Quebec’s separatists) have been reduced.


The photo depicts the Bloc Québécois leader, Yves-François Blanchet, smiling and showing thumbs up in reaction to a successful for his party Oct. 21, 2019 federal election.
The Bloc Québécois leader, Yves-François Blanchet, reacts after the Oct. 21, 2019 federal election.
Credits: The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/01/world/canada/Bloc-Quebecois-Nationalism.html

Quebec’s political future is, however, riddled with uncertainties. As of today, there are some fears about the potential reawakening of the dormant Québécois secessionist movement.

In fact, it seems like the Government of Canada has now substantial reasons for being concerned about the future destiny of Quebec within the Canadian borders: during the October 2019 election the Bloc Québécois (the largest nationalist party that advocates for Quebec’s separation from Canada) has won 32 seats, making it the third largest party in the House of Commons.[47]

However, if we analyze the issue on a more deeper level, it can be seen that the BQ’s success was not due to its separatist goals. Instead, the party succeeded precisely because they put this goal on the back burner, since “Quebec’s secession is supported by [only] about 30 percent of Quebecers.”[48] Similarly, for the first time in four decades, the sovereignty issue was also sidelined during the 2018 provincial elections in Quebec.[49]

Such surprising outcomes are mainly due to the fact that both the BQ and the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), the governing right-wing provincial party of Quebec, chose to focus instead on protecting Quebec’s identity and values within the Canadian borders.[50]

The chart depicts francophone Quebecers' answers to "Which government best represents your interests?" question. This chart is divided by age into three categories: 1) 18 to 39; 2) 40 to 54; 3) 55 or older, to reveal that the younger generation does not have as much trust in the provincial government compared to the baby boomers.
Credits: Maclean’s, https://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/millennial-and-gen-z-francophones-dont-value-quebec-nationalism/

While it is true that the younger generation of Quebecers does not seek political independence for its province anymore, as well as does not trust their provincial government for representing their interests as much as the previous generation did[51], they are still concerned and feel deeply insecure about the inadequate representation of the French language and identity “in an age of English-dominated Facebook and Netflix [which] continue to exert a powerful hold on the Quebec psyche.”[52]

Statistically speaking, the concern about the status of the French language has only increased over time: whereas in 2003, 53 percent of francophone Quebecers believed that their language was threatened, an alarming 68 percent believe so today.[53]

One of the striking examples of this reviving nationalist attitude can be reflected in the province’s recent controversial law which aims to ban all governmental officials from wearing religious symbols while at work.[54] While the rest of Canada sees the law as an affront to Canadian values, 66 percent of Quebecers support it, seeing it as a powerful symbol of the “province’s sovereignty over its own destiny.”[55]

It seems to me that while the Quebec’s separatism has been drastically diminished, its nationalism has not.

Therefore, the future of Quebec remains uncertain.

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  • Abelson , Donald, Colleen Collins , Charles Breton , Alain G. Gagnon , and Andrew Parkin . “Millennial and Gen Z Francophones Don’t Value Quebec Nationalism.” Maclean’s , August 26, 2020. https://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/millennial-and-gen-z-francophones-dont-value-quebec-nationalism/.
  • Bilefsky , Dan. “The Reawakening of Quebec’s Nationalism.” The New York Times , November 1, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/01/world/canada/Bloc-Quebecois-Nationalism.html.
  • Changfoot, Nadine, and Blair Cullen. “Why Is Quebec Separatism off the Agenda? Reducing National Unity Crisis in the Neoliberal Era.” Canadian Journal of Political Science44(4) (December 2011): 769-787.
  • Cochrane, Christopher, Kelly Blidook, and Rand Dyck. Canadian Politics: Critical Approaches. 8th ed. Nelson Education, 2017.
  • Inwood, Gregory J. “Chapter 8: Quebec.” In Understanding Canadian Federalism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice, 2013.
  • Ipperciel, Donald. “Where Did Trudeau Go Wrong? On the Question of Nationalism and Charter Patriotism in Canada.” Constitutional Forum17 (2008): 39-47.
  • Noël, Alain. “Quebec.” The Oxford Handbook of Canadian Politics, September 2010, 92-110.
  • Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 S.C.R. 217, accessed on March 14, 2019 https://www.canlii.org/en/ca/scc/doc/1998/1998canlii793/1998canlii793.html.
  • Wiseman, Nelson. “Quebec: Political Culture of a Distinct Society.” In In Search of Canadian Political Culture, 161-86. 2007.
  • Zubrzycki , Geneviève. “Iconoclastic Unmaking: The Quiet Revolution’s Aesthetic Revolt (1959-1969).” In Beheading the Saint: Nationalism, Religion, and Secularism in Quebec , 73–107. The University of Chicago Press, 2016.


[1] Alain Noël, “Quebec,” The Oxford Handbook of Canadian Politics, September 2010, 94

[2] Noël, Ibid, 94

[3] Gregory J. Inwood, “Chapter 8: Quebec,” in Understanding Canadian Federalism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice (2013), 147

[4] Inwood, Ibid, 147

[5] Christopher Cochrane, Kelly Blidook, and Rand Dyck, Canadian Politics: Critical Approaches, 8th ed. (Nelson Education, 2017), 100

[6] Inwood, Ibid, 147

[7] Inwood, Ibid, 149

[8] Inwood, Ibid, 151

[9] Nelson Wiseman, “Quebec: Political Culture of a Distinct Society,” in In Search of Canadian Political Culture (2007), 170

[10] Inwood, Ibid, 152

[11] Inwood, Ibid, 155

[12] Geneviève Zubrzycki , “Iconoclastic Unmaking: The Quiet Revolution’s Aesthetic Revolt (1959-1969),” in Beheading the Saint: Nationalism, Religion, and Secularism in Quebec (The University of Chicago Press, 2016), pp. 73-107, 76.

[13] Inwood, Ibid, 154

[14] Zubrzycki, Ibid, 73.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Zubrzycki, Ibid, 76.

[17] Zubrzycki, Ibid, 78.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Zubrzycki, Ibid, 79.

[22] Zubrzycki, Ibid, 81.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Zubrzycki, Ibid, 82.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Zubrzycki, Ibid, 84.

[27] Zubrzycki, Ibid, 86.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Zubrzycki, Ibid, 99.

[30] Zubrzycki, Ibid, 102.

[31] Zubrzycki, Ibid, 84.

[32] Zubrzycki, Ibid, 87.

[33] Cochrane, Ibid, 105

[34] Cochrane, Ibid, 405

[35] Ibid.

[36] Donald Ipperciel, “Where Did Trudeau Go Wrong? On the Question of Nationalism and Charter Patriotism in Canada,” Constitutional Forum 17 (2008), 42

[37] Cochrane, 407

[38] Cochrane, Ibid, 410

[39] Ipperciel, Ibid, 39

[40] Ipperciel, Ibid, 41

[41] Ipperciel, Ibid, 44

[42] Reference re Secession of Quebec, 1998, 2 S.C.R. 217

[43] Cochrane, Ibid, 413

[44] Nadine Changfoot and Blair Cullen, “Why Is Quebec Separatism off the Agenda? Reducing National Unity Crisis in the Neoliberal Era,” Canadian Journal of Political Science 44(4) (December 2011), 769

[45] Changfoot, Ibid, 774

[46] Changfoot, Ibid, 771

[47] Dan Bilefsky , “The Reawakening of Quebec’s Nationalism,” The New York Times, November 1, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/01/world/canada/Bloc-Quebecois-Nationalism.html.

[48] Bilefsky, Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Donald Abelson et al., “Millennial and Gen Z Francophones Don’t Value Quebec Nationalism,” Maclean’s, August 26, 2020, https://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/millennial-and-gen-z-francophones-dont-value-quebec-nationalism/.

[52] Bilefsky, Ibid.

[53] Abelson, Ibid.

[54] Bilefsky, Ibid.

[55] Ibid.


Quebec’s Law 21: A Violation of the Social Contract Theories of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes

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