Quebec is a land that has always held a special place in Canada because it is a formally recognized nation within the country, with a territory in which approximately a quarter of Canada’s population and economy reside.
Yesterday, Quebecers voted in a tense election that saw the Parti Quebecois win enough votes to form a minority provincial government. It is resurgence for the party, because it took a beating in the last federal elections and its long-time leader, Gilles Duceppe, resigned as a result. Jean Charest’s Liberals came a very close second.
Pauline Marois is the new premier of Quebec. She campaigned on a line dominated by identity politics and language, coupled with the PQ’s traditional focus of full sovereignty for Quebec. In her accepting speech, she said that if conditions are right, she would set up another referendum on sovereignty in Quebec.
Two such referendums already happened in 1980 and 1995, with the second one being a hair away from dividing Quebec from Canada. The perception is that most Quebecers are not willing to secede from the country, but this cannot be guaranteed in any way. Federalism in Canada has a distinct characteristic of being formal and structured on paper, but very asymmetrical in practice, in terms of setting particular relationships between Ottawa and each province.
Regardless of the minority status of the Marois government and the still-strong Liberal support in Quebec as two factors that would limit support for a referendum, the possibility of one is still a threat to Canada’s political unity.
The oft-cited incentive against separation is the preferential treatment Quebec already receives in terms of a variety of federal transfers, guaranteed representation on the federal level, exemption from some federal arrangements, like healthcare, the status of a nation and language rights; French is an official language in Canada. These are concessions comparable to the kind made to First Nations, but on a much larger scale.
Yet, a look at the world shows that these are not a guarantee against secession. Czechoslovakia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire split, regardless of being integrated political and socio-economic entities. Yugoslavia was also a federation, but it broke apart in conflict, which would not be a correct comparison for Canada, even if Quebec had its brief interlude with armed separatist movements through the Algerian-inspired Front de Liberation du Quebec over the 1970s. The FLQ indirectly led to the conduction of the 1980 referendum on sovereignty.
With this in mind, a separation can happen against seemingly visible logic. The question on one’s mind, then, is why does the PQ still find strong domestic support, and will another referendum be supported by 50%+1 of the eligible voting population, when it happens? Put another way, is anything fundamentally wrong with Canada, or is the PQ merely putting on a sovereignty smoke show?
The truth probably falls somewhere between the two extremes. Canadian federalism is a continual work in progress and there are a number of conceptions to describe it. On the one hand, the PQ is suddenly relevant again, but the appetite for sovereignty in Quebec may not simply be present given that the United States and we are in an economic slump, and Canada just posted its third straight month of job losses.
This reasoning is again appealing the seemingly logical, but an incident that saw a man die at a shooting in the middle of Marois’ accepting speech, a description of which can be found in the source article, suggests two things; one is that the more radical among the PQ supporters are striving to excite the nationalist sentiment by violent means or the second, that it might grow in spite of them.
It is in the Quebecois’ psyche to be protective of their identity, language, larger French heritage and self-perception as a nation; this has been the case since the 1774 Quebec Act, when the English finally got down to governing the colony after their victory over the French at Abraham Plains in 1759. This sentiment curries political favor to this day.
It would be senseless to break apart Canada, but man does not submit to reason. We live in an irrational world and hoping for the best possible outcome on this issue is all we can do, despite all the arguing.