Quebec and its separatist movement: a critical analysis based on self-determination, membership, and the limits of democracy

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Gloria Dabek

Game Theory and Democracy

Professor Bray

November 12, 2013


For nearly half a century, Quebec has attempted various times to secede from Canada. Citing self-sufficiency and a distinctive culture, Quebec claims that it holds interests separate from the rest of Canada, and needs autonomy. With an illustrious history boasting French roots that Quebec still prides itself on, Quebec was set apart from its inception.

Although the Bloc Quebecois is no longer an official political party on the federal level, it still advocates Quebec’s interests and solidifies Quebecer attitudes. After an extremely close referendum for separation in 1995, Canada stepped up its game concerning national unity, and held off separatism. While Quebec hasn’t separated from Canada, however, Quebec has instituted French as its official language, and mandated all public signs and business be done in French.

When questioning whether Quebec should be able to secede, one must examine membership, self-determination, and limits of democracy. Should Quebec have to assimilate, as its in the minority of Canada? Or does its distinct culture provide qualification for self-determination? What are the limits of democracy in this case?

For decades now, Quebec has existed in tension with the rest of its Canadian counterparts. As an enclave established as part of New France during the Age of Exploration, Quebec originated in a culturally protected bubble. Today, that sense of exclusion translates into a quest for sovereignty. Much of Quebec seeks to secede from Canada due to its French linguistic and cultural ties, but some of Quebec, along with other parts of Canada, wishes to maintain national unity. Bearing in mind its strong exclusionary history, should Quebec possess the ability to secede from Canada? Critically analyzing potential answers cause questions of self-determination, membership, and democratic limits to emerge.
History and Background
In 1608, Samuel de Champlain founded modern-day Quebec. An explorer defending the interests of France, de Champlain chose Quebec as a prime trading location, due to its natural protection, abundant rivers, and top fur-trapping potential. De Champlain attempted to establish relations with the Aboriginals, trading with them, and eventually forming an alliance that would ease France’s control of the area (“Themes—The Founding of Quebec”). From the very beginning, Quebec stood apart from the rest of Canada. Although the British and French alternately colonized Canada, the British took control in the 18th century, although they left French civil law in place (now known as Quebec law)(“Themes”).
Quebec continued to develop separately, but parallel to surrounding Canadian provinces, until the 1960s Quiet Revolution transpired. During the Liberal Party rule of Jean Lesage, Quebec subtly but rapidly reversed its agricultural and traditional roots to progress to a more secular, liberal state. Necessarily, the state became more involved in individual affairs, and Quebec nationalism increased as the province’s liberalism did. Claude Belanger from Marianopolis College, states that
The process of questioning the social order inevitably led to a redefinition of the role and place of French Canadians in Canada. Demand for change was heard everywhere: for bilingualism, for biculturalism, for the respect of the autonomy of Quebec, for equal status in Confederation. The tokenism of the past was rejected. The concept of French Canadian was replaced by that of the Québécois (“Quiet Revolution”).
The differences that separated Quebec from the rest of Canada finally developed into a nationalistic attitude, and future events reflected this. In 1963, for example, Quebec initiated an inquiry into this bilingualism and biculturalism, and determined that French Canadians were at a disadvantage “linguistically, economically, and in the civil service” (“Timeline of Quebec History”). Perceiving this disadvantage while emphasizing their separatism has triggered further events in Quebec’s nationalistic history.
Because of this, the 1960s proved eventful for Quebec. In 1963, the FLQ, or Front de Liberation du Quebec was born, following the intellectual leadership of Charles Gagnon and Pierre Vallieres. For nearly a decade, the group represented the radical, extreme faction of Quebec separatists, committing terrorist action in Canada until 1972. Although the movement never attracted widespread support, a less radical demand for change did emerge. In 1964, for example, Quebec withdrew from 29 federal programs, citing an “opt-out” clause, and again separating themselves from the rest of Canada. The following year, Quebec made its first international deal with France, provoking swift and intense backlash with remaining Canada—what gave Quebec the right to deal independently with international affairs? (“Timeline of Quebec History”)
Quebec felt as if it had the right to deal independently because the Quiet Revolution instilled a sense of nationalism and self-sufficiency within it. Quebec was progressing rapidly—why shouldn’t it be able to manage its own affairs? Additionally, Quebec’s cultural and historical ties to France only justified the deal further for Quebec. Much of France also pushed for Quebec’s autonomy, recognizing Quebecers as French people just as themselves.
Quebec pushed their exclusiveness further in 1971, when it mandated English schools teach French as a second language. Only three years later, Quebec declared French its official national language through Bill 22, demanding that Anglophones, or English-speakers, simply deal with the consequences (“Timeline of Quebec History”). Quebec took a step even further in 1977, when it not only declared French the “dominant” language, but restricted other language usage in public. For example, companies could only advertise in French. Additionally, all public administrators and businesses had to address their clients in French, alienating the Anglophone community even further. This extreme measure surprised even the most skeptical Anglophones, and again, caused controversy in the rest of Canada (“Timeline of Quebec History”).
Quebec separatism perhaps solidified itself in the 1981 Meech Lake Accord. When Canada presented Quebec with a package of amendments to the Canadian Constitution, it thought that this was a gesture to increase national unity. It transformed, however, into a symbolic rejection on Quebec’s part that reinvigorated the separatist movement. Ultimately, the exchange recognized Quebec as a distinct society within Canada, a recognition with bold implications for the future (“Timeline of Quebec History”).
A decade later, the first political party centered around Quebec’s autonomy was formed. In 1991, Bloc Quebecois became the first political party on a federal level to promote Quebec’s interests almost exclusively. Generally, Bloc Quebecois is a socially liberal party, advocating environmentalism, LGBT rights, and abortion rights in addition to its Quebec-centered political platform. In 1993, it competed in its first election, winning 54 of the 75 seats in Quebec. This could perhaps be attributed to BQ’s strong ties to the provincial Parti Quebecois, a party that advocates almost exclusively for Quebec’s secession. In the 1990s, Bloc Quebecois had created a “Three Period Plan,” and winning spots in the 1993 election accomplished the first part. The second part was also achieved, with the Parti Quebecois elected for the 1994 Quebec election. The last “period,” however, was not accomplished, and resulted in BQ losing much momentum; in 1995, Quebec called a referendum to vote for secession from Canada, and it failed (“Bloc Quebecois”).
The 1995 election was definitely a turning point for Quebec. A close 49.4% of voters said ‘yes’ to separating, dividing the country by the smallest of margins (“Quebec Vote is a ‘Wake-up’ Call”). While a record number of Canadians cast their votes, a poll of French citizens revealed that most French desired Quebec to secede, adding further pressure to Canada (“Quebec Vote is a ‘Wake-up’ Call”). At one point in the night, the difference between the two sides was a microscopic 28 votes, especially significant because 93.5% of Canadians voted in this election (“1995 Referendum Voting Day”). Because very few votes separated both sides, this election begs the question: is this fair? Should Quebec be able to secede or have to stay based on just a few votes that seem to matter more than all others?
The Canadian government wanted to avoid taking chances with any more referendums, and thus the 1995 referendum resulted in the 2000 Clarity Act. This act firmly crippled Quebec’s ability to secede as easily as it might have in 1995, requiring that the Canadian government must approve any future referendums, and that the referendums must have a clear majority as well as an unambiguous question (“Clarity Act”). Because the Canadian government holds great interest, economically, politically, and culturally, in keeping Quebec as part of formal Canada, this act really restricts Quebec.
Perhaps because of such restriction and failure, the Bloc Quebecois declined drastically in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 2004, however, BQ made a brief comeback after a mistake on the part of the Canadian government. Dubbed the “Sponsorship Scandal,” officials uncovered evidence that after Quebec almost won its separatist vote, the Canadian government contracted several companies to advertise national unity in Quebec (“Sponsorship Scandal”). While this alone was not illegal, the Canadian government apparently misdirected millions of dollars through these campaigns. Consequently, Bloc Quebecois was granted millions of dollars in subsidies to recover (“Sponsorship Scandal”). Their revival was short-lived, however, and in 2011, they were downgraded from an official political party in the House of Commons after only earning four of twelve seats necessary for official party recognition. As a result, BQ members cannot sit as voting members on committees, and can ask few questions in the House at all (“Bloc Quebecois”). Although drastically downgraded in the political arena, Quebec separatism still holds strong.
Today, tension still exists between Quebec and Canada. While two-thirds of Canadians outside of Quebec believe relations with Quebec have improved or stayed the same, over half of Quebecers feel relations have worsened, showing great disparity in attitudes (Grenier). This may be sourced to Quebec’s inherent differences: 82% of Quebecers, in fact, believe that they are fundamentally different than other Canadians (Grenier). Perhaps due to this attitude, many Canadians are becoming frustrated with Quebec’s demands, questioning what makes Quebec so special. A sturdy 72% of Canadians outside the province believe that Quebec will never be satisfied with Canadian concessions, and one-fifth of Canadians believe that Canada would simply be better off without Quebec (Grenier).
Quebec’s history and attitudes demonstrate that unrest will most likely continue until some more permanent sense of peace is established. Clearly, Canada has made concessions and is tired of doing so; and Quebec has made its demands, and had its chances to separate, and failed. Whether or not Quebec will secede is a question left for the future—whether or not Quebec should secede based on membership, self-determination and assimilation, and the tenets of democracy is another question entirely.
A Critical Analysis
Many argue that members of a unique state possess the right to restrict or loosen their own membership and definition of membership. Thus, if Quebec is indeed a unique state, its members have the right to decide that it is separate from the rest of Canada by excluding other Canadian citizens from Quebec membership. This might ultimately justify Quebec secession. In Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, Michael Walzer examines membership through multiple lenses. Through culture, Walzer notes that when people value distinctiveness of culture, some form of closure is necessary. In the case of Quebec, most Quebecers value Quebec based on its unique French colonial ties, as well as its distinct linguistic division with the rest of Canada. To prevent Quebec from being absorbed by greater Canada, many Quebecers feel that they must close themselves off from the rest of Canada, effectively separating. To them, Canadians might equivocate to strangers—with few cultural commonalities excepting their national name, other Canadians differ drastically from Quebecers, through history, language, and culture, as already established in the previous section. And as Walzer succinctly explains, “members will organize to defend the local culture and politics against strangers” (38). Culturally, Walzer implies that as a culturally distinct state, Quebec has the right to close its membership to preserve its distinctiveness.

Walzer also looks at membership through another lens: territory. Initially, every state determines its membership by incorporating those in its present physical location. For example, Native American tribes differed by location—each tribe was separate based on their physical locations. Over time, membership might spread, and separate enclaves established across land, but initially, Walzer argues that membership stems from individual right to place. In Quebec, the French colonized the territory, initially establishing membership. Thus today, French Quebecers, according to Walzer, maintain the right to place that allow them to establish their own membership.

Democracy traditionally holds the belief that members control membership, whether directly or indirectly. In the United States, for example, citizens vote for politicians that vote for policies regarding membership (immigration). According to Walzer then, membership connects to democracy, and democratically, Quebec has the right to separate, justified by it controlling its membership and excluding other Canadians.
But what gives Quebec the right to make its own choices? As a minority compared to the rest of Canada, why doesn’t Quebec have to assimilate to what the majority of Canada wants, if analyzing through a democratic lens? Two United States Supreme Court cases exemplify the conflict with Quebec and assimilation. The first, Mozert v Hawkins, illustrates how Quebec might need to assimilate based on democracy, while the second, Wisconsin v Yoder demonstrates how Quebec could argue that doesn’t need to assimilate based on democracy.
In the case of Mozert v Hawkins, students demanded alternative programs to religiously offensive integrated curricula. When the school refused to comply, parents argued undue burden on Constitutional free exercise. The district court sided with the students, allowing them accommodation in the schools, but the Supreme Court reversed this decision. Because no students have to affirm or disaffirm beliefs, this did not pose an unconstitutional burden. Additionally, with the students’ arguments, there was no way the school could present information without offending the students. Kids were free to interpret information Biblically if they so choose, and public schools acted as an assimilative force teaching democratic values (Mozert v Hawkins).

While initially this doesn’t seem relevant to Quebec, it serves as an assimilationist model. Is Canada placing an undue burden on Quebec by demanding it assimilate into Canada despite its differences? If Quebec is comparable to the students in this situation, then the answer is no. Like the students, Quebec is free to exercise its own identity, as long as it follows the rules of the greater power (Canada). As a minority in Canada, Quebec must acknowledge and respect the beliefs of the majority, and accept that, while Canada makes concessions for it, it must generally assimilate into the country.

Another U.S. Supreme Court case contradicts this analysis. In Wisconsin v Yoder, Amish parents refused to send their kids to school after eighth grade, claiming they had to prepare their kids for life in the Amish community. The state supreme court supported this claim, asserting that compulsory state education violated right to free exercise. The Supreme Court eventually also agreed with this, noting that the Amish are a self-sufficient community with practice intimately tied to their daily life (Wisconsin v Yoder).
Again, this doesn’t seem relevant to Quebec, but the Wisconsin case offers a separatist model. Is Quebec a self-sufficient state with differentiating practices intimately related to its functioning? If Quebec is akin to the Amish in this situation, then the answer is yes. Like the Amish, Quebec has been self-sufficient and independently functioning since its founding, and maintains cultural practices tied to its everyday functioning. Although not a majority in Canada, democracy holds self-determination as a value, and as a distinct state, Quebec may choose its members and exclude the rest of Canada.
So is Quebec the students or the Amish? And what does this implicate for democracy? While the answers to these questions are debatable, the case of Quebec illustrates the limits of democracy, along with the ramifications of these limits on state practice.

Works Cited

Belanger, Claude. "Quiet Revolution." Quebec History. Marianopolis College, 23 Aug 2000. Web. 10 Nov 2013. .

Belanger, Claude. "Timeline of Quebec History” Quebec History. Marianopolis College, 23 Aug 2000.Web.10 Nov 2013. .

"Bloc Quebecois." Princeton University. Princeton University. Web. 10 Nov 2013. .

"Clarity Act." Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 10 Nov. 2013. .

Grenier, Eric. "Quebec: Canadians Feel Country Would Be Just Fine Without the Province." CNN Canada. CNN, 16 Mar 2012. Web. 10 Nov 2013. .

"Quebec Vote is 'a Wake-up Call'." CNN Canada. CNN, 31 October 1995. Web. 10 Nov 2013. .

"Sponsorship Scandal:Breaking all the Rules." CBC Digital Archives. CBC. Web. 10 Nov 2013. .

"Themes--The Founding of Quebec." Place Royale. Place Royale, 12 Apr 2010. Web. 11 Nov 2013. .

Walzer, Michael. "Spheres of Justice:A Defense of Pluralism and Equality." Trans. Array Membership. 1984. 31-63. Web. 10 Nov. 2013.

"1995 Referendum Voting Day." CBC Digital Archives. CBC. Web. 10 Nov 2013. .

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