The Civic Nationalism of Quebec

By: | Post date: July 29, 2009 | Comments: 2 Comments
Posted in categories: Countries

Now that Quebecois have noticed my blog, I’m going to have to post eventually about what I don’t think they should secede. That’s going to be a hard post to write, given that

  • (a) it’s none of my maudite business;
  • (b) the ideal that I defend in my head, like Ramsay Cook does, inherited from Lord Acton—of an equal partnership of nations making common ground in the same state—has not been the reality of the history of the Canadian Confederation;
  • (c) those partnerships rarely work out equal anywhere;
  • (d) I’m seeing little evidence that the Franco-Quebecois are invested in the partnership any more, whether they can be bothered or not to go to the next step of sovereignty; and
  • (e) the majority of sovereigntists are not the caricatures used to scare small children and National Post readers.

To elaborate a little on the last bit: a review of Ramsay Cook’s Watching Quebec says that he makes the mistake of demonising all nationalisms, and not recognising that some of them can be progressive and civic, rather than ethnicist and reactionary. To put it more obtusely: there’s not just Hitler Nationalism, there’s also Obama Nationalism.

Funny thing is, in one essay Cook says that Trudeau had the same kind of blinkers on (although Cook and Trudeau were fellow travellers in federalism, so Cook didn’t really say that was a bad thing). To Trudeau, nationalism meant only the reactionary Duplessis, he could not see that it can also mean the liberal Bourassa. To Cook, nationalism meant only Hitler (and he admits it in his introductory essay); he could not readily see that it can also mean Lévesque. Or that, even if Bourassa and Lévesque did good things for the people, and disclaimed any Kempek Gallôn Katholikôn rhetoric, that the threat of exclusion was not inherent in nationalism.

(Oh, sorry for that lapse into Greek: my Greek readers know what I’m alluding to. For the rest: the slogan of the April 21 dictatorship in Greece was the unreconstructedly nationalist Hellas Hellenôn Christianôn “Greece of Greek Christians”. And this was forty years after Greece had already been made monolithically Greek Christian, and twenty years before migration would start challenging that.)

The Parti Québécois is not following the rhetoric of ethnic exclusion, except in the fevered imagination of Anglo-Canadian opinion columns. The world has changed, and Canada has changed, even if the Balkans have not: you can’t make ethnic purity a condition for citizenship. The identity PQ is defending is a linguistic one; and in fact Cook diagnosed the shift of rallying point at the time quite astutely.

In the nineteenth century, Franco-Quebec was defined by its creed and its bonds to the parish and the soil. By the mid-20th century, Franco-Quebec was urbanised and secular, and looked like anywhere else in North America (though maybe with a generation’s delay). The only thing left distinguishing it from Anglo-Canada was its language, and that’s what it had to defend. Which is why Quebec welcomes francophone immigrants. The point is not that they’re born eating poutine and swearing “tabarnak”. The point is that francophone migrants will more easily learn to eat poutine and swear “tabarnak”. Or to put it less stupidly, that they can more readily acclimatise to a civic identity which centres on French, and which has identity markers that can be acquired, rather than bequeathed as an ethnicity.

So the PQ brand of nationalism welcomes Haitians: I have no problem believing it does so sincerely (the world has changed and so has Canada), and the PQ can’t hope to win government if it doesn’t. The PQ brand of nationalism tries to embrace anglophones, and makes the 24th of June a National Holiday, rather than a Patron Saint of French Canadians Holiday: it cannot get a contemporary nation happening with a Catholic Saint as its patron. It’s a nationalism, but it’s not an ethnically based nationalism.

That doesn’t mean that Anglo-Quebecois see themselves as welcome in the PQ. They vote against the PQ monolithically, something that has generated much discussion over at Angry French Guy’s blog. A language group voting 97% against a modern civic party is not democracy, it’s Stalinist, the opinion goes. They’re the responsible left-wing party, and an Anglo-Quebecois can support them too, AFG says (before saying he won’t, for reasons of his own):

The Bloc can’t make Québec an independent country without another referendum. You can support the Bloc without supporting sovereignty. Don’t let your Canadian nationalism stand in the way.

Well, maybe; but I do get why the Anglo-Quebecois as a block reject sovereignty. (As a block, of course: there are exceptions who don’t immediately reject it, and Angry French Guy interviews them, but we’re talking statistical abstractions here.)

“Join with the Franco-Quebecois in partnership to build a nation?” They did that: it’s called Canada. The Canadian partnership didn’t work out, because the Francos were the minority? But why would the Anglos want to sign up to be a minority themselves? As a commenter pointed out (can’t find it), that’s not Stalinism; that’s self-interest.

That’s the bind: Canada and Quebec compete for allegiance. Because of how history has flowed, there are Franco-Quebecois who are still committed to the Confederation—or at least, who don’t think it worthwhile to break from the Confederation. Because of how history has flowed, there aren’t a lot of Anglo-Quebecois who see why they should be Quebecois first rather than Canadian first, if being Quebecois makes them a minority. And I say that without being dismissive: my first instinct is to agree with them, after all.

I was misled on my first day in Montreal by the streetscape molded by Bill 101, into thinking that French had won and English had acquiesced. So long as Quebec remains in Canada, there will be a motivation not to acquiesce. Some say sovereignty will solve that; I’m not convinced, and I’m not convinced the centralist motivation not to acquiesce—to look to Ottawa instead of Quebec City—is illegitimate.

But the only way to safeguard French in Quebec is to keep doing what the PQ—and the Liberals—have been doing in Quebec: make French *the* vehicular language of a nation, rather than of an ethnicity. The anglophones may never vote for independence; but more of them are interacting in French on the streets of Montreal. Not enough perhaps, but more. All things considered, that’s no small feat.

As always, the commenters at AFG who actually know what’s going on there have more insight into Quebec Civic Nationalism than I can hope to from downtown Melbourne—and in a better thread than most…

[EDITED for barbaric spelling “quebecquois”]


  • opoudjis says:

    With the obvious proviso, of course, that I am misconstruing and overgeneralising all the time, because I don't know what to look for.

    And of course, I *do* have an irrational opinion, which is that noone is allowed to secede from anywhere ever. What I'm forcing myself to do is work out how defensible that opinion really is in the context of Quebec.

    It was important for me to work out that the mainstream nationalism of Quebec is civic; it prevents me overreacting to it. So I can weigh the competing claims of Quebec and Ottawa in less fraught terms.

    That's not to say I'm getting all the complexities of course, and AFG commenters (was it Acajack?) do say Quebec civil nationalism is still a work in progress. But it's the right work to do, whatever the ultimate fate of Quebec.

  • Very interesting to have your point of view since you probably see the situation with more objectivity, not to say that you don't have an opinion but rather that you try to articulate it rationally. People here still get emotional when discussing this issue.
    Un petit conseil de ma part: Québécois et non Québécquois, please!

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