Quebec’s election: the end of separatism in Canada?
11 Oct 2018|

Conventional narratives on Canada see the country as a boring, or inconsequential, state, a middle power, but one whose influence is hamstrung by its economic reliance on the United States and whose power is diminished by the sheer size, scope and power of its neighbour. While the latter part of that assessment is generally true, the idea that Canada’s boring—or, indeed, inconsequential—is far from accurate. Canada is a fascinating mess of a country, one that has been able to deliver great peace, wealth and opportunity to its residents despite incessant internal disputes. Its tensions are so ingrained that the notion that Canada is even a country at all has been questioned.

A more compelling argument would be that Canada is a ‘post-national’ state, one that is able to function in the international sphere like any other, but has such internal diversity, and such deep regional interests, that the significant bonds of history, culture, ethnicity and language struggle to provide sufficient glue. As a highly decentralised federation, its provinces wield incredible power and often see their role as defending their own interests against those of other provinces, and especially against Canada itself.

Despite being governed by the same party, Alberta and British Columbia have been engaged in a bitter stand-off over the construction of an oil pipeline to the Pacific coast. The federal government has subsequently bought the project in an attempt to circumvent actors in BC, but courts have continually ruled in favour of BC interests. The situation is fuelling intense frustration in Alberta (which is rich in oil), with serious figures questioning how the province can function within the federation. As a landlocked province, Alberta doesn’t see separatism as a serious solution to its market-access problems, but the suspicion of the federation as an impediment to regional interests has been a persistent sentiment throughout Canada.

Nowhere is this sentiment more prominent than in Quebec. For the past 50 years, a campaign to achieve sovereign status has dominated Quebec politics, and as a result has weighed heavily on Ottawa’s national strategy. During this period, the Parti Québécois, the main democratic vehicle to achieve this goal, has won five provincial elections, held two referendums on sovereignty and generally been a nuisance to Ottawa’s attempts to foster greater national unity. At an election in Quebec last week, however, the party was reduced to a small rump in the legislature. From governing the province in 2014, the party is now Quebec’s fourth party, and seems unlikely to regain its influence.

Quebec separatism has been Canada’s primary internal strategic threat in the last several decades. While the Parti Québécois has always been staunch in its commitment to using democratic means to achieve its aims, other groups have not. Through the 1960s, the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) unleashed a wave of bombings in the province, killing eight people and injuring many more. The group’s acts of violence culminated in the kidnapping and murder of a Quebec cabinet minister, and the kidnapping of a British diplomat (who was found by police after 60 days). These events led to the federal government invoking the War Measures Act in 1970, placing the military on the streets of Montreal and arresting hundreds of people suspected of collusion with the FLQ.

Public distaste for the FLQ’s activities didn’t translate to a suspicion of separatism itself, and at the third election it contested in 1976, the Parti Québécois won a decisive victory, allowing it to hold the first referendum on Quebec sovereignty in 1980. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposition, however, with close to 60% of the province voting against it. Yet if Ottawa had hoped that this result would lead to the decline of the separatist movement and a more unified political environment, it was to be disappointed.

While lacking the violence of the 1960s, the 1990s proved to be Canada’s most politically turbulent decade. Quebec separatists formed a party to run at federal elections, the Bloc Québécois. This came not long after the rise of the Reform Party, which was formed as a result of significant alienation felt in the country’s western provinces and primarily concerned with advancing western interests in Ottawa. By 1993, with the conservative vote split, the Bloc Québécois had become Canada’s official opposition, leaving the governing Liberal Party (the primary champion of Canada as an idea) with an opposition hostile to the Canadian state and making the Reform Party, with its deep suspicions towards the federation, a third party of significant weight.

Having regained power in Quebec, the Parti Québécois held another referendum on separation from Canada in 1995. This referendum was a far more intense affair, with a highly spirited and emotional campaign and a result that brought Canada to the edge of dissolution (50.58% voted to remain). The close result led the federal government to create the Clarity Act, legislation that outlined the conditions under which the Canadian government would enter into negotiations with a province attempting to secede from the federation.

While the Parti Québécois’s poor electoral performance at last week’s Quebec election—and the apparent death of the sovereignty movement—will be a great relief for Ottawa, its replacement is not exactly comforting. Alongside the rejection of the PQ, the staunch federalist Quebec Liberal Party had its worst performance since its founding in 1867, securing only a quarter of the vote. Instead, a new nationalist—but not sovereigntist—party was swept to power. While the PQ is hostile to the Canadian state, it’s doubtful that the Coalition Avenir Quebec even thinks about Canada at all. A thoroughly insular party, its leader couldn’t even answer basic questions about Canada during the election campaign.

Quebec’s election result could foreshadow a future for Canada in which the state still functions as a whole, but its primary identities and interests remain local, if not secessionist. It would be a country that continues to be conceptualised and romanticised by the idealists in the Liberal Party and begrudgingly accepted by everyone else.