Quebec independence wasn’t talked about much during the recent provincial election, and the Parti Québécois’s seat count fell from 28 to 10, not enough to guarantee official party status in the legislature. The hot take in English Canada was that both the cause and the party are finished.
This has been claimed before, more as wishful thinking than fact. What was revealed on election night was not so much the final flickers of sovereigntism, as the latest stage in a crisis in a much deeper aspect of life in the province: Quebec nationalism.
Nationalism in Quebec begins with the French language, and spreads through all aspects of life related to it: the arts, culture, intellectual life and everything that allow Quebeckers, as René Lévesque wrote in 1968, “to be really at home …[and] to recognize each other wherever we may be.” Quebec nationalism is the reason there is a French-speaking society in North America, centuries after the Conquest, which could have erased the language from this part of the map.
Reminders of the national ideal are everywhere in Quebec. Ontario has a Provincial Legislature; Quebec has a National Assembly. Edmonton has an Art Gallery of Alberta; Quebec City has a National Museum of Fine Arts. Even the party of postwar strongman Maurice Duplessis, which was formed decades before the clear emergence of separatism as a political force, was called Union Nationale.
These are just names, but they testify to the centrality of the idea of nation and nationalism in Quebec life, with or without the desire to achieve an autonomous state. As Le Devoir columnist Michel David suggested this week, one reason the Liberals were so badly beaten this time, especially outside Montreal, was that Premier Philippe Couillard had fallen out of tune with ordinary nationalist feeling.
In recent years, however, nationalism in other places, including Austria and Hungary but also Britain and the United States, has become defensive, xenophobic and sometimes violent. This has helped tarnish other Canadians’ view of Quebec nationalism, which was none too clear to begin with. When I was growing up in Alberta, “national” only ever referred to the whole country, or to institutions active everywhere but usually based in Ottawa, the puzzlingly distant “centre” of national existence.
Canada has also thoroughly identified itself in recent decades with multiculturalism, which has grown into a state ideology, beyond substantial debate by political parties. This was proved by the ridicule heaped on Maxime Bernier recently, when the formerly Conservative MP said that the issue should be debated at a national level, and founded a new party to address that and other issues.
Canadian multiculturalism poses a huge challenge to Quebec nationalism, which struggles to redefine itself in a way that maintains its sustaining power, without seeming to lapse into one of those ugly foreign nationalisms that most Quebeckers deplore. The PQ’s poor showing on Oct. 1 was part of the continuing fallout of the party’s botched attempt to meet the challenge with its Charter of Values in 2013. That legislation tainted the party’s image among a generation of voters who couldn’t understand why a friend they grew up with should be treated differently because she wore a head scarf.
In another sense, Oct. 1 clarified things enormously. Head scarves are now a front-page concern of the victorious, conservative Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), which calls itself a “new nationalist project.” A relatively xenophobic issue has been taken over by a relatively right-wing party, leaving the PQ to rebuild itself as a progressive sovereigntist force.
It won’t be able to do so without forming a common front with Québec Solidaire, which independentists such as former PQ minister Réjean Hébert are calling for. The ascendant QS, which claimed as many seats as the PQ this time, will have more power in any resumption of last year’s merger discussions between the parties, but no less reason to see them succeed. The two sovereigntist parties won over 33 per cent of the popular vote. That’s more than the PQ needed to form a minority government in 2012, and only four points less than the vote that gave the CAQ its majority.
How a renewed, unified independentist party would redefine nationalism in an increasingly diverse Quebec remains to be seen, but it’s a task that can’t be avoided. Sovereigntism has always been a flower, desired or not, rooted in the deep and fertile soil of Quebec nationalism.