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Debate: Quebec independence

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Should the province of Quebec secede from Canada?

Background and context

The question of Quebec sovereignty has been a big issue in Canadian minds since the 1960s, when General de Gaulle uttered his infamous, "Vive Montreal, vive le Quebec libre, vive le Canada francais, vive la France," at Montreal’s Expo ’67. Quebec (or Lower Canada as it was know then) was ceded to the British in 1763 after the Seven Years’ War.
Since then, there has been a quiet discomfort with English rule in Quebec.The issue of sovereignty came to a head in 1968, with the formation of the Parti Quebecois (PQ). Its goal is to create a sovereign Quebec in which Quebeckers will be "masters in their own house". By 1976, the PQ was the governing party in Quebec provincial politics. Though it lost power to the provincial Liberal Party in 1985, it regained a majority in 1994, and currently holds 75 of the provincial legislature’s 125 seats. The Bloc Quebecois (BQ), the federal version of the PQ, is the third largest party in the federal House of Commons. In fact, in 1993, it won 54 seats, enough to make it the Official Opposition. The secessionist threat has resulted in violence. In 1970, the Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ) kidnapped British envoy James Cross and provincial cabinet minister Pierre Laporte. Cross was released but Laporte was eventually killed. There have been two referenda on Quebec sovereignty. The most recent, in 1994, resulted in a slim victory for the federalists: 49.4% said yes to sovereignty, 50.6% said no. After the referendum, the Supreme Court of Canada weighed in on the issue of sovereignty in the Reference re Secession of Quebec. Its holding was enshrined in the federal government’s 2000 Clarity Act. Though the PQ holds power in Quebec, it is being challenged by the Liberal opposition and the nationalist Action Democratique du Quebec (ADQ). Today, Quebeckers seem more concerned with jobs, health care and poverty, not sovereignty. Nonetheless, the PQ threatens another referendum when it has the "winning conditions".

Argument #1


Quebec’s identity is being threatened. Only 25% of Canadians are francophone, and almost all reside in Quebec. If Quebec does not secede, its culture and language will be subsumed by Canada’s English majority and new waves of immigrants, many of whom prefer to be educated and speak in English.


Quebec has ample protection for its cultural identity. The Canadian constitution protects language rights and educational rights for francophones in Quebec and in other provinces. The federal government is fully bilingual, meaning that all business must be conducted in both official languages.

Argument #2


Quebec can survive economically. The government offers extensive subsidies to businesses willing to relocate to Montreal. In fact, Montreal is still the third-largest city for corporate headquarters in Canada. Further, Quebec offers a stable workforce: francophone Quebeckers are less likely to immigrate outside of Quebec. Quebec has cheap power, an extensive social safety net and is geographically well-located (i.e. close to Boston and New York). Further, Montreal leads all North American cities for the proportion of its population working in high technology. Also, Quebec is the U.S.’s sixth-largest trading partner.


Sovereignty is threatening Quebec’s economic viability. Quebec’s harsh language laws mean that anglophone businesses, many from the U.S., establish themselves in Toronto, not Montreal. Between 1976 and 1996, 400,000 English Quebeckers left Quebec, draining the province of vital skills and resources. The atmosphere of sovereignty is scaring away immigrants, a much-needed resource in a province where the birth rate is the lowest in Canada.

Argument #3


Quebec was hijacked by Pierre Trudeau and his repatriation of the Canadian constitution 1982. Quebec demanded a veto on constitutional amendments; a voice in immigration policy and Supreme Court appointments; recognition as a "distinct society"; and the ability to opt-out of any new cost-sharing programs. These demands were on a par with Quebec’s status on Confederation as "first amongst equals". Instead, then Prime Minister Trudeau and the other nine provinces made a backroom deal and patriated the constitution.


Quebec’s demands were unreasonable and, moreover, the constitution was patriated legally. Quebec’s assent was not necessary to patriate the constitution. Furthermore, Canada is a confederation of eleven equal partners: the federal government and each of the ten provinces. Quebec may have had special status in the 1800s, when it was a counterweight to English Ontario, but today it is but one province. The Constitution also grants Quebec the ability to declare certain legislation not subject to constitutional override. For example, the Supreme Court struck down Quebec’s language laws as unconstitutional, but Quebec overrode that decision using the "notwithstanding" clause. Finally, Quebec’s attempts to negotiating constitutional amendments (i.e. the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Accord) were defeated, either by general election or in a referendum.

Argument #4


Quebec wants "respect" within Confederation, and respect is not forthcoming unless it secedes. Attempts at devolution or an EU-style union will not fly in Ottawa or the other provincial capitals. Moreover, economic prosperity will not be forthcoming until Quebec can decide its own destiny. Otherwise, it is tied to the economic decisions made in Toronto, Calgary and Ottawa.


Quebeckers today are not interested in secession. Sovereignty is a throw-back to the 1960s baby-boom generation. Today, Quebeckers are interested in job security, low unemployment and economic prosperity. The federalist Liberals and the nationalist ADQ have been making huge strides, enough to suggest that the PQ will fall in the next general election. Finally, Quebec should look to other models: the EU or devolution in the U.K. "Sovereignty association" or a greater devolution of powers may be enough to protect Quebec’s culture and language concerns.

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