Quebec, Canada and the national unity crisis we outgrew

Posted on June 29, 2017 in Governance History – Opinion/Editorials
Jun. 28, 2017.   GLOBE EDITORIAL

The year 1967 conjures up vivid memories in Quebec. Montreal, then Canada’s largest city, hosted Expo 67, the country’s coming-out party. But the home of the world’s fair was also about to become ground zero for a generation-long national unity crisis.

The remarkable thing is how our endless sentence in the pit of despair is now largely forgotten. On the 150th anniversary of Confederation, that’s something to be thankful for.

Cast your mind back to the Quebec and Canada of 50 years ago. It’s not hard to imagine how badly things could have turned out.

 By Canada’s centennial year, the Quiet Revolution was growing decidedly more audible. Sovereigntist fever was starting to catch. And during the summer of Expo, Charles de Gaulle gave it a boost by stepping onto the balcony at Montreal City Hall and proclaiming, “Vive le Québec libre!”

Three years later: The October Crisis. A diplomat kidnapped. A cabinet minister murdered. And a prime minister on television telling the nation that he had no choice but to invoke the War Measures Act.

Six years after that, it’s Canada’s next great celebration of itself, the Montreal Olympics – followed by the election of the first Parti Québécois government.

For the next two decades, the country veered from Quebec-centered crisis to crisis. The 1980 referendum. The patriation of the Constitution, over the objections of the National Assembly. Meech Lake. The Bloc Québécois becoming Canada’s Official Opposition. The failure of the Charlottetown Accord. The near-death experience of the 1995 referendum.

But all the while, beneath the surface, Quebec was steadily changing. A French-speaking business elite arose, and the place of the French language became more secure than ever.

As a country we have, miraculously, come out the other end of les chicanes constitutionelles.

Thanks to compromise, exhaustion, the passage of time and the Clarity Act, independence is no longer top of mind in Quebec.

As well, the benefits of a half-century of the non-sovereigntist part of the Quiet Revolution are tangible: Quebeckers are richer, better educated and better employed than ever.

And the formerly dominant fault-line in the province’s politics – sovereignty vs. federalism – has become increasingly over-shadowed by rural-urban questions, divergent regional interests and a more typical ideological divide between conservatives and social democrats.

Looking back at Quebec’s “traditional demands” – memorably articulated by former Premier Jean Lesage’s Maîtres chez nous manifesto and honed by each of his successors – is to realize nearly all have, to a greater or lesser degree, been sated.

Greater provincial autonomy; more control over taxation, international relations, immigration and cultural policy; opting out from federal programs with full compensation – all are a fait accompli.

Within Quebec, there are still wide regional disparities, and the province still lags the rest of the country economically, though by less than ever.

And yes, language insecurity persists: A poll commissioned by Le Devoir this past winter found 70 per cent of respondents believe French faces an existential threat in Quebec.

This despite a legal regime aimed at protecting the language – this year is the 40th anniversary of Bill 101 – and the fact that the province has more than seven million French-speaking residents.

According to Statistics Canada, only one in 10 Quebeckers is unable to carry on a conversation in French, a major increase compared to the 1960s. And while Quebec has shrunk as a share of Canada’s population (from 29 per cent in 1967 to 23 per cent today), the proportion of people in the province mostly speaking French at home, at 81.2 per cent, is about the same as the 83.5 per cent of people in the rest of Canada who mainly speak English.

Though language remains as the backdrop to every political debate, the reality is that French is not on the verge of disappearing in Quebec.

Recently, Premier Philippe Couillard tried to ever-so-gingerly re-open the constitutional discussion. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was wise to want nothing to do with such an idea, but it’s important to recognize that the tenor in Quebec City is now different. Gone are the knife-to-the-throat brinkmanship and vitriolic rhetoric of the past.

Some in the sovereigntist movement would describe Quebec’s relationship with Canada as having grown into a loveless marriage.

Evidence suggests otherwise. As Canada marks its 150th anniversary, it’s possible to affirm that, for the vast majority of Quebeckers, Québécois and Canadian are not mutually exclusive ideas. It’s possible to be both. That’s progress worth celebrating.

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