by Professor André Lecours
Québec in Canada: The Background
Nationalism has been a mainstay of politics on the territory of present-day Québec since before the creation of the Canadian federation in 1867. Until the 1960s, this nationalism was French-Canadian insofar as the nation was conceptualised to include all French-speaking Catholics in Canada. As its centre became the province of Québec after 1867, French-Canadian nationalism promoted provincial autonomy, but the notion of independence was rarely brought up. In the context of a French-Canadian nation that included all Francophone Catholics independently of their province of residence, such a self-determination project was hardly feasible.
The Quiet Revolution and the Sovereignist Challenge
The so-called Quiet Revolution of the 1960s changed all this very quickly. Not only did the community of reference become congruent with the boundaries of Québec, but the new Québécois nationalism challenged the structures of Canadian federalism and, ultimately, Canada itself. One stream of the movement, embodied by the Parti libéral du Québec (PLQ) sought to decentralise the Canadian federation while securing some recognition of distinctives for Québec. The other stream, represented by the Parti Québécois (PQ), advocated independence, under the concept of sovereignty-association.
The 1960s was the decade where Québec developed much of its autonomous legislative power. This development, spearheaded by the PLQ, sometimes came at the expense of the Catholic Church (for example, on education and health care, exclusive provincial areas of jurisdiction) and at other times it resulted from negotiations with the federal government (for example, with the development of a Québec pension plan). For decades thence, politics in Québec was defined by the cleavage on the question of independence. This cleavage was shaped by the experience and the idea of the independence referendum. After the PQ took power in 1976, it held such a referendum (formally on ‘sovereignty-association') in 1980. Then, after losing power in 1985, it formed a majority again in 1994 and held a second independence referendum (this time formally on ‘sovereignty-partnership’) in 1995, with 49.4% of voters supporting the ‘yes’ side.
Québec Nationalism Beyond Independence
For about 40 years (approximately between 1975 and 2015), in a context where support for independence hovered between 40% and 50% and when the question of Québec’s political and constitutional future was generally viewed as one of the most important (if not the most important), there was always a realistic possibility of PQ forming a majority government and triggering an independence referendum. In such context, there was little room for political parties that could not, or would not, situate themselves clearly in relation to independence. Supporters of independence would vote for the PQ in order to achieve their (often life-long) objective while opponents of independence would support the PLQ to prevent a possible secession. As the federal government had twice participated in independence referendum campaigns, there was, at least until the Clarity legislation of 1999, no obvious veto on independence in Ottawa, which most likely strengthened the polarisation around the issue.
From an intergovernmental perspective, the PQ, especially while in power but also in opposition, adopted a so-called ‘knife-on-the-throat’ strategy, invoking independence whenever the federal government refused to respond positively to a Québec government claim for more autonomy or resources. The exact result of this strategy is difficult to ascertain but it is clear that the federal government treaded carefully (with the notable exception of the 1982 constitutional reform, never approved by the Québec government) around Québec during that period. The transfer of labour-market training from the federal to the Québec government shortly after the 1995 referendum was probably the clearest product of this approach.
After the 1995 referendum, there was an attempt for a political escape from the so-called ‘oui/non’ (yes/no) polarisation. The small Québec provincial party Action démocratique du Québec, which emerged as a splinter from the PLQ but supported independence in 1995, declared a 10-year moratorium on the ‘national question’ and sought thereafter to position itself as neither ‘sovereignist’ (the Québec political term for secessionist) or ‘federalist’ (the word used to refer to an anti-independence stance). The ADQ, however, failed to make significant headway. Indeed, although support for independence had decreased in the 2000s, secession was still a credible option. Then, in 2012, the ADQ merged with the upstart Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) who also sought to supersede the sovereignist/federalist polarisation. CAQ’s beginnings were inauspicious. Its effort to stress economic issues and de-emphasise the ‘national question’ (including not advocating independence) did not translate into electoral success.
Then, in 2015, the CAQ took its (autonomist) nationalist turn. In a document entitled 'Un nouveau projet pour les nationalistes québécois' (A new project for Québec nationalists), the CAQ explained that, if it formed a government, it would aggressively seek to bolster Québec’s autonomy but at the same time explicitly committed to not pursue independence. This autonomist nationalist position, somewhat reminiscent of the Catalan Convergència i Unió (CiU), united a party composed of both sovereignists (who accepted to put independence on the backburner or completely abandon it, like CAQ leader François Legault, a former PQ minister) and federalists.
The Fruits of Non-Secessionist Nationalism
By the late 2010s, support for independence was down to between 30%-35%, a low score in the Québec context. In addition, the PQ was struggling; Jean-François Lisée, chosen as the PQ leader in 2016, even promised not to have a referendum in both the party leadership race and the subsequent provincial election campaign. Clearly, there was no more appetite for even discussing independence for most Québec voters.
Changes in the Canadian political class, including a different, more flexible, approach to federalism as well as the generation effect of new cohorts of voters not having been socialised during the Quiet Revolution and not having experienced the failures of ‘mega-constitutional’ negotiations, contributed to the weakening of the independence option. The time was ripe for the CAQ to make electoral headway. And it did. The 2018 Québec elections resulted in a CAQ majority government, as it won 74 out of 125 seats, reducing the stalwarts of Québec politics to 31 (PLQ) and 10 (PQ) seats respectively.
Although not secessionist, the CAQ is a strongly nationalist party. It has become the main political voice of Francophone Quebeckers by a significant margin. From that perspective, it has enacted policies that have been controversial in the rest of Canada, most importantly legislation forbidding the wearing of religious symbols by public employees (including teachers). This policy of so-called laïcité (secularism) has pitted the CAQ government against the federal Liberal government (and, although it is massively popular in Quebec, it finds much less support amongst the youth). Indeed, the federal government has openly criticised the legislation, but it cannot change it.
Immigration has also been a policy area where tensions between Québec City and Ottawa have been high, as the significant increase in federal immigration targets met with disapproval by the CAQ government, which pushes back against the idea that Québec should receive more newcomers. For the CAQ government, ‘properly’ integrating all these newcomers (at least half of whom typically do not speak French) into the primarily French-speaking province is impossible. The financing of provincial health care systems, an area of perpetual federal-provincial tension, has remained a point of contention with the CAQ in power in Québec. Here, the CAQ government has worked the other provincial governments in an effort to get the federal government to significantly increase the Canada Health Transfer (CHT), although with only minimal success.
Despite the presence of a non-secessionist party in government in Québec, the Canadian political class has held fast to its position of not engaging in constitutional negotiations. Some of the CAQ’s claims towards the federal government have gone unanswered (for example, having a single, Québec-administered income tax return) while others (like the predominant use of French for federally regulated companies) prompted accommodation through federal legislation.
The political and electoral success of the CAQ has been astounding. Support for the CAQ’s key policy initiatives (like the laicité legislation) is extremely high. François Legault consistently had some of the highest approval support for his management of the pandemic of any provincial Premier. In the 2022 provincial election, the CAQ improved its already impressive results, as it won 90 seats, threatening the PQ with extinction (the secessionist party was left with only three seats) and further marginalising the PLQ (the Liberals won only 21 seats). The CAQ has become the hegemon of Québec politics. It is already looking to be in an extremely favourable position (although there is a lot of time left!) for the next provincial election, which should be held in 2026.
The CAQ’s recipe for success is straightforward. It speaks and behaves as a nationalist party but argues that debates over independence are a thing of the past, or at least not something relevant to the present moment nor for the near future. The recipe has been successful because a large portion of Quebeckers had already come to the same conclusion.
André Lecours is Professor in the School of Political Studies, University of Ottawa.
His most recent book is Nationalism, Secessionism, and Autonomy (Oxford, 2021).