Written by guest blogger, Cara Des Granges.
Questions of nationalism and debates over sovereignty are not new to Canada and often spark strong emotive polarized responses. It is important however to take a step back and examine where feelings of nationalism emerge. Many have and continue to write about the various understanding of key events such as Confederation, the Quiet Revolution, and the Quebec referendums in order to explain different interpretations of nationalist tensions. Yet what about the events which lead to the creation of Canada pre-Confederation?
It is possible to trace the roots of Quebec separatism as early as pre-Confederation to show a long tradition of collective rights, such as language, religion, and the ability to practice civil law, which have grown over time to create a province with its own legislature with its separate powers. The sovereignist movement in Quebec should not be regarded as an illogical emotional response to the Conquest, or any other assimilation attempt, as it is grounded in a long historical tradition and in interpretation of law, which legitimizes the movement. Quebec sovereignty has emerged as a result of the province’s different interpretation of Confederation, one that gives the province a certain level of freedom, which it feels has not been upheld, and thus it wishes to leave the federation.
Ever since the Conquest of 1759, those who inhabit what is now Quebec, a largely francophone population, have had to succumb to British rule, as seen with the Royal Proclamation of 1763, the Quebec Act of 1774, the Constitution Act of 1791, and the Act of Union of 1841. These acts would slowly become more progressive, allowing religious freedom for the largely Roman Catholic, francophone population until Confederation. Confederation, while forming a federal state, also created the province of Quebec with its own provincial legislature and jurisdiction over areas it saw as key to maintaining francophone culture, such as education and civil law.
Popular interpretations of Quebec history argue that Lower Canada was created as a safe haven for French culture and has always seen itself as different, a minority within Canada. When noting this, it should come as no surprise that Quebec nationalism keeps emerging, as it is quintessential to the formation of first Lower Canada and later the province of Quebec. The state was indeed seen as the protector of the French Canadian nation as early as pre-Confederation. This becomes more apparent when noting that French Canadians primarily populated the territory of what is now Quebec.
By having a primarily French population, Quebec, formerly called Lower Canada and Canada East in the year preceding Confederation, intended to secure a certain way of life for its residents and made this the priority of the provincial state structure. This becomes misunderstood by the Rest of Canada (ROC) as the Canadian state cannot protect its nation, since the Canadian nation can be seen as contested, especially when it has to include a French-speaking minority, causing a difference of opinion in the debates over rights and provincial jurisdiction with the recent demands from Quebec.
As a result, the notion of a marriage of convenience between Canada and Quebec, despite its anti-Canadian nationalist rhetoric, can be seen as a reality. By not sharing in the same practices, language, religion, etc., some French Canadians living in Quebec agree to join Canada for a political alliance, threatening to leave if the agreement is not upheld. This shows that Confederation is seen by Quebec as a rational agreement rather than a desire to build a Canadian nation. There have been union governments and political parties with both French and English members, but these were formed to provide something—in most cases rights (linguistic, religious, etc.)—to French speakers or to coincide with the views of French Canadians on a particular issue. If this is not the case, or French Canadian positions on issues are no longer central to the alliance, the cooperation ends.
Cara Des Granges' "Finding Legitimacy: Examining Quebec Sovereignty from Pre-Confederation to Present" can be read in the International Journal of Canadian Studies Vol. 50: Quebec in Canadian Studies. Click Here to Read.