The Illusionary End of Separatism

Today we wake up to find that Quebec has elected a new government and though the outcome was predicted, it is nonetheless surprising and interesting all at once. Of course the recent Quebec election is special for a host of reasons, most notably that it is the first election since 1970 in which neither the Liberal Party nor the Parti Quebecois claimed victory (even though the new ruling CAQ may not be radically different in substance, given its federalist and Quebec nationalist agenda). However, I want to focus on just one of the things that made this election special, a reason that is no less important and indeed no less talked about than the one mentioned above, and that is that this election did not feature Quebec separatism as a major issue for the first time in ages. This of course has led many commentators to trumpet that Quebec separatism is dead and that this is the last nail in the coffin for an independent Quebec. Now I am sure you have guessed this already, based on the fact that this piece does not simply end here at this point, but I do not agree with this notion. Indeed, I would warn caution to any Canadian who thinks that the issue of separatism is buried.

Before I go on, I just want to note that though the election is important, it may not actually represent any sort of meaningful shift in the politics of Quebec. The 2011 federal election may serve to instruct us on this point, as the NDP’s massive gains in the province were interpreted by some as a political realignment in Quebec, and indeed the NDP worked to capitalize on this and shifted much of their focus to Quebec and Quebec issues. Hindsight came to teach us something different however, as it would seem that Quebecois turned out in numbers for the NDP simply because the NDP was seen as “the only viable option” in the election given the unpopularity of Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff and the general unpopularity of the Conservatives in Quebec. The collapse of the Bloc vote is a bit more difficult to understand, but likely is linked to the perception of the party as a ‘spoiler vote’ (it is after all impossible for the Bloc to form government) and the perception that they have outlived their usefulness following the failure of the 1995 referendum. However the change that many pundits claimed this represented failed to materialize, and by the 2015 election Quebec returned to a more ‘normal’ voting pattern. Yesterday’s election in Quebec may represent something similar, with the CAQ claiming victory due to the Liberal’s long incumbency and the perception of their corruption and the PQ perceived as being too focused on separatism and splintering from a lack of effective leadership. That is of course not to say that the CAQ won by a fluke and that the election does not represent a major change, simply that it is too early at this point to tell. All those who herald this as a shift in Quebec politics are doing so on shaky ground and, until research is done to back up such notions, these types of claims ought not to be taken seriously.

However, I want to return to the issue of separatism in Quebec politics. As I said before, this election supposedly represents the end of separatism as a salient issue in Quebec. Of course, we have heard these claims before many times as they have been uttered repeatedly, usually by federalist-minded commentators, since the defeat of the sovereigntist referendum of 1995 — despite the fact the referendum was ludicrously close in its outcome. Nonetheless here we are, 23 years later, and there has not been another referendum so perhaps there is some truth to this issue? Indeed, an Angus Reid poll released in 2009 showed that only around a third of Quebecers supported independence, so perhaps there is some truth to the idea after all (though it should be noted that a third is a surprisingly large number of people to support a supposedly dead political goal). Perhaps separatism is finally an issue of the past. Well perhaps not. The point I want to make here is simply that political trends tend to have life cycles, flaring up and dying off in reaction to events at the time. Separatism is no different. Having been a non-issue since the 2000 Clarity Act, support for separatism flared up in Quebec in reaction to the 2011 federal election and the controversy surrounding the Charter of Quebec Values. A poll conducted by Le Devoir showed support had spiked up to around 40% by 2011 and though nothing seems to have ultimately come of this spike in support, it illustrates the continued potency of separatism as a political issue in Quebec. The current “death of sovereignty” may therefore be short lived, merely a product of this political moment rather than being indicative of an actual trend. It is not unreasonable to think that another such spike should occur again in the future.

So at this point you are perhaps wondering why this is the case? Why can’t Quebeckers make up their mind if they want to separate or not. Well to this end Stephan Dion, known by most as the former leader of the federal Liberal Party, can help shed some light on this. During his time as an academic, Dion worked extensively on independence movements and in particular on Quebec’s. Back in 1996, in the after math of the 1995 referendum, he wrote a short article titled “Why is Secession Difficult in Well-Established Democracies? Lessons from Quebec” in which he attempted to understand what had just transpired, and for our purposes the article is illuminating. Dion reckoned that for any secession movement to succeed it required two things (I would personally add a third: a unified sense of identity). The first was a confidence in being able to make it as an independent state, and this was something Quebec surely had. Both in 1995 and now, Quebec has one of the largest economies in Canada and though growth would certainly be blunted in the aftermath of an independence vote, it would be likely only be a short lived economic stagnation. Moreover, Quebec’s political structures are strong and its institutions well developed (especially thanks to federal decentralization). However confidence was not enough by itself, and Dion argues that a successful secession would require there to be a fear of remaining in the union, something to push people to want to leave the state. In 1995 that fear had been over the protection of the French language in Quebec as well as the fear of remaining in a state in which Quebec was not a signatory to the Constitution (many argued this made the Constitution of Canada foreign to Quebec). Confidence and fear; that is, according to Dion, the combination that is required to separate. Now the confidence dimension can be argued to be rather static, given that Quebec’s perception of itself as wealthy and developed does not change much over the years, but the fear dimension is anything but. It flares up in reaction to specific events, events that cause fear, and in turn raises support for independence. The election in 2011 of a conservative government that had virtually no representation in Quebec and seemed hostile to it, as well as federal opposition to the Charter of Quebec Values bill, stoked enough fear to bump numbers up. In turn, the current political climate, with a government that has support in Quebec and is therefore more amenable to Quebec issues, ratchets down the fear and therefore also support for independence. It is at this moment then that the CAQ has risen to power in Quebec, a moment when fear of remaining in Canada is low and other issues (particularly immigration) are more salient.

My point in saying all this is not to talk down the CAQ victory or to support Quebec separatism (as I am sure some will wish to interpret). Rather my point in all this is that we should not be so vain as to discount an issue that has historically, and recently, been of such importance. Simply because Quebec voters are not currently voting for independence does not mean that they will, and I hope that the brief history I have given you will prove my point that support for sovereignty may rise quickly and unexpectedly as it has before. Canadians are of course far from the only people guilty of such short-sightedness, right now the UK government seems hell-bent on ignoring the separatist crises that may explode to life in Scotland (and in Northern Ireland as well) as Westminster and many in Britain would prefer to think of Scottish Independence as a dead issue following the failure of the 2014 referendum (though of course we in Canada know that a referendum does not end the issue, as Quebec’s 1980 referendum had a sequel 15 years later). The danger of seeing independence as a dead issue, and it is indeed a great danger, is that state governments and majority citizens alike tend to forget and/or renege on the compromises which resolved the secession crisis in the first place, thereby re-inflaming separatist frustrations. My point in writing this piece is to say that if citizens of federal states (or states that ought to be federal) wish to see their states live long into the future then perhaps they should not be so quick to claim separatism dead simply because it appears so in the moment. Instead those things that have led to separatism, led to a fear of remaining a part of the state, should always be kept in mind and resolved before they explode into crisis. Governments and citizens alike should strive to maintain the strength of their federal institutions (or to develop those institutions if they are not present) and to continue to ensure the needs of all its citizens, minority and majority, are being appropriately met (and I do mean appropriately, though this is a topic for another time).

The alternative is to stoke fear of the union, and we all know where that leads…

As both a political researcher and enthusiast, I write to unpack the complexities of current affairs and attempt to grow the conversation. Feel free to join me!