Que­bec’s elec­tion and the sus­tain­ing power of na­tion­al­ism

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - NEWS - ROBERT EV­ERETT- GREEN

Vot­ing day re­vealed not so much the fi­nal flick­ers of sovereign­tism as much as a cri­sis in a much deeper as­pect of life in the prov­ince

Que­bec in­de­pen­dence wasn’t talked about much dur­ing the re­cent pro­vin­cial elec­tion and the Parti Québé­cois’s seat count fell from 28 to 10, not enough to guar­an­tee of­fi­cial party sta­tus in the leg­is­la­ture. The hot take in English Canada was that both the cause and the party are fin­ished.

This has been claimed be­fore, more as wish­ful think­ing than fact. What was re­vealed on elec­tion night was not so much the fi­nal flick­ers of sovereign­tism, as the lat­est stage in a cri­sis in a much deeper as­pect of life in the prov­ince: Que­bec na­tion­al­ism.

Na­tion­al­ism in Que­bec be­gins with the French lan­guage, and spreads through all as­pects of life re­lated to it: the arts, cul­ture, in­tel­lec­tual life and ev­ery­thing that al­low Que­beck­ers, as René Lévesque wrote in 1968, “to be re­ally at home … [and] to rec­og­nize each other wher­ever we may be.” Que­bec na­tion­al­ism is the rea­son there is a French-speak­ing so­ci­ety in North Amer­ica, cen­turies af­ter the Con­quest, which could have erased the lan­guage from this part of the map.

Re­minders of the na­tional ideal are ev­ery­where in Que­bec. On­tario has a pro­vin­cial leg­is­la­ture; Que­bec has a Na­tional Assem­bly. Ed­mon­ton has an Art Gallery of Al­berta; Que­bec City has a Na­tional Mu­seum of Fine Arts. Even the party of post­war strong­man Mau­rice Du­p­lessis, which was formed decades be­fore the clear emer­gence of sep­a­rat- ism as a po­lit­i­cal force, was called Union Na­tionale.

These are just names, but they tes­tify to the cen­tral­ity of the idea of na­tion and na­tion­al­ism in Que­bec life, with or with­out the de­sire to achieve an au­ton­o­mous state.

As Le Devoir colum­nist Michel David sug­gested this week, one rea­son the Lib­er­als were so badly beaten this time, es­pe­cially out­side Mon­treal, was that Premier Philippe Couil­lard had fallen out of tune with or­di­nary na­tion­al­ist feel­ing.

In re­cent years, how­ever, na­tion­al­ism in other places, in­clud­ing Aus­tria and Hun­gary but also Bri­tain and the United States, has be­come de­fen­sive, xeno­pho­bic and some­times vi­o­lent. This has helped tar­nish other Cana­di­ans’ view of Que­bec na­tion­al­ism, which was none too clear to be­gin with. When I was grow­ing up in Al­berta, “na­tional” only ever re­ferred to the whole coun­try, or to in­sti­tu­tions ac­tive ev­ery­where but usu­ally based in Ot­tawa, the puz­zlingly dis­tant “cen­tre” of na­tional ex­is­tence.

Canada has also thor­oughly iden­ti­fied it­self in re­cent decades with mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, which has grown into a state ide­ol­ogy, be­yond sub­stan­tial de­bate by po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

This was proved by the ridicule heaped on Maxime Bernier re­cently, when the for­merly Con­ser­va­tive MP said that the is­sue should be de­bated at a na­tional level, and founded a new party to ad­dress that and other is­sues.

Cana­dian mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism poses a huge chal­lenge to Que­bec na­tion­al­ism, which strug­gles to re­de­fine it­self in a way that main­tains its sus­tain­ing power, with­out seem­ing to lapse into one of those ugly for­eign na­tion­alisms that most Que­beck­ers de­plore.

The PQ’s poor show­ing on Oct. 1 was part of the con­tin­u­ing fall­out of the party’s botched at­tempt to meet the chal­lenge with its Char­ter of Val­ues in 2013. That leg­is­la­tion tainted the party’s im­age among a gen­er­a­tion of vot­ers who couldn’t un­der­stand why a friend they grew up with should be treated dif­fer­ently be­cause she wore a head scarf.

In an­other sense, Oct. 1 clar­i­fied things enor­mously. Head scarves are now a front-page con­cern of the vic­to­ri­ous, con­ser­va­tive Coali­tion Avenir Québec (CAQ), which calls it­self a “new na­tion­al­ist project.” A rel­a­tively xeno­pho­bic is­sue has been taken over by a rel­a­tively right-wing party, leav­ing the PQ to re­build it­self as a pro­gres­sive sovereign­tist force.

It won’t be able to do so with­out form­ing a com­mon front with Québec Sol­idaire, which in­de­pen­den­tists such as for­mer PQ min­is­ter Ré­jean Hébert are call­ing for.

The as­cen­dant QS, which claimed as many seats as the PQ this time, will have more power in any re­sump­tion of last year’s merger dis­cus­sions be­tween the par­ties, but no less rea­son to see them suc­ceed. The two sovereign­tist par­ties won more than 33 per cent of the pop­u­lar vote. That’s more than the PQ needed to form a mi­nor­ity govern­ment in 2012, and only four points less than the vote that gave the CAQ its ma­jor­ity.

How a re­newed, uni­fied in­de­pen­den­tist party would re­de­fine na­tion­al­ism in an in­creas­ingly di­verse Que­bec re­mains to be seen, but it’s a task that can’t be avoided.

Sovereign­tism has al­ways been a flower, de­sired or not, rooted in the deep and fer­tile soil of Que­bec na­tion­al­ism.

GRA­HAM HUGHES/ THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Peo­ple take part in a demon­stra­tion against racism in Mon­treal on Oct. 7.

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