Two paths to independence: The country of Quebec vs. the province of Cape Breton
I welcome the possibility that Justin Trudeau may have mentioned past separatist violence in Quebec while discussing Sikh independence with India’s leaders. Hopefully, Trudeau’s alleged remarks will inspire public discourse on the darker aspects of Quebec’s persistent separatist movement. Since Canada’s political leadership seemingly ignores the consequences of endless pandering to Quebec’s discontents, I’ll take any excuse to examine these matters.
Successive Canadian governments have exhibited an unhealthy tolerance for Quebec’s agitations for special status within confederation. This has led to a series of federal concessions that seriously undermine Canada’s national integrity. From Mulroney to Trudeau, Canada’s Prime Ministers have submitted to the extortions of Quebec separatism for the sake of their own power while claiming to defend national unity.
Quebec’s language-based nationalism, immigration control and French-only unilingualism have developed under the veiled threat of separatism and have enabled the province to portray itself as a unique and distinct entity within Confederation. Since such words have been employed throughout history to justify every sort of excess and abuse of power, Canada may yet pay a higher price for its official indulgence.
The FLQ (Front de libération du Québec) phase of Quebec’s struggle for independence provides a clear example of what may occur when separatist movements embrace terrorist violence. The FLQ operated in that province from 1963 to 1970, detonating 95 bombs and killing seven people before the terrorists were arrested. The violence inspired Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to invoke martial law, but ultimately, it was dogged police work that brought the crisis to a conclusion in October 1970. Though it may be hard to imagine, armed soldiers patrolled federal facilities in Cape Breton at that time. My father recalls being ordered off the wharf at the Canso Causeway by stern troops in battle dress carrying assault rifles and sub-machine guns.
Most Canadians of my generation seem to have forgotten the FLQ period and dismiss it as an unfortunate, but minor incident in our national story - not unlike the so-called Oka Crisis which also happened in Quebec. Contemporary commentators have criticized the military’s role in these cases given the localized nature of the violence. However, Canadian law enforcement agencies in 1970, and even 1990, were ill-equipped to counter terrorism. It was a pre-911 world.
The phenomenon of Quebec gradually acquiring semi-national status has created resentment among Canadians who object to one province being accorded a unique status that could be claimed by every indigenous and settler/immigrant group in the country. Quebec is merely the heir of one of Canada’s two conquering nations. The British victory was also a Scottish triumph though Highland soldiers’ deaths in New France were “no great mischief” to warlords like Wolfe and Cornwallis.
Although no Prime Minister has dared mention it, a nationalist militia has existed in Quebec since at least 2009. The Milice Patriotique Quebecoise (MPQ) seeks to defend Quebec from “foreigners” and “…are willing to voluntarily sacrifice their lives for their country of Quebec…”, according to their manifesto. While the MPQ claim to oppose violence while conducting private military drills, the FLQ also began in a similar way. It is unlikely that the federal government would ignore or tolerate such behaviour in Alberta or Cape Breton. Worse still is the MPQ’S common cause with white supremacist groups like Quebec City’s Soldiers of Odin chapter.
Unlike Quebec’s separatists, Cape Breton’s provincial status advocates have never resorted to violence or other tactics designed to gain concessions by inciting political and economic instability.
The comedic act of General John Cabot Trail (played by the late Dave Harley) and his Cape Breton Liberation Army (resurrected last year in a musical at Highland Arts Theatre) reflected the Island’s long history of peaceful agitation for provincial status dating back to the mid-nineteenth century.
Like their ancestors, Cape Bretoners expect the same level of provincial service enjoyed by other Nova Scotians and rightly oppose perceived imbalances in services like road maintenance and health care.
The concept of provincial status for Cape Breton was recently resurrected by Senator Dan Christmas as a means to greater economic prosperity. While this idea will encounter political opposition from the mainland, the Island’s enduring character will always distinguish it as surely as the sea surrounds it.
Image courtesy of artist Paul Mackinnon and CBU.