Issues and Concepts of Quebec History
23 August 2000
Department of History,
our specific examination of Quebec nationalism it is fitting that we analyse briefly
the concepts of nation and nationalism. Evidently, it is only after one has acquired
a clear view of what nationalism is in general, that one can grasp the particularities
of Quebec nationalism. Further, these general considerations will give us a strong
theoretical base to be able to outline the different forms of Quebec nationalism.
Indeed, it will be shown that, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a
single model of Quebec nationalism but that, instead, one can identify clearly three very different
dominant forms of nationalism throughout Quebec history, each dominant in a specific period of time. The general considerations will
serve to lay the foundations for the specific discussion regarding Quebec that
concept of nation and nationalism: general considerations.
nation is a community of individuals cemented together by a sense of solidarity
and wishing to perpetuate its existence in the future; normally, it does this
through some form of political action although it is possible to imagine a nation
without a political context. Ever since the Greek philosophers of the Ancient
World, the human need to belong to something larger than ourselves has been well
recognised. Contributing to the sense of solidarity are a number of factors that
may exist. None of these factors is essential in itself but their total absence
would make it impossible for the strong sense of togetherness, or solidarity,
to exist. Some of these factors are described as objective, meaning
that they are easily recognisable and unchallengeable, and subjective factors that are more difficult to measure and assess, yet are important in the
creation of the sense of solidarity.
factors contributing to the forging of nations are a common territory, common
language and culture, ethnicity or race, customs and traditions, as well as religion.
Sharing some or all of these elements in common binds these individuals together,
helps define them as identifiably separate from others, and forges links of solidarity
between them. The subjective factors are the shared sense of history, of
their origin, of the struggle faced in the past, the clear consciousness of constituting
a separate entity, a shared appreciation of what they would consider as their
common interest, and their desire to continue to live together in the future.
Of all of these factors, history is the most important as the characteristics,
objective or subjective, have been forged by the passage of time, and nations
frequently demonstrate their existence through history. In this respect, it is
interesting to note that the motto of Quebec, which appears on its Coat of Arms,
is Je me souviens [I remember]. In any case, the objective and subjective
factors are such that it is ordinarily easier for the members of a nation to understand
and cooperate with each other than it would be to do so with other nations.
many instances, in the course of history, nations have managed to perpetuate their
existence through the formation of a state. Indeed, since the French Revolution,
this has been a major factor in explaining a number of events. In the XIXth century,
there emerged what was called the principle of nationality through
which many nations tried to gain independence or separate political recognition.
Evidently, it is easier for nations to preserve and perpetuate their existence
if they have a state that they control, and where steps may be taken to safeguard
their individuality. Many nations have sought to gain the safeguard of a political
entity. However, nation and state should not be confused. While many states were
constituted by a nation, and thus may be considered nation-states, other states
contain more than one nation and are thus multinational states. A state may thus
accommodate several nations and the use of the word nation as a substitute for
state, as in the expression the United Nations or the earlier League of Nations,
is somewhat abusive and misleading.
to the word nation is the ideology of nationalism. Indeed, this needs to be stressed.
Nationalism cannot exist without the underlying belief in the existence of a nation.
While nationalism does not necessarily arise in all nations it, nevertheless,
cannot exist without the context of the existence of a nation. Thus, to recognise
the existence of nationalism is to admit of the presence of a nation or of a process
that is creating one. This may appear self evident yet a peculiarity of the Canadian
situation is that Quebec nationalism has been and is well recognised throughout
the land by people who will deny, at the same time, the existence of a Quebec
nation or of a multi-national state in Canada!
are evidently many forms of nationalism. In its mildest manifestation, it is a
sentiment that is shared by the members of a nation that wish to perpetuate its
existence, to ensure the survival of the group. Taken in this form, virtually
all French Canadians, in the past or today, may be considered as nationalists
as all have wished for the survival of French Canada. Even notorious anti-nationalists,
such as Pierre E. Trudeau, would be recognised as nationalist under this form.
Thus, ordinarily, nationalism means somewhat more than that. Nationalists invariably
display a sentiment of reverence and loyalty to the nation; they usually attach
a great deal of importance to the characteristics that define the nation and help
distinguish it from other nations. They will frequently insist on the maintenance
of these characteristics and will defend them strongly against attacks. Their
vision is to view all situations through the prism of the effect that events or
ideas will have on their nation. Instinctively, they will think of the classification
or organisation of human beings as fundamentally based on nations. Other forms
of organisation or definition of human beings are deemed not to be so important
(class, gender, generation, etc.); indeed, nationalists will often fight such
other definitions of groups that exist as engendering division within the nation.
Nationalists tend to view individuals primarily as they relate to and affect the
group. In the hierarchy of values, individualism is downplayed, even considered
dangerous under certain circumstances. To the nationalists, collective will takes
precedence over individual desires. Frequently nationalists believe that the achievement
of socio-economic goals may be more easily or fully realised within the context
of the nation than otherwise. Lastly, nationalists consider that the interest
of their group takes precedence over that of other groups, especially when such
interests are in competition or contradiction to that of their nation.
general, nationalism has had bad press in the Western world since
the Second World War. In part, this is attributable to the horrors disclosed by
the excesses of nationalism during the war, or in our time in such places as in
Bosnia. These excesses committed in the name of nationalism deserve the universal
condemnation that they have received. However, one should be cautious in judging.
In fact, one should carefully distinguish the nationalism of the dominant
and strong from the nationalism of the dominated and weak. The
former gives rise to imperialism and the subjugation of small, and often defenceless
people, to ugly manifestations of raw power, while the other is the reaction of
the small people in their resistance to aggression and subjugation. The nationalism
of the strong is often rooted in racialist ideas and constitutes a threat to liberty
and fraternity. Such is not necessarily the case for the anti-colonialism of the
small and weak nations. Thus, when in the 1960s and 1970s one heard
chanted in nationalist meetings in Quebec: Le Québec aux Québécois
[Quebec to Quebecers], one should not surmise that what was meant was that there
was a desire to exclude all those who were not Québécois from the
province. What it expressed is the sense that the province was dominated by foreign
forces and that this should not be the case. What was expressed was the nationalism
of the weak, the reaction of the dominated. But if the same chant was now heard
on the eve of the XXIst century, when so much has happened to alter conditions
within the province, one might justifiably be concerned as to its meaning, and
condemn it without reservation. Still, many nationalists in Quebec will claim
that the nation is dominated, and hence not free, as long as it has not become
independent. As the results of the referenda on the issue show, the debate still
rages on and is not about to be settled easily. In a sense, it is the existential
problem of Quebec.
considerations for classification of forms of Quebec nationalism:
the above comments made, it would normally be possible to proceed to describe
and define the nature of Quebec nationalism. However, in reality, further comments
are necessary so that the nature and evolution of Quebec nationalism will be fully
grasped. The classification proposed below rests primarily on these considerations.
The first problem
raised by the specific case of Quebec is one that does not normally arise with
other nations. This problem is: what is the nation? In essence, nationalism divides
the universe into two groups: those who are part of the group, that is those that
you would think about when you would think of we, and the rest of
the world that is not part of the group and which would be referred as they.
Nationalism inevitably creates a dichotomy between we [our group]
and they [the rest of the world]. Who is part of the we
is usually clear for most nations. Such is not the case in Quebec. Thus, when
the definition of the we changes, however subtly, it is because the
nature of the nation, and thus the nationalism, is also changing. There have been
three such changes throughout Quebec history. Thus, we must distinguish three
different forms of nationalism in Quebec history.
second consideration touches on what the theoreticians of nationalism have identified
as the class foundations of nationalism. This view comes to us particularly from
Marxist writers, although it is not limited to them. They point out that nationalism is an ideology usually assumed
and integrated within a specific class that seeks to advance its own selfish interest
through the use of nationalism and the seeming promotion of group status. While
some good may be achieved for the group, what nationalists seek, in the Marxist
view, is to advance their class interest. Marxists have a tendency to be internationalists
in perspective and to view nationalism negatively. While we may not completely
accept these considerations, we should carefully note the group or class that
promotes the ideology of nationalism, in order to explain some of the differences
that may exist with earlier forms of it. As we will briefly see, the groups sponsoring
nationalism have changed in Quebec history.
one should note very carefully the various ideas, the ideology associated with
the nationalism, the source of its inspiration which tells us a good deal about
it, and the political content, if any, that may be associated with it. The ideological
base of nationalism, and the political project associated with it, are very instructive
in helping us to distinguish between different forms of nationalism.
last point should be made, and it is of considerable importance. One should not
confuse the nationalists of Quebec with Quebec itself. While there have been times
when the nationalists of Quebec have been as one with nearly all of the people
of Quebec, such as during the period immediately preceding the Rebellion of 1837,
or at the time of Riel, or during the two wars on the subject of conscription,
there have been many other times when they were not followed by the bulk of the
population. Thus, it should never be presumed that the people of Quebec agreed
with all of the ideas of the nationalists. On the contrary, their feelings or
actions were frequently at odds with those expressed by the nationalists. In fact,
it should be presumed that the more often an idea or a theme was promoted by the
nationalists the more this reflected not only the importance that this idea had
in the mental universe of the nationalists but, as well, the inability of the
nationalists in convincing the people of the validity of their views. What you
repeat all the time is what you have been unable to obtain. Aside from this considerable
resistance to nationalist ideas among the bulk of the population, we must also
keep in mind the existence of a significant population of anglophones or allophones
in Quebec who have remained largely impervious to nationalist ideas.
on the above considerations, we may distinguish three different forms of nationalism
that have dominated Quebec at different times: the Canadien nationalismof the period of 1791-1840, the Ultramontane nationalism of the period of 1840-1960,
and the Social-democratic nationalism of the last forty years. This classification
is similar, with notable differences, to that proposed by Léon Dion in Nationalismes
et politique au Québec, 1975, 177p.
1999 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College