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Events, Issues and Concepts of Quebec History


Last revised:
23 August 2000

Quebec Nationalism


Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College


The social-democratic nationalism: 1945 to today


The Great Depression of the 1930's, and the war that followed it, set into motion a slow but profound re-evaluation of nationalism in general, and of ultramontane nationalism in particular.

At first glance, the Great Depression brought the ultramontane nationalists to new prominence in Quebec. The devastating effects of the depression on the well-being of the people of Quebec [see in the statistics and graph section of the site the following: Birth rate, 1922-1945, Marriage rate, 1922-1945, Personal income and cost of living, 1929-1939, Public debt, 1929-1939, and Unemployment of trade union workers, 1929-1939] seem to have demonstrated the accuracy of the many criticisms made by the nationalists of industrialisation, urbanisation and the type of economic world which dominated the province. The effect of these problems was to radicalise a good portion of the youths, to bring the long-standing liberal regime governing the province into discredit and, eventually, political defeat, to make the nationalists pay closer attention to social problems, to question the anti-statism that had characterised the past, as many would turn to the governments to alleviate the problems, turn to political action to achieve social and national goals. It should not be considered that all of these things occurred immediately. In the short run, it gave the ultramontane nationalists the opportunity to be more prominent than they had been in a long time, so that some of their members, such as Abbé Groulx, Philippe Hamel or Paul Gouin, became household names. However, in the longer run, a considerable transformation of nationalism in Quebec began.

The second factor that led to the rise of a different form of nationalism stemmed from the Second World War. The war finished the vast socio-economic transformations that the process of industrialisation had begun in Quebec early in the century. The Great Depression and the war put an end to the emigration of French Canadians to the United States; the end of this process served to make the nationalists focus increasingly on Quebec. The war accelerated the rural exodus in Quebec and firmly planted the economy of the province in the industrial and resource sectors. Following the war, it would be laughable to make speeches about agriculture being the way of life of the French Canadians. The social transformations taking place during the war were no less important: Quebec women received the right to vote and made a strong entrance into the labour markets, education became compulsory and far more widespread, the traditional family (large, rural, religious) was changing rapidly.

A second component connected to the war was also of significance. It demonstrated conclusively that atrocitiescould be committed in the name of ideologies in general, and of racism in particular. Already before the war, perceptive and sensitive nationalists, such as André Laurendeau and Guy Frégault, had attempted to distance Quebec nationalism from right-wing ideologies, glorification of race and anti-semitism. They were too few to really make a dent in well-entrenched ideas. But the war accelerated the process of re-evaluation of components of the old nationalism. However, it should be borne in mind that the defeat of racist ideas in Quebec, as elsewhere in the Western World, was not immediate and was extended over quite a period following the war. Esther Delisle, in Mythes, mémoire & mensonges. L'intelligentsia du Québec devant la tentation fasciste, 1939-1960, 1998, 198p. has demonstrated conclusively, although with her usual exaggerations, the persistence of right wing and racist ideas in Quebec after the war. In the post-war period, Quebec was also to have its first significant, organised anti-nationalist groups.

So, the Great Depression and the war started a process of re-evaluation of the ultramontane nationalism. What was to emerge eventually, and become the dominant form of nationalism after 1960, was a social-democratic form of nationalism. In this recent period of Quebec history, we are confronted with difficulties in interpretation. The best tool of the historian is hindsight. The passage of time has a way of focusing attention on what truly deserves it. It helps separate the mere detail from the more fundamental. We have not yet had enough time to define with great certainty the shape, and future, of the current form of nationalism in Quebec. Also, there has emerged a fair diversity in the scope of nationalist ideas and groups in this last period. Thus, it is more difficult to account for all of them and we have not attempted to do so. What we seek to define is the dominant form of nationalism at any one time. Since 1960, social-democratic nationalism has been dominant.

In analysing this form of nationalism, we will first examine its class foundations. In the introduction, it was argued that the class basis of nationalism determines, to a large extent, the nature and content of the nationalism. This was self-evident with the professional class of the pre 1840 period, as well as with the clerical class of the ultramontane period. Next we will focus on the nature of the nation, on the "we", of the social-democratic nationalism. Lastly, we will analyse the ideological and political content of this nationalism.

The best way to describe the class that has spearheaded the nationalist movement in Quebec is to call it bureaucratic. The term bureaucratic class does not perfectly describe the group. However, the phenomenal growth of the provincial government, during and after the Quiet Revolution, provided huge opportunities for the better-educated population in Quebec. Civil servants, teachers, doctors, nurses and administrators were hired in large numbers from among French Canadians to operate the increasingly elaborate and complex network of state institutions in Quebec. The government of Quebec became far more involved in supporting the arts and letters in the province, creating or financing arts centres, providing bursaries or fellowships to creative people, supporting authors and book publishers, and, thus, with the advent of television, contributed to create a large artistic community more or less dependant on the public purse. As well, a third component of the bureaucratic class, is the entrepreneurial class that has been formed in Quebec since the early 1960's. What we are addressing here is not the dominant business class, a class that is internationalist in outlook and personnel, but rather the emerging French speaking business class which often needed the support of the state to find its place in the business world. In one way or the other, the nationalist class that has emerged in the last generation is connected to the government of Quebec and is dependent on its continued growth for its well being. Evidently, its loyalty is directed to the government that supports it, and is itself, the creation of this class. Thus, we should not be surprised that there is such a great focus on Quebec by the current nationalists.

If the class that supports nationalism is different, so is the nature of the nation, of the "we". As, the "canadien" nationalism of the Patriotes became "French Canadian" nationalism in the 1840's, the "French Canadian" nationalism of the ultramontane period became the "Québécois" nationalism from the 1960's. Each of these seeming subtle changes of nomenclature reflects, in fact, a huge alteration in the nature of the nation. In shedding the strongly ethnic components that defined the earlier nationalism, including its racist elements, the new cement of the nationalism became primarily the territorial element, focused on Quebec. The territorial element had not been important in the earlier nationalism, as the nation having been defined as French Canadian, and French Canadians having been scattered all across the continent, then it could not have a precise territorial element. This had been a problem for the separatists of that period, as separatism can hardly be achieved if there is not a precise territorial content. The separatists had resolved this by either calling the proposed independent French Canadian state something like Laurentie, a sort of borderless and, thus, impossible state, or else, as in the case of Groulx, their independent state was only really a "state of mind". Now, with the new nationalism, all the people of Quebec became part of the nation. None were excluded and, as the nation contained various elements, such as francophones, anglophones, allophones and various native groups, it was thus diverse and in need of unifying components. Aside from the territorial component, the unifying component of the Quebec nation was the French language, a language eventually understood by about 94% of the population of the province. The goal of the preservation, development and future state of the nation was also, presumably, a unifying component.

The territorial form of nationalism was evidently more opened to those within the nation who were newcomers. The attitude of the social-democratic nationalists to immigrants was in sharp contrast with that which the earlier nationalists had displayed. This change was essential, as immigrants increasingly made a contribution to the demographic weight of Quebec, and without them the province would begin to decline. While the attitude to immigrants improved markedly, old habits sometimes surfaced and immigrants have complained, at times, that they did not feel as accepted as they should be by the nationalists. Many have claimed that they feel excluded still, as the goals of the nationalists are inevitably primarily focused on the desires of francophones [promotion of the French language, independence]. The incident of the referendum night of 1995, lost narrowly by the nationalists, when the Premier of Quebec, Jacques Parizeau, blamed this loss on "money and ethnic votes" is raised as an example of lingering intolerance of "les autres" among the nationalists. Yet, it should be remembered that the Premier was forced to resign after he made this disparaging, and inaccurate, comment because such intolerant views have now become not only unacceptable to the population of Quebec in general, but to nationalists as well. To define the nation in ethnic terms are still a reflex that is found among the new nationalists, but it is also an attitude that has become unacceptable and inappropriate. The anti-nationalists are prone to play-up the instances of ethnic nationalism, and the nationalists provide them with sufficient ammunitions from time to time. To the student of Quebec nationalism, it is clear that the evolution of the recent past toward a more open form of nationalism is unmistakable; tolerance has become part of the universe of the nationalists. Yet, it is also clear that the nationalists of Quebec have not embraced multiculturalism as has been done in English Canada since the late 1960's.

An inevitable corollary of territorial nationalism, of focusing the nation on Quebec, was that the nationalists ceased to see the nation as a minority nation. If the nation was the Quebec nation, then the Québécois were a majority nation. If it was a majority nation, it was likely to act as if the social, economical and political institutions of Quebec were an extension of its will, and would be the instruments for its advancement and security. It would also alter the relationship that existed between the Quebec nation and the rest of the people of Canada, deemed also to form a nation, in the cosmology of the social-democratic nationalists. Before 1960, the relationship that existed between the French Canadian nation, a minority nation, with the rest of the country or the continent, constituting together a majority, was that of a threatened and persecuted minority. When the will of the two nations clashed, the minority nation had to give way. This nurtured a sense of unfairness but also the sense of threat to the nation; this sense of threat was important for the survival and the cohesion of the French Canadian nation. Now, the clashes would be between two majorities with no way to resolve them. The implications for the continuance of Canada were far greater than before.

What were the main ideological elements of the new nationalism and how can it be described as social-democratic? To what extent was it different from the earlier nationalism?

An important element of the new nationalism was its opposition to several components of ultramontane nationalism. This aspect was particularly contributed by a group of academics that became very vocal through the 1950's; they were known as the neo-nationalists. They wrote in Le Devoir, l'Action nationale, Relations and railed continuously at the content of the earlier nationalism. They attacked agriculturalism, messianism and anti-statism; indeed, it was in this period that Brunet wrote his famous essay defining these "myths", and condemning them at the same time. They discounted much of the historical interpretation of their predecessors, arguing instead for a more scientific base to the knowledge of the past, and propounding, in the process, a rather pessimistic interpretation of history. Gone were the Catholic virtues of the people, the focus on religion was replaced by socio-economic interpretations instead; the Conquest was emphasised as the cardinal event in Quebec history. They also rejected much of the three pillars of survival. The faith and the institutions were downplayed and replaced by language. The sense that survival had somehow been miraculous was ridiculed; sociological factors now explained the survival of French Canada. Much of this greatly upset the high priest of the ultramontane nationalist period, Abbé Groulx. He could not understand how these writers could so turn their backs on their predecessors, reject their values, and still claim, in the process, to be nationalists! This was especially the case for the all-important aspect of Catholicism. The neo-nationalists were defining the nation in secular terms. Meanwhile, the anti-nationalists were also strongly condemning clericalism in Quebec. When Groulx died, in 1967, Claude Ryan wrote that he was "the spiritual father" of modern Quebec. A more inaccurate statement could hardly have been made! The ultramontane nationalists interpreted the work of the new nationalists as attempting to demolish what they had erected, and what they believed in. On the whole, they were not incorrect. [On the neo-nationalists, consult Michael D. Behiels, Prelude to Quebec's Quiet Revolution. Liberalism Versus Neo-Nationalism, 1945-1960, McGill-Queen's, 1985, 366p.]

Another component of the new nationalism was statism. Between 1945 and 1960, the nationalists discovered the state. This was in sharp contrast with the nationalism of the earlier period. We should not be surprised that a bureaucratic class discovered the state, and what one could do when one controlled a state! These views were put into practice at the time of the Quiet Revolution and an elaborate state system was set up [see at the site: Quiet Revolution, and Jean Lesage and the Quiet Revolution]. The primary argument in favour of state intervention that was made was that the state was the only lever of development that was controlled by the nation, and that it was the only effective way that the long standing economic inferiority of the French Canadians, individually or collectively, would ever be removed. Thus, these nationalists sought to use the state more frequently, and as the Quebec state was limited in its scope of activities by the practices of the federal government, and by the constitutional stipulations that govern the provincial governments in Canada, the nationalists sought to extend the powers of the government of Quebec. Sometimes, this put the government of Quebec on a course of confrontation with the federal government. Thus, while confrontation with the federal government seemed to follow the same path as before, in reality it did not. Previously the nationalists clashed with the federal government in order to defend provincial autonomy, to safeguard the characteristics of the nation, the pillars of survival. Now the nationalists clashed with the federal government to extend the powers of the provincial government, and obtain a greater share of the taxes collected in the province, so that the state in Quebec would be more active.

With the Citélibristes, the nationalists shared the desire to modernise Quebec, to secularise it, and to democratise its political processes. All these objectives are quite apparent in the achievements of the government of Jean Lesage during the Quiet Revolution, as well as in the first term of office of René Lévesque's Parti Québécois, between 1976 and 1981. In the 1950's, Le Devoir conducted many campaigns, and was at the forefront of the battle against the corruption of the Duplessis government. The electoral laws eventually enacted in Quebec were among the most democratic to be found anywhere in the world.

Another element of the new nationalism that developed after 1945, an element so important that it serves to identify these nationalists as "social-democratic" nationalists, was the incorporation of "social" issues as part of their system of thought. A careful reading of the works of the ultramontane nationalists of the earlier period shows that they paid attention to socio-economic issues. But their focus on these issues was based primarily on their wish to see Catholic social doctrines applied as solutions, and, by so doing, to prevent solutions from being imported from other systems of thought. In other words, their social concern was rooted in their desire to maintain unaltered the pillar of Catholicism. They had also viewed social problems primarily as national problems. Social and economic issues were intimately related to the inferior economic situation of French Canadians. In their estimation, French Canada constituted a vast dominated class whose problems needed to be confronted through the angle of the nation. For them, to have recognised the existence of classes within French Canada, would have been to divide the nation. The solutions they proposed to these socio-economic problems, while not intrinsically bad in themselves, usually hinged on "national" components: French Canada needed "national" Catholic labour unions, co-operatives would be reserved only for the members of the nation [example: the Caisses Populaires], "national" education, etc. The first major breakdown in this junction of social and national issues occurred in the 1930's. By a decision of the Canadian episcopate, the Catholic [and social] elements of various organisations, such as in the Association catholique de la jeunesse canadienne, a venerable nationalist youth group that was founded in 1904, were divorced from the "national" components. Henceforth, the Catholic organisations would only pursue Catholic goals. To clerico-nationalists, such as Groulx, this was a tragedy, as national and Catholic goals had been so profoundly enmeshed. The controversy that broke out on this point was resolved in favour of restricting Catholic organisations to Catholic, and by extension, social goals. This decision was to contribute, eventually, in lessening the influence of Groulx and, by contrast, in increasing that of Père Georges-Henri Lévesque, founder of the Social Science school at Laval University [On this controversy, see Giselle Huot, "La correspondance Georges-Henri Lévesque-Lionel Groulx (1934-1937)", in Les Cahiers d'histoire du Québec au XX siècle,(summer 1994): 85-118]

Thus, from the 1930's, social problems started to be seen as separate from national problems. The existence of independent social critics served to focus the nationalists in a more realistic way on social problems. Among the new nationalists that appeared on the scene at the time, there began a slow, but unmistakable integration of social ideas in their system of thought. This is noticeable among some of the members of the Bloc Populaire, and would become very evident with the Asbestos strike in 1949. In general, the inspiration for the new social thought of the nationalists, as for the Citélibristes, came from the French Catholic left of Emmanuel Mounier, personnalisme, and the journal Esprit. [See Peter Taaffe, "The Influence of the French Catholic Left on Quebec, 1945-1955", in The Register, Vol. 4 (1983): 53-72]

In the 1960's and 1970's, the social ideas of the nationalists became increasingly radicalised and shifted progressively into socialism or Marxism. Scores of publications and small groups reflected this new tendency and the social-democratic nationalists were by-passed on the left by the Marxist nationalists. Still, the main impact of the appearance of these groups was to help focus the nationalists on strictly social and economic questions. Eventually, even in the Parti Québécois, it would not be rare to see discussed the need for the nation to become independent because it would be the best means to resolve socio-economic issues. The party liked to project a modernist, progressive, and socially active image; it never disliked having the epithet of social democrat applied to it.

Aside from the elements already raised, and superseding them in importance, and with an impact that is far reaching, there has been the phenomenal growth of the separatist movement, or of the independence movement as the nationalists like to call it. It is not my purpose here to trace the history, and the reasons for, the growth of the separatist movement in recent Quebec history; this will be done somewhere else on the site eventually.

From the time of the Union Act, where the issue of the survival of the nation became the existential question in Quebec, two attitudes developed: one stressed that survival would be achieved by co-operating with English Canadians, in a common country, to achieve common goals, this we call the federalist attitude, while the other emphasised the need to create a separate state, dedicated to the preservation of the nation, this we call the separatist attitude. In the ultramontane period, the nationalists were divided between the two attitudes, although the federalist attitude was evidently the more popular one. It should also be remembered that the lack of a precise territorial element for the nation, in the mind of the ultramontane nationalists, made separatism almost impossible to achieve in practice in the period before 1960. Since the 1960's, there have been considerable changes on this point.

Several aspects of the new nationalism, and other circumstances, brought a phenomenal rise of separatism since the 1960's, to the extent that it is dominant among the nationalists, and supported very strongly among francophones [see my chart of nationalist support also on this site]. The new nationalism focused on Quebec, and on the growth of importance of its state; thus, it possessed the territorial element requisite to apply separatism. It also detached itself from the notion of a minority nation, and thus from the various minorities across the country. The existence of minorities is not a reason not to achieve independence any more as would have been the case before. The new nationalism has also shifted the emphasis from mere "survival" to the notion of "development" of the nation; it has been deemed that more powers to Quebec are necessary to achieve this development. It is also apparent that Canada has not been able to absorb in an effective and acceptable manner the new nationalism in Quebec; thus the federal government has stayed away from the more collective solutions, such as special status for Quebec, that might have been required to resolve the problem. As a consequence, successive federal governments have evidently made mistakes, and the failures caused by these mistakes have fuelled the separatist side. The separatists have also been able to find popular and charismatic leaders, such as René Lévesque or Lucien Bouchard, who have very effectively attracted support to the separatist cause. Lastly, the growth of the separatist movement was fuelled by the example of widespread decolonisation achieved elsewhere in the world in the 1960's, or the break-up of multi-national states in the 1990's.


Thus, it is apparent that nationalism has been a major force in Quebec history. First, the British colonial links, and later the issue of the survival and development of the nation, have fuelled nationalism in Quebec. It is also clear that, properly speaking, there is no such thing as Quebec nationalism. In fact, there have been various forms of nationalism, each corresponding to a different definition of the nation. In this respect, we have distinguished three main forms. The first was the "Canadien" nationalism dominant before 1840. This form of nationalism was especially progressive, tolerant and inclusive. It was also very popular. The changes that occurred at the time of the Rebellions of 1837-1838, and of the Union Act, rapidly led to the rise of ultramontane nationalism (clerico-nationalisme). The nature of the nation changed significantly, it became the French Canadian nation. This nation was a minority nation, and in the nationalist universe, it was confronted with considerable threats. It centred on the defence of the three pillars of survival, primarily on Catholicism. The nation was in a miserable state and the nationalists offered various solutions for curing the many ills that afflicted it. These nationalists were not very successful, frequently preached in the desert, and often had to repeat the same thing; they were confronted with the existential question as to how best to assure the survival of the nation. To a large extent they were prepared to stay in Canada. As Quebec evolved, and increasingly industrialised and urbanised, the solutions proposed by the ultramontane nationalists were opposed and a new form of nationalism emerged: the Québécois nationalism. The nation was now focused on Quebec and was a majority nation. Many of the ideas of the past were discarded. The new nationalism was secular, more tolerant and open, on the left, with considerable social preoccupations. It challenged Canada in ways more serious than anything done previously. It was primarily separatist and received increasing support among francophones, although it made very little inroads among anglophones and allophones and was strenuously opposed by both groups.

Thus, at any one time, there was a dominant form of nationalism in Quebec. This nationalism was frequently in reaction to the earlier nationalism. However, it should not be deduced that earlier forms of nationalism and attitudes did not survive to compete with the dominant form. Liberal forms of nationalism continued in the XIXth century in l'Institut Canadien and in the Rouge party. Elements of it evidently influenced Henri Bourassa. Ultramontane nationalism was rapidly discarded from the 1960's onward. However some of the views of these nationalists continued to persist, especially in their vision of the others as threatening, and some intolerant reflexes.

© 1999 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College