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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

Before 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 will follow.

The concept of nation and nationalism: general considerations.

A 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.

Objective 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.

In 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.

Related 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!

There 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.

In 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 1960’s and 1970’s 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.

Specific considerations for classification of forms of Quebec nationalism:

With 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.

A 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.

Lastly, 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.

One 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.

Based 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