Quebec Is Trading Social Solidarity for the Politics of Exclusion

As Quebecers head to the polls on Monday, the waning sovereignty movement has lost ground to insular, xenophobic traditionalism. In an increasingly disenfranchised society, an exclusionary Quebec is a sign of fractured federalism.

Protesters in Montreal oppose Bill 96, a French-language law that prevents cultural minorities from freely choosing what language to use in postsecondary education, May 26, 2022. (Amru Salahuddien / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

There’s a moment in every election cycle when someone makes a statement or off-the-cuff remark that cuts through all the overly rehearsed, carefully choreographed talking points and exposes a reality hidden — or unacknowledged — about a given society.

In Quebec, which is holding a provincial election tomorrow, that moment came during the first debate, when the leaders of two ostensibly left-leaning political parties used the N-word in front of a television audience of about 1.5 million people — to say nothing of Dominique Anglade, the black woman at the helm of the province’s primary opposition party.

The slur was not directed at Anglade, but rather was the result of the leader of the Parti Québécois (PQ), Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, goading the leader of Québec Solidaire, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, into stating the name of Pierre Vallières’s 1967 book N— blancs d’Amérique (translated as White N— of America).

The issue of whether the book’s title should be said in full has been the subject of an intense public debate over the last few years. This has particularly been the case after a University of Ottawa professor was disciplined for using it in class, which prompted a broad consortium of academics, politicians, and pundits to decry the creeping phenomenon of le wokisme. In Quebec, le wokisme is increasingly vilified as censoring free speech, academic liberty, and — worst of all — Quebec culture, already allegedly imperiled by the steamroller of Anglo-American cultural hegemony.

That Vallières’s book is at the center of this incident is more than simply fitting; it’s a window into a rather unique Canadian sociopolitical paradox.

The Quebec Liberation Front

Vallières was a journalist who witnessed the profound transformation of Quebec society that took place in the middle decades of the twentieth century. The election of a new Liberal Party government in 1960 ended decades of de facto single-party rule. It also ushered in a new era of modernization, including the development of a low-cost public college and university network, universal health care, and a generous social safety net. This had the effect of permanently ending the Catholic Church’s grip on power in the province, transforming Quebec practically overnight from one of the world’s most religious societies into one of its most secular.

All of this occurred within the broader context of national liberation struggles and the Civil Rights Movement, leading some Quebecers to see their own plight in similar terms. Vallières became the intellectual leader of the Quebec Liberation Front (FLQ), which advocated for a proletarian revolution to free Quebec from the colonial oppression of Canada. The FLQ conducted a nearly decade-long bombing and bank heist campaign before kidnapping a British trade commissioner, and later the deputy premier of Quebec (who was ultimately murdered by his captors), during the October Crisis of 1970.

Vallières wrote his book in New York City’s infamous Manhattan House of Detention while awaiting deportation back to Canada to face a variety of terrorism-related charges in 1967. The book is considered an important contribution to the intellectual justification of Quebec’s independence struggle, even if most of its latter-day defenders aren’t advocating for the armed proletarian liberation struggle of Quebec’s 1960s revolutionaries.

The FLQ fell apart after the October Crisis, with more mainstream political leaders taking up the reins of the independence struggle, giving birth to the Parti Québécois (PQ) in the process, and leading that party to a triumphant victory in the 1976 Quebec provincial election. Four years later, they would make their first attempt at securing Quebec sovereignty through a province-wide referendum, something they’d attempt again in 1995.

The PQ has formed several governments in the province, most recently from 2012 to 2014, but interest in Quebec’s independence effort has waned considerably in recent decades. The PQ has only been in power for three of the last twenty years and, of the five major parties contesting this year’s election, three are at least nominally federalist in inclination.

Frayed Social Solidarity

In Quebec, it is almost always a crowd-pleaser to advocate for greater provincial autonomy, speak reverently about the separatist leaders of decades past, or evoke their memory when cautioning against “creeping anglicization.” However, when it comes to the question of holding a third sovereignty referendum, “now isn’t the right time” tends to be the common refrain. Indeed, Plamondon recently admitted that he hasn’t prepared a hypothetical “year one” budget for an independent Quebec. He also hasn’t come to any decision about whether a sovereign Quebec would maintain open borders or share defense responsibilities and a common currency with Canada.

As Quebec society turns more toward federalism, it abandons the revolutionary spirit of the separatist era. However, it does not do so by embracing the multiculturalism that tends to be valued by mainstream Canadian society but rather by turning toward isolation and retrograde traditionalism. It’s a bizarre catch-22, where Quebec has become less of a threat to national unity but increasingly at odds with what moderately left-of-center — let alone progressive — Canadians aspire to.

Despite regular demonstrations to the contrary — including the live-streamed racist abuse endured by an indigenous woman, Joyce Echaquan, at the hands of health care workers mere hours before her death — incumbent premier François Legault insists there is no systemic racism in Quebec. There is a pervasive belief that since Quebecers experienced racism, they themselves cannot be racist. Instances where the province’s deeply rooted racism are exposed are dismissed either as isolated incidents or instances of “Quebec-bashing.”

Quebec premier Francois Legault, expected to win Monday’s election, speaks during a summit in Montreal, September 16, 2022. (Christinne Muschi / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Sovereigntist politicians once made an effort to appeal to the province’s minority groups in a hope to demonstrate the forward-thinking and cosmopolitan society they hoped to build as an independent country. But Quebec’s recent political leadership seems to have doubled down on latent xenophobia.

In many ways, this phenomenon is not peculiar to Quebec. It is simply the choke hold that societies atomized by the mercenary diktat of marketized social relations experience — aspirations for the future are slowly suffocated while the foundations of society are ripped out. The aftermath of this process is an increasingly dispossessed and disenfranchised society left with few options but to embrace its darker urges.

For a province that could once legitimately claim to be Canada’s social democratic leader, this year’s election makes it appear to be Canada’s most backward. At least one party leader has openly considered building a wall on the province’s southern border (meaning upstate New York and Vermont). One party is running an ad showing the English language spreading like a virus — an oblique and disparaging comment about the province’s immigrant and visible-minority populations, not it’s English-speaking communities, which are actually legally required to send their children to French schools and pass French proficiency exams. And the premier has warned that immigrants bring violence and extremism to the province (he subsequently apologized and said his desire is to unite the province). Quebec’s current immigration minister then derided immigrants as lazy and unwilling to integrate.

That this can happen at all is a demonstration of just how politically insignificant Quebec’s cultural minorities really are. Also, it further proves that the apparent threat posed by minorities to Quebec society is completely bogus.

Xenophobia Rising

This election has been rife with virulently anti-immigrant rhetoric — including the incumbent premier expressing his belief that the province should invest in robots rather than increase the immigration quota. The anxieties are worth considering in view of the fact that Quebec is about 87 percent white and 86 percent of the population speaks French at home on a regular basis (and 95 percent of the population is able to hold a conversation in French).

Quebec’s percentage of the Canadian population has been gently falling in recent years — chiefly because of fairly constant out-migration to other provinces, a low birth rate, and a less than enthusiastic approach to immigration. But the province’s population nonetheless continues to grow steadily.

Immigrants are required to learn the French language by attending French schools. But even though there’s no evidence suggesting they’re refusing to learn French or integrate into Quebec culture, the Legault administration — under cover of language politics — has introduced legislation that undermines Canadian citizens’ constitutionally protected charter rights.

Bill 21, ostensibly intended to maintain the secularism of the state, effectively discriminates against religious minorities working in the public service. It forces them to choose between wearing “ostentatious displays” of their faith and keeping their jobs (nurses, doctors, police officers, social workers, and teachers are barred from wearing hijabs, turbans, yarmulkes).

The law almost exclusively affects the province’s cultural minorities. Bill 96, created out of a long-standing though statistically inaccurate belief that the French language is losing ground to English in Quebec, establishes strict quotas on access to the province’s English-language junior colleges. In effect, the bill prevents most cultural minorities from freely choosing what language they use in postsecondary education institutions.

These laws have barely registered any complaint from the leaders of Canada’s federal political parties, including from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose Quebec riding is one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse places in all of Canada. This is because Quebec’s retreat into retrograde traditionalism — and overt xenophobia — has turned the province into a four-way electoral battleground.

It is almost a certain bet that when Quebecers head to the polls tomorrow, they will vote to return Premier Legault to power with a majority government, essentially guaranteeing him another four years in office. This will satisfy a vast swathe of the province’s population, and likely convince more of the province’s ethnic, linguistic, racial, and cultural minorities to seek better lives elsewhere in Canada. This will, in turn, satisfy Quebecers’ evident desire for a more culturally homogenous society.

Such is the Faustian bargain of modern Canadian federalism.