In Defence of Quebec's UFP. (C Debates)

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Eric Shragge and Andrea Levy ("The Union des forces progressistes in Quebec: Prospects and Pitfalls," March-April, 2003) cite a number of difficulties confronting Quebec's new leftwing political formation. Among these are lack of trade-union support, diffidence on the part of some activists of the "social Left" and an "old-Left" style and rhetoric.

But their main criticism of the UFP -- that it is fundamentally wrong on the national question because it supports Quebec independence -- tells us more about their bias than it does about the UFP or the Quebec Left.

Shragge and Levy argue that support for Quebec independence (1) curbs the UFP's appeal to young activists, new immigrants and Aboriginal peoples, because (2) it fails to reflect the reality that the Qudbecois are already "masters in their own house." This error, they say, will be "decisive" to the UFP's "political fate."

Let's begin with the second point. Yes, Quebec has made great strides in recent decades in enhancing the status and role of French and the francophone majority within the province's institutions and society as a whole. French is now the language of work. Income differentials between French and English have been sharply reduced. Quebec's education and health systems now rank with the best in Canada. And all of this largely through the initiatives and efforts of Quebecers themselves, often in the face of resistance and even outright opposition by big business, the federal government and their courts.

These developments, themselves the product of a nationalist upsurge that began with the Quiet Revolution of the 1 960s, far from eliminating national consciousness, have redefined it and stimulated a powerful pride in the accomplishments and capacities of Quebec society. The change is reflected in the way Quebecers describe themselves: as Quebecois and no longer as "French-Canadians." While a small majority of Quebecers still favour being part of Canada, most Quebecers look to the government in Quebec City as their first line of defence of their language and culture -- the key defining features of this distinct society -- and most want to enhance its role along these lines.

Quebec, while but a province under Canada's Constitution, is sociologically a nation and is seen as such by the vast majority of its residents. This nation is more than its language and culture, its "ethnicity"; it is the product of a long historical evolution of the peoples who inhabit the territory of Quebec. This new nation is not narrowly ethnic. As the UFP platform says, it is "the human community residing in Quebec province, having French as its official language of institutional and working communication, sharing a single set of laws and social conventions, and rich in its cultural diversity."

Shragge and Levy seem to have a reductionist view of Quebec nationalism that conflates nation with language and ethnicity alone. There is no longer a national question in Quebec, they argue: "French is the official language, the economic elite bears names like Desjardins, Tellier and Martin, as do the members of the bureaucracy that runs Quebec's state institutions. These issues are settled ft is simply the "memory of English domination chat fuels the longing for independence.

I think this is a fundamental misreading of the reality. What fuels the independence sentiment today in Quebec is not some distant "memory" of English domination, but a deeply felt awareness that Canada's current constitution and political system do not recognize Quebec for what it is -- a modern, vibrant, progressive nation that is open to the world, and not merely a "province like the others" -- and a determination to put an end to the constant, politically debilitating conflicts with Ottawa that this entails. Far from being settled, these issues continue to nag. In the last two decades alone, Quebec has seen the addition to the Canadian Constitution of an amending formula that virtually rules out any change in its status through the normal negotiating process; a Charter of Rights that directly targets Quebec's popular-language legislation; and a federal "Clarity Bill" that would effectively dictate the terms of any future Quebec referendum on sovereignty -- to name only the most egregious assaults on Quebe c's right to self-determination. …