Quebec's Separation Movement: It Brought Canadian Unity Closer

By Salloum, Habeeb | Contemporary Review, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview

Quebec's Separation Movement: It Brought Canadian Unity Closer


Salloum, Habeeb, Contemporary Review


STRANGELY, when one thinks of the separation movement in Canada's province of Quebec, the thoughts immediately focus on the disaster Canada would have faced had Quebec gone its own way. No one would ever have thought in their wildest dreams that the separation movement would bring Canadians together. Yet, this is precisely what happened after the steam ran out of the separation movement's plan to make Quebec a separate nation.

Even though for centuries there has been some misunderstanding between English Canadians and French Canadians (since the 1760s when the British acquired Canada from the French), it was only in the latter part of the twentieth century that the idea of separation by French Canada came to a head. In the 1960s the separatist Parti Quebecois was formed and elected Rene Levesque as its leader. Soon thereafter, in 1967, President Charles de Gaulle, while visiting Montreal during the World's Fair, uttered what was to become a notorious phrase Vivre le Quebec libre! ('Long live free Quebec'). It gave impetus to the separatist movement and raised the ire of English-speaking Canadians as well as most Britons and many Americans.

However, even before De Gaulle's controversial phrase, for years there was resentment in French Canada at what many French Canadians felt was the Anglophone minority in Quebec controlling the seats of power in the province. The Quebecois had always felt bitter about the English conquest of Quebec and that many of the chauvinistic English Canadians would now and then remind the French Canadian of this defeat. I remember during the Rene Levesque era listening to an argument about bilingualism in a western Canadian hotel bar between a French and an English Canadian. The English Canadian ended the argument with, 'Why should we learn French? We defeated you on the "Plains of Abraham"'. That was the epic battle in 1759 outside Quebec city where the victorious English under General James Wolfe defeated the French under the Marquis de Montcalm. Both commanders were killed but the French defeat led to the loss of La Nouvelle France, French Canada. This is still a sensitive event as was seen in July when some members of the Parti Quebecois denounced a concert by Sir Paul McCartney on the 'Plains of Abraham' to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the founding of the city of Quebec. The former Beatle was described as 'an international Anglo-Saxon idol' and told that 'the presence of your English-language music ... can't help but bring back painful memories of our conquest.'

Yet, the English rule after the conquest of Quebec was not harsh - much less so than in Britain's other colonies. The French, even though a conqueredpeople, were allowed to keep their language with its schools and their religion. (Indeed this religious toleration became one cause of the American Revolution in the 1770s as the New Englanders objected to allowing religious freedom to 'papists'.) This led to making the French Catholic clergy all-powerful and it was in their interest to keep the status quo. In the ensuing years as the English schools evolved to keep up with the times giving their students training to fit into the technological world, the French Catholic schools stagnated, mired in religious teaching. Hence, all the important high paying jobs went to the English while the French graduates looked on. Through the years this lack of being capable of competing in the job market built up frustration and ill feeling among Quebec's educated classes.

With the formation of Canada in 1867, French was made an official language in Quebec and the federal government in Ottawa. However, outside Quebec, the French did not fare too well. In 1870 New Brunswick abolished all French Catholic schools, and later the same thing happened in Manitoba. This was not taken kindly to in Quebec and French resentment against the English ruling class gradually increased. The Quebecois, in the main, believed that they were being treated as second-class citizens and looked for ways to remedy the situation. …

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