Quebec's Lesson: A Path of Peaceful Separatism

By Doshi, Sameer | Harvard International Review, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Quebec's Lesson: A Path of Peaceful Separatism


Doshi, Sameer, Harvard International Review


Abstract:

The recent tragedy in Kosovo of a minority's struggle for self-determination has unfortunately been representative of the violent ethnic conflict that prevails across continents. Groups with different religions, languages, or ancestry from their neighbors fight the perceived tyranny of existing borders to win recognition, liberty, and political autonomy. However, one ethnic sub-region, Canada's Province du Quebec, stands out as a place where leaders of an independence movement have relied on legal, codified avenues to win their ends. The case of Quebec may be seen, paradoxically, as a triumph for institutionalism. It is also an important lesson in nonviolent conflict resolution.

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A Path of Peaceful Separatism

The recent tragedy in Kosovo of a minority's struggle for self-determination has unfortunately been representative of the violent ethnic conflict that prevails across continents. Groups with different religions, languages, or ancestry from their neighbors fight the perceived tyranny of existing borders to win recognition, liberty, and political autonomy. Too often, frustrated at the slowness and intransigence of the larger nation-state to grant concessions, ethnic groups escalate their tactics to violent and destructive levels. However, one ethnic sub-region, Canada's Province du Quebec, stands out as a place where leaders of an independence movement have relied on legal, codified avenues to win their ends. The case of Quebec may be seen, paradoxically, as a triumph for institutionalism.

Laying Claims

The French explorers Samuel de Champlain and Jacques Cartier, as well as the Briton Henry Hudson, first laid claim to the territory of Canada four centuries ago. Both France and England established colonies throughout the continent, but at the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, France was forced to abandon all of its North American colonies. Over the next century, Upper Canada, the region now known as Ontario, outpaced Lower Canada (now Quebec) in its industrialization, so that by 1867, the two Canadas were substantially different places: one was predominantly urban, Protestant, and anglophone, the other agrarian, Roman Catholic, and francophone. The British crown issued an Act of Confederation in that year uniting the two regions as the Dominion of Canada. Gradually more provinces, all English-speaking, joined the Dominion, until the current nation took shape. Quebecois nationalist sentiment finally exploded when French President Charles de Gaulle visited Canada in 1969 on an official diplomatic mission. While addressing a feverish crowd from a Montreal balcony, de Gaulle cried out the now-famous epigram, "Vive le Quebec libre!" Ottawa immediately asked him to leave the country, but the forces his statement unleashed would not be contained.

Immediately thereafter, a group of young separatists calling themselves the Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ) began a campaign of angry activism throughout the province. Although the group postured as the "working people of Quebec who are committed to do everything they can for the people of Quebec to take their destiny in their hands," the activists' tactics included mailbox bombing, as well as the 1970 kidnapping' and murder of a Quebec cabinet minister. Judgment from the people of Quebec was harsh; while many endorsed the FLQ's ultimate end, very few supported its means. The Quebec government asked the federal government for 10,000 troops to arrest and dissolve the FLQ. Quebecois society had long been stabilized by prominent social structures including the Catholic Church and the French civil code, both of which the FLQ explicitly railed against. Seeing the FLQ as a destabilizing, non-democratic presence, very few Quebecois could support the nascent group despite their sympathy for its cause. The FLQ's death outlined the future course of Quebecois separatism.

In 1982, the federal government won true independence from Britain, establishing or "repatriating," with the agreement of the British Parliament, its own constitution. …

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