Quebec: Social Union or Separation?

By Collins, Michael | Contemporary Review, March 1999 | Go to article overview

Quebec: Social Union or Separation?


Collins, Michael, Contemporary Review


The re-election of a sovereigntist Government in the Province of Quebec on 30 November, 1998, has given fresh impetus to speculation about the future of the province within Canada. The ambiguity of the election results makes the prospects more than usually cloudy.

Quebec is the largest of Canada's 10 provinces, and its 7.1m people (1996) make it the second most populous. Quebec is about the size of Alaska, and four times the size of France. The province covers 594,855 sq. miles in eastern Canada, bounded to the north by the Hudson Strait, to the west by Ontario, to the east by Labrador and the Gulf of St Lawrence, and to the south by New Brunswick and the United States. Quebec is the centre of French Canadian culture, containing 91 per cent of the country's French-speakers (francophones). About 80 per cent of the inhabitants speak some French; 1,009,520 list English as their mother tongue (1996 census). The chief cities are Montreal, the commercial and industrial centre, and Quebec City, the capital. The northern nine-tenths of the province lie on the forest-covered Canadian Shield. This area yields valuable timber together with large deposits of copper, iron, zinc, silver and gold. To the south lies the St Lawrence River, along whose banks are found the centres of agriculture and industry. The small farms of the lowlands produce principally dairy products, sugar beet and tobacco. The chief manufactures are refined petroleum, food products, motor vehicles, aircraft, railway equipment, clothing, furniture, iron and steel, chemicals and paper products. The province sustains a relatively small but significant banking sector and major efforts have been made with some success to develop telecommunications, microelectronics, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology.

Last November's election was fought for tactical reasons and not as a proxy for a referendum on separation. The separatist Premier, Lucien Bouchard, and his Parti Quebecois, stole a march on the opposition Liberals, who in April had elected a new leader, 44-year-old Jean Charest, upon the resignation of Daniel Johnson. Charest was the Federal Member of Parliament for Sherbrooke, one of the mainly English-speaking Eastern Townships. He had spent all his political life in the Progressive Conservative party at Federal level, becoming its leader in 1993 after it had been reduced to only two Members of Parliament under the short-lived leadership of Kim Campbell. Charest had had a meteoric rise, becoming a Minister in Brian Muironey's government at the age of 28. In the 1996 Federal election he had led his party back to a measure of respectability by winning 20 seats, and it was widely believed that, facing a tired Liberal government, the Conservatives would significantly improve on these results at the next Federal election. A lawyer by training, Charest had built a reputation on television as a personable, reasonable and competent promoter of the Federalist cause. And he was from Quebec. To the Liberals, Charest, although from another party, and inexperienced in Quebec provincial politics, appeared an attractive, indeed charismatic figure to present the Federalist alternative to a sovereigntist government which had satisfaction ratings of over 60 per cent. Lucien Bouchard had also been a Federal Progressive Conservative, sitting in the same Cabinet as Charest. He resigned and formed the Federal Bloc Quebecois, effectively wrecking the 1990 Meech Lake Accord, when, to persuade the other provinces to accept it, Charest produced a report which included a proposal to promote the English language in Quebec. Bouchard had succeeded the controversial Jacques Parizeau as premier of Quebec after the failure of the 1995 referendum, in which Bouchard was credited with bringing the separatists to the brink of victory. Now he was seeking a mandate in his own right, basing his case on his government's reputation for competence. In calling the election a year early, Bouchard once again demonstrated his mastery of tactics by ensuring that the campaign would be fought before the Liberals had results from the social union talks and from the five-yearly federal-provincial negotiations on equalization payments, due in 1999, to attract critical soft nationalist votes. …

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