Between 1990 and 2005, about 50% of people in Quebec said they wanted independence from Canada. But since then, that has fallen to a third.
During the rise of the Quebec independence movement, there were two referendums. The first was in 1980 when the proposal for more sovereignty was rejected by a 59.56 percent to 40.44 percent margin. The second was in 1995 and extremely close. “No” won by a whisker – less than one percent. It secured 50.58% of the vote, on an exceptionally high turnout of 93.52%.
But now, almost two decades later, the issue of independence is no longer at the forefront of political debate. Only about a third of Quebecois still support independence, although another third supports greater autonomy for Quebec.
So what changed? Why did two-thirds of the people of Quebec reject the dream of independence? Here are three reasons why Quebec independence support fell away and why those circumstances differ from the Scottish independence movement.
1 Quebec’s independence movement is primarily associated with a white ethnic identity.
In his 1995 concession speech, the Parti Quebecois premier, Jacques Parizeau, blamed “money and some ethnic votes” for the loss.
Although there were progressive elements in the mix, Quebec’s movement towards independence was based around the Francophone community and cultural identity. Canada is a huge country – it has a larger landmass than the USA. Quebec is three times as big as France although the population is only 8.5 million. Different areas developed quite differently. Quebec was once part of the French empire, and was settled by 10,000 French immigrants – around half of the population today are descended from them. The movement for Quebec independence centred around protecting the French language and the cultural identity they developed as Quebecois.
In general, the French settlers had better relations with native people than other colonists. But the independence movement was not successful in bringing along the indigenous people of the area, who were embarking on their own drive for more self-determination, human rights and control of natural resources. Some First People did vote ‘Yes” in the referendum of 1980, when the question was a vaguer one about developing a new relationship between Canada and Quebec. But that changed by 1995.
The most populous First Nation of Canada, the Nehiyawak or Cree People, traditionally moved freely across a wide swathe of the country. They were particularly vocal in resistance. On October 24, 1995, the Cree organised their own referendum, asking the question: “Do you consent, as a people, that the Government of Quebec separate the James Bay Crees and Cree traditional territory from Canada in the event of a Yes vote in the Quebec referendum?” 96% of the 77% of Crees who cast ballots voted to stay in Canada. The Inuit of Nunavik held a similar local vote, with 96% voting No. The vast majority of non-French speakers, including immigrants to Quebec also voted overwhelmingly No in 1995. The multicultural city of Montreal also voted heavily No.
Nowadays, supporters of independence are most likely to be over 55, white and native French speakers. (This is the opposite demographic in Scotland, with the only age group not supporting independence currently being the over-65s). Within social attitudes surveys, Quebec records significantly less support for multiculturalism. In 2017, Quebec passed a law banning women from wearing the hijab in public, even on the bus.
2 Canada responded effectively to Quebec’s desire for more autonomy – eventually
Canada’s federal system is the most decentralised in the world. It has acknowledged and responded to Quebec’s desire for more autonomy.
It wasn’t all plain sailing – in between the two Quebec referendums, there was an attempt at reform which would have officially recognised Quebec as a nation within a nation. When that failed, support for independence surged.
But since 2006, Quebec’s status has been officially recognised. It has the right to call an independence referendum if it ever wishes to do so; it controls immigration, social security and administers more of the public spending budget than the central Government does. Quebec’s Parliament is consulted over Canada’s international trade deals.
Canada is a constitutional monarchy like the UK, but the Queen’s role is more clearly defined as ceremonial. It has a two-chamber Parliament similar to the UK. But in place of the increasingly corrupt and swollen UK House of Lords, Canada has a Senate with just 105 seats. These are appointed on a geographical basis and Quebec has 24 Senators.
The House of Commons has 338 seats, allocated to the different regions. Quebec has 78. The main independence-supporting party, the Bloc Quebecois fell back to as few as three seats in 2018 when the ten-seat grouping split into two factions. But it has subsequently recovered and now has 33 seats.
Quebec’s National Assembly has 125 seats. The nationalist party, the Parti Quebecois, which is associated with the Bloc Quebecois, has 27. The main party, the Coalition Avenir Quebec, has 74. CAQ is not an independence-supporting party – it is a federalist group, which works closely with the Canadian Government at national level.
3 A focus on the past
If the movement for Quebec independence were ever to revive, it would have to be on the basis that most of the people in the country saw it as offering something for them. In its current incarnation, it does not.
Quebec was colonised by French speakers in the 16th and 17th centuries when it was called “New France”. But these French colonists were in similar position to those caught up in the plantation of Ulster. They were arriving in a country that was already inhabited and had language and culture and traditions already.
Those indigenous people didn’t see that there was any benefit for them in the plan to create what would be essentially an alternative monocultural state with one official language. That view was shared by most immigrants, both English speakers from the rest of Canada and the US, and non-English speaking immigrants.
There is a current controversy over a requirement to make university students take three core courses in French before they can graduate in Quebec. There will be a fightback against the draconian provisions of Bill 96 – in many European countries, it is possible to study a degree in English only. There are also rules which prevent shops having English signs. Last year, the New York Times carried an interview with a Montreal bookseller whose English-language shop attracts protests.
The battle to keep Montreal as a French-speaking city is also proving controversial. Combatting the drift to English from a young, international population won’t be easy. Even many young people of Francophone heritage are not in tune with the aims of Quebec’s independence movement.
Quebec’s independence movement is focused around maintaining a language and culture which are associated with a particular ethnic group and its history in Quebec. That is going to be a hard sell to the roughly 50% of the population who don’t share that background, and even for many of the young people within it.
It is different from the Scottish independence movement, which is not based around ethnic nationalism. The Scottish independence movement is a coalition of people who feel that independence is the first step to real progress on issues like social justice and climate action. It is based on a recognition that there has been long-term political divergence between Scotland and England. Despite not voting for a Conservative Government since 1955, for most of that time, Scotland has been ruled by one. Since the last referendum, Scotland has started to experience the negative economic and social consequences of a Brexit that it didn’t vote for – a material change in circumstances since 2014.
Another difference is that the UK Government has rejected multiple chances to devolve more powers to Scotland. Instead, it has taken every opportunity to sideline Holyrood and undermine the devolution settlement, such as with the Internal Markets Act. Unionist campaigners may therefore feel a good tactic is to allow Labour to lead indyref2 with promises of federalism, but those are not likely to be delivered by Westminster, an institution finely calibrated to serve the interests of the south of England. Even if there were a Labour Government, history suggests it would only be a brief break in Conservative rule.
But the lesson to learn from Quebec’s story is the importance of reaching out to all communities. The main source of immigration to Scotland is England – indeed the Scottish Government’s economic plan involves trying to attract more people from south of the border. it is important that the message of the independence movement continues to be one that offers hope to new Scots of all backgrounds.
History of Quebec – Britannica
History of Canada – Quebec separatism – Britannica
The Future of Quebec Separatism – OU podcast
The Nehiyawak/ Cree people – Canadian Encylopedia
How did Quebec’s Nationalist Movement Become so White? – Guardian, 2018
Language Bill Deepens Culture Clash in Quebec – the New York Times, 2021
“No Great Mischief” – novel by Alistair Macleod, about Gaels emigrating to Canada