The Case for a Sovereign Quebec

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The Case for a Sovereign Quebec
Summer 1995

Taken from the Foreign Policy political review (Summer 1995, No.99, pp. 69-77)[1]. The ghostwriter of this text is journalist and intellectual Jean-François Lisée, then political consultant to Premier Jacques Parizeau. [2].

Jacques Parizeau, Premier of Quebec from 1994 to 1996.
JACQUES PARIZEAU, of the Parti Québécois, is the prime minister of Quebec.

The problem with Canada can be summed up in one question: How many nations live in its midst? For Quebecers, who have spoken French on this continent since 1608 and who make up 25 per cent of Canada's population, the answer is obviously two. That is the understanding upon which Canada was founded in 1867. The two nations would share some powers in a central state, but they would also coexist in strong provincial governments with substantial autonomy.

The notion of Canadian duality has been at the center of Canadian unity for more than 100 years. Fifteen years ago, when Quebecers were first asked to vote in a referendum on sovereignty, opponents argued that there was no need for independence because new ways would be found to strengthen Canada's duality and to protect Quebec's distinctiveness within Canada.

But then that promise was broken. The contract that linked Quebec to the rest of Canada was changed in 1982 by the federal government and the nine English provinces. A new constitution was imposed upon Quebec against its will, and it reduced Quebecers' ability to govern themselves on matters such as language and education. All parties in Quebec's parliament, the National Assembly, denounced the action, and all Quebec governments elected since then have refused to ratify the document.

More than just a breach of contract, the 1982 constitution brought about a change in the nature of Canada. It embodied and propelled a strong Canadian national will that now negates the very existence of Quebec as a nation. In an attempt to repair the damage done in 1982, the Canadian prime minister and the premiers of all 10 provinces drafted amendments to recognize that the 7 million Quebecers, with their own history, language, culture, and laws, at least made up a "distinct society" within Canada. The effort aroused tremendous opposition in English Canada, and it failed. This past winter, a typical poll. showed that two-thirds of English Canadians believe that Quebecers are not a "distinct people" within Canada. Not a single political leader outside Quebec will now consider touching the issue, and the federal government has pledged to propose no reform of Canada's fundamental law at any time in the foreseeable future.

That is the crux of the issue. Quebecers, who have a strong sense of their identity, live in a country that refuses to acknowledge their existence. They are told either to conform with a vision of Canada they do not share or to leave.

That is why a great number of former defenders of Canadian unity have now sided with the advocates of sovereignty for Quebec. Chief among them is former Canadian ambassador to France and former Canadian environment minister Lucien Bouchard. In the 1993 federal election, Quebecers elected so many candidates of his pro-sovereignty party, the Bloc Québécois, that Lucien Bouchard is now the leader of the opposition in Ottawa. Marcel Masse, minister of defense in Brian Mulroney's government, also announced recently that he could not defend the new Canadian view of the country and had "no choice" but to support independence.

The increased support for sovereignty is not just evident among political leaders. Whereas 15 years ago fewer than 20 per cent of Quebecers favored outright separation for Quebec, the figure is now more than 40 per cent. Over the last five years, support for our proposal for sovereignty—with maintenance of a common market association with Canada—soared to 65 per cent of the population of Quebec and has since then gone back and forth over the 50 per cent mark. We are confident that this year, a clear majority of Quebecers will choose to give themselves a real country.

The case for independence does not rely solely on Canada's refusal to compromise with its French component. It draws strength from the federal government's incessant infringements on Quebec's jurisdiction and from the decisions of the Canadian Supreme Court to shorten the list of Quebec's powers. The court did so again just last year by denying Quebec any say in telecommunications policy, whether or not it is linked to cultural content.

Quebec's determination to become a member of the family of nations ultimately stems from its own successes. When upwards of two-thirds of your economy is owned by domestic interests; when you export 47 per cent of everything you produce; when your labor force is skilled enough to get world-class mandates for local General Motors and IBM plants; when you have a well-educated adult population that is the most bilingual in Canada or the United States and that has developed strong bonds with both American and European cultures; and when your subways, airplanes, songs, plays, circus, and cinema are a part of the fabric of international life, you have no desire to turn inward. You have no desire to close doors. Rather, you want to open them wide. You want to step out and be yourself, talk for yourself, and deal for yourself, directly and without any intermediary.

Trading with Quebec

Quebecers have demonstrated that they are strong supporters of free trade. Without Quebec, there would not have been enough support in Canada to enact either the Canada-United States free trade deal or the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The sovereignist movement has always been at the forefront of the free trade movement, and it still is. Our parliament will be the first among the Canadian provinces to pass the enabling legislation putting into effect those portions of the NAFTA agreement dealing with provincial jurisdiction.

Obviously, the agreement reached at last December's Summit of the Americas, which proposes to complete hemispheric free trade within 10 years, is very good news for us. Quebec is the United States's eighth largest trading partner, with its trade amounting to 40 per cent of the total U.S.-Mexican trading relationship. As a sovereign country, Quebec's gross domestic product would rate among the GDPs of the strongest members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, just after Switzerland, Sweden, and Austria, and before Denmark.

In a recent Business Week article, Gary Becker, the American Nobel laureate for economics, used the example of Quebec to show that this brand of nationalism is "merely riding the crest of world trade to forge new nations." It may be that world trade now enables smaller nations to prosper in large markets, but it is not only because we are traders that we want to be sovereign. If so, then California or Alberta could join the fray. What is really driving Quebecers' desire for independence is a need for identity, a wish for a more defined sense of personality in an increasingly impersonal world. As the French writer and diplomat Paul Claudel once said, "The best thing one can bring to the world is oneself."

In a speech delivered in Montreal in May 1992, United Nations secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali said something important that I think applies to Quebec: "A healthy globalization of modern life presupposes, in the first place, solid identities." He added, "An ordered world is a world of independent nations, open to each other and sharing respect for each other's differences and similarities. This is what I have termed the rich logic of nationalities and universality."

Open to the world and avid consumers and exporters of cultural and industrial products in both the French- and English-speaking worlds, Quebecers long to be more of an international presence. Sovereignty is a way to be fully present in the modern world of ideas, culture, commerce, and politics; it is a way to speak in our own voice in good intelligence with our neighbors as partners on this continent and elsewhere.

Old friends

What can or should Americans do about Quebec's quest for sovereignty? Very little. Former president George Bush once said the United States should "courageously sit on the side lines" on the Quebec issue. Speaking before the Canadian parliament in February, President Bill Clinton repeated the traditional U.S. policy on the issue: friendship with its Canadian ally and acknowledgement that this is a decision for Canadians to make, democratically, among themselves.

A Washington Post editorial summed it up best:
Most Americans probably watch this process with some degree of regret, for this country's inclination runs strongly in favor of [Canadian] unity. But American policy needs to remain absolutely neutral. As in certain marriages, differences that have become intractable over the years eventually justify divorce—and no one outside the family can make that judgment.

We understand that Americans in general and the U.S. government in particular have enjoyed good relations with the Canadian government over the years. As Quebecers, we would like to take credit for our share of these good relations. The two Canadian prime ministers who most strongly promoted free trade with the United States in this century—Wilfrid Laurier and Brian Mulroney—both came from Quebec.

We have no scores to settle with either the Canadian government or Canadians in general. We wish them well. We simply think we would be better partners as neighbors rather than feuding "spouses." Nor do we want our internal debate to lessen in any way the quality of the current relationship between Washington and Ottawa. We fully intend—once sovereign—to maintain good relations with both.

When Quebecers elected my government on September 12, 1994, they were told—both by us and by our Liberal party opponents—that we planned to hold a referendum on sovereignty this year. Last December we expressed how this platform would be accomplished. We put a blueprint on the table in the form of a draft bill that Quebecers will be asked to discuss and amend, and then to adopt or reject in a referendum. The draft bill explains that sovereignty is our ability to vote on all our laws, to manage all our taxes, and to sign all our treaties. The bill states our willingness to ensure the continuity of Canadian laws, permits, and regulations during the transition period. It deals with minority rights within Quebec, and it foreshadows a regionalization of resources and responsibilities.

This past winter, we created 18 itinerant commissions to gather comments on the draft bill. More than 50,000 people participated in the process (out of a voting population of approximately 4 million), a process that will produce a modified bill on sovereignty thus molded by popular participation for passage in the National Assembly[1]. Quebecers will then be asked to adopt or reject it in a referendum.

The bill also deals with the economic aftermath of sovereignty. If it is true that our story is one of a couple having reached irreconcilable differences and filing for divorce, then it is clear to us that we must have joint custody of two of our children: the federal debt and the Canadian dollar. Quebecers have no desire to avoid their responsibility—they will shoulder their share of the debt. The draft bill sets a one-year period following the referendum before full sovereignty comes into effect. During that period, interim measures will have to be set between Canada and Quebec regarding joint debt and assets while a final settlement of these questions is being negotiated.

In money matters, Quebecers hold about 100 billion Canadian dollars by our estimate. They are the cofounders and co-owners of the Canadian dollar, and, as most economists have pointed out, not only is there nothing to stop Quebec from using the dollar, but it is in the best interest of Canada that Quebec's currency remain the same. Of course, if Canada refuses to give Quebec any say in the management of the Bank of Canada, we would have no input on monetary policy. But as things now stand, we have not been able to get a word in edgewise at the Bank of Canada for decades. So, what is there to lose?

Minority issues are also carefully addressed in the draft bill. Because we have been for so long a minority in a country that to this day refuses to recognize our existence, we are extremely sensitive to the fate of minorities in Quebec. We intend to be beyond reproach on that score.

The Parti Québécois has made minority rights a part of its platform, and when I took office as prime minister, I strongly reaffirmed our commitment to enshrine in the constitution of a sovereign Quebec more rights for the anglophone minority of Quebec than the Canadian constitution has ever offered to the francophones of Canada. In order for members of the anglophone community—who make up about 10 per cent of Quebecers—to continue making their vibrant contribution to Quebec life, they need the opportunity to live to the fullest in their own language. That includes the right to be educated in English in institutions under their control, the right to receive medical care in their language, the right to have access to courts of law in their language, the right to express themselves in the language of their choice in the National Assembly, and the right to public broadcasting in both languages. This is the situation as it now stands. We would not have it any other way. We pledge that we will keep it this way.

Our relations with the 65,000 Quebecers who are members of the 11 native nations of Quebec will be guided by this same spirit. In the 1970s Quebec was the first province in Canada to sign a modern treaty with some of its native groups, and in the 1980s it was the first to recognize that native groups form distinct nations within Quebec. In the 1990s and beyond, we will continue to be in the forefront of self-government for native populations, and we pledge to offer these communities as much or more autonomy than that which exists elsewhere in North America.

The US. State Department aptly summed up the Quebec issue in a 1977 classified report, after the Parti Québécois first won control of the National Assembly. Thanks to the US. Freedom of Information Act, the most important policy paper on the issue then produced by American diplomats is now available. Back then, US. diplomats hoped that Canada would be flexible enough to accommodate the Quebec reality through some form of decentralization. The State Department concluded:

Our primary concern is the protection of over-all U.S. interests in Canada—including Quebec. A devolution of powers to Quebec only, particularly in cultural and social affairs—which have a human rights aspect, could well be less disruptive to U.S. interests than a general devolution to all the provinces. At the present time, English Canada does not support a Two-Nation approach, but this could change. It should also be kept in mind that Quebec does meet generally accepted criteria for national selfdetermination in the sense of ethnic distinctiveness in a clearly defined geographic area with an existing separate legal and governmental system. There is also no question regarding the basic long-term viability of an independent Quebec in the economic sense or in regards to its ability to be a responsible member of the family of nations. The unresolved and determining factor is and must be the will of the people of Quebec.

Nothing is wrong in this assessment, except for the hope that English Canada could one day accept the "Two-Nation approach." The Quebec issue has been eating at the heart of Canadian politics for decades. Tremendous amounts of time, energy, and money have been spent and wasted on endless debate that has failed to produce a viable resolution within the Canadian framework. It has been unproductive and irritating. Even the leader of the pro-unity debate in Quebec, Liberal party leader Daniel Johnson, acknowledges that a "sovereigntist fiber" lies in every Quebecer, including himself. And, like almost every Quebecer, he describes himself as a "Quebec nationalist." Quebec's quest for independence can be postponed or sidetracked, but at some point it will succeed, if only because a nation cannot endure forever in a country that denies its very existence. The conditions are right for an orderly, democratic transition to sovereignty in the months to come. The "determining factor" indeed is and must be the will of the people of Quebec.


  1. The bill was adopted as sanctioned as An Act Respecting the Future of Québec.