Who Really Won When Quebec Voted "No"?

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Who Really Won When Quebec Voted "No"?
in John A. Fry, ed., Contradictions in Canadian Society. Readings in Introductory Sociology, John Wiley & Sons, 1984, p. 265-275.


In April of 1981, less than a year after having solidly rejected its sovereignty-association project in the referendum, Quebecers overwhelmingly returned the Parti Québécois to office. Although Quebecers regularly elect only Liberals federally, they remain generally unsympathetic to Mr. Trudeau's constitutional vision of a more centralized bilingual Canada.

There's a fundamental ambivalence here, ambivalence at the heart of Quebec's evolution and potential, that extends to all Canadians. But before assessing the situation, it is necessary to set the stage by outlining Quebec's socio-economic and political development.


Not too many years ago the reality of the francophone Québécois was easy to describe. Statistics gathered mainly by the federal Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in the early sixties painted a vivid picture. Quebec consistently had twice the unemployment of Ontario. Francophone Quebecers, who made up 80 percent of the population, employed 6.5 percent of Quebecers engaged in mining and 21.8 percent of those employed in manufacturing, and these manufacturing companies accounted for only 15.4 percent of Quebec's production.

The explanation for this state of events was rather easy to pinpoint as well. Fundamental economic power, that is control of the levers of development, did not lie in the hands of the francophones. Money "spoke" English, that language of Quebec's minority but of North American and Canadian majority. Who was to blame? The answer to that question tended to differ depending on what side of the political spectrum and, especially, of the language curtain, one sat. But the facts were clear from the beginning.

The beginning, of course, was in New France where something distinctive, a society that was French in language and Catholic in religion, developed among the 90 000 or so inhabitants (by 1760) in their row settlements and parishes situated along the rivers of the New World. The French colonial administration was basically interested in the fur trade and so the Church under Bishop Laval was left to foster the settlement of New France and to concern itself with the lives of the habitants. The accomplishment of the Church was order and stability but this occurred, at least partly, at the cost of economic growth and (by emerging Western standards) social progress.

Sufficient evidence confirms the existence of a small and relatively insignificant commercial class just before the British conquest. Though clearly tied to France through colonial grants of privilege, this incipient indigenous class of townspeople was apparently coming to identify itself with New France.

One may readily construct a scenario of how it might have been had this class been able to remain and flourish as in other European-based societies: sooner or later this rising bourgeoisie would have thrown off the political yoke of the colonial rulers and the cultural yoke of the clerical authorities. But it was not to be. The British conquerors brought in anglophone traders and merchants to take over. The "Canayens" became, as never before, an almost exclusively rural people. Montreal and Quebec became predominantly English, especially as the success of the Amerian colonists' revolt led "Loyalists" in the thousands migrate to the British colonies in the north: to Ontario and the Atlantic colonies, and some also to Quebec (to the Eastern Townships, to the Gaspé Peninsula, and to Montreal). The presence of a well-entrenched English Protestant minority in Montreal was thus assured. The leading members of this minority became the core of a unified financial, transportation, and staples cartel that then proceeded to dominate economic development in British North America.

Having eliminated the most threatening elements in the indigenous population in the 1837 rebellion, the old colonial administration rapidly declined in importance. Correspondingly, the Montreal-based financial oligarchy increased its political and economic power with the support of the Church, and after the rebellion, among established "native son" leaders like George Etienne Cartier. Political power was essentially subsidiary to economic power. And economic power lay with a prospering predominantly Anglo-Protestant bourgeoisie usually indifferent, sometimes hostile, to the culture, traditions, and aspirations of Quebec.

Apart from the priesthood, the ambitious, educated Québécois could aspire only to the traditional professions of medicine and law. If business was an option at all, it was contingent on the Québécois being prepared to adopt English as the language of work. And politics was an avenue to success that was closed.

The Anglo-Canadian commercial interests focused on the financing, transport, and export of staples (first furs and then mainly lumber) to England. Shipbuilding and the building of canals complemented the group's interests. By around 1850, the growth of new industrial technologies meant they could no longer rely on the export of staples. Yet the British colonial relationship had engendered among this elite the habits and institutions conducive to merchant capital. They saw the need for the industrialization of Canada, but were seldom disposed to do it themselves. True to their orientation toward transportation and transport equipment, they built railroads (and orchestrated the creation of the "Dominion" of Canada to pay for them) so as to be able to move settlers and goods from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The long recession of 1870 to 1890 meant more concentrated attention on the domestic market and the "National Policy" which consisted of land settlement, enormous state investments in transportation, most notably in the CPR, and high tariffs that encouraged direct investment in Canadian manufacturing on the part of America industrialists.

Before World War I, the Americans as well as some British, English Canadians, and a handful of French Canadians invested in light manufacturing: clothing, footwear, tobacco, textiles, and furniture. There was also activity in agricultural industries, such as flour milling, and butter and cheese making. Quebec's attractiveness lay primarily in its cheap labour. The decrease of good arable land and increased agricultural productivity drove a great many young Québécois to the industrial towns.

Ontario, in contrast, concentrated its growth in the heavy industry sector, making full use of its greater proximity to the westwardly shifting North American market, to the head offices of American corporations, to Appalachian coal, and Northern Ontario iron ore.

By the turn of the century the foundations had been laid; the economic development of Quebec was in the hands of a partnership formed predominantly by foreign (and increasingly American) industrialists financed and served by English-Canadian bankers, transporters, and merchants.

In the next forty years, Quebec, though not gaining ground, was able to more or less hold its own, though rapid growth in resource development industries.


The Transition


Contenders for Legacy