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.

SUMMARY: Who Really Won When Quebec Voted "No"? by Henry Milner explains the social, economic and political transformations that have brought Quebec and Canada into the impasse they are still locked into today in 2012, more than three decades after the adoption of the 1982 constitution.


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, the 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 American 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, through rapid growth in resource development industries. Quebec's ample supply of raw materials such as lumber, asbestos, and certain minerals was a factor, but the major source of appeal was Quebec's vast supply of hydro-electric power.

The pattern remained the same and the statistics showed it. In fact, the sixties showed a relative weakening of the position of Quebec vis-à-vis Ontario. The St. Lawrence Seaway and the Auto-Pact were two of the primary causes.

But during the 1970s, an important change occurred: a change linked to the rapid transformation of Quebec called the "Quiet Revolution" — a change that makes analysis far more complex. The economic inequality of the people of Quebec and their lack of economic power became a challenge to be overcome. Everyone agreed on this goal, although it soon became evident that there was no consensus on the means of achieving the goal.

The Quiet Revolution is thus readily understood; first as a stage of the pattern of economic development and secondly, and more profoundly, as the unleashing of popular forces. The Quebec state came to the fore through a class that emerged as the leading element of social transformation.

The Transition

A hundred years ago the state played a negligible economic and social role. Today the various levels of government in Canada account for more than forty percent of gross revenues and expenditures. This is not "creeping socialism" — quite the contrary. The state provides services in keeping with the needs of highly advanced technological private enterprises: education, training, and maintenance of the health and purchasing power of its workers, regulation of industries for maximum efficiency, provision of services in communications, transportation, finance, hydro power, etc. In fact, Canada has been in many ways a pioneer in building up a positive role for the state under capitalism.

The development of the positive state has been crucial to Canada; however given the country's composition, even the most effective nation-building policy could have only limited success. If we use the old definition of a nation as a group of people who have done great things in the past and hope to do so in the future, this nation-building task has always been hampered by the simple fact that English Canadians and French Canadians, as a united group, have seldom done great things in the past, and show little aspiration of doing such things in the future. Events, such as foreign wars and the seizing of the frontier from the Native peoples have divided French from English rather than uniting them.

For the Quebec state, thus, an opposite historical pattern emerged. The view of the state in Quebec has traditionally been a negative one. Historically, the Quebec state never did take on a positive identification with the nation. As a cultural entity the Quebec nation was developed before the emergence of capitalism and was identified in the early days with the traditional way of life. At best, participation in the federal government and the selection of provincial administration was seen as a defence of the nation from external challenges, particularly of a cultural nature. The tasks of the nation were not economic — this lay essentially among the anglophone owning class — but were cultural and social tasks that lay in the domain of the church and parish. The job of the state was merely to defend them from encroachment.

By 1960 Quebec could no longer function without the trappings of a modern state apparatus. The Quiet Revolution rapidly developed the infrastructure of a modern state apparatus but not simply because Jean Lesage and the revitalized provincial Liberals wanted it. Paul Sauvé would have facilitated the development of a similar state apparatus had he lived to lead a Union Nationale government after succeeding Duplessis in the early sixties. This infrastructure developed because the changing socio-economic conditions dictated it. In a few years Quebec developed not only the administrative structure but also the cultural apparatus of a modern state. Statistics portray the extent of this change. For example, Quebec government revenues from all sources including state expenses and services grew five-fold from $758 million in 1961 to $3383 million in 1970. Provincial government expenditures went up four-fold (federal government expenditures in Quebec only doubled). The total state budget, including provincial and federal state-owned enterprises, school boards, municipalities, and hospitals, tripled from 1961 to 1970 while the Quebec GNP doubled in the same period.

The Quiet Revolution thus saw the rapid transformation of the state from that of a nation-protecting to a nation-building institution. The state changed from a secondary national institution to a primary one — the Quebec nation and the Quebec state became inseparably linked.

Once the Quebec state became the primary institution of the Quebec nation, the question of political independence became central. This was unlike the situation in the past, in which the question of independence was raised by the Québécois essentially as a camouflage — a political threat to protect the things that really mattered, things not political but social and cultural. In addition, it now became a public fact that the economy of Quebec was essentially owned and managed by anglophone Canadians and Americans. The Quebec state bureaucracy was cut off from the economic elite (with which it was supposed to work closely) by national/linguistic divisions.

A modern educational and social-services system, state corporations from Hydro-Quebec to Sidbec (steel), and a unionized public sector were the key achievements of this period. The growth of a state bureaucracy, the establishment of new social welfare institutions, the rapid creation of state regulatory bodies, agencies, and commissions multiplied the number of positions in the public institutions that were available to educated francophones. The creation of the Ministry of Education, the CEGEPs (junior colleges), and the University of Quebec, the incorporation into public institutions of the whole range of medical and social services, and other related activities formerly in the domain of private or religious agencies, the funding of private schooling, the support of research and development, the wide-range funding of artistic and cultural productions of various kinds, all added up to a vast interpenetration of the government apparatus into the societal legitimating institutions.

As a consequence, an essential new stratum emerged, educated and employed by the new state institutions — a groups that I call the state middle class. They were linked to the state either by direct employment in government, by the participation in institutions directly tied to government through funding (as the arts, private schools, and entertainment) or through regulation and certification (for example, of trade unions, professional organizations, broadcasting, and the working press).

Created by the Quiet Revolution, this stratum also created and produced the second, non-administrative, change that it embodies: the cultural and intellectual épanouissement of Quebec. In every sector — the media, the arts, the entertainment industry, and academic life — it released forces that could not long be held in check within the early sixties consensus that was presided over by the partnership of the Quebec Liberals and the economic elite.

Breakdown came not with the defeat of the Lesage Liberals in 1966, since Daniel Johnson carried on much of the Lesage tradition, but with the schism of the Liberal party that followed. The expulsion of René Lévesque and his supporters and his supporters and the resultant unification of independentist groups under the Parti Québécois drew many closer to this emerging alternative. This shift continued in response to what was seen as the pitiable capitulation by Bourassa before the federal state during the 1970 October crisis.

These changes took place below the surface; surface appearances gave the opposite impression. In 1973, the Liberal landslide destroyed the third parties which had won support from rural elements who were wary of the urbane progressivism of the PQ, and from anglophone and immigrant elements who were terrified by its nationalism. (This terror has, as we know, been at times stimulated by the PQ's adversaries.) But even with its lopsided majority, the Liberal regime was weakened, increasingly disconnected from the infrastructure of the state economy that it had itself helped to create, having lost to the PQ the state middle class and thus those needed to regulate, plan, and co-ordinate state activities.

In repudiating, as they had to, the national aspects of the Quiet Revolution, the Liberals temporarily gained voters, but ultimately lost out by weakening their link to the legitimacy that is accorded to the nation-building state. The ideological basis for nation building thus fell to the Parti Québécois. The resounding defeat of Bourassa at the hands of the PQ in November 1976 meant the collapse of a regime already internally disintegrating.

Contenders for Legacy

The Parti Québécois in its first term in office accomplished most of what was expected of it. Public policy making became an extension of the reforms that were started by the Quiet Revolution. Anti-scab and worker-safety legislation, agricultural land zoning, state auto insurance, party financing reform, rent control, consumer protection, minimum wage increases — the list goes on at length. The Asbestos Corporation was nationalized and important shares of key resources giants such as Domtar, Noranda, and Alcan were purchased. Most important perhaps was Bill 101 — establishing French as the language of work and, among other things, limiting English schools to anglophones.

Bill 101 became a national symbol greater even than the nationalization of Hydro-Quebec had been during the Quiet Revolution. At last the contradiction between being francophone and succeeding economically was being eliminated. And the economic forces unleashed during this entire period were beginning to show results. New small businesses run by francophones were opening up all over Quebec. And the income gap between francophones and nonfrancophones narrowed considerably.

Despite being caught up in the ambiguous position of being a successful administration of a province whose form had been delineated by a federal system it condemned, the PQ retained its position in the province. The defeat of the referendum in 1980 did not, against all expectations, sour the party's electoral fortunes. In April 1981 it won its greatest triumph, winning just under 50 percent of the vote, a victory that demonstrated the array of personal talent that the party was able to muster from the most dynamic and well-educated francophone stratum.

From an organizational standpoint, the success of the PQ does not come primarily from being able to raise millions from several hundred thousands members in two weeks, nor from the fact that these many thousands of militants work door-to-door during an election. It derives from the fact that the Parti Québécois has by and large been able to attract the best and brightest Québécois into its ranks. At all levels of operation — from strategy at the top, to regional co-ordination and local organization at the bottom — highly competent and motivated people were willing and able to work long and hard and without personal reward for the cause. The Parti Québécois succeeded precisely because of its long-term national and social-democratic fundamental vision. While there are important disagreements over strategy and policy, these, despite appearances, do not threaten the unity of the party, for the PQ's fundamental goals are built in to its very essence, and therefore not endangered by electoral compromise. It has been able to fill arenas even when losing. And it is able to attract the needed dynamic elements by its fundamental long-term vision and goals of the movement, and put them to work at achieving the immediate electoral goals of the party.

While the provincial Liberals have not disappeared, and have again managed to rally all anti-péquiste votes, they have not restored their position in French Quebec. In 1981, Liberals won more francophone votes than the PQ in only 3 or 4 of the 122 ridings. In many, such as on the south shore of Montreal, the PQ won well over 70 percent of francophone votes. And while the worsening economic picture prompted a great deal of dissatisfaction with the Lévesque government in 1982/83, it has not brought renewed attachment to the opposition Liberals. The Liberals' strength remains in declining segments of the population among the nonfrancophones, those over forty and those in rural Quebec.

Yet in its most fundamental battles — that of political power for Quebec leading up to independence — the legacy of the Quiet Revolution remains unfulfilled for the PQ.

The Parti Québécois lost the referendum and it has subsequently proven itself to be powerless in keeping the federal government from imposing its new repatriated Constitution upon Quebec. For there is another powerful current in Quebec's political development and that is the federal presence notably through the Liberal party of Canada: the other contending heir-apparent for the legacy of the Quiet Revolution. The roots on this side are also quite deep.

A poorly kept secret of Canadian political history is the fact that, with rare exceptions, the party that wins Quebec rules Canada. This was the case with the Conservatives in the very early years and with the Liberals since, from Laurier to Trudeau. The Trudeau-Pelletier-Chrétien-Lalonde version is updated, of course, and is in many ways positive. Federal bilingualism and French power was brought to Ottawa — an attempt to steer the creative energies of the New Quebec onto the entire Canadian landscape, coast to coast. And this has succeeded up to a point. Concrete gains have been made, though the fundamental power arrangements and the fact that the rest of Canada is English remains unchanged. The state middle class has not been co-opted. Those who went to work for Ottawa gave their minds, but seldom their hearts.

But, electorally, French power in Ottawa has worked like a charm. Quebec continued to keep the Liberals in power, to keep "its boys" near the top. Hence Québécois, effectively, have been allowed to have their cake (in Quebec) and eat it too (in Ottawa). And in May 1980 not enough were ready to give up this arrangement, especially when promised in the name of Mr. Trudeau that under a renewed Constitution they would have greater powers. But Trudeau did not deliver in the new Constitution of 1982 or in federal-provincial economic dealings of the period. The resentment created may have helped undermine this option, and at this writing, the PQ is considering exploiting the promise by entering the federal arena. Nevertheless, old traditions die hard.

The effect of this state of affairs on the English in Quebec also bears mention. The re-election of the PQ in 1981 is at the base of a growing alienation withing this population, based on feelings withheld for years because of a notion proven false in April of that year: that the changes would be short-lived, and that once the "enemy", the Parti Québécois, was defeated, anglophones would be able to go back to the days when the French fact was something they could choose to accept of reject. Being a minority and paying lip service to the French fact differs greatly from accepting it as an irreversible and all-encompassing reality.

Finding it difficult enough to go from being the effective majority to a minority, Quebec anglophones are insensitive to the fact that every French-speaking Québécois knows: Quebec is predominantly a francophone society, and it is a natural preoccupation of its people to ensure that it remains so. For, while numerical predominance has been effectively guaranteed for the foreseeable future, it is still necessary to have in place political mechanisms to ensure that this predominance is reflected in the public face of Quebec, in the integration of newcomers into its educational system, in the language of work and business, and in the fostering of cultural activities. Of the sixty-two governments in the United States and Canada, only one, Quebec's, speaks for a predominantly francophone population. Consequently, the position of anglophones in Quebec is unlike the position of francophones in the other provinces — including New Brunswick, where francophones make up more than one-third of the population.

Government policy, most notably in Bill 101, has been interpreted by many anglophones not as defending a minority — francophone Quebecers — but as a means of oppressing and punishing another minority — themselves. Hence, communication between francophones and anglophones in Quebec has suffered ironically, at just the time when the francophone majority has managed genuinely to overcome its inward orientation and reach out toward the other twenty percent in a sincere effort to build a pluralist society. It is difficult to discern whether or not the problem is merely temporary. More English children are being educated in French, which is a positive sign. But the transition remains a hard one.

Finally, English Canada also suffers from this dualism that is has grudgingly accepted in an effort to keep Quebec "quiet". And here the problem appears more deeply ingrained. When Canadians go to the polls to choose the federal government, their practical choice lies between moderately probusiness parties whose policies are, for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable. These two parties, the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives, differed little even when first organized. Canada today continues to operate within a nineteenth-century party system: present-day Liberals appeal to "French power in Ottawa", while the Conservatives seem to stand for holding it in check.

Even with the election of Brian Mulroney as P.C. party chief, there appears little reason to expect any fundamental change in this situation short of a resolution of the Quebec question. After all, a "crisis of Confederation" will always arise or can always be induced to reaffirm Liberal hegemony — but not without serious cost to Canada.

For anglophone Quebecers, the choice is self-evident. The Trudeau Liberals are the only party with the potential of doing two contradictory things at the same time: appealing to the Québécois as Québécois and appealing to English Canada as the antidote to Quebec nationalism. The further one gets from Quebec the less appealing this reasoning, the greater the resentment of being held hostage by a party based in Quebec, especially since Quebec continues to make noises about leaving Canada. This leads to greater disunity, greater federal-provincial haggling, and decreases in the capacity of Canadians to achieve the consensus and sense of common identity needed to meet the challenges that face us.

Can ordinary Canadians afford the luxury of these constant federal-provincial economic quarrels, constitutional conferences, and bilingualism-biculturalism controversies? Especially when they are faced with the reality of fundamental national decisions that must be taken concerning the power of multinational corporations, energy policy, new technologies, and the environment — all within the context of difficult economic times.

No observer of contemporary Quebec can fail to be impressed by its progress over the past twenty years. But the failure of Quebec as yet to prevail in its national liberation should not be welcomed too readily as the preserver of Canadian unity. For the time being, Quebecers are not quite ready to discard the federal bargain, with its Cabinet appointments, civil-service jobs, senate seats, and other rewards, to embark fully on the adventure of building a sovereign Quebec in which they themselves would be masters of their own destiny. The Parti Québécois's project of an independent francophone Quebec respectful of its minorities and of existing economic relationships with the rest of Canada, despite its appeal, remains fraught with uncertainties. The alternative of the PQ in Quebec and French power in Ottawa still seems to offer best of both worlds.

But unity preserved at this cost may well be more dear for Canada than the honourable disunity that sovereignty and association would constitute. The choice may in reality be between these two arrangements: two sovereign but closely aligned nation-states each in a position to reflect and realize the potential of the community it encompasses and to draw upon the collective resources and social solidarity of its people; or one state made up of two nations and many provinces where minimal compromises are made to satisfy the elites but where disunity, distrust, and particular interests invariably come before the needs of the whole.

The evolution of Quebec over this past generation has led inevitably to this intersection; the choices made or not made will profoundly affect all Canadians.