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The Autonomy and Separation of Quebec from Canada

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Like any province in Canada, Quebec has established itself as owning a distinct set of traditions, locale and culture. But is it enough to warrant a secession? This debate has found itself in controversy since 1968 where several political groups, namely the Parti Quebecois, have advocated for the independence of Quebec from Canada. Quebec nationalists have long argued that a secession from Canada is warranted, in order to protect their language, cultural heritage and French identity while opposition to this movement argue that such a movement would be impossible and would hurt both Canada and Quebec. However, this is the not the first time a minority group has argued for its right to be independent. Around the world, the same dilemma can be felt by the Kurdish people in Iraq and the Catalonians in Spain, fighting both physically and politically for their right to be recognized. Given that secession movements have doubled in the last century, there seems to be some warrant for the minority groups to want “freedom” (Alexander and Halpin, 2017).

Returning back to Canadian politics and considering both sides of debate, this paper will advocate against a secession of Canada. I argue that the separatist movement in Quebec is not only unrealistic but would launch a number of economic and socio-political consequences for the people of Quebec and Canada abroad that would hinder its success as an independent nation. The essay will be structured as follows: the first section of this paper will provide a historical analysis as to the root causes of the Quebec sovereignty movement and the strides that have been accomplished so far through cooperation or lack of with the Canadian government. The following sections will explain the implications a secession would introduce to both Quebec and Canadian society.

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In order to understand the contents of this essay better, it is first important to establish the term “separatism” and what it means for people of Quebec. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, Separatism can be defined as “the push for separation by a group of people from a larger political unit that it belongs to” (Stein, 2006). By this definition, there is no doubt that the movement for independence in Quebec follows this term closely.

The Quebecois sovereignty movement offers various reasons as to why they should be constituted as a distinct nation but the most vocal is the desire to protect the culture and language of the Quebecois. Both however, remain contested through the policies which have been successfully implemented through Canada’s laws. The concept of language has been at the forefront for the push for Quebec to secede from Canada. By some historians, the French language and Catholicism were deemed as symbolic to the French identity (McRoberts, 2014). Language undoubtedly holds a significant amount of weight as it is intrinsic to a person’s identity and the larger culture of the group to which they belong to. Furthermore, as a means of expressing and communicating values, language fosters feelings of bond to those in the group they occupy (RacismNoWay, 2015). As such, the preservation of a group’s language is seen as symbiotic to preserving their heritage and identity, due to the amount of languages that have disappeared through the “processes of colonization and migration” (RacismNoWay, 2015). This is one of the arguments most commonly used by the Quebecois, citing that French-speakers face fear of assimilation or suppression of their mother-tongue and instead should create their own state as to quell this threat.

There are two objections to this claim. Firstly, there are a number of policies that exist that protect the French Language in Canada. The first is the Official Languages Act (1969) whereby English and French are both included as the official languages of Canada. The Official Languages Act also requires all government institutions are required to provide services in English or French by request (Laurendeau, 2006). This law may make sense in the context of Quebec where 79.7% of the population in Quebec are French speakers (Hazan, 2017). But outside of Quebec, the Canadian Census of Population dictates that francophones makeup only 0.7% or (9.8 if you count those who have knowledge of both English and French) of the rest of the Canadian population (2016). Despite the minority of French-speakers outside of Quebec holding little weight, French has still been recognized the second-official language in Canada.

The second policy finds itself in the Charter of the French Language (2017) which was enacted on August 26th, 1977. Bill 101, its more commonly known moniker, was controversial at best. The Bill has commonly been associated with two very different purposes: “the survival of the French heritage or the establishment of anglophones in Quebec as second-class citizens” (Valiante, 2017). Bill 101 was struck with the purpose of enforcing French as the official language of businesses, government institutions and courts and producing signage solely in French. Additionally, the Bill dictated that children would only be schooled in French, thus effectively alienating a large percentage of immigrant and anglophone families (Valiante, 2017).

While a strict preservation of language indeed, such a policy inevitably comes at the harm of anglophone communities who make up a significant percentage of Quebec. Eventually this bill was deemed by the Supreme Court in 1984 as a violation of the Canadian Charter and Rights of Freedoms, due to two different languages being used to instruct children in Canada and that French-only signage threatened the freedom of speech (Valiante, 2017). The arrival of Premier Robert Bourassa only made things worse. Through the use of the notwithstanding clause in the Canadian Act of 1982, which allows federal and provincial governments to override or bypass certain Charter rights to implement Bills for a temporary period (Yarhi, 2018), Bourassa was able to keep Bill 101 in implementation. However, this move was the final straw for Anglophones in Quebec, an effect that saw many of them forcefully assimilate to French or leave Quebec entirely. And most of them did. Between 1971 and 2015, approximately 600,000 people left the province (The Fraser Institute, 2016). An interesting point that remains to be seen here is that despite Francophones being fearful of assimilation and the loss of their language, these laws, before they were eventually amended, ended up doing the very same thing to a large group of people in their own province under different pretenses. While the effect that language can have on culture and national identity is undisputable, what seems unchallenged is the rights that the Quebecois have been afforded in keeping the French language very much alive.

Aside from the alienation of a large population of anglophone or non-French speakers, a secession from Canada would present dire economic and social consequences for both Quebec and for Canada. Quebec claims to have enough resources to support itself, and others seem to agree, as it represents almost 20% of Canada’s total GDP through its tourism, mining, agriculture and hydroelectricity sectors (Canadianvisa.org, 2016). However, despite this contribution, it seems Quebec still receives more than it gives back. This comes in the form of equalization payments and the various social structures in place to provide many Quebecers housing, support, employment and subsidized services.

These possible economic consequences and concerns have not only been expressed by Canadian and Quebec politicians, but also from leaders that Canada enjoys fruitful partnerships with, such as past U.S President George Bush (Grady, 1991). As a study by the Fraser Institute suggests, a commonly overlooked factor, albeit in my opinion the largest one, is the status of political, economic and social agreements Canada has with other nations. While the results are impossible to firmly predict, it is more likely that a secession from Canada would not grant Quebec extended partnership in these agreements. For example, The Canada-United States Free Trade agreement or membership to international organizations such as the U.N, World Bank, NATO and the IMF (Grady 1991).

In addition to the costs associated with upholding these memberships, brokering deals and keeping social services intact, the transition towards becoming an independent nation-state would be very costly and difficult alone. As Grady suggests, this move could cause the stock market to dip or crash, a depreciation of Quebec property value, and even face the possibility of a recession in both states should they become separate (Grady, 1991). This is supported further by the fact that Quebec is largely more dependent on trade than other parts of Canada towards Quebec and that a secession would guarantee higher taxes for citizens in Quebec (Grady, 1991). This problem extends towards business partnerships and franchise deals. If Quebec were to secede, it would be hard to determine if the existing establishments and businesses would negotiate a new deal with Quebec, try to broker deals with both states, and shut down completely in that area. If the latter were to happen (which is most likely, given that these deals are made in the interests of a company who knows they will generate business with a larger, targeted population), Quebec would lose millions of dollars. Some of these businesses include: VIA and Air Canada, Canadian National Railways and Canadian Pacific, some of which have their headquarters stationed across Quebec (Grady, 1991).

Ultimately, while Quebec seems to distinguish itself entirely from the rest of Canada, it ignores a simple fact. Canada, over the last couple of years has diversified entirely. The effects of globalization, immigration and co-habituation cannot be halted, or ignored. Instead, while having their language and culture protected, the people of Quebec should seek to instead appreciate what it is that makes them unique and continue to reap the success that they offer both Canada and receive themselves.

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