The first full-fledged secessionist movement in Canada emerged in Nova Scotia shortly after Confederation in response to economic grievances, but it was quickly defeated. No other serious separatist force appeared in an English-speaking province for another century. In Québec the Manifesto of the PATRIOTES in the REBELLIONS OF 1837 had included a declaration that the province secede from Canada.
After the defeat of that rebellion, separatism no longer existed as a genuine component of the conservative FRENCH CANADIAN NATIONALISM that emerged and was dominant for over a century in Québec. There were, however, isolated advocates of the doctrine of separatism, eg, the journalist Jules-Paul TARDIVEL, and occasional flirtations with it in the early 1920s and mid-1930s by strong nationalists such as Abbé Lionel GROULX and his followers.
The separatist movement re-emerged as a political force in modern Québec in the late 1950s and the 1960s, a time of great socioeconomic change and nationalist foment in that province. The most important early manifestation of this rejuvenation was the leftist Rassemblement pour l'indépendance nationale (RIN). It first competed electorally in 1966, and together with other separatist groups garnered over 9% of the Québec vote. Some violent radical fringe movements committed to independence also operated during this decade, most notably the FRONT DE LIBÉRATION DU QUÉBEC (FLQ), which attained notoriety in the OCTOBER CRISIS of 1970.
Popular support for separatism in Québec and for the organizations that represented it rapidly increased in the province in the late 1960s and the 1970s, particularly after the Parti Québécois was formed in 1968. Its founder and leader was the dynamic and popular former broadcast journalist and Liberal Cabinet minister René LÉVESQUE. The party was able to rally most of the province's nationalist political groups to its program of political independence coupled with economic association ("sovereignty-association") with English-speaking Canada.
On 15 November 1976 it swept to power with 41% of the popular vote and 71 seats. It promised to delay any move toward independence until it had consulted the people of Québec in a referendum. In the QUÉBEC REFERENDUM campaign of 1980, the government of Québec asked the people for a mandate to negotiate sovereignty-association with the rest of Canada. Although this was only a mild expression of the independence option, it was decisively rejected on 20 May 1980 by about 60% of the Québec electorate, including a majority of the French-speaking population. The PQ was subsequently re-elected in 1981 on a program that included a promise to defer the independence question for at least another full term of office. But its popular support began to wane, particularly after the resignation of Lévesque in 1985 and the defection of several prominent cabinet ministers over its moderate independence stance. It was defeated in the provincial election of 1985 by the Liberals under the rejuvenated leadership of former premier Robert BOURASSA, and languished in opposition for the rest of the decade. Support for full political independence remained around 40% for most of that period.
The PQ regrouped in the late 1980s under the leadership of Jacques PARIZEAU, a former PQ finance minister, and its more radical sovereigntist adherents. It pledged in its platform to declare Québec independence following a majority vote in a referendum on sovereignty. Immediately after the rejection of the MEECH LAKE ACCORD in 1990, support for the sovereignty option increased significantly to about 65%, but declined again to its more normal level of about 40% after the PQ won a narrow victory in the provincial election of 1994. During the same period, members of the Québec independence movement established a separatist political party at the national level, the Bloc Québécois, under the leadership of a charismatic former federal PC Cabinet minister, Lucien BOUCHARD. It managed to win almost 50% of the Québec vote and 52 seats in the federal election of 1993, and became the official opposition party in Ottawa. Its primary objective was to promote the separatist cause in national politics.
In October 1995 the PQ government organized another referendum on sovereignty (see QUÉBEC REFERENDUM (1995). It also modified its earlier stance to allow for negotiation of a possible economic partnership with English Canada following a majority vote in favour of sovereignty. About halfway through the campaign Premier Parizeau was forced to cede his de facto leadership of the "yes" side to the more popular Bouchard. The sovereigntists lost very narrowly in the October 30 referendum, 49.4% to 50.6%, but won a substantial majority among francophone voters. Parizeau subsequently resigned, and was replaced as premier by Bouchard.
During the initial period of his premiership, Bouchard made the elimination of the deficit and the strengthening of the Québec economy his major priorities. Pursuit of sovereignty was placed on the political backburner. At the same time, the federal government began to frame a coherent plan to combat future threats of Québec separatism.
Prime Minister Chrétien appointed Stephane Dion, an academic who was a strong opponent of Québec sovereignty, as his Intergovernmental Affairs Minister, and assigned him the responsibility of formulating this new strategy. Dion devised a two-pronged approach, which he characterized as "Plan A" and "Plan B." Plan A consisted of positive inducements and placating measures designed to win over francophone Québec public opinion to the federalist cause, such as the passage of a House of Commons resolution declaring Québec to be a "distinct society." Under Plan B, which consisted of more coercive measures, he directed his Ministry to frame a reference to the Supreme Court of Canada asking for its advisory opinion on the legality both under the Canadian constitution (domestically) and internationally of the unilateral secession of Québec from Canada. The Québec government refused to recognize the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court on this matter.
The Court issued its ruling on this reference on 20 August 1998. It declared unanimously that under domestic law, the Québec government could initiate legal steps toward secession only after achieving the consent of a clear majority of the Québec population on a clear question in a referendum. If it did gain such a victory (and the Court left the matter of defining what is meant by a "clear majority" and a "clear question" to the politicians), the federal government and the other provinces of Canada would be obliged to negotiate with the Québec authorities in good faith. The decision was viewed as a victory by both sides.
Dion subsequently drafted what became known as the "Clarity Bill" (Bill C-20). It defined the terms under which a "Yes" vote in a referendum would be regarded as a "clear majority" on a "clear question." It would involve more than 50% plus 1 (ie, a simple majority). The Clarity Bill was passed into law in June 2000.
Contrary to widespread opinion, the passage of the Clarity Bill did not arouse strongly negative sentiment among Québec nationalists. Premier Bouchard was unable to mobilize increased support for the separatist cause, and this failure, and later internal criticism from the more "hard-line" separatist elements in his party, appear to have provoked his resignation as Québec premier and PQ party president in January 2001. He was succeeded by Bernard LANDRY, a longtime PQ leader, in March 2001. Since that time, despite his strong and clear reaffirmation of his commitment to Québec sovereignty, he has been unable to deliver on his promise. Support for Québec independence has dropped to about 40%, its lowest point since the 1980 referendum.
In its initial period of the 1970s, the modern form of separatism in Québec was particularly popular among the new middle classes, especially those linked to state structures and with aspirations in other expanding bureaucratic sectors of society. Its principal adherents today, both within the rank and file and the leadership, continue to be liberal professionals (eg, teachers, administrators and media specialists), white-collar workers and students. There is also considerable support from trade union members, who form the core of its more radically nationalist and socially oriented adherents. Since the 1980s, it has also garnered some support from the business sector, and from the traditional liberal professions, such as law and medicine. However, these latter groups continue to be more sympathetic to pan-Canadian political appeals, which are perceived to be more in tune with their economic interests. Moreover, a new generation of young francophones in their 20s and early 30s appear to be more open to global economic concerns, are more individualistic and economically conservative and do not appear to be as strongly attracted to separatist appeals as was the previous generation. Thus far, the separatist cause has had very little success in its efforts to win votes among anglophones and allophones, who constitute slightly less than 20% of the Québec population.
In English Canada in the early 1980s there was also some separatist activity, particularly in Alberta, which was embodied in the Western Canada Concept Party. The objectives of this party were to try to rectify perceived injustices in western Canada concerning such matters as freight rates, tariff barriers, oil pricing, bilingualism and western representation in the federal governing party, and failing that, to promote secession from Canada. However, the party failed to win much support, and succeeded in electing only one member in an Alberta provincial by-election. Much of this support for western separatism has since dissipated.
Author MICHAEL B. STEIN
David R. Cameron (ed.), The Referendum Papers: Essays on Secession and National Unity (1999); W.D. Coleman, The Independence Movement in Quebec, 1945-1980 (1984); K. McRoberts, Quebec: Social Change and Political Crisis (3rd ed, 1988); Robert A. Young, The Struggle for Quebec: From Referendum to Referendum? (1999).
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