First used as a slogan by the Mouvement Souveraineté-Association (MSA), forerunners of the PARTI QUÉBÉCOIS, the phrase became the PQ's cornerstone and main objective. Introduced in the document Option-Québec, written by party leader René LÉVESQUE, the expression replaced the word independence and implied the idea of an association which would evolve from an agreement under international law and be limited to the economic domain (1967). In the 1970 péquiste program, La Solution (1970), it is not presented as a necessary condition for Québec's accession to sovereignty. With time, however, association came to be viewed as the equal and necessary other half of sovereignty.

In October 1978, Premier Lévesque declared in the National Assembly that Québec had to transform radically its union with the rest of Canada, and that sovereignty and association should come about "smoothly and simultaneously." In what came to be called the White Paper on Sovereignty-Association (La nouvelle entente Québec-Canada), the péquiste government claimed that "sovereignty is indissolubly linked with association." The document went on to describe the doctrine more fully: it foresaw a common monetary system with the rest of Canada, coupled with a reorganization of the tasks of the present Bank of Canada into new common institutions, including a central monetary authority. It also presupposed a joint free-trade zone and a common external tariff (though each of the 2 communities could protect its own agriculture). It allowed for the free passage of goods and persons between Québec and Canada, and a variety of special agreements concerning jobs and immigration. A community council, composed of an equal number of ministers from each side and presided over alternately by a Canadian and a Québecois, would settle any disputes that might arise. Three other Québec-Canada institutions were proposed: a committee of experts to serve (under the council) as general secretariat to the community; a court of justice consisting of an equal number of Québec and Canadian judges with exclusive jurisdiction over the interpretation and workings of the association treaty; and a joint monetary authority responsible for the management of the single exchange rate, but not for the debt of the 2 sovereign partners (each would handle its own). Sovereignty-association, in the view of the White Paper, was not an end in itself, but a means by which Québec could freely direct its own affairs. Québec would thus enjoy the economic advantages of the federal union and the benefits of political independence.

In May 1980, the Parti Québécois government used a REFERENDUM to ask the people of Québec for a mandate to negotiate sovereignty-association, thus defined, with the federal and other provincial authorities. The PQ lost the vote (60% to 40%). Early in 1985, after consultation with its membership, the PQ decided to put aside this option, and not make it the party's platform in the next election. This led to internal dissent and a group of the dissidents including Jacques PARIZEAU, faithful to the party's basic objective, decided to leave. The PQ subsequently lost the Québec election of 1985.