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Canada and Québec: An Update

by Simon Langlois, Laval University, Québec City

Renowned Canadian sociologist Marshall McLuhan once wrote, “Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without identity,” and claims that having an identity crisis is part of being Canadian. The 2002 Booker Prize winner, Yann Martel, referred to today’s Canada as the “greatest hotel on earth.” If these interpretations seem superficial, recent sociological and political analyses have revealed that in fact new global identities have emerged both in English and French Canada. Personally, I would say that Canada is not facing an identity crisis but instead harbours conflicting interpretations of its present national duality.

Canada’s 1867 Constitution did not refer to a Canadian nation, in the modern sense of the word, but it spoke of the establishment of a federation recognizing the particularities of French Canada (Québec) on the one hand and the British character of English-speaking provinces on the other. The first prime minister of Canada, John A. Macdonald, dreamed of living and dying as a British subject, and from mid-19th to mid-20th century, Canadian identity was divided into two populations, two self-definitions: English-Canadians and French- Canadians.

“Canadians” First

Today, the old hyphenated identities have been replaced by a new national identity, at least in the English-speaking parts of Canada where a “refounding” process of the nation is at work. This process parallels one observed among Francophones in Québec since the 1960s. Citizens of Canada now define themselves simply as Canadians. Probably a majority of the Canadian population has forgotten the British connection referred to on Canadian passports issued before the 1970s, though today they are still reminded of it by the symbolic presence of a Governor General living in Ottawa and by the picture of a Queen living in a foreign country on the Canadian $20 bill.

The “Canadian imagined” community (as per international studies author Benedict Anderson’s concept of nationalism) has been built along new values in the last 30 years: multiculturalism, respect for individual rights and equality of individuals, tolerance (gay marriage has been allowed by courts), and universal access to Medicare and social welfare programs. Canada recognizes the equality of all provinces, a value that is supported by an equalization program that allows all provinces to provide comparable services regardless of their ability to raise revenue. The country acknowledges the existence of two official languages, and, consequently, the right for all individuals to receive services in French and English in all federal institutions. The contribution of aboriginal peoples is often referred to in public discourses and ceremonies.

Words versus Deeds

But as sociologists know, there is often a vast distance between discourse and reality. For example, various inequalities between Alberta and Ontario and the other provinces are increasing. Assimilation rate of Francophones living outside Québec is high. Social and cultural integration of immigrants is generally not problematic, but socioeconomic differences are great between newcomers and old stock people. Symbolic recognition of first nations is a fait accompli, but the process of creating a new level of government controlled by aboriginal people is slow and aboriginals continue to be victims of inequalities. The national unity question is still problematic: the level of support for Québec sovereignty remains high, and 51 (from among a possible 75) Bloc québécois (the Québec sovereigntist party at the federal level) Members of Parliament were elected in Québec in the January 2006 federal election.

Three factors have substantially contributed to reshaping Canadian identity: increased continental economic integration, immigration, and the development of a new political culture based on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Continentalism, which in the 1960s and 1970s was considered a complete negation of the Canadian identity, has made enormous strides. The large increase in north-south trade since the adoption of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) is indicative of Canada’s new level of integration into the North American economy. In the meantime, with the decline of the British Empire and the entry of England in the European Union, the links with Great Britain have weakened—except maybe in the field of sociology(!) where, according to an analysis published in a recent issue of the Fall 2005 issue of the Canadian Journal of Sociology, for the 1993- 2003 period, more Canadian authors were published in the British Journal of Sociology than in either the American Journal of Sociology or the American Sociological Review (Baer, 2005).

Immigration is transforming not only the face of Canada but also the very definition the country gives itself. Canada is a land of immigration and its largest city, Toronto, with almost half of its inhabitants having been born in another country, is now one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. The city has the fastest demographic growth of all cities in North America. Between 1950 and 2005, Canada received more than nine million new immigrants, a number almost equivalent to the entire populations of Austria or Switzerland. The very diverse origins of Canadians and their integration into the English-speaking majority probably constitute the most powerful force leading to a new self-definition in Canada. Not being of British stock, new immigrants do not see themselves as English Canadians, but simply as Canadians.

Finally, Canada’s 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms has taken on enormous symbolic significance in the Canadian culture. Probably more than any other factor, its reference to individual rather than to collective rights has changed the political culture of the country and contributed to the construction of a new identity. This is a major change. In theory, there are a number of clauses in this Charter that are directed toward the promotion of collective rights but, in practice, individual rights have become the essential reference.

Do all these changes indicate that Canada and the United States are drawing closer together and, as a result, that specific characteristics at the heart of the Canadian identity are being abandoned? Only time will provide a clear answer to this question. It should be noted, however, that even if Canada is more integrated into the North America socioeconomic space, English Canada and Québec are showing considerable cultural dynamism in literature, popular music, film, and painting. Through this cultural flowering, Canada promotes its own identity, different from that of the United States. If this analysis is correct, economic tendencies and cultural tendencies are evolving differently. In spite of increased economic integration, a new definition of Canada has emerged, not based only on objective aspects (e.g., the North, welfare state, an officially bilingual country) but on new representation of themselves.

Québec’s Status in New Canada

French Canadians believed in the thesis of the two founding peoples for generations and dreamed of building a bi-national state like others in Europe. It was a way of marking their Canadian identity and of indicating that they belonged to a collective national entity that referred to a common symbolism, a way of believing that Canada, from its very beginning, formally recognized the founding contribution of the French. In more contemporary terms, Guy Rocher describes this utopia as a civic project— not an ethnic aspiration—where one nation defines its own place alongside others, and not apart from them.

A fragmentation occurred inside old French Canada. Traditional French Canada disappeared as a normative unit and its identity has been shattered. The words “French Canadians” are no more used in public discourses. Francophone minorities have adopted a communitarian approach to define themselves outside Québec, as illustrated by the official name of the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne.

In Québec, French-speaking people do not define their identity as one of the many ethnic identities in Canada. Federalists as well as sovereigntists consider that Québec is a nation (in a sociological sense) open to integration of immigrants. French—known or spoken by 94% of the population—is the language of the civil society and the language of integration of immigrants of diverse ethnic origins, just as English is that of Canada’s outside Québec. As the official language of Québec, French is intended to be the rallying point for individuals living there and the use of the language means being a full-fledged member of the civil society, as English is in the United States, or Swedish in Sweden, and Finish in Finland. Linguistic laws protect and promote French in the public sphere; an equilibrium between individual rights and collective rights (a notion difficult to understand by many Americans) has been reached, and many other democratic countries consider the situation in Québec as a model to promote the language of a minority group while respecting individual rights.

Nowadays, the Québec nation is referred to in public discussions and academic literature as a political nation, based on citizenship and civil rights. This conception, now dominant, marks a radical break with the reference to traditional French-Canadian nationalism that has frequently stressed its defensive character: emphasis on the struggle for survival, idealization of the past, and resentment. Contemporary Québec nationalism is different and has transformed itself from a nationalism of resentment that has become a modern nationalism of self-affirmation, up to a point that some observers stated that the pendulum has now moved toward a loss of common memory and a kind of aseptic nationalism.

Many definitions of the nation québécoise were proposed over the past 20 years, and Québec is an interesting example of a radical mutation of nationalism in small nations. All the proposed definitions of the nation favour common citizenship but differ as to the degree of importance accorded to the cultural aspect and the role of collective memory and give more importance to the territorial aspect of nationhood. If Québec cannot be called a nation-state, let us say that it is a regionstate located inside a larger political entity, like Catalonia is a region-state in Spain. This shared view of the nation in Québec has allowed the emergence of a typical form of interculturalism, a Québécois version of Canadian multiculturalism. The proportion of citizens born abroad is greater in Québec than in the United States; for this reason, a new self definition of “Québécois” was necessary, as it was in Canada, generally.

Toward a New Territorial Duality

Statistics on languages spoken in Canada reveal the emergence of a linguistic polarisation. English is the dominant language outside Québec. Outside Québec, the relative proportion of Francophones is declining and is presently less than 5%. In Québec, Anglophones (i.e., those for whom English is the mother tongue) represent 8.1% of the total population, compared to 13.8% in 1951. Immigrant populations or Allophones represent now 10% of the total population in Québec, more than the proportion of Anglophones. This language-based territorial duality began to emerge in the second half of the 20th century. This territorialization process parallels the refounding process of collective identity described above.

One must conclude that there are now new Canadian and Québecois identities that coexist and each is developing within its own frame of reference. A new territorial duality is replacing the former national duality corresponding to the old English and French Canada. On the one hand, many analysts plead for an official recognition of this new territorial linguistic duality while, on the other hand, W. Kymlicka, a well known analyst of Canadian multiculturalism, pleads for an asymmetrical federalism that would recognize the existence of Québec as a specific nation inside Canada. This last view is not shared by Canadian nationalists. In fact, the latter are strongly opposed because it continues to consider Québeckers as French Canadians, an ethnicist approach no longer valued in Québec. All previous attempts to adapt the Canadian Constitution so as to recognize the specific status of Québec inside Canada have failed. This is contrary to what has happened in recent years in Spain, Belgium, and other multinational states. Canadian nationalists are most reluctant to accept any form of asymmetry to be included in the Constitution; such was not the case in the past, before the Trudeau era.

Is Separatism Dead?

In 1995, Québeckers declined by a thin majority (50.6%) a referendum on sovereignty accompanied with an association with Canada. The participation rate was very high (94%), apparently a record in democratic states.1 More than ten years later, public support for a similar question is above 50%. A tougher question (on strict independence or complete separation) receives less support (35-40%). Support for the sovereigntist movement is high among the young and declines as age increases.

Many reasons explain the rise in popularity of the sovereignty-association model. First, there is a generation effect: support for the sovereigntist movement is higher among today’s younger voters compared to former generations surveyed at the same age. Support is also higher among newly retired people, and, as they grow older, sovereigntists continue to support the dream of their youth. Second, there are demographic changes: analysts estimate that 400,000 elderly persons have died since 1995 (a majority of them federalists) and that among the more than one million new voters, two thirds intend to vote “yes” in an eventual referendum. Finally, support is increasing among immigrants, who are now better integrated into the Francophone majority in Québec.

Does this mean that Québec will one day secede from Canada? It is difficult to predict the results of an election or of a referendum. For the moment, the poll results indicate the existence of a strongly shared national sentiment that could lead to the formation of a Frenchspeaking state in North America.


1 For a complete analysis, see my book (with Gilles Gagné), Les raisons fortes. Nature et signification de l’appui à la souveraineté du Québec, Montréal, Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 2002, and see Gagné, Gilles and Simon Langlois. 2000. “Is separatism dead? Not quite yet.” Policy Options June, Volume 21, Number 5:29-45.


Baer, Doug. 2005. “On the Crisis in Canadian Sociology: Comment on McLaughlin.” Canadian Journal of Sociology 30, 4:497.