Unlike the Québécois the Scots were not defeated in battle to create the new unified state
Is the time right for another independence referendum? A question asked not in Scotland, but in Québec, following the surprise success of the pro-independence party, Bloc Québécois, in the 2019 general election…
Speculation has been in the air as to whether the province’s Premier, Yves-Francois Blanchet, could be of a mind to try again – for a third time. The first was in 1980 and the ‘Non’ campaign won convincingly with 60% of the vote, on a turnout of 86%. The second time was 15 years later in 1995.
Québec’s parliament has the power to call a referendum at a time of its own choosing, without seeking permission from Canada’s Federal Parliament. So why not try again? Everyone in Québec knows the reasons why, and three years on, Blanchet has booted the question well into the long grass. The referendum threat hangs in the air with everyone pretty sure that it won’t happen. Confused? Read on.
28 years ago, momentum for independence (or what they termed ‘sovereignty-association’) was riding high in the lead up to the vote on 30th October 1995. Most polls were predicting over 60% in favour. Some were showing support running at over 70%.
Speculation in the other provinces was rife as to whether the resultant dismembered Canada could survive, or whether it would inevitably be absorbed into a greater USA.
As the results started to come in from the most francophone parts of the province, confidence in the ‘Oui’ camp was burgeoning, with preparations already in place for the biggest of all celebrations.
Then, late in the afternoon, the votes from the significantly more anglophone population of Montreal began to shift the balance, followed by those from the northern constituencies where most of the indigenous population lived.
When the final results were declared, the Federalists, (or as we would term them – the Unionists), had won by a whisker: a mere 54,288 votes (just under a single percentage point) from the total votes cast of 4,757,509 with a turnout of 93.5%.
Québec’s 1995 experience makes our 2014 referendum ‘No’ result look pretty convincing for the Union, and the UK Brexit vote a veritable landslide. Just imagine how those of us in Scotland who support the cause of independence would feel if second time around we lost by 50.5% to 49.5%.
So, what happened after such a narrow defeat that has made a third attempt so unlikely? Are there any lessons that could have relevance in our efforts to secure a second referendum? And how comparable is Québec’s independence struggle with our own anyway?
First, the comparisons: Canada today is a joint creation formed by the French and British colonists. Great Britain today is also a joint creation comprising the formerly independent states of England and Scotland.
So, the French Canadians and the Scots are in with the bricks of their respective current nation states. Unlike the Québécois the Scots were not defeated in battle to create the new unified state, but similar to us, Québec’s French legal system and their church were recognised and protected in the process of unification.
Both of us also have a history of subjugating our respective indigenous peoples. Lowland Protestant Scots had been trying to dominate the Highland Gaels long before the union with England, even referring to them as ‘Irish’ to differentiate them from ‘true Scots’.
The French in Canada, a colonising force from the start, viewed the indigenous tribes at best as convenient cannon fodder in their imperial battles with the British across the North American continent.
Both of us have been grumbling about the unfairness of our respective unions from the start (Scotland since 1707, the Québécois since 1763).
The resentments have taken different forms and have peaked at different times. Our home rule aspirations gathered momentum after the spoils of Empire dried up following the Second World War, and oil was discovered in our territorial waters in the 1970s.
Québec nationalism came to global attention due to a campaign of kidnapping in the 60’s by the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ); attention further amplified by President De Gaulle during his 1967 state visit where, from the balcony of Québec’s provincial parliament, his speech to a mesmerised crowd achieved a rabble-rousing crescendo with the words: “Vive le Québec libre!” His efforts got him chucked out of the country by then Premier, Pierre Trudeau.
But there is a major difference between Scotland and Québec respective independence narratives, and that is language. Those from whom the Québécois seek independence speak another language - English. For us in Scotland, language is not the distinguishing fault line. We have geography on our side. In the words of our great bard: ‘now Sark rins o’er Solway sands; an Tweed rins tae the ocean; tae mark where England’s province stands….’ Not to mention England’s general condition of amnesia as to our existence.
Looking at the map of North America as a whole, French speaking Québec is surrounded on all sides by an Americanised English-speaking world.
Across the globe the French language, and indeed its culture, are under siege. French, having fallen from being the world’s Lingua Franca a hundred years ago, is now in 10th place globally. It is corrupted daily by Anglo-American words. The founding principles of the French Revolution and state secularism clash violently with today’s dominant Western consensus of multi-culturalism. Ethnic and linguistic nationalisms are on the ropes, increasingly disparaged as ‘far right’.
Which takes us to what happened immediately after their wafer thin 1995 referendum defeat and why Québec is so reluctant to repeat the experience any time soon.
How quickly fortunes can turn on ill-chosen words in the emotion of defeat. Jacques Parizeau, the pro-independence Parti Québécois (PQ) leader at the time, rose to give his concession speech. He was searching for reasons. Firstly, he blamed the money: the other side had more. Then he changed the course of history in just three words: he blamed “the ethnic vote.”
He wasn’t speaking about the 20% English speaking population of Québec; he was blaming the immigrants and the indigenous population. The consequences were predictable. For people of colour, walking the streets in the aftermath was scary. Many fled the province never to return. At a stroke the image of Québec independence was transformed from a liberal-left struggle against Anglo-American repression into shades of xenophobia.
The tragedy is that it needn’t have been like this. His speechwriter had prepared a measured and generous concession speech, but at the last moment Parizeau folded the paper into his pocket, mounted the platform and spoke off the cuff. He later apologised but it was too late.
Support today for full independence for Québec is polling in the low 30’s. Even amongst the majority Francophone population it rarely gets higher than 40%. Amongst the young it is at its weakest – barely getting beyond 20%.
In the subsequent decades, the Parti Québécois largely disappeared from the political stage, being replaced by watered-down versions.
The most successful, until the Bloc Québécois’s surprise revival in 2019, has been the conservative leaning Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ - Québec Forward). The CAQ is officially Federalist, even though they include many independence supporters. Their attention is not on constitutional change. Instead, their focus is on controlling immigration into Québec, protecting the French language, and championing a strong Francophone cultural identity.
The Bloc Québécois is the left of centre version which nominally supports the goal of sovereignty. These two parties dominate the province’s politics and exert significant influence in Canada’s federal parliament – at times sufficiently numerous to form the official opposition.
However, they also know that there is little appetite for another referendum debacle. Some would say that Québec has actually achieved the best of both worlds. The words I found on one of the Québec websites I’ve been trawling makes this point in a rather chilling way:
“Québec has already won something better than total independence. We operate like a separate country, but Canada pays our bills. And Canada’s PM is nearly always from Québec, so we pull the strings too!”
So, is there a moral to this tale from across the Atlantic for those amongst us who are impatient for Scottish independence? In my view there is. Quite simply - what’s the rush?
Independence is not about solving the very real problems of the now. It’s about building a future of hope that will last for countless generations to come. A nation united in a ‘settled will’ - as Donald Dewar so profoundly put it - across all political persuasions and backgrounds.
If we really believe the polls telling us that the young in Scotland today overwhelmingly support independence, then let’s bide our time.
Having the powers to call a referendum matters not a jot if we then blow it by half a percent and start pointing the finger at someone, anyone, to blame.
Today the dream of Québec independence is all but forgotten, other than being a useful threat to use when trying to extract more concessions from Ottawa.
Are we really prepared to risk a Québec-style impatient gamble when sifting through the debris of defeated dreams might be our fate?
Unlike the Québécois the Scots were not defeated in battle to create the new unified state. ■