Will the Quebecois bloc ever disintegrate?

Hopes for independence in Quebec

■ Quebecers are supposed to decide on their future in a referendum in autumn. The question is: separate from Canada or remain in the Federation? Supporters of a separation from Canada will probably win. The proponents now seem strangely dispassionate. Meanwhile, many doubts have grown as to whether an independent Quebec will actually solve all problems. There are some unreal hopes of expanding trade with the United States, but the province will have to contend with financial problems.

From our special correspondent ALAIN BIHR *

There is a strange atmosphere in Quebec. A province is now about to hold a referendum that will decide its future. After all, the achievement of full sovereignty is at stake: leaving the Canadian Federation and transitioning to the status of an independent state. An independence for which the "people of Quebec" have been waiting for over two hundred years - as at least the sovereignistes, the supporters of independence, claim.

But if you ask the Quebecers about this matter today, you come across an astonishing lack of passion, just as if the matter had already been settled or, in the end, had little meaning. You yourself openly admit that the passionate debates and sparkling declarations that characterized the voting campaign in 1980 are a thing of the past. If there is still passion anywhere today, it is at most among the fédéralistes, the supporters of remaining in the Canadian Federation, who like to indulge in apocalyptic prophecies in the event that Quebec should become independent. It seems even stranger that many of the “sovereignists” - with all their commitment to their cause - also show caution and restraint, even skepticism.

If one follows the arguments of the “sovereignists”, then they have good reasons to break away from the rest of Canada. The point, they argue, is to end the long history of failures and humiliations that the "Belle Province" has suffered since the painful defeat on the Abrahamic field (see chronology, page 9). Historical memory is very much alive in this province. The motto “Je me souviens” (I remember) is on all license plates.

Although the former Prime Minister Pierre-Eliott Trudeau initiated a policy of “multiculturalism” and thus an opening between 1968 and 1984, the “sovereignists” believe that neither the socio-cultural peculiarities of Quebec, let alone a peculiarity as a “people” or “nation” ever really been recognized. According to Louise Harel, Quebec's Minister of Labor, federalism failed because it "spelled the word nation in the singular and not in the plural".

As a result, a siege mentality has spread, which she interprets idiosyncratically with reference to the story: “We first felt as Canadians, and then only as Francophone Canadians. Today we are simply Quebecers. If we do not become independent, we run the risk of being only Francophone Quebecers in the future. ”The fact that the Francophones are actually a minority in the predominantly English-speaking North America can only reinforce such an attitude.

Even if the “sovereignist” claims relate to a serious historical dispute, they are today equally rooted in current social and economic problems. Countless reasons for dissatisfaction are fueling them again and again and strengthening the Quebecers in their conviction that their province cannot create the economic upswing as long as it remains in federal Canada. At this point, Gérald Larose, chairman of the national trade union federation CSN and an advocate of Quebec sovereignty, agrees almost verbatim with what Louise Harel said.

First and foremost is a heavy charge against the federal government in Ottawa. In the past few decades it has weakened Quebec's industry through a number of harmful measures - while the other provinces have benefited from them: In Ontario, refineries and petrochemical plants have sprung up that processed the crude oil extracted in the north of the country and thus those dependent on Venezuelan crude oil Quebec Refineries Threatened; With the canalization of the St. Lawrence River, ocean-going merchant ships could call at the ports of the Great Lakes, which undermined the importance of Montreal as one of the world's largest inland ports until then; the city's shipyards were closed while new port facilities were built in the west of the country with government support. In short, Quebec felt like a slow seller in a department store in the Canadian state.

In addition, the federal government is accused of hindering the policies and development projects of the Quebec government by directly competing with the provincial government. This has led to unnecessary duplication and catastrophic undesirable developments.

Francine Lalonde, MP for the "Bloc québécois" in the House of Commons in Ottawa, puts it in a nutshell: "The sovereignty of Quebec is simply inevitable for Canada and Quebec to stop harming each other."

In addition, the increasingly frequent interference of federal authorities in provincial affairs is castigated, which in the past resulted from the fact that the federal government had control of the state funds - but is now necessary to pay the national debt of over 600 billion Canadian dollars Manage. 1

Another fear also plays a role here, which has always accompanied the development of Canadian federalism: While the current government of Quebec has committed itself to a policy of decentralization that seeks to expand the respective powers of the fourteen regions of Quebec, Canada still has its decades-old tendency towards centralization reinforced, because it sees this as the prerequisite for maintaining the unity of a country which, in the words of former Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, “has too much geography and too little history”; a country that opposes the hegemonic intentions of its southern neighbor2 and has to integrate a large number of immigrants year in, year out, because these are the real prerequisites for its population growth. This fear is at least partly borne out by certain political circles in the other provinces divided. In western Canada in particular, Alberta and British Columbia are alarmed by the strengthening of central power in Ottawa.

After all, the cause of the “sovereignists” is justified by the will to preserve the achievements of the “quiet revolution”, the Quebec-style social-democratic compromise. This is the preferred argument of Francine Lalonde, who can criticize Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's policies from a good observation post in the federal parliament. He is dominated by the neoliberal dogma that dreams of nothing other than drastically cutting public spending - especially social benefits. Francine Lalonde is concerned about the enormous increase in right-wing extremist currents in North America, such as the victory of the Progressive Conservative Party in the provincial elections in Ontario last June. In their view, only Quebec independence can keep these tendencies in check.

The Achievements of the "Quiet Revolution"

IN SUCH CIRCUMSTANCES, the “sovereignist” movement seems to be gaining a hearing and should easily triumph in the referendum scheduled for this fall. All the more so since the chances of independence from Canada seem better at first glance than they were in 1980.

The social fabric of Francophone Quebecers has changed since then. Above all, a French-speaking bourgeoisie has developed in Quebec, emphasizes Francine Lalonde. A part of it, which was very popular in the wake of the "quiet revolution", is now apparently waiting impatiently to get the reins in hand and claiming to have the means to negotiate a (new) social compromise with the unions . In addition, the middle class has expanded in Quebec, not so much in the companies and in the state apparatus, which have laid off many employees in recent years, as in the extremely dense and active network of "community movements" organized in associations and operating at the local level want to play a political role due to their socio-economic function.

Since 1980 the Quebecers have also succeeded in enforcing demands in some institutions, especially for their language and culture. The famous Law 101 states that all public advertisements throughout Quebec must be in French. The federal policy of bilingualism, which is often criticized by the Quebecers, also formally allows all French Canadians outside Quebec to use their mother tongue when dealing with the federal authorities. "In 1980 our main concern was to maintain legal equality with Anglo-Saxon Canadians, this time we just want to be ourselves," says Louise Harel.

Behind this optimism of purpose, which is demonstrated especially in front of foreign interlocutors, one suspects the multitude of unsolved problems. They are all the more serious as they are trivialized or even denied by certain circles. The majority of the “sovereignists” treat the future relationship between an independent Quebec and the rest of Canada as if this were solely Canada's problem. But with every divorce, however amicable it may be, the community of property - not only assets, but also debts - must be dissolved. In addition, an independent Quebec would keep the Canadian dollar as its national currency. This would inevitably result in the continuation of close cooperation between Quebec and Ottawa on monetary and even budgetary policy. That considerably limits the scope of a future independent state.

The fiscal constraints are already noticeable. You have certainly also contributed to Jacques Parizeau, the Prime Minister of Quebec and leading head of the “Parti québécois” (PQ), at the beginning of May the old formula of a “sovereign association”, i.e. a connection with Canada subject to its own sovereignty, resumed. This has led to resentment and excitement among the “sovereignists”.

In general, the “sovereignist” camp seems to underestimate the constraints that the transnationalization of the economy would impose on an independent Quebec. It blindly trusts that Quebec will skillfully pull itself out of the affair in the international arena once it is freed from the shackles of the state. As elsewhere, people are convinced that the rule “small is efficient” applies to state affairs, that a transnationalization of the economy requires “light” political structures that can react quickly to the demands, but also to the threats that arise in a global one environment characterized by fluctuations and uncertainties.

It was precisely this confidence that made the majority of Quebecers, in contrast to the rest of Canada, welcome the conclusion of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); they hope that it will stimulate trade with the east of the USA, especially with New England, where the Quebec economy has already oriented itself. The expectation that Quebec will succeed in doing business with its powerful neighbor in the south much more easily than with the rest of Canada is an illusion that can only be explained by the severity of the old conflict between Quebec and Canada. This expectation also ignores the rigid stance of the United States, whose supremacy has always allowed it to assert its national interests in political or economic agreements. If Canada and Mexico look like “lambs” compared to the US American “lion”, an independent Quebec would be like a “little lamb” ...

It is also still unclear whether the broad decentralization campaign, which has already begun and which was supposed to provide the fourteen Quebec regions with the means for a local development policy, has even led to the hoped-for revival of the economy and a reduction in unemployment, even if the "Community Economic Development ”has a wealth of experience in Quebec. For in the case of the replacement of a central power structure and the simultaneous transnationalization of the economy, such a policy - in Quebec as everywhere else - runs the risk of exacerbating essentially already existing unequal stages of development

Nothing is more urgent than the revival of economic life and the fight against unemployment, on average 13, in some regions even 35 percent. Quebec has over 800,000 welfare recipients, 11 percent of the total population of just under 7.2 million. A single person is only entitled to a modest 440 Canadian dollars per month in welfare benefits, around 500 marks.

The Quebec grassroots movements have great expectations: especially in the fight against unemployment and marginalization, in securing social benefits, school reform and in general in reducing inequalities, which have grown not only in Quebec in recent years. These expectations were strongly expressed at the various meetings at the “Round Table on the Future of Quebec”. These talks were organized by the government in each region over the turn of the year. All organizations in society, but also individual citizens, were invited to participate. The expectations expressed there seem to have surprised and embarrassed the authorities.

Gérald Larose sees very well the “social deficit” that sometimes shapes the relationship between his trade union federation and the government. He supports them in their “sovereignist” cause, but criticizes them for their inadequate policies. For the trade union movement, he believes, Quebec's independence could be of use: Finally, one should allow oneself to pose clearly the “social question” that has hitherto been overshadowed by the “national question”. “In Quebec there has never been a mass political movement of the left,” he notes, the left has always placed itself under the “sovereignist” banner - and lost part of its soul in the process.

It is precisely this ambitious project - to found a Quebec Left - that the young team behind the magazine Virtualités4 has dedicated itself to, whose readership increases with every issue. According to editor-in-chief Daniel Lapres, who defines himself as a “sovereignist” but not as a nationalist, the PQ lacks any programs that could mobilize society: the party does not understand that it is not just about the establishment of a “sovereign State ”, but rather the prerequisites for a“ sovereign society ”would have to be created, which also has its own development socio-economically under control. Daniel Lapres expects that the day after the referendum, regardless of the outcome, the PQ will rally around neoliberalism, as it did between 1982 and 1985. At the time, this was partly responsible for the fact that the PQ lost the government again. He believes that certain government measures (such as the cuts in the social and health sector) already point to a similarly inflexible attitude on the part of the party as it was then.

What the entire independence movement has not considered are the problems posed by the non-Francophone minorities who have immigrated to Quebec. It is true that the federal government's immigration policy poses a potential threat to Quebec independence. The province's once high birth rate is now the lowest in Canada; the population grows mainly through immigration. Now immigrants hardly care about the constitutional conflict between Quebec and Canada, the historical background of which means nothing to them.The majority of them maintain the loyalty typical of immigrants to the (Canadian) state that took them in. They also struggle with the obligation under Law No. 101 to take French lessons until the end of high school. Most are rushing to abandon this language in favor of English, which opens the door to the rest of North America for them.

The prospect of gradually becoming a minority in their own country gives some Quebecers a headache, especially in Montreal, whose population consists of 20 percent immigrants, especially from Haiti, Latin America and Asia - in addition to the 20 percent Anglophones. There are already voices that want to reserve participation in the referendum on independence for the long-established Quebecers.

The situation becomes even more complicated when one thinks of the indigenous minorities living in Quebec such as the Indo-Americans and the Inuit (see the article by Philippe Bovet). In recent years we have seen some of these peoples express their demands for autonomy with increasing force. These demands could become even more pressing in an independent Quebec; the more so since the Charlottetown Accords gave them new food. This specifically provides for granting the indigenous minorities a certain administrative autonomy - which, however, competes with that of the province

In the October 1994 issue of Convergence magazine, Bernard Cleary of the village of Mashteuiash (Point Blue) expressed the wish that the future Quebec Constitution would give “the indigenous nations of Quebec the ancestral right to an autonomous government accountable to its citizens. As a result, this right to an autonomous government has to be concretized through the transfer of land. It must be recorded between the parties involved in step-by-step agreements. ”6 But it is far from certain that the“ sovereignist ”circles are ready to listen to these demands, even though they were made by the first inhabitants of the country.

Recognize and guarantee minority rights

CURRENTLY there is certainly no sign of a serious threat to Anglo-Saxon, “allophone” or indigenous rights (see box). "Quebec nationalism" has no intention of suppressing these minorities; it is decisively shaped by the democratic culture and its guarantee to uphold human rights and respect minority rights. Fernand Dumont, one of the province's great intellectuals, affirmed in his latest book that there are no “Quebec nation” but “different nations” that live in Quebec. The challenge for an independent state is not to build a nation state, but rather an autonomous “political community” in which all these diverse nations have a citizenship.7 This view is largely shared by our interlocutors live in Quebec.

And yet: The question of the “real Quebecer” suddenly arises in the conversation. When visiting the districts in which the various immigrant minorities live, René Dore, animator at the “Center de formation populaire”, notes that the “racist sentiment” of some Francophones towards them is increasing. And what to think of the bi-weekly L'Aut 'Journal8, which is widespread in certain "sovereign" circles: It launched a Jean Baptiste Cugnet Prize (the name comes from the "sad figure") which enabled the English troops to defeat the French troops at Montcalm off Quebec), with which a Francophone public figure is denounced every month who dared to oppose the “sovereignist” cause.

If you ask Gérald Larose what the decisive contribution of the trade union movement to the cause of independence was, he replies that thanks to her a slide into an "ethnic understanding of the nation" has been avoided. And if you ask him to formulate his expectations and demands of a completely sovereign Quebec government, he puts the recognition and guarantee of the rights of all minorities - the Anglophones, the allophones and the indigenous population - first. As if, despite everything, you had to keep a particularly close eye on it.

German Maria Helena Nyberg

1 Canadian dollars are around DM 1.10 or Sfr. -.90.

2 See Jean-Michel Lacroix, “Les tribulations du marché unique nord-américain”, Le Monde diplomatique, Mars 1993.

3 See Alain Bihr, “Le mirage des politiques de développement local”, Le Monde diplomatique, November 1992.

4 Virtualités magazine. 853, rue Sherbrooke Est, Montreal, H2L 1K6.

5 See Fulvio Caccia, “Vers la balkanisation tranquille du Canada,” Le Monde diplomatique, October 1992.

6 Convergence, October 1994, CP 7, Succ. "C", Montreal, H2L 4J7.

7 Fernand Dumond, “Raisons communes”, Boréal, Montreal, 1995.

8 L'Aut 'Journal. 3575, Boulevard Saint-Laurent, Montreal, H2X 2T7.

Author of “Déchiffrer les inégalités” (together with Roland Pfefferkorn), Syros, Paris 1995

Le Monde diplomatique of July 14, 1995, by Alain Bihr