20 August 2019
With Canada-US relations deteriorating, some observers have wondered whether pro-independence elements in Canada's French-speaking Quebec province will seek to take advantage of the situation. Photo: Bloomberg
With Canada-US relations deteriorating, some observers have wondered whether pro-independence elements in Canada's French-speaking Quebec province will seek to take advantage of the situation. Photo: Bloomberg

Does Quebec independence still have a market?

Relations between Canada and the United States have turned sour in the past two years, with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seemingly becoming the standard-bearer of the “libertarian united front” in North America, defending against onslaughts by US President Donald Trump.

That raises the question: if in the worst case scenario, Washington breaks its alliance with Ottawa, would Canada still continue to be a unified country?

It is an interesting question because the matter touches on the French-speaking Quebec and the sensitive issue of its pro-independence drive in the past.

As one of the provinces and territories of Canada, Quebec had been a French colony known as the “New France” before it was eventually incorporated into British Canada in 1763 following France’s defeat in the Seven Years’ War.

Today most Quebecers are descendants of early French settlers, and the province is the only French-speaking region in Canada.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Quebec saw a substantial rise in the sense of French identity among its people, and it was during those days that its pro-independence movement began to gain momentum.

And Quebec had twice thwarted efforts by former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, the late father of Justin Trudeau, to press ahead with constitutional reform initiatives by using its power of veto, as any attempt to amend the constitution would require the unanimity of all 10 provinces of Canada.

Since Quebec has been so eager to use its veto power to gain political leverage over Ottawa and advance its independence agenda, it was often regarded as a trouble-maker by other English-speaking provinces.

Quebec’s secessionist sentiment reached a peak in early 1990s. The pro-independence federal political party Bloc Québécois swept to an unprecedented victory in the general election in 1993 and became the second-largest party in the Canadian federal parliament.

Then in the following year, pro-independence provincial political party Parti Québécois again pulled off a stunning triumph in the local election in Quebec and became the ruling party, thereby giving rise to the independence referendum held in 1995.

Yet, Quebec’s bid to gain statehood was defeated by a razor-thin margin in the referendum (i.e. just about 1 point), thanks to “foreign intervention” at that time.

Desperate to hold his country together amid the rising tide of separatist movement in Quebec, the then Canadian prime minister, Jean Chrétien, made a last-ditch effort by seeking help from his good friend, the then US president Bill Clinton.

And Clinton eagerly came to Chrétien’s rescue. Just five days before the vote, Clinton publicly weighed in on the Quebec issue, stressing that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was meant to be a tripartite deal, hence no place for a “fourth” party.

Clinton’s remarks were widely regarded as a subtle warning to Quebecers that they wouldn’t get any favorable terms on trade from the United States even if they succeeded in gaining statehood.

Clinton’s words proved to be instrumental in turning the opinion among business leaders in Quebec against secession, and the rest is history.

After nearly a quarter of a century, many diehard pro-independence Quebecers today still take the view that they would have won the referendum and created their own independent state had it not been for Washington’s “interference” in their internal affairs.

Now, as a trade dispute between the US and Canada has escalated in recent months, are Quebec leaders likely to align themselves with Trump so as to boost their bargaining chips against Ottawa over their bid for independence?

In my opinion, it is rather unlikely, since in 2000, the Canadian federal parliament passed the Clarity Act.

Under the new legislation, the result of any referendum in the future is regarded valid if and only if the winning side has managed to get a “clear majority” of votes, thereby rendering the independence bid of Quebec almost impossible, since the percentages of Quebecers that are for and against secession have remained very close over the years.

Besides, although the separatist faction was once again in power briefly in 2012, it failed to reignite the pro-independence passion, suggesting that the majority of Quebecers have become fed up with the independence issue.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 31

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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