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Quebec sovereignty movement

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The Quebec sovereignty movement is a movement calling for the attainment of sovereignty for Quebec, a province of the Canadian federation. The sovereigntists propose that Quebecers exercise their right to self-determination in order to democratically give themselves their first independent constitutional state of law.

With a sovereign state, Quebec sovereigntists believe that the people of Quebec will be better equipped to foster their own economic, social, and cultural development. Quebec sovereigntists are generally not in opposition to federalism as a concept, but are opposed to the present federal system of Canada and do not believe it can be reformed in a way that could answer what they see as the legitimate wish of Quebecers to govern themselves freely.

The idea of sovereignty for Quebec is based, according to its proponents, on the historical and sociological evidence that Quebecers are a people and a political nation, that they have democratic control over a state of their own, but that inside the Canadian federation as it currently stands, this state does not have the constitutional powers needed by the Quebec government to be the normal national government of all Quebecers. Within Canada, the national policies of Quebec clash with the national policies of the federal government. Various attempts at reforming the federal system of Canada have thus far failed due to the conflicting interests between the majority of Quebecers and the majority of Canadians (see Constitutional debate of Canada).

Although it is primarily a political question, cultural concerns are also at the root of the desire for independence. The central cultural argument of the sovereigntists is that only citizenship for Quebec can adequately and permanently resolve the difficult issue of the language of the majority (Quebec French), allow Quebecers to establish their nationality, preserve their cultural identity, and keep their collective memory alive.



Main article: Sovereignty-Association Movement

The sovereigntist movement of Quebec is generally considered to have started in the 1960s with the Quiet Revolution. The use of the word "sovereignty" and many of the ideas of this movement originated in the 1967 Sovereignty-Association Movement of René Lévesque. This movement ultimately gave birth to the Parti Québécois in 1968.

Sovereignty-Association (French: Souveraineté-Association) is the combination of two concepts:

  1. The achievement of sovereignty for the Quebec state
  2. The creation of a political and economic association between this new independent state and Canada.

It was first presented in Lévesque's political manifesto, Option Québec .

The Parti Québécois defines sovereignty as the power for a state to levy all its taxes, vote on all its laws and sign all its treaties (as mentioned in the 1980 referendum question).

The type of association between an independent Quebec and the rest of Canada was described as a monetary and customs union as well as joint political institutions to administer the relations between the two countries. The main inspiration for this project was the then emerging European Community.

The hyphen between the words "sovereignty" and "association" was often stressed by Lévesque and other PQ members, to make it clear that both were inseparable. The reason stated was that if Canada decided to boycott Quebec exports after voting for independence, the new country would have to go through difficult economic times, as the barriers to trade between Canada (including Quebec) and the USA were very high. Quebec would have been a nation of 7 million people stuck between two inpenetrable protectionist countries.

After the signing of the free trade agreement between the USA and Canada, the sovereignty-associationists revisited their option, and the need for an association with the rest of Canada was made optional. That is, an association with Canada is still wished for, but were it to fail, sovereignty would be economically viable because Quebec can (and currently does) freely export to the US market. At the present, PQ members and outside supporters will often speak of 'sovereignty' alone.

Those in favour of independence vacillate between terming it "sovereignty" and "independence," but the two terms are considered to be synonymous. A small group of people prefer "independence" over the other term. They are often stigmatized for this choice. The use of the term "Sovereignty-Association" is a lot less frequent, but is still heard (refer to the Modernization section below).


Quebec federalist nationalists think that the Quebec people should be recognized as a de facto nation by the federal government of Canada and initiate the constitutional reforms that presuppose such a recognition. Their position is often so close to that of some moderate Quebec sovereigntists that many have jumped the fence both ways (former Premier of Quebec Lucien Bouchard and Quebec lawyer Guy Bertrand are well-known examples of this). A great proportion of Quebec sovereigntist politicians were formerly in the reformist camp of the greater liberal family before joining the MSA or later the PQ.


Main article: History of the Quebec independence movement

Precursor ideas and events

See: Quebec nationalism

Sovereigntism and sovereignty are terms that refer to the modern movement in favour of the political independence of Quebec. However, the roots of Quebec's desire for self-determination can be traced back as far as the Alliance Laurentienne of 1957, the writings of Lionel Groulx in the 1920s, the Francoeur Motion of 1917, the flirt of Honoré Mercier with this idea (especially in his historic speech of 1893 ), the Patriotes Movement of the 19th century or the dawning national identity and consciousness in the days of New France.


The Quiet Revolution of Quebec brought widespread change in the 1960s. Among other changes, support for Quebec independence began to form and grow in some circles. The first organization dedicated to the independence of Quebec was the Alliance Laurentienne , founded by Raymond Barbeau on January 25, 1957.

On September 10, 1960 the Rassemblement pour l'indépendance nationale (RIN) was founded. On August 9 of the same year, the Action socialiste pour l'indépendance du Québec (ASIQ) was formed by Raoul Roy . The independence + socialism project of the ASIQ was a source of political ideas for the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ).

On October 31, 1962, the Comité de libération nationale and in November of the same year, the Réseau de résistance were setup. These two groups were formed by RIN members to organize non-violent but illegal actions, such as vandalism and civil disobedience. The most extremist individuals of these groups left to form the FLQ, which, unlike all the other groups, had made the decision to resort to violence in order to reach its goal of independence for Quebec. Shortly after the November 14, 1962, Quebec general election, RIN member Marcel Chaput founded the short-lived Parti républicain du Québec.

In February of 1963, the FLQ was founded by three RIN members who had met each other as part of the Réseau de résistance. They were Georges Shoeters , Raymond Villeneuve , and Gabriel Hudon .

In 1964, the RIN became a provincial political party. In 1965 the more conservative Ralliement national (RN) also became a party.

The historical context of the time was a period when many former European colonies, such as Cameroon, Congo, Senegal, Algeria, Jamaica etc., were becoming independent. Some advocates of Quebec independence naturally saw Quebec's situation in a similar light. Numerous activists were influenced by the writings of Franz Fanon and Karl Marx.

Charles De Gaulle delivering the famous "Vive le Québec Libre" speech upon the Montreal city hall balcony.
Charles De Gaulle delivering the famous "Vive le Québec Libre" speech upon the Montreal city hall balcony.

In June 1967, French president Charles de Gaulle, who had granted independence to Algeria, shouted Vive le Québec libre! during a speech from the balcony of Montreal's city hall during a state visit to Canada. In doing so, he deeply offended the Canadian federal government, which derided him. De Gaulle cut short his visit and left the country.

Finally, in October 1967 former Liberal cabinet minister René Lévesque left that party when it refused to discuss sovereignty at a party convention. Lévesque formed the Mouvement souveraineté-association and set about uniting pro-sovereignty forces.

He achieved that goal in October 1968 when the MSA held its first (and last) national congress in Quebec City. The RN and MSA agreed to merge to form the Parti Québécois (PQ), and later that month Pierre Bourgault, leader of the RIN, dissolved his party and invited its members to join the PQ.

The Early Years of the PQ

Jacques Parizeau joined the party on September 19, 1969, and Jérôme Proulx of the Union nationale did the same on November 11 of the same year.

In the 1970 Quebec election, the PQ elected its first seven members of the National Assembly. René Lévesque was defeated in Mont-Royal by the Liberal André Marchand .

In the 1973 election, the PQ won six seats, a net loss of one. However, its share of the popular vote had significantly increased.

A public gathering for the YES side of the 1980 Quebec referendum.
A public gathering for the YES side of the 1980 Quebec referendum.

The referendum of 1980

In the 1976 Quebec election, the PQ elected 71 candidates to the general astonishment of all of Quebec and the rest of Canada. With one of the highest voting turnouts in Quebec history, 41.4 per cent of the electorate voted for the PQ. The PQ formed a majority government.

On August 26, 1977, the PQ passed two important laws: first, the law on the financing of political parties, which prohibits contributions by corporations and unions and set a limit on individual donations, and second, the Charter of the French Language.

On May 17, Robert Burns resigned, telling the press he was convinced that the PQ was going to lose its referendum and fail to be re-elected afterwards.

At its seventh national convention on June 1 to 3, 1979, the sovereigntists adopted their strategy for the coming referendum. The PQ then began an aggressive effort to promote sovereignty-association by providing details of how the economic relations with the rest of Canada would include free trade between Canada and Quebec, common tariffs against imports, and a common currency. In addition, joint political institutions would be established to administer these economic arrangements.

Sovereignty-association was proposed to the population of Quebec in the 1980 Quebec referendum. The proposal was rejected by 60 per cent of the Quebec electorate.

In September, the PQ created a national committee of anglophones and a liaison committee with ethnic minorities.

Despite having lost the referendum, the PQ was returned to power in the 1981 Quebec election with a stronger majority than in 1976, obtaining 49.2 per cent of the vote and electing 80 candidates. However, they did not hold a referendum in their second term and put sovereignty on the back burner, concentrating on their stated goal of "good government".

René Lévesque retired in 1985 (and would later die in 1987). In the 1985 Quebec election under his successor Pierre-Marc Johnson, the PQ was defeated by the Liberals.

Lucien Bouchard and Jacques Parizeau embrace on the stage of a Yes rally.
Lucien Bouchard and Jacques Parizeau embrace on the stage of a Yes rally.

Repatriation, Meech, Charlottetown

The economic "association" part of the Sovereignty-Association concept was in some ways a forerunner of the later Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement of 1989 and NAFTA. Perhaps for this reason, Quebec was one of the few regions within Canada where both sides of the political spectrum supported free trade with the United States.

The Referendum of 1995

The PQ returned to power in the 1994 Quebec election under Jacques Parizeau, this time with 44.75% of the popular vote. In the intervening years, the failures of the Meech Lake Accord and Charlottetown Accord had revived support for sovereignty, which had been written off as a dead issue for much of the 1980s.

Another consequence of the failure of Meech was the formation of the Bloc Québécois (BQ) under charismatic former Conservative cabinet minister Lucien Bouchard. For the first time, the PQ supported pro-sovereigntist forces running in federal elections; during his lifetime Lévesque had always opposed such a move.

The Union Populaire had nominated candidates in the 1979 and 1980 federal elections and the Parti nationaliste du Québec had nominated candidates in the 1984 federal election. Neither of these parties enjoyed the official support of the PQ; nor did they enjoy significant public support among Quebecers.

In the 1993 Canadian election, following the collapse of the Conservatives, the BQ elected enough MPs to become Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition in the House of Commons.

 now pursues the ideal of independence and interdependence like his mentor .
Landry now pursues the ideal of independence and interdependence like his mentor Lévesque.

Parizeau promptly called a new referendum. The 1995 referendum question differed from the 1980 question in that the negotiation of an association with Canada was now optional.

This time, the Yes camp lost in a very close vote, by less than one percent. As in the previous referendum, the English-speaking (anglophone) minority in Quebec overwhelmingly (about 90%) rejected sovereignty, and support for sovereignty was also weak among allophones in immigrant communities and first-generation descendants, while by contrast almost 60 per cent of francophones of all origins voted Yes (82 per cent of Quebecers are francophone).

In an ill-considered outburst, Premier Jacques Parizeau attributed the defeat of the resolution to money and the ethnic vote.

Present Time

The PQ won re-election in the 1998 Quebec election, which was almost a "clone" of the previous 1994 election in terms of number of seats won by each side. However, public support for sovereignty remained too low for the PQ to consider holding a second referendum during their second term. Meanwhile, the federal government passed the Clarity Act to govern the wording of any future referendum questions and the conditions under which a vote for sovreignty would be recognized as legitimate. Federal liberal politicians stated that the ambiguous wording of the 1995 referendum question was the primary impetus in the bill's drafting.

In the 2003 Quebec election, the PQ lost power to the Parti libéral du Québec. However, in early 2004 the Liberal government of Jean Charest had proved to be somewhat unpopular, and that, combined with the federal Liberal Party sponsorship scandal contributed to a resurgence of the BQ. In the 2004 federal elections, the Bloc Québécois won with 54 MPs, compared to 33 previously.

While opponents of sovereignty were pleased with their referendum victories, most recognized that there are still deep divides within Quebec and problems with the relationship between Quebec and the rest of Canada.

Bouchard & Chrétien divided.
Bouchard & Chrétien divided.

The Clarity Act

In 1999, the Parliament of Canada, inspired by Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Stéphane Dion, passed Bill C-20 (also known as the Clarity Act), a law that, amongst other things, set out the conditions under which the federal government would recognize a vote by any province to leave Canada. Controversially, the Act gave the House of Commons the power to decide whether a proposed referendum question was considered clear and allowed it to decide whether a clear majority has expressed itself in any referendum. It is widely considered by sovereigntists as indefensible and thus inapplicable. Indeed, a contradictory Act respecting the exercise of the fundamental rights and prerogatives of the Québec people and the Québec State was introduced in the National Assembly of Quebec only two days after the Clarity Act had been introduced in the House of Commons.

Former Prime Minister Chrétien, under whom the Clarity Act was passed, has remarked that the Act is among his most significant accomplishments.


"Sovereignty-Association" is nowadays more often referred to simply as "sovereignty". However, in the 1995 Quebec referendum, which was narrowly rejected, the notion of some form of economic association with the rest of Canada was still envisaged (continuing use of the Canadian dollar, for example). It remains a part of the Parti Québécois program and is tied to national independence in the minds of most Quebecers. This part of the PQ program has always been controversial, especially since Canadian federal politicians usually refuse the concept.

In 2003, the PQ launched the Saison des idées (Season of ideas) which is a public consultation aiming to gather the opinions of Quebecers on its sovereignty project. The new program and the revised sovereignty project will be adopted at the 2005 Congress.

Allies and Opponents


There is a large semantic confusion, sometimes fostered by the Parti Quebecois itself, between the terms sovereignty, separatism, independentism. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but PQ supporters usually prefer the term "sovereignty", considered less radical and emotional than "independentism" (preferred by hard-liners), while "separatism" is usually considered pejorative. This ambiguity is further enhanced since the majority of Quebec's media, both written (with the notable exceptions of the CHOI-FM Libertarian Quebec city radio station and the La Presse and The Gazette newspapers, usually support the PQ's left to center-of left politics, if not the party itself. The separatist movement draws however above the Left and Right spectrum, a sizeable minority of more conservative Quebeckers supporting the PQ's political agenda because of the sovereignty issue, despite reservations about its social-democratic/socialist political agenda.

Although one cannot generalize, natural allies of sovereignty tend to be found within the Left: labour unions, the French-speaking artistic community, students (non-working members of the younger generations, as compared to Generation-Xers), the media, government employees, the Catholic clergy, anti-globalization supporters and the academic political left. Opponents are often found in the economic community, ethnic minorities, the older generations, working class Generation-Xers , non-French speakers ("allophones"), Jews, French-language Protestants, Libertarians, the non-nationalist political right, and critics of keynesianism, statism and big government intervention in general.

It must be noted, however, that Quebec political standards usually range from the centre-of-left to the left compared to American or even European standards. Right and Left must thus be interpreted within the provincial context; compared to the American continuum, Liberal Party politics generally coincide with the Democratic while PQ politics are more in tone with the Green party: there is no mass-equivalent of American conservatism in Quebec's French political culture, due notably to strong government interventionism and Keynesianism shared by all parties since the 1960s (the so-called "Quebec Consensus" since the Quiet Revolution), and the province's Catholic and rather homogenous ethnic heritage.

There are, of course, quite a few exceptions. Notable examples include: the semi-conservative (by Quebec standards) but Nationalist Action Démocratique du Québec supporting the Yes side in 1995 (their stance on the issue is now vague), the Progressive-Conservative Party of Canada building links with the sovereigntists in the 1980s and well-known federalist artists Jean-Louis Roux (an actor, once destined to become the representative of Queen Elizabeth II as Lieutenant-Governor of Quebec, a plan foiled by controversy) and René-Daniel Dubois (playwright and harsh critic of sovereignty, although self-proclaimed neutral).

The option fails at gathering substantial support support among Quebec anglophones and anglicized allophones. About 60% of francophones of all ethnic origins voted Yes in 1995, and with the exception of some support from the Haitian, Latino, and Arabic communities, most non-francophones massively voted No (see Demolinguistics of Quebec). Consequently, some critics accuse the sovereignty movement of essentially being a chauvinistic, ethnic issue, a position refuted by the PQ who considers its project all-encompassive. Jacques Parizeau's comments after the 1995 referendum ("We lost because of money and the ethnic vote"), considered racist by most local and international commentators, gave fuel to this controversy.

 is welcomed by in .
Lucien Bouchard is welcomed by Jacques Chirac in Paris.


In France, although openness and support is found in both sides of the political spectrum, the French "right" has been warmer to sovereigntists (like President Charles De Gaulle, who shouted his support of independence to Montreal in 1967) than the French "left" (like nationalism-distrustful President François Mitterrand, who notoriously snubbed Lévesque at their first meeting in the 1970s).

This is a paradoxical phenomenon, for the Parti Québécois and most sovereigntists are to the political left. French politicians are sympathetic to Quebec for cultural and historical reasons, but the secessionist movement is often negatively perceived because France was built as one indivisible republic. The idea that France is "one nation, one country" is very solidly anchored in the political culture of France (and many other countries). A lot of French political parties would be in contradiction with themselves if they officially supported Quebec nationalism, but continued to reject Corsican, Breton, and Basque nationalisms. Michel Rocard (who became Prime Minister of the French Republic) has been one of the French Socialists that broke that so-called rule the most (that of the French left being less open), maintaining a close and warm relationship with Quebec sovereigntists.

Sovereignists also have relationships around the world with other Social Democrat, Civic Nationalist and/or Independentist organizations like in Catalonia or in Scotland (for example: in 2000, Alex Salmond, then leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), wrote a speech to be read to the audience of the PQ National Council in which he spoke of the PQ as brother party of the SNP).

Sovereigntist organizations

Sympathizing organizations

Sovereigntist media

  • Action Nationale
  • L'Aut'journal
  • Le Couac
  • Le Devoir
  • Le Jour (defunct)
  • Le Mouton Noir
  • Le Québécois

See also

External links

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