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Québec independence movement

By Mathieu Noël, under the supervision of Dominique Marquis, Laboratoire d'histoire et de patrimoine de Montréal, Université du Québec à Montréal

The question of Québec's status as a nation has long been the subject of debate. Ever since Canadian Confederation in 1867, Québec's political future and its place within Canada have been discussed over and over, with French-Canadian and English-Canadian nationalists having different visions of the country. Proposals for Québec independence have emerged from time to time, but it was not until the 1960s that the idea took hold beyond intellectual circles.

Spread of the independence movement

The first contemporary group to advocate Québec independence was the Alliance Laurentienne, founded in 1957 by Raymond Barbeau (1930-1992). This group was influenced by the writings of legal scholar Wilfrid Morin, a marginal figure who had promoted independence in the 1930s. The Alliance Laurentienne wanted to create a new State, Laurentie, on the shores of the St. Lawrence.

The first real political organization to put the issue of Québec independence in the media spotlight was the Rassemblement pour l'Indépendance Nationale (RIN). Founded in 1960 by some 30 activists, including André d'Allemagne (1929-2001) and Marcel Chaput (1918-1991), the group became a political party, headed by Pierre Bourgault (1934-2003), in 1964. The RIN was in favour of an independent, social-democratic Québec. To achieve their aim, RIN members worked in the field, organizing public lectures and demonstrations, handing out pamphlets, meeting with people and even occasionally committing acts of civil disobedience. In the 1966 provincial election, the RIN ran 73 candidates. Although none was elected, the party did manage to win 5.55% of the popular vote.

Independence organizations of the 1960s

The RIN constituted the nucleus of the Québec independence movement of the 1960s. Most of the independence organizations of the decade defined themselves in relation to the RIN, but were not actually political parties. They included the Action Socialiste pour l'Indépendance du Québec (1960), the Comité de Libération Nationale (1962), the Réseau de Résistance (1962) and the Parti Républicain du Québec (1962). On the right, another political party, the Ralliement National (RN) led by Gilles Grégoire (1926-2006), was also fighting for Québec's independence. The RN won 3.2% of the popular vote in the 1966 election. Still, by far the best-known independence organization of this period was the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ). Founded in 1963 by Raymond Villeneuve (born 1943), Gabriel Hudon (born 1942) and Georges Schoeters (born 1930), the FLQ set itself apart by its willingness to resort to violence. Made up primarily of young people, FLQ cells attacked British and Canadian symbols, such as military facilities and commemorative monuments, set off bombs and committed hold-ups. What really tarnished the FLQ's reputation, however, were the events of October 1970, when British diplomat James Richard Cross (born 1921) and Québec Liberal minister Pierre Laporte (1921-1970) were kidnapped by two FLQ cells. When Laporte was assassinated by the Chénier cell, the clandestine organization was condemned unanimously by both the general public and the independence movement, and by 1973 it had completely disappeared.

Unity of the independence movement

The formation of the Mouvement Souveraineté-Association (MSA) in 1967 by René Lévesque (1922-1987) gave the idea of Québec independence more general exposure and helped it win greater acceptance on the political scene. The RN and the RIN had already run some candidates in elections, but without any real success. Lévesque, one of the leading ministers in Jean Lesage's Liberal cabinet, was a very popular political figure, and his decision to work toward the independence of Québec reassured more moderate nationalists. The MSA advocated political independence for Québec followed by an economic association with the rest of Canada. In October 1968, the MSA and the RN joined forces to found the Parti Québécois (PQ). The RIN, which failed to reach agreement with the other two parties, folded and most of its members subsequently joined the PQ. This marked the beginning of a period of unity for the Québec independence movement.

1980 referendum

After electing a handful of candidates to the National Assembly in 1970 and 1973, the Parti Québécois formed the provincial government for the first time on November 15, 1976, and promised to hold a referendum on the issue of Québec independence. Many English Quebeckers reacted badly to the new PQ government, especially after the Charter of the French Language was passed in 1977. Some anglophones feared that the 1976 election was just the first step toward the creation of an independent, unilingual French Québec. In this context, and prompted by stronger economic growth in Toronto than in Montreal, some companies such as Cadbury and Sun Life decided to move their head offices to Ontario, and a number of English-speaking Quebeckers left for Toronto or elsewhere in Canada. On May 20, 1980, a referendum was held in which the government asked Quebeckers for approval to negotiate a sovereignty-association agreement with the rest of Canada. The referendum pitted the Yes camp, constituted by René Lévesque's Parti Québécois, against the No camp, a grouping of federalists headed by Québec Liberal Party leader Claude Ryan (1925-2004) and federal Liberal Minister of Justice Jean Chrétien (born 1934). In the end, the No side won the referendum with 59.6% of the vote, achieving majorities among both English-speaking and French-speaking Quebeckers.

Constitutional debates

After the victory of the No camp, the Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre-Elliott Trudeau (1919-2000), announced a reform of the Canadian Confederation that would seek to put an end to the conflicts between the two nations. For federalists, this was an opportunity to seriously undermine the independence option, which was still popular among French-speaking Quebeckers despite the referendum defeat. Ultimately, however, the constitutional debates would have the effect of increasing the split between Québec and Canadian nationalists. Québec Premier René Lévesque was absent when the premiers of the other provinces reached an agreement on a process for patriating and amending the constitution during discussions that ran through the night -- which some later referred to as the "night of the long knives." Québec refused to sign the new Canadian constitution. Subsequently, two reform proposals that would have brought Québec into the constitutional fold, the Meech Lake Accord in 1987 and the Charlottetown Accord in 1992, ended in failure. In this climate of crisis, following the failure of the ratification of the Meech Lake Accord, the Bloc Québécois (BQ) was founded in 1990. A federal political party made up in the beginning of former federal Liberal and Conservative members of Parliament who were disillusioned with federalism, the Bloc Québécois was first led by Lucien Bouchard (born 1938). Since then, the BQ has elected many federal members of Parliament who support Québec independence. The party even became the official opposition in the 1993 election, winning 54 seats.

1995 referendum

The BQ has often worked with the Parti Québécois. This alliance was evident in 1995, during the second referendum on Québec sovereignty. Having learned from the experience of the previous referendum and with an eye to building a stronger Yes side, Jacques Parizeau (born 1930) and Lucien Bouchard, the leaders respectively of the PQ and the BQ, decided to join forces with Action Démocratique du Québec chief Mario Dumont (born 1970). The No camp, for its part, was mainly organized by the group Option Canada. This time, the advocates of independence called for complete independence, without association. The contest was a closely fought one, but the No side won in the end, with a razor-thin majority of 50.6%.

Current situation

Since the early 1990s, a few more radical independence groups have emerged, including the Mouvement de Libération Nationale du Québec in 1995 and the Réseau de Résistance du Québécois in 2007. These organizations remain marginal, however, and are not political parties. Most Quebeckers who are in favour of independence, approximately 40% of the population, still prefer lending their support to well-established political parties such as the Parti Québécois and the Bloc Québécois.


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