Quebec and nationhood


in Canada, Politics

First Ignatieff said it, and now Stephen Harper has: ‘Quebec is a nation.’

The claim is a tricky one, for a number of reasons. ‘Quebec’ is a federal component of Canada: a province granted particular jurisdictions and roles under Canadian law. Like some other parts of the country, it includes a minority population with unique linguistic, educational, and other concerns. While I am perfectly willing to accept that French Canadians may constitute a “large aggregate of communities and individuals united by factors such as common descent, language, culture, history, or occupation of the same territory, so as to form a distinct people,” to take the definition from the OED, it is clear that Quebec is not synonymous with French Canadians.

The French Canadian nation does not occupy Quebec to the exclusion of other groups. There are Anglophone Canadians, recent immigrants, members of the First Nations, and others. Some, like the Cree, have considerable historical precedence over the settlers of New France; other have arrived recently enough to be subject to the special language laws the province has enacted in recent decades. Just as French Canadians must be given appropriate treatment within the wider federation of Canada, so too do other minority groups within Quebec deserve to be treated with fairness and due consideration under the law. Empowering the government of Quebec with special rights to represent the French Canadian nation must not diminish its obligation to honour the rights of other groups within the province.

The French Canadian nation (if it makes sense to treat it monolithically), is also not confined within the borders of the province of Quebec. New Brunswick is officially bilingual, and there are French speakers and people of French descent throughout the entire country. As such, dealing with Quebec and dealing with the full ramifications of that minority issue are not one and the same.

It will be interesting to see what, if any, concrete policy developments will arise as the result of these declarations. I do not think that recognizing French Canada as a nation, in the sense quoted above, is a threat to the integrity of Canada any more than recognizing the rights of First Nations peoples has been. Being able to accommodate different groups with competing claims is, after all, the root purpose of federalism. Given demographic shifts in Quebec, it makes less and less sense to conflate the issue of French Canadian identity with that geographic zone. Hopefully, the declarations from Ignatieff and Harper have just been pragmatic recognitions of the above.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan November 23, 2006 at 2:13 am

PS. In indirect response to the ongoing grandstanding in the United States, regarding the translation of the anthem into Spanish, it seems to me that there is scarcely a higher compliment that could be paid by a group that has immigrated (while retaining their existing language and culture) than to produce such an amalgam. A modern state is a collection of institutions and values, not an insular community defined by patterns of ethnic descent or language.

Tristan Laing November 23, 2006 at 5:21 am

Have you given any thought to what it means for “quebec” to “be a nation”? Or what “nation” means when it has become apparent that there are hardly any nation-states left? It appears to me that affirming quebec as a nation has huge benefits (recognition of quebec “specialness” reduces chance of seperation) and no drawbacks (what does it matter, legally or politically, that they are a nation anyway? The very fact of there being many “nations” in canada is testimony of the poverty of political clout one gets for being “a nation”).

Milan November 23, 2006 at 11:22 am


Is that not more or less what I said?

Anonymous November 23, 2006 at 12:13 pm

Doesn’t it seem more sensible to wait for the demographic shift you mention to make a referendum very unlikely, before opening this whole Quebec issue again?

Milan November 23, 2006 at 7:34 pm

UBC debaters weigh in on the issue:



Spencer (friends only)

Spencer November 23, 2006 at 11:23 pm

Milan, I’m confused about where you stand on this. You seem to reject “Quebec” as a nation because it is neither inclusive of all French Canadians or exclusive of franco-quebeckers, but seem to agree with Tristan that this is alright anyway. Maybe I’ve read it wrong.

Milan November 23, 2006 at 11:51 pm


I think ‘Quebec’ is largely shorthand for French Canadians (or whatever you want to call them). They are a nation, in terms of heritage of language and history. That said, political groupings are not based around either, now. They are based around shared institutions, laws, and values.

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