On April 7, 2014, Québec voters chose to elect a majority Liberal government, and handed the pro-independence Parti Québécois (PQ) its worst defeat ever. Since then, speculation has surfaced about the future of the Québec independence movement.
In his first post-election press conference, Québec’s new premier, Philippe Couillard, struck a positive note when he was asked whether the idea of Québec independence (separation) was over. An ardent federalist, Premier Couillard astutely responded that you could not kill an idea. And he’s right both in fact and in tone.
The dream of an independent Québec has its origins in history, from the early settlers who followed Québec’s founder, Samuel de Champlain, to the British Conquest of 1760—where the struggle for survival and identity became the central theme within French Canada’s polity for the next two centuries, and beyond.
By the early 1960s, pro-independence political parties surfaced in Québec, in line with the progressive forces dominating the political debate of the day. The so-called “Quiet Revolution,” led by the progressive Liberal Party of Premier Jean Lesage, ushered in dramatic reforms in the economic, health, cultural, and educational sectors. With it came the rise of a democratic pro-independence movement that in 1968 merged into a political party—the Parti Québécois, led by former prominent Liberal minister René Lévesque.
The changes in the 1960s did not occur without turmoil and conflict. A clandestine and separatist organisation called the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) had also emerged and associated Québec’s struggle for independence with the liberation movements from colonialism on the African continent. After a series of isolated bombing incidents in Montreal, the FLQ kidnapped a British diplomat and assassinated a Québec cabinet minister in October 1970.
Both the Québec and federal governments of the day reacted swiftly and decisively to this act of terrorism by invoking the War Measures Act. The FLQ soon disappeared. The mainstream and democratic PQ party strongly dissociated itself from the use of terrorism or violence. Its reaction paid off, and by 1976, the PQ was elected to form the Québec government with Lévesque as Premier.
Since then, Québec has undergone three referenda on Quebec’s political status—two on the PQ option of political independence from Canada (1980, 1995) and one on a constitutional reform package negotiated by the federalist Liberal Party under then-Premier Robert Bourassa (1992). All three referenda ended with a victory for the “no” vote, and the debate between federalist and separatist forces continues to this day.
Outgoing PQ Premier Pauline Marois (the first women to be elected premier of Québec) resigned the night of her stunning defeat on April 7. This defeat marked the PQ’s fourth loss in a series of five elections since 2003. The last election results registered the PQ’s lowest level of voter support (25 percent) since its first election appearance in 1970 (23.5 percent). Already, the soul- searching has begun within the PQ about its future as it prepares for an eventual leadership contest.
In his press conference, Premier Couillard was careful not to speculate about the future of his main opposition party. We should not expect nor anticipate surrender from the pro-independence forces. The dream will continue to live on for an important portion of the population.
This being said, the PQ and the independence movement must come to grips with the fact that the Québec of today has changed from the early days of the independence movement in the 1960s and 1970s. The protection and promotion of the French language remain central to Québec’s identity, but the reasons and grievances that brought about the rise of separatism have largely been addressed.
Canadian federalism remains the most decentralized in the world. Québec controls much of its own health care, education, economy, immigration, manpower training, culture, energy and environment. The Canadian Constitution gives Québec’s government full ownership of its abundant natural resources. Language laws have done much to reinforce the French language and ensure that newly arrived immigrants are integrated into the majority French-speaking society. Just recently, some Supreme Court rulings have also strengthened Québec’s position on institutional change, such as senate reform.
Recent polls show that the idea of Québec independence no longer carries the intergenerational support that it did in the past. The future of Québec independence or separatism will likely depend more on whether current or future conditions require that Québec leave the Canadian federation for its survival and growth, rather than due to the grievances of the past.
The question about independence is, therefore, no longer about whether it is doable or desirable, but rather about whether it is still necessary.