The Canadian House of Commons motion defining Quebec as “a nation within a united Canada,” has citizens of our northern neighbor in a tizzy. The motion, passed by a vote of 266 to 16, was introduced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Some provinces express great opposition to this measure, such as British Columbia, where, according to a recent poll, 58 percent of the population opposed Harper’s motion. Bloc Quebecois leader Andre Boisclair supported the motion, saying, “There is an opportunity, a spirit of reconciliation that is clearly being expressed by the federal government.” Beyond these immediate reactions, however, lie deeper lessons the whole world can learn from the Quebec autonomy debate.
A residual effect of the messy little fight that introduced George Washington to military engagements — the Seven Years War — Quebec’s relationship with Canada demonstrates the long-lasting effects of conquest. At the conclusion of the war, England won New France, which aside from spilling over into part of today’s Midwestern United States (why do you think we have a city named St. Louis?) included essentially what is Quebec today. Faced with the question of what to do with a French-speaking colony, in 1774 the Brits passed the Quebec Act, combining the French legal and administrative system with the British, in order to keep the province happy and hedge off the possibility of revolution. As it turns out, colonies seem to have a problematic propensity toward uprising, and Canada revolted in 1837. Though the British cracked down on sedition after this, they never pursued a systematic program of Anglicization.
The many opinions about Quebec’s development under the British — though fascinating — I have no space to recount here. Suffice it to say that conquest leaves its mark, and for many Quebecois the key question in the 19th and early 20th centuries was how their culture would survive. For a time, the church served the purpose of cultural and linguistic haven; communal traditions also filled this role. But with the replacement of agriculture by industry, and a general malaise setting in by the ’50s, reformers saw that something had to be done to reaffirm the pride and confidence of the French Canadians. In Montreal, a majority-Francophone city at the time, Anglophones earned on average 50 percent more than did Francophones. What came next has been called the Quiet Revolution, and this resurgence of nationalism and the urge to reform culminated in the PQ, the Parti Quebecois, and in the referendums for independence they demanded.
But it didn’t have to be that way. Though the scars of conquest remain, and many Quebecois believe the only real solution lies in autonomy from Canada, Quebec still exists. That is more than can be said for most people conquered by Europeans, particularly the indigenous peoples of America. The key distinction is that the British saw French people as similar enough to themselves that they could assimilate them without needing to break down their culture completely. While this assumption was challenged over the years, most famously by Lord Durham after the 1837 revolution, never did the English force such dramatic change on the French Canadians as the Spanish did to the Incas and Aztecs, nor did they evict them from their land in such a violent way as we Americans have done. Even today, indigenous people in Canada have protested the recent motion, saying they have a greater claim to such recognition. Quebec’s existence ought to serve as a reminder of the ultimately racist foundation that underlies the construction of the modern state.
This is not to detract from the prolonged pain of the Quebecois struggle, nor from the Canadian government’s present tolerance. That the national legislature has been willing even to entertain the possibility of autonomy, particularly to address old wounds, speaks to the forward-looking attitude of Canada. Furthermore, in response to criticisms from indigenous peoples, some journalists and politicians have advocated giving them, too, the symbolic status of nations within a nation. Here lies the second unique aspect of the Quebec motion. Canada exists in a largely tolerant, open-minded era in which governments must deal with, and atone for, the racist policies of their predecessors. All descendants of European colonists and beneficiaries of the system ought to acknowledge the role of subjugation in the entire process.
Even America, the home of the free, has a ways to go in dealing with the lingering, malignant effects of slavery, Manifest Destiny and racism in general. As the example of Quebec demonstrates, the only solution lies in openness about the past, nationwide dialogue and unified action.
Dariush Nothaft is a junior in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Fridays.