Party Behaviour in Quebec: Ownership, Contagion, and Multi-dimensionality of the National Question



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Party Behaviour in Quebec: Ownership, Contagion, and Multi-dimensionality of the National Question
Éric Bélanger

McGill University


Paper presented at the 2014 EPOP conference, University of Edinburgh,

12-14 September.

1. Introduction

While the national question is very much on the agenda in Scotland ever since the election of a first SNP government at Holyrood in 2007, in Quebec the issue has experienced two decades of slowly declining salience following the 1995 referendum defeat. In some ways, the record-low electoral support recently received by Quebec’s two most prominent separatist parties – the Parti Québécois (PQ) in the subnational election of 2014 (25.4%) and the Bloc Québécois (BQ) in the statewide election of 2011 (23.4% within the province, representing only 6.1% of the Canada-wide vote) – can be interpreted as a symptom of a larger mobilization problem that faces the nationalist movement in Quebec at the beginning of the 21st century.

Yet, political parties in Quebec still compete on the issue. They still talk regularly about the national question, even if for some of them it is to say that Quebecers need to focus on priorities other than independence for the time being. Seeking or preserving Quebec’s autonomy within the Canadian union remains a fundamental aspect of the parties’ discourse in the province. The resilience of the national question as an electoral issue in Quebec is understandable. It has underpinned the substate party system ever since the socioeconomic and political modernization of the province starting in the 1960s (Bélanger and Nadeau 2009; Pelletier 2012). With the advent of the PQ, the first serious political party advocating independence, the question has polarized the party system around two poles: “sovereigists” gravitating towards the PQ and “federalists” mainly represented by the Parti Libéral du Québec (PLQ). In other words, the issue has structured the party system for so long, it is no wonder why it is difficult for the parties to get rid of it or to simply stop addressing it. Some of them might even believe that they still benefit from the issue in that it allows them to keep their core supporters mobilized. Even at the state level, the question of the defense of Quebec’s interests continues to structure the competition between federal parties in the province, especially since the arrival of the BQ in the 1993 election (Johnston 2008). Almost all statewide parties feel the need to propose one form or another of collaborative approach to Quebecers while the BQ continually tries to keep the idea of political independence, or the very least autonomy, on the agenda.

The purpose of this paper is to understand to extent to which the national question still dominates party behaviour in Quebec, and to analyse the ways in which substate and statewide parties articulate their views on the national question and on its various dimensions. In doing so, we pay special attention to whether nationalist parties act as owners of the territorial issue and whether the other parties’ discourse is contaminated by this issue, in part as a reaction to the behaviour of nationalist parties. We also pay attention to the behaviour of parties at the two levels of government, that is, the substate (provincial) and state (federal) levels.

The main source of data for this paper comes in the form of semi-structured elite interviews with senior party officials. The interviews, which were based on a series of questions organized around the three themes of the national question – the constitutional issue, the identity issue and territorial interests – were asked consistently of each participant involved. Interviews were conducted between February and December 2013 with at least one member from the four most important parties on each level of government in Quebec. This included Members of the National Assembly (MNAs) for the Parti Québécois, Parti Libéral du Québec, Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) and Québec Solidaire (QS); in addition to Quebec-elected Members of Parliament (MPs) in Ottawa for the Bloc Québécois, Liberal Party of Canada (LPC), Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) and New Democratic Party (NDP), for a total of nine interviews. (To help keep intact the anonymity of our interviewees, we use the masculine throughout the paper when we report their words even though we interviewed both men and women party representatives.)

We first propose a brief account of the historical development of the substate party system in Quebec and of its statewide counterpart, leading up to the 2011-14 period that is the focus of this Scotland-Quebec research project. We then assess the question of issue ownership and contagion in the context of Quebec politics. This is followed by a contemporary analysis of the three dimensions of the national question based on our interview data: party positions on the constitutional issue, on Quebec identity, and on regional interests. We complete this analysis by examining the multi-level dimension of the national question debate in Quebec. We summarize our main findings regarding party behaviour in Quebec in the paper’s concluding section.


2. Overview of the “National Question” in Quebec Politics

The roots of the contemporary substate party system in Quebec go back to the 1960s and the rise of the national question that accompanied this period of socioeconomic development in Quebec (otherwise known as the Quiet Revolution). In 1968, former PLQ member René Lévesque created a brand new party, the Parti Québécois, aimed at realizing the independence of Quebec. Upon taking power in 1976, the PQ ended a period of realignment in the province’s party system (Lemieux, Blais and Gilbert 1970). The new two-party system would be based around two clear alternatives: the secessionist PQ and the federalist PLQ. As Premier, Lévesque was able in 1980 to hold a first referendum on independence, asking Quebecers whether they agreed to let the government negotiate a new political and economic partnership with the rest of Canada – what Lévesque called “sovereignty-association.” In the end, the “Yes” campaign managed to secure only 40% of support in the referendum.

The PLQ came back to power in 1985. Despite the referendum defeat, the national question was still very much at the forefront during Robert Bourassa’s Liberal government’s years. In 1982, the federal LPC government of Pierre Trudeau repatriated the Canadian constitution from London without the Quebec government’s consent. The grievances that this decision created in Quebec allowed Brian Mulroney’s Conservative party to return to power in Ottawa in 1984 with the promise of reopening constitutional talks so as to satisfy the Quebec government’s demands. Premier Bourassa was thus able to negotiate a new constitutional agreement with the rest of Canada that would satisfy Quebec’s demand of being formally recognized as a “distinct society” within Canada, a new official status that had the potential of granting the province additional or special powers. Called the Meech Lake Accord, this agreement was signed in 1987 but needed to be ratified by each of the provincial legislatures within the next three years.

By the deadline of June 1990 the Meech Lake Accord was still missing ratification by two of the ten provincial legislatures, and so it became null. The failure of the Accord sparked a rise in independence support among Quebecers, with public opinion polls reporting clear majority support for this constitutional option between 1990 and 1992 (Pinard, Bernier and Lemieux 1997; Yale and Durand 2011). A second constitutional agreement, the Charlottetown Accord, was rejected in a pan-Canadian referendum in October 1992. By then, the path seemed cleared for a return of the PQ to power in Quebec and for the holding of a second referendum on independence. This is exactly what happened in 1994-95. The referendum battle of October 1995 was closely fought, almost resulting in a draw: 49.4% of Quebecers supported the option of “sovereignty-partnership.” The PQ was re-elected in the 1998 provincial election but started to experience a slow decline in its electoral support in the years that followed. It briefly came back to power, with only a minority of seats, during the period under study (2012-14) before being voted out of office in the April 2014 election, receiving its lowest support since 1970.

As can be seen, the PLQ clearly flirted with autonomy during the 1980s up till the spike in independence support that followed the failure of Meech Lake. By then, Premier Bourassa had backed down on autonomy but this decision left many nationalist members within the PLQ deeply dissatisfied. In 1994 a splinter group decided to create a new party, the Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ), dedicated to pursuing Quebec’s political autonomy in place of the PLQ. Over the years the ADQ came to take a number of controversial stances on the questions of immigrant integration (arguing for a stricter model) and governance (pushing for cutbacks in Quebec’s welfare state and questioning the interventionist model of economic development). After several years of ups and downs (see Bélanger and Nadeau 2009) the ADQ finally decided in 2012 to merge with the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) newly created by former PQ member François Legault.

Together with the PLQ, PQ and CAQ, a fourth party is currently being represented in Quebec’s National Assembly, namely Québec Solidaire (QS). This party was created in 2006 as a reaction to what it perceived as a drift towards the socioeconomic right within the Quebec party system, including within the traditionally progressive PQ. While QS is in favour of Quebec’s secession, its main axis of competition thus remains the left-right dimension of politics.

The national question has not evaded statewide parties either. As underlined above, during the 1980s the Progressive Conservative party (renamed Conservative Party of Canada in 2004) has sought to respond positively to the province of Quebec’s constitutional demands but ultimately failed on that goal. Following the 1980 referendum the Liberals (LPC) have shown some willingness to renew Canadian federalism although the end result of such reform, the 1982 Constitution Act, did not satisfy the government of Quebec (who refused to endorse the Liberals’ repatriation project). Since then, the LPC’s stance on the national question has mostly been a non-accommodative, or at best a dismissive, one. For its part, the New Democratic Party (NDP) has shown openness to Quebec’s demands for more autonomy. Although the NDP has never been into power and thus has yet to be in a position to act on this issue, this more accommodative stance has nonetheless informed the party’s discourse over the years. The fourth and final competitor in the state-level party system is the Bloc Québécois. Ever since its creation in 1990 as a direct reaction to the Meech Lake Accord collapse, the BQ has acted as the owner of the national question in Ottawa, as much promoting independence as defending Quebec’s regional interests in the Canadian Parliament (Noël 1994; Young and Bélanger 2008).
3. Issue Ownership and the Contagion Effect

Our analysis of party behaviour in this project is guided by specific theoretical expectations about the competitive behaviour of parties. The first two of these hypotheses need to be addressed in the context of the historical evolution of the party systems that we have just started to describe in the previous section. To recall, the first hypothesis stipulates that nationalist parties “own” the national question in substate politics; and the second hypothesis suggests that nationalist parties have a contagion effect on other parties in the substate party system. Does the Quebec case conform to these expectations?

To a large extent, it does. Ever since its creation in 1968, the PQ has acted as the owner of the national question issue. The nationalist party has acted as the clear catalyst, to the extent that the two-party competition at the substate level in Quebec has realigned from a PLQ-Union Nationale1 competition to a PLQ-PQ one polarized around the national question, and particularly around its constitutional dimension. The new PLQ-PQ duopoly that emerged during the 1970s is still more or less in place today, although the PQ has started to show signs of weakness over the past decade and a number of new parties have appeared on the provincial scene (but have yet to really break through electorally speaking).

In addition, it can be argued that the PQ has led to a contagion of the other subnational parties, but more so during the periods surrounding the two independence referendums. By the end of the 1980s the PLQ had very much become an autonomist party. But, when faced with the failure of constitutional talks, the PLQ stopped pushing for more autonomy, a decision that led to the defection of its more nationalist members who went on to create the ADQ (which would eventually merge with the CAQ). In more recent years the PQ continued to be a catalyst, with the newly created QS and Option Nationale2 acting as sovereignist alternatives to the PQ.

At the state level, there is less competition for party ownership of the national question, and there is less contagion as well. There is one clear nationalist party in the federal party system, the Bloc Québécois. The BQ’s ownership of the national question is less contested that what we observe at the substate level with the PQ. In fact, the competition at the state level has revolved more around the dimension of territorial interests; and it has actually been the case long before the arrival of the BQ on the federal scene. For most of the 20th century, the LPC has claimed to be the best defender of French-Canadians’ interests in Ottawa. And indeed, Quebecers have regularly voted in masse for the Liberals before the adoption of the 1982 Constitution Act. After 1982, this block support shifted over to the Conservatives as a reaction to the Trudeau government’s repatriation of the constitution and the willingness of Conservative leader Brian Mulroney to accommodate Quebec’s demands by negotiating a new constitutional act. Following the failure of those negotiations, Quebecers shifted again their support, this time to the newly created BQ. The Bloc Québécois has been dominant in the province until the 2011 election, where Quebecers decided to abandon it and vote massively in favour of the NDP, in a vote that seemed more driven by left-right considerations than by the national question itself (Fournier et al. 2013).

In sum, while there was no real nationalist catalyst in the federal party system until 1990, the debate over the national question at the substate level nonetheless spilled over to the statewide party system to a limited extent, although it mostly involved the issues of autonomy and regional interests. Once a nationalist issue owner appeared on the scene, its contagion effect remained limited in the sense that its existence led some statewide parties (the NDP and, to a lesser extent, the CPC) to defend a more accommodative approach towards Quebec, although only the NDP appears (timidly) open to the idea of more autonomy for the province.

The next four sections directly put to the test our third and last hypothesis which posits that the national question has become a multiple-ordering dimension, which supersedes and structures other cleavages in the party system. They will also allow us to flesh out a bit more the various parties’ current stances on the national question within the Quebec context.
4. The Constitutional Issue

The first dimension of the national question that deserves attention is the position of the various political parties on the current and future constitutional status of Quebec. Is there disagreement (or polarization) among the parties’ stances on this aspect? Or does it take on characteristics of a valence issue?

On surface, there is no denying the fact that there is a clear polarization among substate parties on the question of whether the province of Quebec should separate from the rest of Canada. As the PQ representative states: “L’objectif du Parti Québécois, sa raison d’être, c’est de faire l’indépendance politique du Québec” (interview, 15 August 2013). On the other hand, the Liberal MNA claims that his party “demeure une option fédéraliste à l’intérieur de l’Assemblée nationale, alors notre préférence est toujours de maintenir le lien avec le Canada” (interview, 13 May 2013). The latter even goes as far as saying that his involvement in politics is primarily motivated by the threat to the Canadian federation’s integrity posed by the PQ. Between these two poles, the other parties navigate less easily. While QS sides with the PQ’s pro-independence option, its representative is quick to add that the party’s preference is for the maintenance of an association between the two states, with the sharing of a number of core responsibilities (currency and defence) and possibly the creation of some form of supranational representational institution. For its part, the CAQ refuses to take a position on the constitutional future of Quebec, with one representative stating that this lack of position actually constitutes the “founding axis” of their new party (interview, 22 February 2013). This particular take stems from the CAQ’s view that the national question in Quebec has reached a temporary dead end; so Quebecers ought to start dedicating their time and energy to other policy priorities.

That said, if one leaves aside the issue of whether Quebec ought to separate or not, one finds that there is a relatively large consensus among Quebec’s substate parties when it comes to the broader constitutional aspect of autonomy, with all parties seeking to increase powers. Put differently, while there are various positions taken by the parties on whether separation per se should be sought, all substate parties are in favour of more autonomy. While in power between 2012-14, the PQ’s strategy in that sense even had a name, that of gouvernance souverainiste. The PQ representative defined sovereignist governance as follows: “à défaut de pouvoir faire l’indépendance, on va exercer la souveraineté provinciale que nous avons au maximum … le Québec est déjà souverain sur un certain nombre de points alors il faut occuper nos champs de compétence, l’espace de souveraineté que nous avons déjà.” The PQ’s turn in power was too brief for the party to really put this doctrine into practice, but sovereignist governance is the principle that guided the PQ’s ideas and strategies under Pauline Marois’ tenure.

The CAQ is also very much pro-autonomy. One of its representatives underlines the fact that autonomy had always been the constitutional position of the ADQ, the party that merged in 2012 with the newly-formed CAQ; and in that sense the CAQ remains truthful to the legacy of its parent party. In his words, it is a “Quebec first approach” whereby the CAQ pledges to defend Quebec’s interests first and foremost (interview, 22 February 2013). The second CAQ representative who was interviewed concurred, adding that autonomy is to be sought within the framework of Canadian federalism in the form of additional powers: “On va aller chercher le plus de pouvoirs dans le cadre de cette fédération pour améliorer le sort du Québec. … Je pense que c’est ça notre priorité absolue.” (interview, 22 March 2013).3

Both the PQ and the CAQ seem to adopt a “more powers” approach at least partly as the result of the continued existence of a public opinion minority supporting outright independence for Quebec. But the PQ sees the glass as being half full while the CAQ sees it as being half empty. One one hand, according to the PQ representative the core question facing his party is: “Comment tu fais pour être indépendantiste dans un État qui pour le moment n’a pas l’appui nécessaire pour faire son indépendance? … Comment tu fais pour être indépendantiste et jouer le jeu canadien?” Seeking more autonomy thus becomes the de facto strategy in this context. On the other hand, for the CAQ the problem resides in the fact that there will always be a sizable constituency in favour of independence in Quebec: “ce n’est pas une minorité négligeable et donc, il faut composer avec ça” (interview, 22 February 2013).

For its part, QS is also in favour of more autonomy for Quebec, although for that party the issue of power devolution is not as central as for the PQ or the CAQ. According to its representative, the QS party “ne se pose pas la question sur les prérogatives qu’il faut aller chercher dans le cadre actuel, c’est-à-dire regarder quels champs d’activité occupe le fédéral et voir si on peut l’obtenir ou pas” (interview, 27 February 2013). The party is much more concerned with establishing what it calls a souveraineté populaire, that is, a genuine grassroots sovereignist movement in which the whole independence process is controlled by the population through a constituent assembly that would provide a counterweight to the influence of big businesses and financial interests over Quebec’s national debate.

The PLQ appears to resist the autonomy drive most strongly out of all parties, but even then, it does not publicly come out against wanting more powers for Quebec. Its representative indicates that the party wants provincial competencies to be respected by the federal government and is in favour of more provincial powers in the domains of health care, education and culture. This position is in line with the nationalist demands formulated by the PLQ in 2001 in the Pelletier Report4, which remains the reference point for the party according to this interviewee. More importantly, the party wishes to rectify an important historical grievance of the Quebec state: “veux/veux pas, on a rendez-vous avec 1982 un jour ou l’autre, parce qu’il y avait l’imposition par les neuf provinces d’un rapatriement de la constitution sans le consentement du Québec et ça demeure un problème. … Il demeure un souhait de notre formation qu’un jour on puisse résoudre ça” (interview with PLQ representative, 13 May 2013).

It is worth noting that party positions on the constitutional issue have been fairly static, at least since the 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty. There have been minor adjustments, mostly in light of the decreased salience of the issue among public opinion following the unsuccessful referendum. But overall, the positions and arguments expressed at the substate level during the 2012-14 period do not present any important change compared to positions of the recent past.

Shifting the focus to statewide parties, one finds an opposite portrait. That is to say, statewide parties mostly tend to agree on the separation issue, but clearly disagree on the question of Quebec’s autonomy.

All three statewide parties are against the idea of Quebec’s separation from the rest of Canada. For the LPC, “la place du Québec dans le Canada, pour nous, il n’y a pas de problème; c’est là qu’on peut se développer. C’est un pays qu’on a fait avec les autres Canadiens. Être Québécois et être Canadien n’est pas une contradiction, c’est une formidable complémentarité” (interview with LPC representative, 13 March 2013). The Conservative party representative concurs with this view: “j’estime que le Québec tire grand profit de se développer au sein de la fédération canadienne” (interview, 6 December 2013); but he still finds that the question of whether Quebec should separate or not is a perfectly legitimate one that ought to be debated. As for the NDP, its representative suggests that there will always remain a number of staunch independentists in the province, but that Quebecers in general have priorities that are more important than the national question such as health care, the economy, and environmental protection (interview, 16 August 2013). In short, at the state level only the BQ is in favour of Quebec’s independence.

The statewide parties’ views on autonomy are much more varied, however. In one corner, the BQ is very much pro-autonomy. In fact, it is exactly because Quebec has not been able to become more autonomous within the Canadian federation that the BQ advocates its independence: “à chaque fois que le Québec a voulu se distinguer, il s’est toujours fait dire non. Alors je pense que le conflit vient de là” (interview with BQ representative, 22 March 2013).

In the opposite corner, the LPC and the CPC are against more autonomy for Quebec. As the LPC representative argues, Canada “est déjà une fédération très décentralisée, sur plusieurs aspects la plus décentralisée qui soit. La province de Québec utilise pleinement la marge de manœuvre que la Constitution lui donne. Il y a aussi des reconnaissances de la spécificité québécoise dans la Constitution, comme sur le code civil, des aménagements linguistiques, etc.” (interview, 13 March 2013). The CPC representative considers too that the Quebec government already has ample powers, and claims that the more important question in his party’s view is that the central government be respectful of Quebec’s areas of jurisdiction – a position that actually forms the core of the Conservative party’s approach of “open federalism” (interview with CPC representative, 6 December 2013).

In between these two extreme positions, one finds the NDP. While the party considers that Quebec is already quite autonomous, it remains in favour of further decentralization in some policy areas. This constitutional position was defined in the so-called “Sherbrooke declaration” adopted at the NDP’s 2005 general meeting of its Quebec wing.5 According to the NDP representative that we interviewed, the declaration remains the party’s official position regarding the national question. The Sherbrooke declaration “reconnaît l’importance d’avoir un fédéralisme coopératif et asymétrique. … ça reconnaît aussi, bien entendu, le Québec comme une nation; et puis ça en fait c’était reconnu par le NPD depuis sa fondation, depuis le CCF. … La vision des deux nations fondatrices, c’est quelque chose qui fait vraiment partie des principes du NPD” (interview with NDP representative, 16 August 2013). It is on this basis that the NDP considers the demands for more power devolution as a legitimate prerogative of the Quebec government – demands that a central government of the NDP would be open to discuss and negotiate, especially if they involve allowing Quebec more political and financial freedom to create its own institutions and policy programs.

To sum up, with regards to the constitutional dimension of the national question, we can see the clear contours of a centre-periphery cleavage. On one hand, substate parties are all pro-autonomy and two of them are in favour of Quebec’s independence (the PQ and QS). On the other hand, only two statewide parties are open to more autonomy for the Quebec government (the BQ and the NDP) and only one advocates independence (BQ). Hence, the party system at the substate level pulls more in one direction while the statewide party system pulls more in the other. This cleavage will materialize itself again when we examine the multi-level dimension later in this paper.
5. Identity

5a. Cosmopolitanism

This first aspect of the national question’s identity dimension turns out to be highly contested in Quebec among substate parties. We find two opposing blocs. The PQ and the CAQ are in favour of a distinct model of integration based on interculturalism. The PLQ and QS meanwhile remain supportive of a multicultural approach to integration. The clash between these views was very much at the forefront during the time period under study because of the PQ government’s proposal (made public in fall 2013 and de facto abandoned after the PQ’s electoral defeat of April 2014) that Quebec adopts a charter of secularism, whose most controversial provision was the ban of any “conspicuous” religious signs for all public sector employees.6

As the PQ representative explains, the idea of adopting a strict secular model stems from the perception that Quebecers’ values are very different from those of other Canadians. It is mainly for that reason that the Quebec model of integration ought to be distinct from Canada’s multiculturalist one, so as to better accommodate this difference in values. Quebecers “souhaitent que les nouveaux Québécois s’intègrent à un système existant, et donc l’idéologie multiculturaliste qui consiste à dire que tu peux continuer à entretenir ta différence culturelle en marge de la culture majoritaire … n’est pas partagée par les Québécois” (interview with PQ representative, 15 August 2013). In particular, the idea of non-Catholic religions requesting some form of accommodation for their specific values is problematic in the eyes of the PQ because it goes against the Catholic French-Canadian majority’s century-long efforts at asserting their own set of values: “La plupart des gains ont commencé avec la Révolution Tranquille et on ne souhaite pas que ces gains-là soient remis en question parce que le religieux veut se réintroduire dans la sphère étatique et demande des traitements différenciés qui remettent en question (ces valeurs).”

For the most part, the CAQ agrees with these views. The party’s opposition to multiculturalism is as clear as with the PQ: “je ne pense pas que les Québécois ont adopté la politique de multiculturalisme de monsieur Trudeau. Le Québec et l’ensemble des Québécois n’ont jamais adhéré à cela … On croit, nous, davantage à la thèse de deux nations fondatrices plutôt qu’une nation multiculturelle ou d’une nation à la vision de Trudeau” (interview with CAQ representative, 22 March 2013). Accordingly, the party expressed support for the proposed secularism charter, although argued that the prohibition from wearing religious signs should only apply to authority figures such as judges, police officers, prison guards, and (more controversially) education workers. The CAQ does not support the removal of the crucifix from the wall of the National Assembly, seeing as it represents Quebec’s history, its patrimony, and “what we are” (interview with CAQ representative, 22 February 2013).

It is important to note that the CAQ’s position regarding the accommodation of religious values is consistent with that developed by its parent party, the ADQ, during the so-called “reasonable accommodation” crisis around 2006-07. In many ways, it can also be argued that the ADQ’s anti-multiculturalism position expressed at the time greatly influenced the discourse adopted by the PQ on this issue in the aftermath of its 2007 electoral defeat. In other words, there has been a contagion effect from the ADQ to the PQ on the issue of cosmopolitanism, since the PQ’s turn towards a less inclusive definition of immigrant integration – arguably crystallized in the charter of secularism project – has been viewed by some in Quebec (e.g., Dupré 2012) as an abandon of the civic nationalist discourse that was put forward by the party in the years that followed the 1995 referendum (and PQ leader Jacques Parizeau’s infamous speech).

In contrast to the views expressed by the PQ and the CAQ, one finds more support for multiculturalism among the PLQ and QS parties. The Liberal MNA remains cautious regarding the question of whether Quebec has values that are distinct from those found in the rest of Canada: “je ne vois pas qu’on ait une société ici qui soit complètement différente; il y a des différences, mais les grandes valeurs sont partagées d’un océan à l’autre.” He goes on to argue that Quebec does not need more powers in the area of immigrant integration (“il y a une limite car les gens immigrent quand même au Canada”) and does not need to adopt more stringent rules regarding integration (we need to “être le plus respectueux possible d’autrui”). The QS representative claims that his party puts forward a view of “openness to the world.” He feels that the Quebec model of integration is in no need of distinction nor revision; instead the problem lies with the actual means for applying the model: “On ne veut pas imposer une identité, une langue, une culture; mais on veut réparer, réduire les résistances de nos institutions” to allow a better integration. Like the PLQ, QS was a staunch opponent to the proposed charter of secularism.

At the federal level, there is more agreement regarding the multiculturalism model. Only the BQ opposes it, seeing the model as Pierre Trudeau’s way of culturally marginalizing Quebec within the greater Canadian ensemble. The other three parties are clearly in favour of multiculturalism and believe that Quebecers’ values are closer to those of other Canadians than what is generally claimed. An interesting nuance however is suggested by the NDP representative who argues that in practice the multicultural and the intercultural models are almost identical, in the sense that they both try to respect individual differences but also to ensure that there is a minimal adherence to the dominant culture (interview, 16 August 2013).
5b. Language

This second aspect related to the identity dimension definitely proves to be more consensual in Quebec, among both substate and statewide parties. All of them are in favour of defending and preserving the French language in Quebec, with the PQ and the BQ wanting slightly more protection. As the PQ representative points out: “L’une des raisons pour lesquelles les Québécois se définissent d’abord et avant tout comme Québécois c’est parce qu’ils ont le sentiment d’être différents. … Pendant de nombreuses années, et c’est encore vrai jusqu’à un certain point aujourd’hui même si ça l’est moins, la langue a été le principal facteur de différence culturelle entre les Québécois et le reste des Canadiens.”

While language remains at the heart of the PQ’s identity politics, it is interesting to note that the PQ representative remains more or less silent during the interview regarding his government’s proposed changes to Quebec’s language policy.7 The Marois government’s Bill 14 was abandoned in November 2013 due to a lack of support from the opposition parties. It aimed at updating the Charter of the French language (also known as Bill 101) with a number of controversial coercive provisions such as introducing a mandatory French proficiency test for Quebec high school and CEGEP graduates and preventing businesses with more than 25 employees from using English in the workplace. The use of additional coercive measures in the area of language management in Quebec is decried by virtually all of our other interviewees. According to a CAQ representative, the current version of Bill 101 is perfectly fine (interview, 22 March 2013). The QS representative states that “il y a une limite à la coercition … C’est sûr qu’il faut dans le contexte canadien, québécois, nord-américain, rivaliser avec l’attrait culturel des États-Unis … Mais le Québec a bien fait, il s’est bien débrouillé, somme toute, comme plusieurs petites nations, petites identités culturelles ont réussi à le faire.” The PLQ representative concedes that “ce sera toujours une charge essentielle de responsabilité primaire pour tout gouvernement du Québec dans ce domaine” but considers that sometimes coercive measures that are too excessive actually damage the image of Quebec abroad.

Statewide parties also agree with the goal of French protection in Quebec. In the words of the LPC representative, “il faut rester vigilant, la force d’assimilation de l’anglais est énorme; mais dans l’ensemble, une des réussites a été de faire en sorte que la langue française soit la langue du Québec” (interview, 13 March 2013). That said, all the federal-level politicians we interviewed underline an additional reason for why it is important to keep the French language alive in Quebec. As the Conservative MP states, “on a plusieurs francophones partout à travers le Canada et ces gens-là comptent sur le Québec pour continuer à assurer un rayonnement et une diversité linguistique et culturelle francophone” (interview, 6 December 2013). The NDP representative adds that all Francophones across the country share a number of common interests and that this sharing is part of what defines the Canadian identity (interview, 16 August 2013).

In short, language is clearly a valence issue in Quebec even though there remains some disagreement over the use of coercion. Another small point of divergence between the substate parties has to do with the notion of promoting the use of English. Both the PLQ and the CAQ are clearly in favour. As stated by the CAQ representatives, English is “the language of the 21st century” (interview, 22 February 2013) and “we need to take into account that French is not the only language in Quebec” (interview, 22 March 2013).
6. Regional Interests

6a. Supranational Interests

The third component of the national question that we are interested in is the question of regional interests. Three aspects of this question are worth exploring. The first one involves the supranational dimension of regional interests. In the particular context of Quebec, supranationalism essentially refers to the province’s North American economic integration. This integration is achieved since 1994 via the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which creates a trilateral rules-based trade bloc on the continent between Canada, the United States, and Mexico.

Aside from Quebec Solidaire – whose position we address below – no substate parties want to pull out of membership into NAFTA and all parties see general benefits for Quebec from being a member of this free trade bloc. This inter-party consensus in Quebec is consistent with the previous analysis of Martin (1997). One CAQ representative believes that “dans l’ensemble, l’ALÉNA a été profitable pour le Québec. Le Québec est un petit marché; on a besoin de nos relations économiques avec les États-Unis pour effectivement faire grossir notre produit intérieur brut” (interview, 22 March 2013). The PLQ representative concurs and even sees in Quebec’s economic integration a kind of inevitability: “on n’avait pas grand choix d’embarquer dans ce genre de choses parce que les économies isolées sont de moins en moins nombreuses. … Je pense que notre marché domestique est insuffisant alors il faut une certaine intégration avec l’Amérique du Nord.” In fact, another CAQ representative underlines that the first Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiated in 1988 between Canada and the United States was made possible because of Quebec’s strong support for it, coming as much from secessionists as from federalists (interview, 22 February 2013).

And indeed, the PQ remains firmly in favour of Quebec’s North American economic integration, going as far as seeing in it a future strategic advantage for the independence movement. In the words of the PQ representative: “le Québec, de par ses ressources, est appelé à jouer un rôle de plus en plus important dans l’équilibre géostratégique des Amériques … les énergies québécoises, surtout avec les surplus qu’on a, vont devenir ou redevenir attrayantes pour l’économie américaine. Je pense que le Québec a là un avantage intéressant, une énergie propre dont les Américains vont avoir besoin.” In his view, this likely strengthening of economic and energy ties may help secessionists to gain the confidence of Americans in an eventual process of recognition of independence. It may also reassure Quebecers about their level of integration in the North American economy, possibly making them more immune against arguments of economic fear that are used by the opponents of independence.

The position of QS regarding Quebec’s economic integration breaks with this inter-party consensus, however. This left-wing party’s representative clearly states that QS is against trade agreements of the NAFTA type because Quebec’s farmers and small entrepreneurs have not benefited as much from free trade as big businesses have. This view is consistent with the general ideology of QS according to which “le véritable adversaire de l’indépendance du Québec, ce n’est pas le pouvoir fédéral. Ce n’est pas l’État fédéral à Ottawa. C’est les milieux d’affaires, c’est le pouvoir économique au Canada, dont une partie est au Québec.”

Among statewide parties, the issue of supranationalism is clearly a valence one since all four parties are in favour of NAFTA and believe that most of Quebec’s economic sectors actually gain from being part of the agreement. Two distinctive viewpoints are also expressed on this issue by the MPs we interviewed. First, both the CPC and LPC representatives underline that being part of the Canadian domestic market provides Quebec with a strong insurance policy against possible economic turmoil coming from the American partner south of the border. Second, the BQ representative argues that the main strategic reason for why the United States is not in favour of Quebec secession is because the US establishment thinks an independent Quebec may be too unpredictable in terms of its foreign policy positions. For example, an independent Quebec might take the defense of left-wing Latin American countries at the United Nations, or might side with Palestinians in the Arab-Israel conflict (interview with BQ representative, 22 March 2013).


6b. Social Interests

The so-called Quebec model of governance is usually characterized by an interventionist state. For example, in contrast with the governing approach that prevails in the rest of Canada, the Quebec state does not shy away from subsidizing a number of domestic economic sectors and industries. In addition, since the mid-20th century it has established a series of progressive social policies that now form a far-reaching provincial welfare state. In this subsection we focus on the latter aspect of the Quebec model.

In recent years the Quebec model has come under questioning. Mario Dumont’s former ADQ took a big part in this nascent reform movement. The CAQ has taken up this mantle in the current substate party system. As one of its representatives indicates, the Quebec model in its social dimension is not necessarily as distinct from the rest of the country as is often claimed. He highlights the existence of a vigorous left in some English-Canadian provinces, and sees as many right-leaning people in the province as there are outside Quebec (interview, 22 February 2013). The other CAQ representative observes that the federal Conservative government does have some support base in Quebec contrary to the popular image (interview, 22 March 2013). In short, the CAQ calls into question the image of Quebec as a more socially progressive province. The party does concede that Quebecers pay for social programs that other provinces do not have, but considers that this situation needs to change if only because Quebecers do not have the financial means to sustain social protection in its current form (interview with CAQ representative, 22 February 2013). The PLQ representative broadly shares the CAQ’s assessments and tends to reduce the Quebec model to a mere tradition of social policy innovation within the Canadian federation.

The other two substate parties appear much more favourable to social issues. According to the PQ representative, “le centre de gravité idéologique au Québec est plus près du centre gauche que le centre de gravité politique dans le reste du Canada … la valeur de solidarité est plus forte ici qu’ailleurs.” He links this solidarity to Quebec’s historical past, when French-Canadians who were in a position of social and economic inferiority had to stick together and create their own institutions, leading to the development of a conception of civic life that puts more emphasis on sharing than elsewhere in the country. The QS representative adds that Quebecers’ solidarity trait comes also from their European heritage, especially French republicanism, which contributes as well to the definition of a progressive social model that is distinct from the rest of Canada and that needs to be nourished and preserved.

To sum up, on social interests we definitely observe disagreements among substate parties along class lines, with a sharp divide between left-of-centre (PQ/QS) and right-of-centre (CAQ/PLQ) camps on a Quebec social model. We find this cleavage to be mirrored in the statewide party system. In fact, it is striking how the viewpoints expressed by MPs are practically identical to those held by MNAs. Both the BQ and the NDP representatives argue that the Quebec social model is distinct from the rest of Canada because it is adapted to Quebec’s society, its history, and its specific interests. The BQ representative mentions the creation of Quebec’s firearms registry and the more positive attitude towards euthanasia among Quebecers as recent examples of this distinctiveness in terms of social policies and interests (interview, 22 March 2013). By way of contrast, both the CPC and LPC representatives offer a more nuanced assessment of the Quebec model’s distinctiveness. They highlight the existence of even more progressive provincial governments outside of Quebec, and they emphasize the contemporary convergence of social interests between Quebecers and other Canadians in terms of health care, crime, security, and sustainable development. The Liberal MP claims that the Quebec model of governance was actually more distinctive before the onset of the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, at a time when there were no professional state bureaucracy and the health and education systems were under the control of the Catholic clergy (interview, 13 March 2013).
6c. Economic Interests

The economic aspect of Quebec’s interventionist approach to governance is now the focus of this subsection. According to the QS representative, “le coopérativisme est très fort au Québec. … ça a marqué la société du Québec et ça a permis son développement à bien des égards.” He cites as evidence the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec whose creation he sees as having been inspired by the French model of a socialist state. He goes on to explain why, in his view, having a strong state in Quebec is a necessary condition for guaranteeing individual freedom and emancipation: “un État fort assure l’essentiel de notre confort pour libérer notre temps, notre énergie pour le consacrer à d’autre chose qu’à notre survie dans une espèce de grande bataille permanente de tous contre tous.” The PQ representative also sees the interventionist state as necessary, particularly with regard to guiding the development of the province’s energy resources.

That said, as was observed above with regard to social interests, we find that the other parties tend to disagree with the relevance of economic interventionism. Again, the CAQ leads the charge and claims to “be the only party that has the courage to say that we must revise our state aid to companies” (interview, 22 February 2013). In broader terms, the PLQ and the CAQ each try to convince Quebecers that economic development is their top priority. The PLQ has traditionally enjoyed the reputation of being the best party at dealing with the economy in Quebec (see Lemieux 2006; Bélanger and Gélineau 2011). But the CAQ is clearly contesting ownership of the economic issue: “On veut que les gens reconnaissent que c’est nous le parti de l’économie au Québec et que l’éducation c’est notre priorité. Il y a aussi des problèmes après ça que ce soit en santé ou en garderies, mais d’abord et avant tout, ce que l’on veut que les gens reconnaissent, c’est qu’on est le parti en économie et qu’on peut relancer le Québec” (interview with CAQ representative, 22 March 2013).

Thus, the substate picture with regards to economic interests is also one of disagreement along class lines. Right-of-centre parties emphasize economic development and wealth creation while left-of-centre parties remain in favour of state intervention in Quebec’ economy. Among statewide parties, we notice the same difference in viewpoints, although it remains less pronounced than within the substate party system. Both the NDP and the BQ agree with the notion of Quebec’s economic model being significantly different from the rest of Canada and view this distinction in a positive light. The Conservative MP disagrees, arguing that the Quebec government is faced with the exact same economic challenges as the other Canadian provinces and must address them more or less in the same ways. The LPC representative also tends to downplay the differences between Quebec and the rest of Canada when it comes to their approach towards the economy.


7. Multi-level Dimension

The third dimension of the national debate that interests us is the multi-level context in which political parties and politicians compete in Quebec as in Scotland. Is there a clear territorial bloc in Quebec that opposes, or diverges from, state-level government policies?

To a large extent, there is one. Almost all substate parties emphasize the importance for Quebec of maintaining a balance of power (“un rapport de force”) vis-à-vis the federal government in Ottawa. In the period under study, the PQ’s approach of sovereignist governance embodies this philosophy the most clearly. As the PQ representative explains: “la gouvernance souverainiste, c’est une posture de rapport de force permanent; tu dois être constamment en rapport de force par rapport au gouvernement central. … pour un indépendantiste qui vise la totalité des pouvoirs, qui vise la totalité de la souveraineté, plus tu vas chercher des nouveaux pouvoirs, plus tu te rapproches de l’objectif ultime qui est d’avoir tous les pouvoirs.”

Several of the parties have grievances against the 1960s-1970s era of centralization under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. One CAQ representative argues that Trudeau’s approach, which he describes as one of provocation and confrontation, has been responsible for fuelling the independence movement (interview, 22 February 2013). The QS representative agrees, claiming that Canada’s centralizing tendency goes contrary to the true spirit of federalism and that it creates a significant gap between Canadian policies and the traditional policy aspirations of Quebecers. As another CAQ candidate puts it: “il y a des visions assez différentes, paradoxales, entre le Canada et le Québec” (interview, 22 March 2013). These grievances are largely shared by the federal-level independentist Bloc Québécois. The BQ representative we interviewed even went as far as to describe the central government’s attitude vis-à-vis Quebec as a “colonialist” one whereby it seeks to “impose its vision through its policies and its money” (interview, 22 March 2013).

The only dissenting voice on this issue at the substate level is that of the PLQ. The provincial Liberals tend to break away from this territorial bloc, as they prefer to see the economic benefits of maintaining strong links with the provinces east and west of Quebec. At the very least, by emphasizing inter-provincial trade, the PLQ representative somewhat downplays the centre-periphery tensions within the Canadian federation. He even praises the growing worldwide move towards the adoption of federal-type institutional arrangements, believing that “federalism is the most modern style of governance.” He also claims that being part of a larger ensemble provides Quebecers with a greater sense of security since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 south of the Canadian border.

How do statewide parties react to this territorial bloc? Some of them respect, even understand, the existence of such a centre-periphery cleavage. The CPC and the NDP try to accommodate it, to some extent, by proposing a collaborative approach whereby areas of substate jurisdiction are better respected. No matter how it is called (the Conservatives use the expression “open federalism” while the NDP talks of asymmetrical federalism), the idea is to offer Quebecers a more flexible and pragmatic kind of federal-provincial relationship – one that does not call for a renegotiation of the Canadian Constitution. For its part, the LPC tends to adopt a dismissive attitude, viewing the rapport de force strategy more as a ploy for boosting independence support: “ceux qui veulent pousser le sentiment national jusqu’à l’indépendance vont utiliser des désaccords en matière de partage des compétences comme preuve que le Canada ne marche pas. … Ce qui a pour effet de permettre aux partisans de l’indépendance de ne pas avoir à justifier leur projet” (interview with LPC representative, 13 March 2013). The Liberal MP goes on to argue that substate federalist parties tend to fall into the trap of asking for more devolved powers because they hope that it will quash the independentists’ arguments and assuage the Quebec population’s nationalist fever, which the MP thinks is a miscalculation.


8. Conclusion

There is no denying that over the past half century, the national question has been at the heart of party politics in Quebec. Ever since the emergence of Lévesque’s Parti Québécois at the end of the 1960s, the issue has become a salient one for political parties competing at the substate or at the state level. In that sense, it is safe to conclude that the rise of the secessionist PQ has had a contagion effect in Quebec insofar as the national question is concerned. Every substate or statewide political party has had to position itself on this issue, and the national question regularly comes to the fore during election campaigns in Quebec ever since. In other words, establishing itself as the owner of the national question the PQ has initiated a movement whereby the other parties have all tried to compete on the PQ’s issue to one degree or another. To some extent, this movement has spilled over to the federal scene, especially once a federal-based secessionist party – the Bloc Québécois – was created at the beginning of the 1990s and was thus claiming ownership of the national question within the statewide party system.

What our analysis of party behaviour in Quebec has been able to show is that the national question is clearly a multifaceted political issue. Reducing the issue to the single question of whether Quebec ought to secede from the rest of Canada provides an incomplete picture of the party dynamics at work. We have seen that beyond the general disagreement about the secession goal itself, all substate parties are in favour of more constitutional autonomy for Quebec. In its autonomy aspect, then, the national question can thus clearly be characterized as being valence in nature. The picture is the reverse among statewide parties. To the exclusion of the secessionist BQ, all of them are against independence. But there is clear disagreement among statewide parties on the question of whether Quebec ought to have more autonomy or not, with two of them actually arguing that Quebec already enjoys enough autonomy within the Canadian federation. In short, on the dimension of constitutional autonomy we find a clear centre-periphery cleavage at play in the Quebec case.

The same kind of centre-periphery cleavage is also observed on the multi-level dimension of the national question. With the exception of the PLQ, all other substate parties form a quite strong territorial bloc that opposes Canadian policies in general. To the exclusion of the BQ, the statewide parties for their part tend to form a counter-bloc, although two of them (the NDP and the CPC) show some willingness to respect Quebec’s jurisdictional authority, in what is termed a spirit of collaboration.

The valence nature of the national question in Quebec is most clearly observed in its two other key dimensions, identity and regional interests. Among statewide parties, there is virtual agreement regarding all three aspects of the regional interests dimension (albeit with some reservations on the part of the LPC and CPC when it comes to define the distinctive nature of Quebec’s social and economic model of governance) as well as on the issue of French language protection. In other words, on four of the five aspects of these dimensions there has been contagion from the secessionist party to the mainstream parties. On cosmopolitanism, only the BQ does not support the multiculturalism model of integration, and thus finds itself isolated on this aspect of the identity dimension.

At the substate level there is agreement on the language and supranational aspects as well, but there is less so on cosmopolitanism and on the governance model. On the former aspect, we find that the PLQ and QS support multiculturalism while the PQ and the CAQ oppose this integration model and prefer a more distinct Quebec approach whereby immigrants are asked to adopt the French-Canadian majority’s values. On the latter aspect, we find that the left-right cleavage tends to supersede nationalist contagion: left-leaning substate parties support the Quebec model in both its social and economic dimensions while right-leaning ones (especially the CAQ) oppose it, or at least are more willing to question its degree of distinctiveness as compared to other Canadian provinces.



Table 1: Substate Party Positions on the National Question in Quebec





QUEBEC PARTIES (SUBSTATE)

PQ

PLQ

CAQ

QS

Contagion effect

Owner

Less contagion

Contagion

Contagion

(1) Constitutional issue

Stable: Independence

Ambiguous: Balance between status quo/more powers

Stable: Clear contagion, want more autonomy

Stable: Clear contagion, want more autonomy

(2) Identity

Cosmopol-itanism

Owner: Intercultural, distinct model, anti-m/c,

charter of secularism



Resistance to contagion, contest PQ: support m/c, oppose charter

Agreement with PQ: Contagion effect to and from PQ, support charter

Resistance to contagion, contest PQ: support m/c, oppose charter

Language

Owner: protect French language

(valence)



Contagion (valence)

Contagion (valence)

Contagion (valence)

(3) Regional Interests

Supra-

national

Generally pro-NAFTA (valence)

Generally pro-NAFTA (valence)

Generally pro-NAFTA (valence)

Generally pro-NAFTA (valence)

Social

Owner: Pro-Qc social model (left-wing)

Oppose Qc social model (right-wing)

Oppose Qc social model (right-wing)

Pro-Qc social model (left-wing)

Economic

Valence

Owner: Qc economic model

Oppose Qc economic model, contest PLQ ownership

Valence

Multi-level dimension

Opposition to Canadian policies

Support Canadian policies

Opposition to Canadian policies

Opposition to Canadian policies (except m/c)


Table 2: Statewide Party Positions on the National Question in Quebec





QUEBEC PARTIES (STATEWIDE)

BQ

LPC

CPC

NDP

Contagion effect

Owner

Less contagion

Less contagion

Contagion

(1) Constitutional issue

Stable: Independence

Stable: Status quo, against more autonomy

Stable: Status quo, against more autonomy

Stable: Status quo, open to more autonomy

(2) Identity

Cosmopol-itanism

Owner: Intercultural, distinct model, anti-m/c

Resistance to contagion, contest BQ: support m/c

Resistance to contagion, contest BQ: support m/c

Resistance to contagion, contest BQ: support m/c

Language

Owner: protect French language

(valence)



Contagion (valence)

Contagion (valence)

Contagion (valence)

(3) Regional Interests

Supra-

national

Generally pro-NAFTA (valence)

Generally pro-NAFTA (valence)

Generally pro-NAFTA (valence)

Generally pro-NAFTA (valence)

Social

Owner: Pro-Qc social model

Valence (but nuanced view)

Valence (but nuanced view)

Pro-Qc social model

Economic

Valence

Valence (but nuanced view)

Valence (but nuanced view)

Valence

Multi-level dimension

Opposition to Canadian policies

Support Canadian policies

Support Canadian policies

Support Canadian policies


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1 The Union National was a right-leaning autonomist party that held power in Quebec for large periods between 1936 and 1970 (mostly under Maurice Duplessis’ leadership). It quickly vanished at the end of the 1970s once the PQ broke through the party system.

2 Option Nationale is a splinter party created in 2011 by former PQ MNA Jean-Martin Aussant, who felt that the PQ was not pushing hard enough for independence. The new party received 1.9% and 0.8% of the vote in the 2012 and 2014 provincial elections and has no representation in the National Assembly (hence the reason why we do not consider Option Nationale in our analysis).

3 It is worth noting that the two CAQ representatives do not differ much in their assessment of the national question and the need for more autonomy and powers. The only slight but notable differences in their viewpoints are twofold: the former adéquiste always prefers to use the term “autonomist” while the former péquiste never uses it, preferring instead the label “nationalist”; and the former péquiste seems more willing than the former adéquiste to keep the door open to the idea that Quebecers hold a new referendum on independence once the other, more pressing policy priorities have been effectively addressed (by a CAQ government of course).

4 See Pelletier (2001).

5 See Policy Committee of the NDP (2005).

6 Government of Quebec, Bill 60: Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests, National Assembly of Quebec, 40th Legislature, 1st Session, November 2013.


7 Government of Quebec, Bill 14: An Act to amend the Charter of the French language, the Charter of human rights and freedoms and other legislative provisions, National Assembly of Quebec, 40th Legislature, 1st Session, December 2012.




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