Separatist tendencies in Canada: Their origins, development, and future (Part One)
By Mark Wegierski
Canada was founded as a State by the act of Confederation in 1867 (formally known as the British North America (BNA) Act, which was passed by the Parliament of Westminster in London) -- out of the union of four pre-existent historical regions -- Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, which became the first four Provinces of Canada. It was also a union of two, long pre-existent historical nations – English (British) Canada and French Canada (Quebec). The Aboriginal peoples were included insofar as they had been traditionally considered to be under the protection of the Crown.
While Prince Edward Island joined Confederation in 1873 (as a full province), the Western provinces of Manitoba, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia entered Confederation in their present borders by 1905. Newfoundland remained a British Crown Colony (and had also been a self-governing Dominion of the British Empire) until 1949. The thinly-settled far-northern territories of the Yukon and the North-West Territories have remained under direct federal jurisdiction. However, in 1998, the semi-sovereign entity of Nunavut (the Inuit or Eskimo homeland) was created. It received a federal subsidy of $580 million dollars (Canadian) in its first year, and is likely to have to receive similar amounts of federal aid in the future.
Throughout the 1990s and today, militant Aboriginal activists have pushed toward semi-sovereignty or sovereignty for the former Indian reservation areas – while certainly not renouncing the billions of dollars of federal and provincial money that are going to Aboriginal peoples. Some critics have argued that the reason that conditions among Aboriginal peoples have not discernibly improved is that a coterie of Aboriginal leaders – while living extravagant lifestyles themselves – often does not pass on the various benefits to their group as a whole. For many people, being exempted from income tax – as Aboriginals living on reservations are – would in itself be a major advantage.
The main focus of separatist tendencies in Canada, however, has clearly been the province of Quebec. Lord Durham's report in 1840 had warned that the future of Canada might consist of "two nations warring in the bosom of a single state" – and that has largely happened. Until 1896, the powerful Macdonald-Cartier coalition of English-Canadian Conservatives and Quebec "Bleus" kept the country together well. However, in the 1896 federal election, the French-Canadians voted en masse for the federal Liberal Party.
In the Twentieth Century, the French-Canadians have mostly continued to vote for the Liberal Party in federal elections. By combining nearly every seat from Quebec, and a minority of seats from English Canada, the federal Liberal Party has hugely dominated Canadian federal politics. While mostly voting for the Liberal Party federally, at the provincial level in Quebec, the French-Canadians have often supported Quebec-nationalist parties, such the Union Nationale of Maurice Duplessis (who gave Quebec its current, distinctive flag in 1948) – and who represented an ultra-traditionalist, ultra-Catholic outlook.
In the early 1960s, the election of Liberals at the provincial level resulted in the so-called Quiet Revolution, where most of the hold of the Roman Catholic Church on French Quebec was removed. In a time of intellectual ferment and uncertainty, mostly left-wing-inspired anti-Canadian, Quebec-separatist tendencies, acquired some urgency. While mostly disdaining Quebec's Roman Catholic past, the Quebec activists embraced a form of nationalism expressed mostly in the promotion of the French language, and the economic struggle against the English who had largely dominated Quebec commercially. As the Quebec nationalists put it: "the social question is the national question." The movement was galvanized by Charles de Gaulle's 1967 pronouncement: "Vive le Quebec libre!"
In 1970, a small, violent Quebec separatist faction, the FLQ (which had murdered a Quebec Minister and kidnapped a British diplomat) was suppressed by the declaration of the War Measures Act (martial law) by Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
While Trudeau claimed to have successfully resisted the threat of Quebec separatism, he had his own, left-liberal agenda to promote. With the continued assurance of federal Liberal supremacy in Quebec, Trudeau obtained what he (vaguely inspired by the Maoist theory of building up a "provincial stronghold" for the eventual conquest of China) considered a "regional base for socialism." Indeed, Trudeau won the majority of seats in English-speaking Canada only in the 1968 election, when "Trudeaumania" swept the country. Nevertheless, Trudeau remained in power from 1968-1984 (except for nine months in 1979-1980). He realized that in the Canadian system as it existed at that time, a Prime Minister who continued to win majority governments could do virtually anything he wanted. Trudeau was also assisted by the federal New Democratic Party (Canada's extremely ideologically-energetic social democrats) – a party he himself had earlier belonged to. Trudeau was extremely conscious of using all the instruments and powers at the disposal of a government and state to strongly shape society.
In Quebec itself, Trudeau battled against the separatist Parti Quebecois, which had arisen as a new focus for Quebec aspirations. In 1980, the Parti Quebecois (under the leadership of Premier Rene Levesque), which had won the 1976 election in Quebec, held a referendum on "sovereignty-association" – which was defeated by a ratio of about 60-40. In 1982, Trudeau brought the Charter of Rights and Freedoms into the Canadian Constitution, which was opposed by Rene Levesque and the PQ – who saw it as diluting Quebec's "collective rights."
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms essentially enshrined nearly all of Trudeau's agenda – bilingualism, multiculturalism, feminism, affirmative-action policies (called employment equity in Canada), transfer payments from richer to poorer provinces -- as the highest law of the land.
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.