This isn’t your parents’ separatism, Nora Loreto writes—except in a way, it is.
I fixed the flag to my bedroom door in the summer of 1995 and it stayed there until I left for university. Yellowed, with stains from sticky-tack bleeding through to the front, it had been a centrefold image from the Toronto Star that featured the Canadian flag, except half of the maple leaf had been replaced by half of the fleur-de-lys. It was the newspaper’s way of telling its readers that, as was the refrain from the federal campaign for Quebec’s 1995 referendum, our Canada includes Quebec.
I was eleven. My parents let me stay up the night of the referendum and I remember being rapt, my eyes glued to the bar on the bottom of the screen on CBC. Every time the red bar moved over 50 percent, I felt relief. When it dropped below 50 percent, I felt despair. Quebec’s second referendum was one of the most important political moments of my youth. The next year, in my school’s annual speech contest, I was a finalist for my speech: “Why Canada is So Much Better Than the United States.” I argued that Quebec’s place in Canada was central to this “being better.”
As a teenager, I would come to realize that Canada was a deeply flawed nation. Thanks to a history teacher who was also an active local historian, we learned that our town—Georgetown, Ontario—was on land that has been occupied for time immemorial. Along the valleys carved out by the Credit River and its creeks was the traditional territory of the Huron-Wendat. War and disease brought by French colonists forced out the Huron-Wendat Confederation villages, decimating a population of up to thirty thousand. Several hundred eventually settled at—and still live near—a site on the outskirts of Quebec City called Lorette. It was named after a town in Italy called Loreto, where someone once had a vision of the Virgin Mary; that's where my family’s name comes from too.
It has always felt like a coincidence that I would move to Quebec City, which I did, in 2012, for my partner’s job. Everything was unfamiliar. One day after our move, thousands of students took to the streets in what would be the final major show of force of a movement that helped topple Jean Charest’s provincial Liberal government. June 22 was a hot day. Having closely followed the student strike, we joined the rally, eager to participate in life in Quebec. Every time the crowd passed a public fountain, someone jumped into it. In comparison to the parades we called “rallies” in Toronto, the mood was electric.
It was the first time I heard strike spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois speak. He stood on a stone bench against a backdrop of Quebec City’s famous stone wall; we, the crowd, had the National Assembly at our backs. Smaller than I had expected, he stood out, wearing formal black pants and a grey dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows.
At twenty-two, Nadeau-Dubois looked impossibly young. But his talent as a speaker had been clear to me from afar, watching through media in Toronto over the previous year. In real life he was even better. With the slow but intense speaking meter that made him famous, he dwelled on how the Liberals were facing a corruption scandal at the time and said the party was also corrupting public higher education with a tuition fee hike. At every pause, the crowd burst into noise—tambourines, cheers, whistles, and the sound, famous that spring, of banging pots and pans. Nadeau-Dubois felt like the expression of a generation.
Five years later, he finally entered partisan politics, winning a Montreal by-election for the party Québec Solidaire, then becoming its co-spokesperson. This meant he took a new place, too: he was a leading sovereigntist, representing a party that advocated for the same.
And I—the child who gave a speech about my love for a united Canada—joined my local Québec Solidaire coordinating committee in the riding of Taschereau, an anglo suddenly fighting for Quebec’s independence.
My sixty-year-old neighbour, Alain, has stopped me on the street more than a dozen times to tell me that Nadeau-Dubois is as important as René Lévesque, the legendary Quebec politician who helped lead the first wave of sovereignty. The parallel might not fit exactly, I know, but Alain could feel something that I felt too.
It was what I couldn’t have imagined as a child, and what I didn’t understand nearly as well before I moved to Quebec. Despite the catastrophic decline of the traditional stanchion of separatism, the Parti Québécois, separatism is still alive and well. There is a new movement emerging here that still sees sovereignty as a path forward, but weaves it into social policies like free higher education, free daycare and an energy transition that would move Quebec off carbon.
Because, as the original separatists knew—what helped them grow so strong when I was a child—it’s not enough just to work for a free Quebec. You also need to imagine what it would be and do. If it simply became a mini-Canada, what would all that work have been for?
My old image of the two camps—sovereigntist and federalist—was fed by English-language media: political cartoons, especially, portrayed the sovereigntist movement and its leaders as bumbling fools or as menacing figures.
Premier Jacques Parizeau was drawn as a snake, a greasy wrestler, a belligerent circus ringmaster, a dentist with a drill. One cartoon featured the iconic image of soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima, but instead of soldiers the four men were sovereigntists, and the flag was Quebec’s. A boy and his father are looking on, the boy wearing a maple leaf shirt and a red hat. His father tells him that “…it’s the triumph of ignorance.”
But to say that the sovereignty movement was fueled by ignorance is to be entirely ignorant of the movement itself. The grandfather of the movement, Lévesque, charismatic and sharp, laid his principal goal bare in a speech to the founding congress of the PQ in 1968. The day after a clear majority of Quebecers vote to cede from Canada, he said, people who were once subjugated will take control of their own destiny, and an incoherent and dependent population will finally be in charge of its path forward.
Growing up in Saint-Jérôme, Benoit Renaud understood exactly what kind of path separatists were picturing. In 1980, at the time of the first Quebec referendum, he was only fourteen. But in those years, anyone following politics even at a bare minimum would understand that the Parti Québécois was creating a radically different Quebec. First elected in 1976, they brought in anti-scab legislation and public auto insurance, and they banned corporate donations to political parties. At the same time, the labour movement was very strong and had an important influence on government. Among Lévesque’s ministers were former union activists, radical intellectuals and even a poet. Renaud didn’t just understand all this from media; his parents were both teachers and were therefore part of the base for the PQ, francophone Quebecers who worked in decent public-sector jobs.
Just a few years later, however, by the time Renaud could actually vote, he had lost faith in the party. In the early 1980s, as the global recession spurred by Reaganomic and Thatcherite policies took hold in Quebec, the PQ looked at their own base to find ways to make up for a fiscal crisis. “The way that the Lévesque government responded to the inevitable financial difficulties for the government…was to attack the wages and the collective agreements of public-sector workers,” he says. “They attacked their own main social base: baby boomers who grew up in the sixties, got public-sector jobs, unionized, went on strike and then got the PQ elected in ’76.” But Renaud’s parents and people like them ended up back on strike, this time against the PQ. They felt sold out.
There was another change, too, over time. Renaud recalls that during the early days of the movement, left-wing sovereigntists looked to colonial struggles across the globe for inspiration. “The roots of that notion of an inclusive and pluralistic definition of Quebec also goes back to the sixties and seventies,” he told me. Quebec activists were internationalists. They worked in solidarity with people in Palestine, Vietnam and Chile and believed that Quebec needed to be a haven for people escaping war. They were inspired by the American Indian Movement and the Black Panthers. Sovereignty was about “changing the world by starting where you are,” says Renaud.
Many years later, in 1995, that’s why those words uttered in defeat by Jacques Parizeau, blaming the loss on money and the ethnic vote, were so disappointing—and not just to the people he was talking so disparagingly about, but for many of his supporters as well. This comment wasn’t just blaming non-white Quebecers for voting yes. He was saying that “we”—the Québécois de souche—wanted an independent Quebec and “they”—everyone who is not white and francophone—did not. Parizeau’s words from that night remained a heavy cloud over the entire sovereignty movement.
Lévesque’s PQ walked a line between, on one hand, an inclusive national identity and, on the other, the rights and liberation of Quebec’s francophone majority. Renaud argues that nationalism is nothing new in Quebec; what is new is the rise in ethnonationalism, especially within what is now the remnants of the PQ. Ethnonationalism was always present within the party but many would argue it was marginal, tempered by politicians who either didn’t support it or didn’t see it as a useful political tool.
Renaud says that between 1995 and 2007, the PQ underwent a transformation, recruited several conservative, nationalist intellectuals whose power grew. Not many PQ activists resisted this ideological shift, and it soon became mainstream within the party. When Pauline Marois’s government took power in 2012, it made religious accommodations and state secularism the most significant part of its tenure.
Still, some understood that the party’s power was declining during this time,and believed that could be a good thing. In the 1980s and 1990s, “the PQ took basically all the space,” Renaud says. He had noticed an irony. While sovereignty had become the PQ’s primary goal, it increasingly failed to articulate what it would do with it—what its social project would be for this new country.
Renaud puts it this way: independence cannot simply be a project of nostalgia.
In a community centre in Gatineau, across the river from Ottawa, thirty or so grey heads bend over a conference table. Renaud is also there—it’s one of the places where, at fifty-three, he often feels like the youngest person in the room. But these meetings are also a reminder that the oldest wave of sovereignty has kept some of its momentum for decades, regardless of what’s happened in the world of party politics.
The meeting is for members of Les Organisations Unies Pour l’Indépendance du Québec, commonly known as OUI Québec, a coalition that is sovereigntist but non-partisan. It has roundtables established in twelve regions in Quebec, including near Renaud’s home in Gatineau, where he has attended a couple of meetings. Its members sometimes talk to media or do other strategizing around separatist goals. But the coalition’s principal aim is simply to ensure that even if the PQ isn’t regularly talking about sovereignty, someone is.
As the PQ has atrophied, OUI Québec has grown. It has given staunch PQ supporters a vehicle to keep the dream of independence alive, Renaud says, without relying on the PQ but “without completely breaking from the PQ.” OUI Quebec members take inspiration from the independence movement in Catalonia, he says, where activists organize through a social movement structure rather than through a political party. But they’re also an important group for the PQ, helping demonstrate grassroots support for separatism. Sylvain Gaudreault, MNA for Jonquière and candidate for the leadership of the PQ, told the Journal de Québec this January that one of his priorities as leader would be to re-ignite the work of OUI Québec.
Renaud, a longtime socialist, also helped lay the groundwork for a new political party that has carried the flag of sovereignty—Québec Solidaire, the party I also joined (though I haven’t been active in my riding association since 2018), and which Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois co-leads. Québec Solidaire, or QS, was founded in 2006 in a merger between an older, left-wing political party and various factions from Quebec’s women’s and anti-poverty movements.
QS has had a remarkable two years. On election night in 2018, October 1, the great hall of Quebec’s iconic art gallery was packed with almost a thousand people, hundreds more outside hoping to get in. It was Québec Solidaire’s after-party and two MNAs had just been elected in downtown Quebec City. The party had a major breakthrough that night, winning ten seats in Sherbrooke, Montreal, Quebec City and Abitibi; it even managed to defeat the PQ in Rosemont, the Montreal riding where former leader Jean-François Lisée was running.
This room was overwhelmingly young, with grey hair standing out. Polls suggested that the QS’s surge came mostly from voters age eighteen to thirty-four. Dozens of people at the gallery were in tears.
Renaud thinks that QS’s strength is that the party’s talk is the opposite of abstract. Their election campaign promised to increase government revenues by $13 billion to help pay for free education; it promised twenty-four-hour access to health clinics and to start a massive transition to decarbonize Quebec’s economy.
Sovereignty also played prominently in the party’s campaign promises. QS candidates argued that Quebec independence is necessary if we are going to free ourselves from the Canadian “petrostate” and define our own future—combatting Canada’s ties with oil companies or allowing Quebec to say no to energy projects that cross the province.
Again, they used powerful, concrete examples. In Quebec City, the federally run Port of Quebec has long created environmental worries for the nearby neighbourhoods of Limoilou and Beauport. The local QS MNA and high-profile activist Sol Zanetti often argues that leaving environmental decisions in the hands of the federal government makes no sense. “Le Québec est laissé entre les mains d’un État pétrolier, on lui laisse le soin de protéger notre environnement,” Zanetti told Le Soleil last November.
Among the party’s slate of young candidates in 2018 was Ismaël Seck, who ran in the Montreal riding of Jeanne-Mance–Viger. The riding covers the borough of Saint-Léonard and borders on Rosemont, the riding where the party defeated Lisée.
Unlike Renaud, Seck wasn’t always a sovereigntist. The thirty-year-old high school teacher says that like a lot of people his age, he wasn’t sure that the sovereigntist movement was still relevant. He saw the movement as being from an older era, one that didn’t reflect his cosmopolitan reality in Montreal.
But his political lens shifted during a trip to Senegal, where his father’s family is from. There, he met several people who worked in a local Canadian-owned mine. They told him that they were forced to work in English. He was shocked: “I was like, you’re in a French-speaking country, working for a Canadian mine.” And he was furious.
Seck loves soccer, music and martial arts. He also loves the French language and the culture that flows from it—he sees French as an engine for creativity. If you foster the language, he says, cultural, economic and environmental projects will follow. “Living in Montreal, you really feel like Canada is a bilingual country, but the more you dig…in reality, the two languages are not equal in this country,” he told me.
After his trip, Seck read a lot about sovereignty. He learned about the diversity of the movement in the 1970s, and about how many Quebec activists were ready to help Algerians during their war of independence against France.
As he was telling me about his experience in Senegal, I was struck by how similar his complaints were to those of an earlier era. Before the 1960s, French-speakers were often forced to work for English-speaking bosses and banned from speaking French on the job. But labour leaders and workers fought for an end to French prohibitions in the workplace. Between 1962 and 1967, Quebec energy companies went from employing just 12 percent francophone engineers to 80 percent francophones. This issue was central to René Lévesque’s rise. When he was the minister of natural resources under Liberal premier Jean Lesage, he oversaw the nationalization of Hydro Quebec, which included “frenchifying” the industry.
“I feel like speaking French today in North America, for me, is an act of resistance,” Seck tells me. He imagines that an independent Quebec would be able to not just protect the French language, but also give the space needed to allow Québécois culture and art to flow from it. “If we had the political power of a country, our culture could be less defensive and more in bloom,” he says. A sovereign Quebec would be able to write its own constitution, to finally give people the democratic right to determine how they want to be governed.
What is Canadian culture? Why do we struggle to define it? Like Seck, I’ve been increasingly aware that no average person has ever voted on Canada’s constitution. It was decided on our behalf—no referendum, not even a proper ratification by the provinces. I wonder how different this society would look if we had been able to help create it, to vote on it.
The higher up a democratic structure is from the people, I believe, the harder it is for the people to hold it to account. Under federalism’s tripartite model, we have three separate democracies—municipal, provincial and federal—and far too often they pass the buck, download responsibilities or upload them in a game of out-politicking other politicians.
In this game, we lose. When Ontario Premier Doug Ford suddenly cut Toronto City Hall’s councillor table from forty-seven to twenty-five, in 2018, Torontonians saw just how fragile their local government is. In Quebec, politicians are only slightly more responsive. In fact, the most recent provincial Liberal government planned to redraw Montreal’s riding boundaries, a move that would have swallowed up the riding of Sainte-Marie–Saint-Jacques, home to the seat of QS co-spokesperson Manon Massé. But activists mobilized and the Liberals were forced to scrap the idea in March 2017.
As the press shrinks but corporate influence over politics remains ubiquitous, I’m drawn to the idea of a sovereign Quebec that could be freed more easily not just from Ottawa but also from a corporate agenda driven by oil money, private interests and international capital. We should be able to tax Facebook and Netflix, I think. We should be able to kick prospectors off our lands. We should have more power over our institutions.
What if people in every province could help write their own constitution? We could give human rights to waterways. We could eliminate poverty. New Brunswick could outline government responsibilities that British Columbia doesn’t; Manitoba could guarantee rights that Saskatchewan doesn’t. These changes could be entrenched in separate constitutions that wouldn’t rely on Ottawa’s approval to stand. Indeed, much of what makes Quebec great was only possible because of its unique social programs, like inexpensive public daycare or free college education.
There is a great irony to this: that innovative programs breaking from Canadian norms could, in fact, be created while staying within the federation. But they wouldn’t have happened without the sovereigntist movement—it opened the field to imagine what is possible, activists pushing for these victories in a way that has never been done in the ROC (the Rest of Canada, as Quebecers like to call it). Sovereignty would take this even further, restructuring our local tax systems, including the money that is currently taxed by Ottawa and allowing a new country to rearrange itself from scratch.
The path forward is not entirely clear. Quebec, like Canada, was founded by colonial conquest and genocide. No discussion of independence can happen without a clear vision of how to undo Quebec’s colonial relationship with the ten First Nations and the Inuit communities whose territory the province occupies. If independent, Quebec would have to create new treaty relationships and assume the role of the Crown. Swaths of land would have to be repatriated to these nations. Reparations would need to be paid and resources invested in everything from languages to education to infrastructure. Doing all this in a way that doesn’t repeat the federal arrangement would be even harder.
I’m an optimist who believes that people will work in the best interest of others when they are rooted in their communities, connected to their neighbours. But the digital age has broken these bonds—we are too busy to volunteer, we can’t meet new people, can’t maintain our friendships, don’t have time to do things that are important to us.
These problems, I believe, are also the result of federalist economic policies which subjugate us all while corporations funnel billions from our economy into their coffers. The rich steal from our collective safety net and stash their money in offshore holdings.
Federalism has always favoured corporate power; regular people are now nearing record-high debt, while banks and financial institutions are raking in record profits. Maybe Canadians should start asking themselves: is the federation helping or harming?
I’ve never been asked “where are you from” as much as I have been in the past seven years. It’s in every conversation I have with a stranger, from parents of my kids’ friends to a man one night at a Les Cowboys Fringants concert who asked me a question. I replied simplement “oui” and he was shocked to hear that an anglophone would be interested in such a band, based alone on how I pronounced oui.
Quebec City is a monocultural city. What could possibly bring an anglophone to non-Montreal Quebec? When you’re an outsider, you either make peace with that fact, or you leave the moment you can retire or find a job elsewhere.
I’m constantly reminded that as much as I insist I’m home in Quebec, I will always be an Ontarian. There are Ontarian ways about me that I won’t probably shake before I die. I play soccer. I secretly don’t hate the Tragically Hip. I host Thanksgiving, which is not something I’ve found people here do. I’ve also built, with others, a community of outsiders whose practices aren’t normal here, and whose languages are different too.
Quebec independence might seem like an odd thing for me to support, but it’s not. When I go home to Georgetown, I see a town where housing developments have destroyed some of Canada’s best farmland and a housing market that has quickly priced out friends I grew up with. Three decades of austerity policies have created hopelessness and political confusion. There is no option beyond hedging your bets at the ballot box every four years and strategically voting Liberal, despite the party’s culpability in widespread misery. My friends struggle with student debt payments and daycare payments and mortgages that they hope will buy access to a higher income bracket, when they eventually sell their property.
Quebec’s sovereigntists have known all this for decades, of course: the status quo is untenable.