Washington — The movement for Quebec sovereignty rests on two main ideas: the preservation of the French language and of French-Canadian culture. Many French Canadians already look upon their province as a separate nation within English-speaking Canada.
Quebec has 7.4 million inhabitants, comparable to Switzerland and Sweden. Some 6 million of these people speak French. In the sense of the Helsinki Accord, the inhabitants of Quebec are a "people," which has instilled a belief among separatists that the province is large enough and strong enough to survive on its own. Quebec already enjoys significant control in such areas as education, natural resources and immigration.
The uniqueness of Quebecers is accentuated by the isolation of its French-speakers from France. Because they existed as a cultural island, surrounded by English-speaking Canadians and Americans, their language is more similar to 18th-century French than to modern French. Even so, President Charles de Gaulle viewed Quebecers as French enough when he openly called for separation in his famous 1967 Montreal speech, shouting, "Vive le Quebec libre" ("Long live free Quebec").
That speech was delivered only 23 years after many Canadians lost their lives during the D-Day landings as the Allies began the liberation of France. It was a liberation in which then-Gen. de Gaulle led the Free French forces, and so his ingratitude was all the more unsettling to Canadians. De Gaulle's speech set off a firestorm between Canada and France, and it gave Quebec's separatists renewed determination to secede from Canada.
Since the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, when Great Britain incorporated the French colony into its empire, French Canadians have demanded their sovereignty. In the 20th century, the nationalist movement swung into full force with Jean Lesage's "quiet revolution." In 1963, the movement became more violent as the Quebec Liberation Front employed the use of bombs. A few years later a more peaceful approach was sought with the formation of the Quebecois Party, which fought to establish its voice within Quebec's government. In 1980, the first referendum on Quebec independence failed, with only 40 percent voting for independence. In 1995, another referendum was held, and the move for independence was defeated again, with federalists winning 51 percent of the vote.
Quebec is one of the 10 provinces of the Canadian federal state, a system that involves two levels of government: the central (federal) government and the provincial governments. Quebec's National Assembly, made up of 125 representatives, can enact legislation; then the lieutenant governor, acting as a representative of the Crown, must approve the legislation. The prime minister and his cabinet are responsible for the administration of the legislation.
In recent polls, however, the separatist movement in Quebec seems to have lost some steam. Supporters of an independent Quebec made up only 39 percent of those polled, the lowest level since the 1995 referendum on secession. Moreover, young people, once the core of the movement, no longer seem to be interested in carving out their own nation. One editorial published in La Presse states that the "sense of anger that allowed Quebecers to contemplate a break with Canada just isn't there anymore."
Recent Canadian statistics indicate that the average Canadian family is now better off than it was before the recession of the early 1990s. While this economic prosperity has reached most of the provinces, a few remain behind Quebec, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Many think that Quebec's slower economy is the result of the separatist movement, which drove potential investors and businesses out of the province. So economics, rather than politics, may finally bring an end to the separatist movement.
Jack Anderson and Douglas Cohn are columnists for United Feature Syndicate.