Quebec’s New Hero

17 November 2005

Quebec’s New Hero

 By Gwynne Dyer

He’s young for a party leader (39), he’s gay, and he admits that he took cocaine “on a few occasions” while serving as a minister in the Quebec government in the late 90s. In fact, Andre Boisclair is practically ideal for the task of winning back the youth vote for the project of Quebec’s independence. Unfortunately for the separatist Parti Quebecois, that is only one of its tasks. The other is to win over the immigrant vote, and the very things that give Boisclair street cred in the eyes of young French-speaking Quebeckers make him anathema to many immigrants.

The question of independence has been at the centre of politics in Canada’s only French-majority province for over forty years now, and the original generation of separatists has grown old in the struggle. Many of their kids have simply lost interest in the project — there is nothing as unfashionable as the ideology of your parents’ generation — and the Parti Quebecois had to find a way to win them back. Andre Boisclair seemed perfect.

Boisclair had the warm support of the outgoing PQ leader, Bernard Landry, and he won the leadership easily in the first round of voting on 15 November: 53.6 percent of the party’s members gave him their votes, more than all the other candidates combined. They believe that he can recapture the young for the cause of independence, and maybe they’re right.

In his victory speech, Boisclair promised that “we will seek a mandate to hold a referendum on Quebec sovereignty in the next election…Let us all work together to build the country of Quebec.”

However, the softness of support for that goal among francophone Quebeckers is clear in the way that the PQ avoids talking bluntly about “independence”, preferring weasel words like “sovereignty” that frighten the voters less — and even if Boisclair can attract the young back to the PQ, that alone will not be enough.

The first referendum on Quebec’s independence, held in 1980, was defeated by a 60-40 majority, but the second one in 1995 was a very close-run thing: staying in Canada only won by 39,000 votes in a province of 7.5 million people. A clear majority of “old stock” francophones (those whose ancestors had been in Quebec for many generations) voted for independence, but the English-speaking minority in Quebec and 90 percent of the recent immigrants voted against it.

It’s obvious why Quebec’s anglophones would vote not to separate from a country where three-quarters of the people speak English, but why did almost all of the recent immigrants vote with them? After all, most immigrants eventually integrate into the francophone majority, mainly because Quebec laws requires them to send their children to French schools.

Those laws have caused some bitterness, because most immigrants, left to their own devices, would choose to educate their children in English, the language that confers mobility within North America. However, it is quite understandable that the Quebec government compels them to send their children to French schools instead. Immigrants are the only part of the population that is growing, and free choice would eventually create an English-speaking majority in Quebec.

Those laws are almost thirty years old now, and they have had the desired effect. Over a tenth of Quebec’s population is foreign-born and 30,000 new immigrants arrive each year, but the proportion of Quebeckers who speak French is higher than it has been at any time in the past century. The new Quebeckers mostly work in French, send their kids to school in French, watch television in French — but the Parti Quebecois cannot persuade many of them to vote for independence from Canada.

The reason so many “old stock” francophones dream of independence is that their culture has preserved an historical memory of conquest and oppression. The injustices are long past — francophones dominate Quebec politics, there is no significant difference between the average incomes of francophones and anglophones, and the French language is safe — but for many people descended from the original French population the project of independence is a way to make history have a happy ending.

You cannot teach new francophones those emotions, however, and there are no convincing practical reasons for separating Quebec from Canada. On the contrary, it is a project that carries a certain risk of economic upheaval and even political turmoil — which is exactly what many of the immigrants came to Canada to get away from. So 90 percent of them voted to stay in Canada in the last referendum, and all the PQ’s attempts to persuade them that this is not mere ethnic nationalism but a rational, “territorial” nationalism that all Quebeckers can share have failed.

Even the separatists’ own kids were getting bored with their project, which is why they chose Andre Boisclair as their new leader. But the same lifestyle that makes him seem modern and liberated to the younger generation of “old stock” francophones — his open homosexuality and his admissions about cocaine use — will just alienate immigrant Quebeckers, most of whom are profoundly conservative in their social attitudes.

If all the anglos in Quebec and almost all the immigrants continue to vote against independence, then the PQ must win over 60 percent of the “old stock” francophone vote in a referendum to get even a slim majority for independence. That is probably still too high a threshold to cross.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“Those laws…from Canada”)