Posted on July 12, 2018

How Did Quebec’s Nationalist Movement Become So White?

Martin Patriquin, Guardian, July 12, 2018

Gérald Godin, the first immigration minister of the separatist Parti Québécois (PQ), was also a poet. In 1983, he published an ode to new arrivals to Quebec. “Seven thirty in the morning the Montreal Metro is full of immigrants,” Godin wrote in Tango de Montréal. “The city’s old heart will beat again thanks to them.”

Godin’s words, which now form a mural behind Mont Royal metro station, still ring true 35 years later. Nearly 87% of the 50,000 immigrants arriving in Quebec each year settle in Montreal, bolstering the province’s moribund birthrate and curbing its demographic decline. Godin, like PQ premier René Lévesque, was adamant that immigrant communities and institutions would survive and thrive in an independent Quebec.

What’s more, given their ever-increasing demographic and electoral weight, Godin saw recruiting new Québécois to his cause as a matter of necessity. In his vision, these new arrivals would adopt both French and a Quebec first identity – and eventually vote to separate from Canada.

It was a bold vision, and so far it has been a failed one. Despite Godin’s best efforts, the Parti Québécois has consistently failed to convince immigrants to its side. In 1995, about a year after Godin’s death, the PQ held a referendum on Quebec sovereignty. The “No” side won by all of about 54,000 votes. In his concession speech, the PQ premier, Jacques Parizeau, blamed “money and some ethnic votes” for the loss.

It was the beginning of a drift into ethnic nationalism that has continued essentially unabated to this day. In 2013, as part of a re-election gambit, the PQ introduced the “Quebec values charter”, which sought to ban “conspicuous” religious accoutrements – kippas, hijabs, turbans, along with novelty-sized crucifixes –from the bodies of its public sector workers.

The latest leader, Jean-François Lisée, a former adviser to Parizeau, once advocated withholding the right to vote from immigrants until they earned “Quebec citizenship” via a language and values test. More recently, Lisée said the provincial government should ban the burka lest a “jihadist uses it to hide his movements”, and has said the government should erect a wall to keep out asylum seekers fleeing Donald Trump’s America. (He later said a fence or a cedar hedge would suffice.)

Godin once sought to welcome newcomers to the sovereignist fold; the PQ’s current leader echoes the sentiments of America’s 45th president. How did Quebec’s nationalist movement become what it once decried: old, almost uniformly white and less focused on achieving a country than how immigration is purportedly reshaping demographics of the existing province for the worse?

Parizeau’s remarks contained a kernel of truth: long alienated by the PQ, the vast majority of “allophones”– the population whose first language is neither French nor English, including the majority of Quebec’s visible minorities – voted to stay in Canada. They are arguably one of the reasons why Quebec remains a Canadian province today: according to a 2016 analysis by economist Pierre Fortin, allophones are 18 times more likely to vote for the Liberal party, which favours remaining in Canada, than the PQ.

As a teenager, Tania Kontoyanni was compelled into political action by Godin’s words and vision. The second-generation Greek and well-known actor has spent much of her life advocating for a separate Quebec, and unlike many Greeks in Quebec, she conspicuously refers to herself as a Québécoise.

The 1995 referendum result devastated her – but she was devastated again when Parizeau seemed to blame immigrants, and the children of immigrants, for a loss she felt was ultimately his fault. “It was like an insult. It was like he forgot us,” Kontoyanni said. “I abandoned the PQ long ago. Philosophically I’m a sovereignist, but politically I stopped the day I realized that I’d be frustrated the rest of my life.”

“Nationalism” is a slippery term in Quebec, home to 8.2 million mostly French-speaking souls. Even ardent Quebec federalists – those who believe the province belongs in Canada – often consider themselves to be Québécois first. More recently, as desire for sovereignty has faded in the province, the term has come to denote disillusioned separatists who have resigned themselves to their Canadian passport but remain Québécois deep in their heart.

Yet nationalism is most associated with the province’s sovereignty movement and the Parti Québécois, the party created in 1968 to make Quebec an independent country. First elected in 1976, the PQ believed separating from Canada would throw off the yoke of British colonialism and end English-speaking Canadians’ domination of the province’s economy. It would do so by way of a many-hued coalition of so-called pure laine (pure wool) Québécois and new arrivals to the would-be country.

Selling these new Canadians on the benefits of a separate Quebec, however, was always going to be a difficult task. New arrivals often choose Quebec because it is French-speaking – yet they typically remain loyal to Canada’s policy of multiculturalism, implemented in 1971. Parizeau’s frustrated diatribe marked a new beginning: scapegoating immigrants for a variety of Quebec’s ailments, real or perceived. It alienated those sovereigntists from Quebec’s cultural communities who still bought into the idea of a broad coalition. “Support among Greeks here for Quebec sovereignty began and ended with Godin,” Kontoyanni said.

The Parti Québécois does admit it has difficulty moving beyond its baby boomer base. “Cultural diversity within the party represents a serious challenge for the PQ,” reads the party’s 2017 report on electoral renewal. Relying on this base for support, however, has created a distinct schism between Montreal – where English, French, brown, black and white collide on a daily basis – and the lily-white régions beyond its shores.

The Quebec Values Charter was a key example of that strategy: a “wedge” issue designed to pit multicultural Montreal against the rest of the province. Though the PQ failed to implement the charter, it remains a blueprint of sorts for appealing to a certain type of Quebec nationalist.

Demographics haven’t been particularly kind to the PQ brand of scorched earth nationalism. The average Quebec sovereignist is older than 55, according to a 2014 study – a far cry from 1980 when support for the movement was strongest among the under-35, and a stark contrast to Scotland’s independence movement, whose early embrace of civic nationalism has ensured demographic renewal.

The Scottish Nationalist party’s attempt to create a separate Scotland, which culminated in the 2014 referendum, could have been the product of Godin’s dream. The movement draws heavily from ethnic minorities living in Scotland. It is also decidedly young. Support for the yes side was highest among those aged 16 to 35, and though the SNP lost the referendum, support for separation remains high – particularly in the wake of Brexit.

In Quebec, the trend is reversed. The governing Liberal party is firmly anti-separatist and favours multiculturalism. In March of this year, the finance minister, Carlos Leitão, went so far as to call out the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), another nationalist party, for practicing “ethnic nationalism” – garnering retorts that Leitao, a first-generation Portuguese immigrant, was pandering to his multicultural base. (Given the looming provincial election in October, there is probably some truth to this.)

Tellingly, the PQ’s main competition isn’t Leitao’s pro-immigration Liberals but the CAQ, which is heavily represented in and around Quebec City, an overwhelmingly white city with one of the oldest urban populations in Canada. Founded in 2011, the CAQ has never formed a government. Yet the party’s core belief – that Quebec separation is unachievable and the project should be permanently shelved – has attracted disaffected nationalists from PQ ranks.

The two parties share the same brand of identity-driven politics, to which the CAQ adds an austere conservatism harkening back to the province’s Catholic church-dominated past. Both parties have called for lower immigration levels and a ban on religious symbols from the public sphere – except when it comes to the oodles of crucifixes dotting Quebec’s landscape.

This “Catho-secularism” has been an occasionally amusing source of hypocrisy. When a young police cadet made headlines recently for being the first in Quebec to wear a hijab, a CAQ parliamentarian declared: “Clearly, a person in a position of authority can’t serve God and the state at the same time.” As she said it, she was standing roughly 50ft from the gold-coloured crucifix that has stared down on the Assembly since 1936.

That many Quebec nationalist parliamentarians (and, notably, the governing Liberals) have stymied efforts to remove this crucifix, a reminder of God’s supremacy over Quebec’s elected officials, is born of a dizzying contradiction. Québécois abandoned the church en masse during the province’s Quiet Revolution beginning in 1960, but the crucifix, like the confederate flag in the US, serves as a convenient bumper sticker for many of Quebec’s nationalist politicians.

Godin hated it. To him, this overt display of religiosity was a vestige of Quebec’s bad old days, and a major obstacle to a separate Quebec, accepting of people from all faiths and walks of life. “I hurt for my country/till the end of time,” he wrote of seeing them.

And yet in 2018 it is the crucifixes that endure, while Godin’s dream of sovereignty is dimmer than ever.