Quebec’s Right to Self-Determination

Are you a progressive Canadian?


In this blog I discuss the question of Quebec independence and I make the point that recognition of Quebec’s right to self-determination (which need not imply promotion of the independence option) is a necessary component of any progressive political stance. Failure to recognize this right constitutes a serious impediment to secularism in Canada in general, not just in Quebec.

Sommaire en français Dans ce blogue je considère la question de l’indépendance éventuelle du Québec. Je maintiens que la reconnaissance du droit du Québec à l’auto-détermination (ce qui n’implique pas nécessairement de prôner l’option indépendantiste) est une composante essentielle de toute orientation politique progressiste. Le refus de reconnaître ce droit représente une entrave majeure à la laïcité au Canada en général, et pas seulement au Québec.

Let us consider a little thought experiment. Suppose that at some date in the near future, the Parti Québécois (or another sovereignist political party) holds power in Canada’s province of Quebec, and that they plan to hold a referendum to decide whether Quebec should become an independent country. Furthermore, in order to simplify our thought experiment, let us suppose that, after intensive negotiations, all significant players in this drama—whether passionately in favour of Quebec independence, or fervently opposed to it, or holding some intermediate opinion—have agreed on the following three major points:

  1. the wording of the referendum question;
  2. the criterion for victory or failure of the independence option;
  3. in the event of failure, a restriction on the holding of similar referenda in the future.

Point (1) means that all have agreed on the wording of the question which will be put to voters. For example, “Do you want Quebec to separate from Canada to become an independent republic?” or whatever the various players agree to.

Point (2) means that all have agreed on what threshold will be necessary to decide that the referendum results represent a victory for independence. For example: 50% + 1 of all votes cast; or 50% + 1 of all eligible voters; or 60% of all votes cast; or 60% of all eligible voters; or whatever the various players agree to.

Point (3) implies that, if the independence side loses, all players agree that another referendum posing the same or a similar question may not be held again for a minimum number of years—for example, 15 years, or 25 years, or whatever the various players agree to. This will avoid the so-called “neverendum referendum” scenario, i.e. repeated and frequent referenda.

Thus we have what I think is a comprehensive set of conditions to make the referendum as fair as possible. Perhaps I have forgotten some other condition which should be met and which could be negotiated by all the major players in addition to the three listed above. I assume that all such major issues have been dealt with before the referendum is held.

I now ask you, dear reader, what your reaction would be if—after all these conditions had been met and the referendum held—the YES side won. What, in your opinion, should be done? In particular, what course of action should be adopted by the federal government in Ottawa?

I think the answer is obvious. Having agreed to a set of conditions assuring the fairness of the vote, and the YES side having won, the Ottawa government would have no choice but to accept the decision and to begin negotiations, in good faith, with the Quebec government, to facilitate the transition to sovereign nationhood for Quebec. If you disagree with this course of action, then you do not recognize Quebec’s right to self-determination. Furthermore, if you do not recognize Quebec’s right to self-determination, then you and I disagree on a fundamental principle of Canadian history and politics.

Now, in practice, I recognize that the conditions I have set up in preparation for the referendum are probably unrealistic. Indeed, if any of the parties to that preparation did not recognize Quebec’s right to self-determination, as I am certain some would not, then they would probably demand conditions to which independentists could never agree, such as, for example, an unrealistically high threshold for victory (condition 2). In practice, any referendum would probably occur in a context where controversy about the terms of the referendum continues to abound. Nevertheless, my goal in presenting such an idealized situation where most agree on those terms is to reduce the number of variables, i.e. to simplify the situation in order to expose one major variable, that variable being whether or not the stakeholders recognize a right to self-determination.

It is the duty of every […] progressive […] to support Quebec’s right to self-determination.

The bottom line is this: It is the duty of every person who considers himself or herself to be progressive in any real sense of that word—that is to say, in favour of fundamental human rights, in favour of social justice (an expression I continue to use despite the frequency with which it is bandied about and often abused), in favour of values which the left has traditionally defended (but in recent years has unfortunately tended to forget)—it is such a person’s duty, I say, to support Quebec’s right to self-determination. That does not mean that they must promote Quebec independence. Indeed, one may quite legitimately oppose it for a variety of reasons—for example, the political and economic instability which might (or might not) be the consequence of splitting up the Canadian federation and might (or might not) impoverish the population or otherwise significantly reduce their quality of life. But in that case one must respect Quebec’s right by opposing it honestly, with rational argument. And if the will of the Quebec nation—as expressed through a fair referendum—is to become independent, then one has a duty to respect that decision.

(Yes, Quebec constitutes a distinct nation within Canada: definition (1) of the Wiktionary definition of nation is “A historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, ethnicity and/or psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.”)

Furthermore, if one opposes the Quebec sovereignty movement irrationally, for example by claiming that it is “racist” or “fascist” or some such nonsense, that is by simply slandering it, then one is guilty of ethnic bigotry against the Quebec nation. And ethnic bigotry is a form of racism (in the extended sense, as I have defined it in a previous blog, although not in the strict sense, because Quebecers constitute an ethnic group and a nation, but not strictly a “race”). Thus such specious accusations are blatantly hypocritical because the persons making them are themselves guilty of racism.

The strategy of slandering the Quebec sovereignist movement by associating it with repressive and xenophobic right-wing political movements is […] hate propaganda against the Quebec nation.

Let us be very clear. There is nothing about the Quebec independence option which is essentially “racist” or “intolerant” or “fascist.” The strategy of slandering the Quebec sovereignist movement by associating it with repressive and xenophobic right-wing political movements is an extreme form of what has become known as “Quebec-bashing” but which I would simply call hate propaganda against the Quebec nation. Racism and ethnic bigotry are present in all societies and any nationalism may be vulnerable to the influence of such tendencies. However, any right-wing clerico-nationalist tendencies in Quebec have been largely eclipsed in the last half-century by the resolutely secular nature of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. The conflict between Quebec sovereignists and Canadian federalists (i.e. for and against Quebec independence) is essentially a confrontation of two competing nationalisms:—Québécois and Canadian—and it is largely a matter of taste which of the two one prefers. Opposition to Quebec independence often takes the form of ethnic bigotry against the Quebec nation, and that bigotry is often expressed through the vehicle of Canadian nationalism—which can be very intolerant.

A lesser issue related to self-determination needs to be asserted as well. Respect for Quebec’s right to self-determination also implies respect for decisions of political importance but of lesser consequence than independence, decisions which may clash with values held by many Canadians outside Quebec. The obvious example of this is the desire of the majority of Quebeckers for a version of secularism in keeping with the republican tradition, i.e. laïcité. As Quebec is a separate province within Canada and Canada is a federation in which provinces hold significant powers, the right of Quebeckers to decide for themselves already has some legal basis, but that right is compromised by the fact that federal law takes precedence (which, in fact, constitutes an excellent argument for Quebec independence).

[…] old bigoted anti-Quebec memes were trotted out in order to demonize the Quebec Charter of Secularism […]. Partisans and dupes of Islamofascism made full use of such demonization to oppose the Charter.

We saw how old bigoted anti-Quebec memes were trotted out in order to demonize the Quebec Charter of Secularism proposed by the Parti Québécois government in 2013-2014. Partisans and dupes of Islamofascism made full use of such demonization to oppose the Charter. This bigotry rendered the Charter debate highly toxic and impeded rational discussion of the important issues involved. If Quebec’s right of self-determination had been respected, this problem would have been greatly reduced.

So-called secularists […] who allow their hostility towards Quebec nationalism to cloud their judgement […] constitute a major threat to the very secularism which they claim to support.

Why am I making this point in a blog normally devoted to issues of atheism and secularism? Because the demonization of Quebec independentists (and even softer nationalists) is a major impediment hindering efforts at secularization in Canada. Secularism is a major value of the Quebec nation, something which that nation shares with French culture in general, the result being that progress towards greater autonomy for Quebec and progress towards secularization tend to go hand in hand. This has been the case throughout the Quiet Revolution of the late XXth century and it continues to be the case. So-called secularists in Canada outside Quebec who refuse to recognize Quebec’s right to self-determination, who allow their hostility towards Quebec nationalism to cloud their judgement, who allow themselves to be manipulated by Islamists, constitute a major threat to the very secularism which they claim to support.



If the above blog speaks to you then you may be interested in the organization Anglophones for Québec Independence (AQI) founded in 2015. I personally am not a member, because I prefer to remain neutral on this issue, but I am very glad that such a group exists because they work to alleviate the stigmatisation of Quebec nationalism. Indeed, part of AQI’s mission is “to demystify inaccurate stories about Quebec and to answer insulting attacks, including the tired accusation that Quebecers are racist or xenophobic.” In other words, they promote intellectual hygiene, which can only make secularism debates healthier.

Next blog: Notes on the Regressive Left, Part II: ANTIFA: Shock Troops of the Regressive “Left”

17 thoughts on “Quebec’s Right to Self-Determination”

  1. Quebec is racist not because it wants to secede or exercise its self-determination; it’s racist because Bill 101’s language of education provisions use descent to determine which of two separate civil rights categories every Quebecer is classified into.

    1. Quebec is not racist. The purpose of the education provisions is to protect the French language which is threatened with extinction in a sea of English, a very legitimate goal.
      If you consider that the result is “racist” — an unintended consequence — then that situation is easily corrected: abolish the English-language school system and put all Quebec public schools into one system for everyone, where French is the main language of instruction (with English being the second language).
      I believe that Quebec has a constitutional obligation to provide separate English-language schools, so in order to end them, Quebec would have to either (1) invoke the “Notwithstanding” clause; or (2) become independent.

      1. David writes:

        “I believe that Quebec has a constitutional obligation to provide separate English-language schools, so in order to end them, Quebec would have to either (1) invoke the “Notwithstanding” clause; or (2) become independent.”

        No, this is incorrect on both fronts.

        Firstly, the notwithstanding clause does not apply to section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is the minority language of education section; section 33 (the notwithstanding clause) can only be used on sections 2 and 7-15 of the Charter.

        Secondly, regarding English schooling disappearing in an independent Quebec: the PQ has had, as official party policy almost since its first convention in the late ’60s or early ’70s the position that in an independent Quebec anglophones will enjoy all the rights and privileges that they now enjoy while Quebec is in Canada. That would include section 23 and the right to attend English language publicly funded schools.

        1. I now see that the notwithstanding clause cannot be applied to section 23 as you say.
          The PQ’s position is interesting but I am not a PQ member or supporter.
          I suggested an integrated school system, with French as primary language.
          So what do you want from me? What is your point?

          1. David asks:

            “What is your point?”

            I attempted to make my point in my first posting: that independence or invoking self-determination doesn’t make Quebec racist (therefore agreeing with you) but that its racial discrimination based on descent as constituted in Bill 101 makes it racist. You disagreed; I reposted to demonstrate why I believe I was correct in my assessment.

            David also asks:

            “So what do you want from me?”

            An acknowledgement that Bill 101 is racist would be nice.

            By the way, it may interest you to know that 61% of francophone Quebecers want the same freedom of choice in language of education that anglophone Quebecers have. You know, equality.

            It is not anglos that are discriminated against here; it is francophones. David, do you think it should be the choice of the government to decide for francophone parents what is best for their children or the Quebec government?

          2. I have already answered your question several times by suggesting a single education system which would eliminate discrimination.

      2. David writes:

        “Quebec is not racist. The purpose of the education provisions is to protect the French language which is threatened with extinction in a sea of English, a very legitimate goal.”

        I am confused by this response. Do you mean to suggest that since protecting French is a “very legitimate goal” that this negates the very clearly descent-based discrimination procedure in place in Chapter VIII of Bill 101; that the legitimacy of the goal redefines what is taking place? Or that the procedure is obviously racist but it is justified by the very legitimate goal?

        I am curious to know if there are any other rights and freedoms you would like to have determined by who your parents are, what they classification is, and that this classification be handed down, generation to generation, based upon descent.

        1. I already answered that: I suggested an integrated system, with French as the main language, and that would eliminate any criteria based on parents’ language. One system for all Quebeckers, no discrimination.

    2. Would you rather have the government impose a unique -french- system of education? That would be legitimate, as most countries have one system of public education.

      Instead, Bill 101 recognizes anglo-quebecers the right to send their children to the English public school. It does so because Anglophones are considered as a historical community, and as such they have rights and must enjoy institutions that protect their culture.

      The rest of the population does not suffer an injustice because the Bill recognizes this right to the anglo-community.

      And how you can infer that Quebec society would be racist for this reason , that is beyond me.

      But we are, sadly, getting used to it.

      1. In fact, having a unique French-language system is precisely what I suggested to this Tony person.
        I agree with Marc-Étienne that accusations of racism thrown at Quebec society are unjustified.
        I would go further: I would say that such accusations are tendentious nonsense and are used to promote some other, dubious political agenda.

        1. (a reply to David from the “Tony person”)

          David writes:

          “…such accusations…are used to promote some other, dubious political agenda.”

          Of course I have a political agenda! And proudly so! Don’t you? Doesn’t everybody?

          And my particular political agenda is not something I am slinking around with, trying to keep a secret from you. I am quite open and transparent with it.

          David, your blog enables posters to included a link to websites when entering their names on the “Post Comment” form. Every single time I have posted to your blog, I have linked to my website which, in turn, links to my book of the same name. There, you can click on the “About the author” link to get a partial list of the articles I have had published through the years (since 1989) on this very topic, as well as others.

          If you bother to read it (not even the book, just the website), you will discover that I am a promoter of Quebec independence. I believe that the best way to restore rights and freedoms to Quebec anglophones is if Quebec becomes a fully independent nation. And I provide a formula for achieving Quebec independence. I believe it is better to live in an independent Qubec which respects human rights and minority rights than in a Quebec within Canada that doesn’t.

          David, YOU are the one who initiated the discussion of racism and Quebec, not me. Indeed, I have agreed with you — and will until the cows come home — that neither separatism nor invoking an alleged right to self-determination constitutes racism in any way, shape, or form. But the issue of discrimination based on race is an important one even if you do not want to discuss it…and refuse to answer my pointed questions on it.

          If you find my participation on this forum uncomfortable for you and unwanted, just say the word and I will stop posting and responding here.

          1. Yes, I understand that you support Quebec independence, but you do so for bizarre reasons. You apparently see Quebec anglophones as a persecuted minority, when in reality anglophones constitute a PRIVILEGED minority. I took only a cursory look at your site. Frankly I have better things to do.

            My point about the exploitation of the racism issue is that, currently and in recent years, false accusations of racism have been directed at Quebeckers for dishonest reasons. In particular, Islamists and their dupes regularly denigrate and defame Quebeckers as “racist,” “xenophobic,” etc. and their goal in doing so is to promote their Islamofascist agenda.

            I have answered your question several times, yet you refuse to accept my answer. I consider your use of the word “racist” to describe the language situation in Quebec a gross exaggeration which can only play into the hands of those I describe in the previous paragraph. Furthermore, I have suggested a solution to the problem you describe — a unified school system with French as principal language — but you fail to acknowledge that. If you don’t like my answer, then we must agree to disagree.

      2. Marc, prior to 1867 (and the creation of the country of Canada) the Province of Quebec did not exist. The political structure in place at that time was the United Province of Upper and Lower Canada. The anglos of what is now Quebec were part of the majority language group. Thus, there was little worry that their rights would ever be eroded because of their membership in the majority linguistic population.

        With the creation of Canada came the creation of federalism and the creation of a provincial legislature in Quebec City. This provincial legislature was endowed with powers under a new federalistic structure (section 92 of the BNA Act) which they did not have before.

        Anglophones of Quebec became a minority. As such, certain guarantees were placed in the constitution so that the newly created majority in the Quebec legislature of the newly created province of Quebec could not abuse their majority (i.e., “tyranny of the majority”) over this newly created minority, the anglos of Quebec.

        Public schooling was one such guarantee, found in section 133 of the BNA Act. This guarantee was later amended several times over the year (e.g., section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and amendments directly to s. 133 in the 1990s).

        Please be clear: the existing English language school system in Quebec does NOT exist as a result of some sort of largesse on the part of the Quebec government. Indeed, the Quebec government has made numerous attempts over the years to impose on Quebec anglos even LESS than the bare minimum guaranteed by the constitution. I dare say that left to the devices of the majority in Quebec, there would be no publicly funded English language schooling. So, when you write that “Bill 101 recognizes anglo-quebecers the right to send their children to the English public school”, the Quebec government does so both grudgingly and reluctantly…and have lost court cases in attempts to lessen these rights.

        As for question how I can “infer that Quebec society would be racist for this reason”, I would point out to you that prior to Bill 101, the regime in place was Bill 22 (estd. 1974) which did not rely upon descent but language tests (proficiency in English). The PQ, which created Bill 101 in 1977, could have kept that regime in place, but didn’t. They also could have resorted, instead, to the regime in place prior to Bill 22, which was the Union Nationale’s Bill 63, which essentially guaranteed freedom of choice in language of education for ALL Quebecers.

        Nothing stops the present-day Liberal government in Quebec from doing that, too.

        The Bill 63 regime would be my preference and the sole option, I believe, that is compatible with Canada’s — and Quebec’s — international human rights obligations. And I would remind you that the ONE TIME that Bill 101 was brought before an international tribunal on human rights, Quebec lost (and subsequently amended Bill 101 to comply with the international ruling).

        That Bill 101’s language of education provisions constitute racial discrimination is quite clear. For further reference please refer to:

    3. Euh, no, Tony. Quebec is not racist because of Bill 101.

      Bill 101 promotes and enforces the usage of the French language as Québec’s official language. It does not care whether you are white, black, even orange like Trump.

      If Bill 101 was stating that only “true” Québécois could live in Québec, well I I would have a problem with this too. But it is not what this law says.

      As David explained patiently to you, the French language is threatened. It’s not hard to understand why. And a culture has the right – indeed, the duty – to survive if it can. And that culture faced daunting odds before Bill 101. French speakers were the majority, yet were clearly discriminated against when working, shopping.

      That culture still faces daunting odds. But at least it is trying to survive.

      Now, you don’t like Bill 101, fine. Then just explain what would be YOUR plan to save the French culture in North America. Unless you feel that it is just irrelevant, that it should not survive. Well, in that case, good for you, but obviously you fail the empathy test. Perhaps you should move to Vancouver and tell the people there that complain about “too much Chinese” being spoken to quit whining and start learning? Just sayin’…

      1. My plan to save the French culture is for francophones, who are so inclined, to do what members of other cultural or linguistic groups do if they feel their culture or language is threatened: associate freely with other free individuals and work OUTSIDE of government (i.e., no government laws or funding) to promote their language or culture.

        Government CANNOT and SHOULD NOT be used to promote one ethnic group’s language or culture…particularly if that language group already benefits from having their language as an official language. Which automatically gives it an edge over all other languages.

        Hundreds of languages are spoken within Quebec’s borders. Why single out French for special treatment? And I am not talking about official language status; I understand, accept and support the concept of official language(s). But official language status is supposed to apply ONLY to the language(s) of the services offered by government, NOT for anything in the non-government, private sector.

        Thus, English and French should be at the bottom of the list when it comes to government support for a language. I can think of many aboriginal languages that are truly “threatened” — some have 5 speakers left, others 2 or 3, etc. — that should be prioritized for help BEFORE French, which has over 6 million speakers in Quebec. Why, pray tell, Steve B, do you feel that it is okay for Bill 101 to use the power of the state to promote French? Is it because it is a White, European language…and to hell with non-White, native languages?

        Perhaps we have yet another reason for calling Bill 101 “racist”…

  2. David writes:

    “You apparently see Quebec anglophones as a persecuted minority, when in reality anglophones constitute a PRIVILEGED minority.”

    I brought up and we were discussing the issue of language of education. Quebec anglophones, in this instance, are not persecuted; they have freedom of choice to send their children to either French or English publicly funded schools; it is Quebec francophones and allophones who do not have this right.

    In the only public opinion poll I have ever seen done in 40 years (since Bill 101 was enacted) that has bothered to ask francophone Quebecers how they feel about the language of education provisions of Bill 101, 61% responded that they, too, want freedom of choice.

    Are you against francophones having this right, David? Or do you feel that the state is better equipped than parents to determine for their own children what kind of education they should have?

    David further writes:

    “I have answered your question several times, yet you refuse to accept my answer.”

    Certainly I accept your answer, I just don’t agree with it.

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