The Evolution of Quebec Nationalism

Written By Anthony Daoud, Posted on January 10, 2020

Québéc is a nation; with a shared language, history, and culture that differs from other provinces. It fits all the characteristics political theorist Yoram Hazony outlines in his newest literature, The Virtue of Nationalism. As such, the province is undergirded by an array of unifying principles. 

Importantly, what mustn’t be conflated is the acknowledgment of Québéc’s unique national identity with a sovereigntist mentality that is antithetical to federalism. However, as sovereignty begins to wane, there has been a recent crescendo in an alternative province-wide nationalist sentiment, most evident through the recent support for the Coalition Avenir du Québec (CAQ), and the Bloc Québécois (BQ) respectively. 

Historical sovereignty

Canada’s first experience facing a potential federal crisis occurred during the first separatist movement in Nova Scotia, shortly after Confederation in 1867. But in recent decades, since the Parti Québécois and its national equivalent, the Bloc Québecois’s ascent, it has primarily become synonymous with Quebec, the province where it truly flourished.

Amidst cultural changes in society, there was a growing wave of autonomous ideology in Quebec. It truly began under Premier Maurice Duplessis, who, although never wanted Quebec to become an independent state, was staunchly opposed to federal intrusion in the province.

When Jean Lesage was elected as Premier, he campaigned on the slogan “Maîtres Chez Nous,” which translates to “Masters of Our Own Home.” Lesage was a radical Liberal who successfully endeavoured to alter Québec society by launching cultural attacks on the provinces’ previously pious religious tradition. During his tenure, he nationalized resources, institutionalized CEGEP, and inaugurated an array of social programs that remain present. His vision of Quebec was fabricated by his support for modernity and autonomy, although it drastically differed from his conservative predecessor Maurice Duplessis. 

Although Quebec’s 20th-century march towards sovereigntism remained peacefully confined to the political realm, violence would ensue. The 1970 October Crisis, a dark chapter in Canadian history, was spearheaded by terrorist organization Front Libération du Quebec. The FLQ was a Marxist sovereigntist group that heavily utilized asymmetrical warfare tactics to kidnap two politicians, one of whom was killed, and plant bombs throughout Montreal. Their activity led to Pierre Trudeau’s implementation of the War Measures Act, which led to Canadian soldiers being placed around the city in addition to a mandatory curfew. 

The Parti Québécois and Bloc Québécois

A notable political figure whose legacy is indispensable in Québec history was war veteran Renée Levesque. The journalist-turned public servant underwent a drastic political conversion when he left the Liberal Party and became a sovereigntist, subsequently establishing the Parti Quebecois in 1968.

Levesque’s new political party wanted to retain social programs and continue Lesage’s policies of modernizing Quebec while staunchly pressuring for sovereignty. Often outspoken, by all historical accounts, Levesque was a brilliant public speaker and an overlooked figure in Canadian politics.

In 1991, the Bloc Québécois was formed by many rogue Conservative and Liberal Members of Parliament after Brian Mulroney’s Meech Lake Accord failure to finally recognize Quebec as a distinct society in the Canadian Constitution’s preamble. Led initially by ex-Conservative Lucien Bouchard, the Bloc is a regional party that is steadfast in advocating for provincial interests and separation. 

The present-day

In the 2018 Quebec election, both sovereigntist parties, the Parti Quebecois and Quebec Solidaire won few seats in the National Assembly. But the death of the sovereignty movement has led to the birth of another political phenomenon, strong provincial autonomy propelled by fervent nationalism.


Francois Legault and his Coalition Avenir du Quebec won the election by a landslide, utterly decimating all oppositions. The CAQ won 74 seats, with the second-place Liberals only attaining 31. The PQ and QS won 10 seats, respectively.

Being the only competitive right of centre party in Quebec, Legault unapologetically defines himself as a provincial nationalist, wanting more autonomy for the province.

While Legault claims not to be a separatist, his past indicates otherwise. He was a member of the Parti Quebecois, and his autonomist tendencies resonate within his new party as well. 

Moreover, on the party’s website, it explicitly states that the party supports and aims to promote greater provincial autonomy “with the objective of full constitutional recognition as a nation,” resembling the Meech Lake Accord’s proposed addition to the Constitution. 

Legault’s intention of having Quebec recognized as a distinct society is likely to have resulted from his separatist past. But clearly, his political beliefs are far from fringe. He campaigned on implementing Bill 21, a religious symbols ban for public sector workers as a measure to enforce “laicité,” a widely agreed-upon value in the province’s cultural landscape. The legislation’s controversy has diffused throughout Canada, becoming the impetus for intense debate. Despite the conflicting opinions, Bill 21 is supported by 64% of Québécois people and Premier Francois Legault continues to garner a high approval rating.

Bloc Québécois and 2019

In the 2019 federal election, the Bloc Québecois exceeded all expectations when it secured 32 seats, only second to the Liberal Party in the province. Although the party normally advocate for sovereignty, throughout the campaign, leader Yves Francois Blanchet diverged his attention to reassuring the Québec citizenry that he would defend Bill 21 against federal interference. As previously mentioned, despite being subject to much scrutiny over its discriminatory nature, the legislation has a 64% popularity rating in the province. In my estimation, the Bloq Québécois thrived due to the CAQ’s prominence, a reflection of renewed provincial nationalism.

Thus, although the sovereignty movement may have vanished, autonomous sentiment remains very vibrant. Canadians need not worry, especially those with conservative leniency. A rise in the Québéc autonomous vigour can serve as a check to ensure appropriate minimal government ensues whereby the federal government does not overstep its jurisdiction. Perhaps, it can be indicative of a broader trend towards localism, which has been significantly espoused by Conservative thinkers Patrick J. Deneen, Mark Mitchell and Jason Peters. Although the writers explicitly differentiate nationalism and localism, the latter might be in a nascent form suggesting why it resembles the former to such a large extent.

Anthony Daoud

Comments are closed.