Quebec, Canada, Flag, Sovereignty

Is Quebec Sovereignty A Threat to Canadian Unity?


With the Referendums in 1980 and 1995, Quebec separatism has long threatened the unity of Canada. This threat has been due to the unstable relationship between Quebec and the federal government, with Quebec feeling that their national interests have not been satisfied.

The recent election of the Parti Quebecois (PQ) in 2012 rekindled the Quebec idea of separation. However, this was quickly squashed following the PQ’s worst defeat in 44 years to the Quebec Liberal Party (PLQ) in 2014. (Martin 2014) There are many reasons for this decrease in the call for sovereignty, mainly; the federal government is now meeting Quebec’s needs. This recognition is leading to taking sovereignty for Quebec off the table.

Even though the idea of separation is more likely supported by the younger generation of Quebecers, Quebec separatism is no longer a threat to Canadian national unity. The threat of national disunity is negated due to the lack of political action by the younger generations of Quebecers in politics, and due to a more asymmetrical federalist approach used by the government which created a more stable condition between Quebec and the federal government.


Asymmetrical Federalism: Special Privileges, Special Province

The federal government’s relationship with Quebec is becoming more stable now than in the past because of the federal government’s approach of asymmetrical federalism. This approach is helping to resolve issues of Quebec autonomy, taking the threat of separatism out of negotiations between the two governments.

Asymmetrical federalism refers to a federal system of government in which power is unevenly shared between provinces and grants some greater responsibilities, privileges, or autonomy than others. (“US Legal Definitions.”)

The asymmetrical federalist approach used by the federal government towards Quebec has allowed the Quebec government to put forward more of their demands and tackle more of their issues with the government of Canada. The Council of Federations (COF) formed in 2003 by the initiative of Quebec is helping to improve relations allowing Quebec to further their interests, without damaging Canada in the process.

In 2003, the premiers set up the COF designed by Quebec’s Premier Jean Charest. He wanted it to be a place for, “the continuous dialogue and cooperation between the provinces and the federal government that would make it possible to redefine our [their] economic and social relations.” (“Shared government” 2005) The COF has allowed for a system of dialogue that can recognize Quebec’s needs.

The COF meeting in Niagra-On-the-lake is an example where “It is understood that Quebec will maintain its own program and will receive a comparable compensation for the program put in place by the federal government.” (Courchene 2005) The goals and policies of the rest of Canada do not necessarily always align with those of Quebec.

Giving Quebec the option to opt out and advance their own provincial agenda, while allowing the provinces to pursue alternative programs is creating conditions for taking sovereignty off the table because Quebec can meet its own goals and interests.

The 2004 federal-provincial health accord is a perfect example of the use of asymmetrical federalism to appease Quebec. The health accord set a framework of principles and objectives which bound the ten provinces, creating a set of standards for all. It created a space for provincial uniqueness where Quebec can be accommodated but so would other provinces in similar fashions if deemed necessary. (Brock 2011)

The health accord recognized asymmetrical agreements for provinces that create flexibility. An example is a separate deal to ensure Quebec retains autonomy over planning, organizing and managing its healthcare services. The deal also contains a non-derogation clause protecting Quebec’s jurisdiction in this area. (Brock 2011) The asymmetrical federalist approach is granting Quebec more control over their services free from federal intervention, giving Quebec the opportunity to be the ‘distinct’ and become the autonomous society they want to be.

The asymmetrical federalist approach is granting Quebec more control over their services free from federal intervention, giving Quebec the opportunity to be the ‘distinct’ and become the autonomous society they want to be.

Next is the 2005 national childcare program. Quebec bought into the program after some tough negotiating that yielded the province some unique privileges. In return for Quebec support of the national child care program, they receive more money from Ottawa, and they do not have to spend it on childcare. Instead, they can use the money for, “related objectives for the well-being of families.” (“Flexible Federalism” 2005)

Federal dis-spending has become the typical relationship between the Federal and Provincial governments. The withdrawal of the government in particular policy areas is helping to increase Quebec-Canada relations. For Quebec, the new federal-provincial context provides enough opportunities to keep the embers of separatism from igniting. (Changefoot et al. 2012)

Quebec has not only gained more autonomy over their provincial spending and policy, but they have also gained more independence by the federal government extending them a seat in the international arena.

In 2006 Stephen Harper established a formal role for Quebec at the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). This accommodation of Quebec interest in the international arena sparked Jean Charest to say, “Today, we are making history. This first step in a new era of partnership between our two governments touches on an international issue. What was once an implicit coexistence has become explicit co-operation.” (“Québec-Canada agreement on UNESCO”)

Quebec now has a presence as a full participating member of UNESCO and can now express its voice. This allows for Quebec to tackle more of their demands and the ability to raise concerns when they feel their interests are not being met.

This is historical because with the joining of UNESCO the Canadian government officially recognizes Quebec’s international role. Not only this but, in the result of a dispute, the federal government is in charge of explaining themselves to Quebec and not vice-versa. The recognition of Quebec as being a distinct province, giving them different privileges is helping to smother the separation debate.

The Canadian government has made many attempts to reduce tensions between the federal and Quebec government. The recognition of Quebec as a “distinct nation’’ followed from a motion put forward in the House of Commons and is such, “That this House recognizes that the Quebecois form a nation within a united Canada.” (“39th PARLIAMENT, 1st SESSION” November 27, 2006)

This has brought much satisfaction within Quebec as recent surveys show that 82 percent of Quebecers believe that Quebec society is distinct from Canada, and despite this only 20 percent believe they will one day succeed from Canada. (“Separation from Canada Unlikely for a Majority of Quebecers” 3 29, 2010)

Recognizing Quebec as being ‘distinct’ from the rest of Canada is creating the autonomy Quebecers have been anticipating. The recognition is just another step to put out the old sovereignty fire. However, the special treatment and appeasement for Quebec are not only limited to political dimensions.


Equalization, Not So Equal?

The fiscal form of the federal government’s asymmetrical federalist approach is in programs such as equalization that are entrenched in the 1982 constitution. Equalization is the Government of Canada’s program for addressing fiscal disparities between provinces.

Under the equalization program, the federal government makes financial transfers to the provinces in support of their spending initiatives. These federal transfers are unconditional block grants, meaning there are no federal conditions on the transfers, allowing the recipient province to spend the money however it chooses.

Due to the federal government of Canada’s equalization program, Quebec has been getting more than its fair share of equalization payments, making it undesirable to break off ties with the federal government. They can unconditionally spend the grant money free from federal control, allowing Quebec to tackle many of their domestic issues.

Harper has acknowledged the fiscal imbalances that existed before the initiation of the 2006 equalization formula. In 2010-2011 Quebec was receiving nearly 60 percent of the equalization payments made by the federal government. (Rabeau et al.) This is paid out of the federal government’s revenue which comes from Canada as a country. Quebec’s share of the revenue is only 20 percent, the same as their GDP.

They are currently hugely benefitting from the current program. Such gains make it undesirable to separate from Canada.

Barriers to Sovereignty: The Cost of Sovereignty

A problem that many sovereigntists overlook is the economic costs associated with succession.

Just holding a referendum can be costly to Quebec due to the capital flight and uncertainty investors perceive. The possibility of independence can not only make purchasing of government bonds require a risk premium to purchase Quebec bonds, but it can also make private-sector investors wary of carrying out real investment in Quebec. (Somers et al. 2014)

This would not be good for the Quebec economy, which already has the highest debt ratio out of the provinces. A high debt ratio alone can create uncertainty to credit rating agencies. This means that if Quebec gained independence, borrowing costs for the region would most likely increase.

Charest, the PLQ leader, has sharply criticized the separatist agenda saying, ‘the choice is clear, between stability and instability.” (“Will They Or Won’t They? The Economics Of Quebec Separatism” 2012) Charest is very right on this point; Quebec currently benefits substantially economically from being part of Canada, and this may explain the Federalist PLQ’s success since 2003.

Barriers to Sovereignty: Operation Supermajority

The government has taken precautions to ensure Quebec separatism does not threaten national unity, making it harder for Quebec to secede from Canada. Due to the nature of a near 50/50 vote in 1995, speculation as to what a clear majority represents drew much debate.

In response, the government of Canada passed the Clarity Act. The Clarity Act “does recognize that the standard of 50 percent of valid voters +1 did not meet the standard that the Reference forwarded as a ―substantial consensus.” (O’Bearne et al. 2009) The Clarity Act gives the Supreme Court the power to determine whether a clear majority has expressed itself, giving the impression of the need of a supermajority for succession.

The Clarity Act will act as a blockage to Quebec separatism as the Canadian Supreme Court has decided to hold it legally valid in the court of law and the House can override a referendum if the Clarity Act has been violated. Quebec‘s position against the Clarity Act is emphasized in its counter-legislation, Bill 99. However, a further hindrance to the succession of Quebec is driven by the Clarity Acts definition of a clear question, which vastly influences opinion.

The Clarity Act defined a clear question as one that includes a statement of Quebec‘s intentions to form an independent state, void of ambiguity. An online survey of 800 participants shows that the question wording does matter in regards to Quebec sovereignty.

When given an ambiguous question similar to the 1995 referendum question results showed that 40 percent would vote yes, 41 percent no, and 19 percent undecided. (“Separation from Canada Unlikely for a Majority of Quebecers” 3 29, 2010) In contrast, when given a more direct question only 34 percent say they would vote yes, 54 percent say they would vote no, and 13 percent were undecided. (“Separation from Canada Unlikely for a Majority of Quebecers” 3 29, 2010)

In another CROP survey of 1000 participants when asked to vote in a third referendum no would win overwhelmingly, 61 per cent against 32 percent. (Sauves 2012) The combination of a supermajority, a clear question, and dying support all hint towards separatism being off the table.


Generational Shifts: Working Against Sovereignty

Historical lows for support for sovereignty in Quebec have been recorded in polls since 2006. (Changefoot et al. 2012) In Quebec’s 2008 election, the Federalist PLQ captured its third consecutive mandate; despite this in 2012 PQ was able to secure a minority government with 31.95 percent of the popular vote, and securing 54 seats creating a minority government. (Changefoot et al. 2012)

This, however, does not signal a resurgence of separatism, rather it reflects Quebec’s distaste at the time of the scandals surrounding the PLQ. This was evident when the PQ was recently crushed by the Federalist PLQ in 2014, making it clear; Quebec likes the new asymmetrical federalism approach.

Although this indicates a dying separatist movement, younger generations of Quebecers are more likely to support sovereignty and reignite the cause of separatism. While at the same time; time is removing an obstacle to separatism, those born before 1945. (Piroth 2004)

Although younger Quebecers have values and display behaviors associated with support for sovereignty, they also display characteristics that may prevent them from seeking an independent Quebec. Generations X and Y tend to be considerably less interested and less knowledgeable about politics that are their elders. (Piroth 2004)

Younger generations seem to be less interested in conventional methods such as voting and more interesting in methods such as social protests and demonstrations. As well, Mendelsohn and colleagues stated that even though half of francophone Quebecers support sovereignty at an ideological and or rhetorical level, the majority has been unwilling to expend energy advocating or engaging in the actualization of sovereignty. (Changefoot et al. 2012)

However, all is not lost for Quebec sovereignty. Time is eliminating Quebecers born before 1945 who have generally been hostile to the idea of separating from Canada. The reduction of such Quebecers as a proportion of the electorate can explain much of the difference between the support for sovereigntist options in the 1995 referendum versus the 1980 referendum. (Piroth 2004)

However, even with this obstacle eliminated, the sovereignty movement is still dying because younger generations, who are the backbone of the modern independence movements, are also drawn to other social movements and more interested in other things such a globalization, the environment, and non-materialistic ideologies.


Even though the idea of separation is more likely supported by the younger generation of Quebecers, Quebec separatism is no longer a threat to Canadian national unity due to the lack of political action by the younger generations of Quebecers in politics, and due to a more asymmetrical federalist approach used by the government which is creating more stable conditions between Quebec and the federal government.

Slowly there has been a decline in the sovereignty movement over the years with support nearing around 34 percent currently. Although the independence movement is popular among students, evidence shows they are less inclined to participate in conventional politics. This, however, does not indicate they are indifferent to social problems. It does, however, show movement away from the importance of sovereignty towards other issues such as globalization and the environment.

It is also evident that although half of francophone Quebecers support sovereignty at an ideological and or rhetorical level, the majority has been unwilling to expend energy advocating or engaging in the actualization of sovereignty. Because of this, the Quebec youth will not serve to promote the sovereignty movement.

The decline in support also coincides with the asymmetrical approach taken by the government toward provincial relations since 2000. The Federal government has rigorously sought to improve ties with Quebec. Recognizing them as a “nation within a united Canada” brought much satisfaction within the Quebecois community.

Along with this Quebec has also been given formal recognition as a full pledged participating UNESCO member, allowing Quebec to tackle more of their demands.

The Harper government eliminated the Fiscal disparities between the Federal government and Quebec with Quebec now receiving nearly 60% of equalization payments. These payments can be used by Quebec to pursue domestic interests free from federal government intervention.

Because of this Quebec separatism is no longer a threat to national unity, as it is undesirable for Quebec to opt-out of the current Canadian Federation.



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