An interesting new word has entered into Quebec`s vocabulary this month: The “Angryphone”. The typical “Angryphone” has many characteristics ranging from linguistic indignation over the status of English in Quebec, to a growing sense of general fear as a result of xenophobic rhetoric on the provincial campaign trail this summer. On a daily basis new Youtube videos and stories on Facebook or Twitter emerge showing confrontations between the Francophone majority and Anglo minority on Montreal’s public transit system and it the city’s streets. This, coupled with an alleged assassination attempt on Parti Quebecois (PQ) Premier-elect Pauline Marois last week by a disgruntled Anglophone, has led to a growing divide reminiscent of the late 1980s under Liberal premier Robert Bourassa. With language tensions high in Quebec, and support for sovereignty relatively low, should Anglophones really be afraid again? History may provide some perspective.
Unbeknownst to some in this province, the Quebec of the late 1970s was inextricably similar, yet different to a certain degree, when compared to modern day. Following Quebec’s experiment with terrorism in the 1960s, massive changes to the social and economic realities were finally beginning to take hold by the early 1970s. The implementation of economic nationalism through the nationalization of key industries combined with conflicts over Quebec’s role within the framework of Canadian constitutionalism, were beginning to make headway as important to the future of the province. At the same time, Montreal’s dominance as Canada’s financial hub was beginning to weaken as a gradual exodus of foreign investors and business owners was caused by fears of separation. Moreover, with the rise of the sovereignist Parti Quebecois under former Liberal cabinet minister Rene Levesque in 1976, much fear was spreading amongst Quebec’s Anglophone minority over their future with the referendum in 1980 looming large. Much to the chagrin of hardline separatists, especially those with revisionist tendencies, Quebec’s bargaining position in respect to the federal government was strong, with the Parti Quebecois holding a majority of seats in the National Assembly. The strength of Quebec’s bargaining position was also due to the economic necessity of Montreal within Canada, and the fact that most people tended to live within the Central provinces, an essential voting bloc for any federal party aspiring to form the government. Despite Quebec’s strong position, the No side won 60% to 40%.
Fast-forward to 1990s, where, again, Quebec possessed a relatively strong, if not stronger bargaining position with respect to the federal government. At this point again, the Parti Quebcois holds an overwhelming majority under Jacques Parizeau, combined with their federal counterpart, the Bloc Quebecois, holding the status of Official Opposition. Sovereignty remained fairly popular amongst the Francophone populace, averaging around 40-45% in approval ratings. The failure of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown was a constant thorn in the side of many Quebecers, which resulted in growing levels of dissatisfaction that would contribute to the 1995 referendum. The Canadian economy overall was strong, with Jean Chertien achieving a balanced budget, and having expanded the Canada-U.S free trade agreement into NAFTA. Again, Montreal remained important to the economic wellbeing of Canada, regardless of Toronto taking over as Canada’s financial sector. This time around the referendum would be even closer, with the No side winning 50.6 to 49.4.
Now consider Quebec’s bargaining position today. The Parti Quebecois, after having campaigned on issues of Quebec identity and reasonable accommodation, was only capable of scraping four more seats than Jean Charest Liberals to form a weak minority government. In an economic sense, Quebec remains on the periphery of economic desolation in its recurrent status as a have-not province, gaining many transfer-payments from the often condemned Westerners, and Atlantic Canadians. Furthermore, Quebec within Canadian confederation is considered politically toxic in all parts of Canada, and the Bloc Quebecois has fewer than the 12 required seats for official party status in the House of Commons, having just won 4 in the last federal election. The recent federal election also saw the federalist NDP rise to prominence in Quebec, holding the most seats in the province. The face of Quebecers has also begun to change with immigrants coming in droves to live the ‘Canadian dream’; they are uninterested in a separate Quebec. The Clarity Act, which was passed in response to the razor-thin results of the last referendum, was designed to mitigate any confusion over a potential Yes side victory, with specific requirements towards a clear majority, or supermajority, and a clear question on any issue of secession. All these factors, notwithstanding the Canadian government’s strong economic position in determining Quebec’s financial future, will put any question of independence on hold in the near future.
So should Anglos and English Canada be concerned over Quebec’s future in Canada? A historical recollection will show that at one time, yes, separation could have been possible, assuming international law permitted it. The fears of Anglos and English Canada towards separation may be justified by history, as evident above, but to suggest that Quebec is on its way to separation with a new PQ government would be to neglect the realities on the ground, in which a dismal 28% of Quebecers still push for sovereignty. Much of the language tensions in Quebec, especially in Montreal, may be the result of people looking to the history in explaining the present. The tragedy remains for those caught in the midst of separatist hardliners and disgruntled “Angryphones”, who seem to ignore logical conclusions from historical and contemporary insight.
– Cody Levine
(Featured image : Parti Quebecois/David Dinelle CC)