Scottish Nationalists recoil from militant Quebec parallel

Quebec has become stuck with a nationalism that has no positive vision for society. Responses to EU supra-nationalism would do well to avoid falling into a similar trap

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The SNP has been remarkably muted in response to PQ's victory
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Tom Gallagher
On 7 September 2012 09:08

Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister, once described the pro-separatist Parti Quebecois (PQ) in Canada as his favourite nationalist party. But the Scottish National Party’s reaction to Tuesday’s electoral victory of its sister party has been remarkably muted.

Quebec has acquired certain aspects of sovereignty that the SNP longs to emulate. The legislature is called the National Assembly; its taxpayers file two tax returns; Quebec has observer status at the United Nations, and has seven delegates-general pursuing Quebec’s interests all over the world (including in Mexico City and Munich but not in Edinburgh).

The PQ is dominated by lawyers and by figures that have made careers in the state bureaucracy. 63-year-old Pauline Marois, the new Prime Minister, played a vital role in expanding the role of the state in the health, social welfare and education sectors during the heyday of its power in the final quarter of the 20th century. As a result, Quebec’s economy resembles pre-bail-out Greece’s (and indeed Scotland’s) more closely than it does that of the rest of Canada.

Quebec almost voted to break away from the rest of Canada in a referendum on sovereignty held in 1995. But it is now difficult to persuade especially young people of the merits of going it alone. The bureaucratic and crony-ridden mini-state created by the PQ is not an attractive model. Its inability to attract skilled immigrants and investment means that Quebec’s share of Canada’s population and economic wealth has fallen sharply during the PQ’s ascendancy.

Quebec nationalism burst to the fore in the 1970s fuelled by the rise of secularism, toppling the Catholic Church as the dominant force in the province. There was resentment about the dominance of an English-speaking elite in the main city, Montreal.

Rene Levesque, the journalist who led the PQ into government in 1976, was the architect of a language policy designed to reverse the tide of Englishness. Bill 101, the Charter of the French language, resolved “to make French the language of Government and the Law, as well as the normal and everyday language of work, instruction, commerce and business”. Major businesses needed to ensure that product descriptions and advertising were in French.

Levesque excluded universities and small businesses from its provisions. The PQ eventually ran out of steam because it was unable to match its heady dose of identity policies with practical economic and social ones that could enable it to keep up with other parts of Canada. It has been out of office since 2003 and it was only the failings of a lacklustre Liberal government during those years that has enabled it to come back from the cold.

Pauline Marois unfurled a militant language strategy to shore up the core ethnic vote. Businesses with less than 50 employees will be required to use French. There are over 200,000 of them meaning that the 250 language police already inspecting the business sector will need to be greatly increased.

While electioneering, Marois also stated that people who did not pass a French test would be prohibited from running for public office or contributing to political parties. She retreated only after an outcry.

But the PQ intends to forbid ethnic French speakers (Québécois de souche) as well as immigrants and their descendents, from attending English language junior colleges. Such interference with personal liberties smacks of the frantic efforts taken by neurotic elites in charge of states carved out of defeated empires in Europe a century ago to supplant inconvenient minorities.

800,00 Anglophones have left Quebec in the last fifty years and there has been a flight of industry to the benefit of cities like Toronto.

The growth of secularism also saw a decline in the family size of Quebecers: to forestall a population decline which would affect the funding obtained from the federal Canadian budget, PQ governments encouraged emigration from other Francophone countries. This meant that most of the new Qubecois were likely to be from poor countries like Haiti (the only other large majority-speaking country in the Americas) or from formerly French-ruled North Africa.

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