Some 25 years after an independence bid by Quebec almost broke Canada apart, a new push by the province to strengthen its French-speaking identity poses an awkward challenge for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau months before an expected election.
Quebec, a political battleground that accounts for almost a quarter of the 338 seats in the federal House of Commons, has a history of separatist governments, one of which held a 1995 referendum on independence that only just failed.
Quebec Premier François Legault is a nationalist who rejects separatism but wants more rights for Quebec, which has just 8.5 million people and constantly frets about its linguistic and cultural heritage on a continent with hundreds of millions of English speakers.
This month, Legault vowed to amend Canada’s Constitution to recognize French as Quebec’s only official language and to call Quebec a “nation” to underscore its distinct status, not to assert that it is a separate state.
Legault said he would do so through a rarely invoked authority to unilaterally change parts of the Constitution that affect just one province. The move is largely symbolic, since French is already the province’s only official language and the federal Parliament in 2006 recognized Quebec as a nation inside Canada.
But some legal experts say the move is unconstitutional, and it has raised fears inside and outside Quebec that it could put new strains on national unity at a time when some western provinces have expressed unhappiness with federal policies.
Legault, whose CAQ party faces a provincial election in October 2022, says he is addressing concerns that the use of French is slipping.
It is a dilemma for Trudeau, a fluent French speaker whose father, Pierre, fiercely opposed Quebec separatism when he was prime minister but enacted legislation recognizing French, for the first time, as one of Canada’s two official languages.
A Leger poll this week showed the vast majority of Quebec’s French-speaking residents backing the proposals. If Trudeau opposes Legault, he could threaten some of the seats the Liberals hold in the province.
“We’ve all been through the constitutional battles of the past number of decades that have left many scars on many people,” Trudeau told reporters on Tuesday, referring to the two referendums on Quebec independence, in 1980 and 1995.
He said he could live with Legault’s proposed change, adding, however, that the rights of both French and English speakers must be protected.
Anglophone Quebecers ‘very unhappy’
Trudeau must increase his support in Quebec from the last election in 2019 if he wants to regain a parliamentary majority. Like Trudeau, the leaders of other federal parties — including the official opposition Conservatives — did not condemn Legault’s move.
“I think electoral pragmatism is playing a role here, absolutely,” said Daniel Beland, who heads the Institute for the Study of Canada at Montreal’s McGill University.
The Liberals hold 35 of Quebec’s 78 seats, just ahead of the separatist Bloc Québécois at 32. Trudeau’s party is leading in Quebec, but is only 3 percentage points ahead of the Bloc, according to a Leger poll from this month.
The Quebec Community Groups Network, which seeks to defend anglophones, said Legault’s proposed measures “override fundamental human rights and will erode the vitality of our English-speaking minority community.”
Quebec’s anglophone population, roughly 10 per cent of the province’s total, is concentrated in key parliamentary constituencies and Liberals must keep them happy too.
“The English-speaking community is very angry. The risk is not so much that they will support another party — the risk is that they stay home,” said a senior Liberal with direct knowledge of the issue.
The English speakers’ votes are “key for getting us over the finish line, and them staying home could make the difference between winning and losing,” said the Liberal, who requested anonymity given the sensitivity of the situation.
Another concern is that Quebec’s move will set a precedent that could prompt other provinces to seek constitutional changes for political reasons.
One Conservative lawmaker suggested that Alberta, where a nascent separatist party is seeking to take advantage of unhappiness with Ottawa, could unilaterally change the equalization system — under which richer provinces subsidize poorer ones — in order to hang onto more of its tax revenue.