The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Quebec wants to declare itself a ‘nation.’ Canada’s politicians don’t mind.

People walk down a street in Montreal on Thursday. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

If Quebec Premier François Legault was head of a country rather than Canada’s second-largest province, he’d surely be regarded as one of the world’s nastiest right-wing populist leaders. Since his election in 2018, he has cut immigration by 20 percent in the span of a year, imposed prohibitions on Muslim headscarves and Sikh turbans, and presided over petty crackdowns on the public use of minority languages. And now, he wants to add text to the Canadian constitution declaring that Quebec, a diverse, multicultural democracy, should be primarily understood as housing the “nation” of the French Canadian Québécois people: “Les Québécoises et les Québécois forment une nation (form a nation)” as the French version of the bill puts it. French, in turn, is specified as “the only official language” of the province, as well as the “common language” of “la nation québécoise” (the Québécois nation). This, we are told, describes the “fundamental characteristics of Quebec.”

Three decades ago, a proposal to include comparatively milder text in the constitution about Quebec being a “distinct society, which includes a French-speaking majority” was decisively voted down in a Canada-wide referendum. At the time, critics such as former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau argued that proclaiming Quebec officially unique from the rest of Canada, with that uniqueness deriving from its French Canadian population, would be an invitation for the courts to give a blank check to the provincial government whenever it felt like trampling individual rights in the name of upholding the “collective rights” of a cultural community deemed more important.

This is openly the point of the Legault amendments, according to Simon Jolin-Barrette, the minister doing the bill’s public relations work.

“It paves the way for respect for Quebec’s autonomy, more collective rights for the Quebec nation,” he said last week, according to the Montreal Gazette. “It’s possible the Quebec government, the Quebec nation, can make use of these provisions to affirm its specificity in the Canadian environment, its distinct social values.”

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Let’s imagine the reaction if the governor of Mississippi announced he was seeking an amendment to the U.S. Constitution declaring his state a “nation” of English-speaking Anglo-Saxons, and that this was explicitly being done to reinforce “distinct social values.” We may recall the outrage that greeted Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s (R-Ga.) “America First Caucus” and its charter proclaiming “America is a nation with a border, and a culture, strengthened by a common respect for uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions.”

In Canada, however, there does not seem to be a comparable taboo against ethnonationalism. To be sure, few in the political establishment consider “English Canada” a nation anymore, and though they may promote a form of heavily politicized cultural chauvinism to justify, say, regulating YouTube, laws defending the English language or imposing a cultural fitness test on immigrants to Alberta or Ontario would be considered small-minded and offensive. Yet, in the course of a decade, an explicitly French Canadian nationalist party has been founded, elected and is now poised to permanently enshrine its philosophy in Canada’s founding document.

The heads of Canada’s three national parties all seem eager to shrug it off. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the idea that the Québécois compose a nation “a historical fact, a sociological fact, a fact of daily lives,” while Conservative leader Erin O’Toole noted that the previous Tory government already passed a parliamentary resolution declaring “the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada.” New Democratic leader Jagmeet Singh, whose purported sensitivity to institutionalized racism one might assume would make him a bit critical of narrowly defined notions of nationalism, has called it “not in any way controversial.”

Canada’s process for making constitutional amendments is notoriously obtuse, but unanimity among party leaders suggests there will be no significant parliamentary opposition to Legault’s demands, should they be adjudicated that way. Left-wing politicians know their electoral fortunes are dependent on Quebec votes, while Conservatives chase a no-less-cynical fantasy that they’ll someday be able to harvest right-wing votes from Legault’s base if they stay on his good side. The interests of non-Francophone Quebeckers, or the idea that Canadian democracy has any interest in not having a xenophobic ethno-state operating within its borders, are causes without champions in Ottawa.

That leaves Canada’s provincial governments, who in theory could argue the Legault amendments upset Canada’s existing system of federalism — changes to which are supposed to require provincial approval. It’s unclear, however, whether Canada’s provincial premiers are capable of making arguments different from what their national party bosses are saying. Alberta’s Conservative premier, Jason Kenney, who once enjoyed glowing press for his commitment to diversity, recently praised the “nationalist” Legault as a Canadian hero.

This sort of thing is why so many Canadians grumble about Quebec being “spoiled” — politicians and proposals that would be judged bigoted or preposterous elsewhere are greeted with stiff grins and patronizing nods.

But double standards can also reveal who is on the receiving end of low expectations. Getting everything you want is proof of power, but not necessarily respect.

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