The population decline of Canada’s French-speaking province has a variety of causes, some simply due to the fall of formerly sky-high birthrates among French Canadians as the province becomes less Catholic, others a more political byproduct of Quebec’s anxiously enforced standing as Canada’s “distinct society.”
The Quebec government has been vastly more likely than other provinces to regard immigration as a cultural threat, for instance. Unsatisfied with a succession of Quebec administrations that sought to strong-arm immigrants into assimilation through restrictions on religious clothing, in 2018 provincial voters elected one that simply slashed immigration altogether — a unique power Ottawa delegated in 1991 to help preserve “the distinct identity of Québec.” This stridently French-first social climate has driven many non-Francophones away — according to a 2016 paper by the Fraser Institute, the province has consistently had Canada’s highest net rate of out-migration.
Such forces have been evident for ages, and the prospect of Quebec eventually losing representation in parliament has long frightened the Canadian political class. In 1992, former prime minister Brian Mulroney, backed by a broad cross-party consensus, proposed amending the Canadian constitution to (among other things) “guarantee that Quebec would be assigned no fewer than 25 percent of the seats in the House of Commons” in “all future redistributions.” Doing so evoked a romantic notion, still oft-heard today, that Quebec should be understood to occupy a quarter of the Canadian population — though it’s been decades since this was literally true.
My guess is this 30-year-old idea of rigging the redistricting process in Quebec’s favor will soon be dusted off, given the ferocious response of provincial politicians to news of the looming seat loss.
“One less seat is unacceptable!” thundered Conservative Quebec member of parliament Luc Berthold on Twitter. Premier Francois Legault said Quebec’s seat count should remain static “regardless of the evolution of the number of inhabitants in each province,” while Bloc Quebecois head Yves-François Blanchet went even further, declaring that, if anything, Quebec should gain a seat.
Brazenly undemocratic as such demands may be, these days, the national parliament can nevertheless be counted on to move with maximum speed and sympathy whenever Quebec’s dignity is at stake. Just a few months ago, an agreement-in-principle to amend the constitution to give Quebec the unprecedented title of “nation” sailed through the House of Commons almost unanimously, following another command from Legault.
That Quebec intimidates Canada’s politicians more than it used to reflects changes to Quebec’s internal politics that have occurred since the late 2000s. The old polarization between secessionists and federalists has faded in favor of a new party system, led by Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec, that’s generally united around a shared set of broad nationalistic priorities — thereby making the question of “what Quebec wants” less ambiguous to Ottawa.
That said, Quebec remains just one province of 10, and its demographic strength is hardly growing. “Why does the Canadian government care about them so much,” remains perhaps the question I’m asked most by foreigners.
One answer may be to simply look at the people making the decisions. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s inner circle, already Quebec-heavy at the best of times, has become even more so in the aftermath of his recent cabinet shuffle, with his ministers of foreign affairs, justice, environment, Crown-Indigenous relations, health and heritage (among others) now all Quebecers. The prime minister himself identifies as a Quebecer, as have three of his last five predecessors.
The other motive may be less sentimental than cynical. Though Quebec votes are hardly essential for winning a national election, Quebecers’ unusual combination of strong ideological unity and weak partisan loyalty has caused the province to vacillate wildly between federal parties in the past. This seems to have provided great incentive for prime ministerial candidates to pander shamelessly; a particular low point was reached during September’s election, in which a debate moderator’s implication that there may be racism in Quebec yielded more outrage from party leaders than the purportedly racist policy she was attempting to question (the aforementioned prohibitions on religious garb), or more recent political outrage at the fact that the Ontario-born chief executive of Air Canada has the gall to live Montreal but not speak French.
It’s a cliche to call Quebec the spoiled child of the Canadian union, but it’s getting difficult to come up with a better adjective. That might sound like a statement of the invented pathology of “Quebec bashing,” but as Roald Dahl once put it, “For though she’s spoiled, and dreadfully so / A girl can’t spoil herself, you know.”