We are living in former Prime Minister John A MacDonald’s worst nightmare. He was a proponent for unitary government, but that is not what the Canadian federal system is now.
All seemed well for the Canadian government. The country was growing and remained relatively stable. To the South, America was evolving into the global hegemony we know now, offering both militaristic and economic protection.
Federalism was working, and there was reason to be optimistic. MacDonald’s fear seemed to be nothing but a reluctance to stray away from his idealism.
Amongst the seemingly healthy times of Canadian governance was a threatening issue going utterly unnoticed. Provincial autonomy began to grow in the minds of citizens, with the Quebecois populace leading the way. Hopes of a strongly united Canada were at heavy risk.
Provincial sovereignty may be dead, but autonomy continues to be rampant, especially since Justin Trudeau was elected as the Prime Minister.
The first separatist movement occurred in Nova Scotia, not long after Confederation. But provincial independence has been notoriously synonymous with Quebec, the province where it truly flourished.
Amidst cultural changes in society, there was a growing wave of autonomous ideology in Quebec. Premier Maurice Duplessis, although never wanting Quebec to become an independent state himself, was staunchly opposed to federal intrusion within the provinces.
When Jean Lesage was elected as Premier, he campaigned on the slogan “Maîtres Chez Nous”, which translates to “Masters of Our Own Home”. Lesage was a Liberal but wanted to modernize Quebec, breaking the shackles of theocratic control on society. He nationalized resources, institutionalized Cégep, and created a variety of social programs. His vision of Quebec was fabricated by his support for modernity and autonomy.
The October Crisis, spearheaded by the terrorist organization Front Libération due Quebec, was a violent time stimulated by widespread ideological consensus among the francophone Quebecois population that supported separation from Canada. This led to Pierre Trudeau instituting the War Measures Act, which led to Canadian soldiers being placed around the city and enforcing a curfew over Montreal’s residents. One politician who opposed this and became a thorn on Trudeau’s side was Renée Levesque. The journalist-turned-politician had a drastic ideological turnaround when he left the Liberal Party and became a sovereigntist with the Parti Quebecois.
Levesque’s Parti Quebecois wanted to retain social programs and the modernization of Quebec with a twist; complete independence. Often outspoken, Levesque was a brilliant public speaker and an often overlooked figure in Canadian politics. Quebec held two referendums, in 1980 and 1995. The sovereignists lost both times, with the 1995 effort being decided fewer than 60,000 votes.
The present day
In the 2018 Quebec election, both sovereigntist parties, the Parti Quebecois and Quebec Solidaire won few seats. But the death of the sovereignty movement has led to the birth of another political phenomenon; strong provincial autonomy
Francois Leagault and his Coalition Avenir du Quebec won the election by a landslide, utterly decimating the opposition. The CAQ, as they’re commonly called, won 74 seats, with the second place Liberals only attaining 31. The PQ and QS won 10 seats respectively.
While Legault claims not to be a separatist, his past indicates otherwise. He was a member of the Parti Quebecois, and his autonomist tendencies resonate within his new party as well.
On the party’s website, it explicitly states that the party supports and aims to promote greater provincial autonomy “with the objective of full constitutional recognition as a nation”.
Sound familiar? That was the debate revolving the Charlottetown and Meech Lake Accords. If either Charlottetown or Meech Lake were passed, Quebec would have been described as being a distinct society in Canada.
Legault’s intention of having Quebec recognized as a distinct society likely stems from his separatist past. But clearly, he’s not within the minority. Despite the PQ’s poor performance, the CAQ has made it clear that they want a strong Quebec.
Being the only competitive right of centre party in Quebec, Legault defines himself as a Quebec nationalist, wanting more autonomy for the province. A combative relationship with the federal government is still on the table.
And remember the Notwithstanding Clause? Well, the new premier is ready to invoke it in order to pass his ban on public workers from wearing religious symbols. This has sparked outrage within some communities, and in quintessential 2018 fashion, he was immediately branded and given terrible labels. Ultimately, however, he is keeping true to the secular nature of post-Duplessis Quebec.
The sovereignty movement may be gone, but there are clear pointers that a sentiment of autonomy is still very much alive. It may be too early to tell how well the CAQ’s government fairs in comparison to others, but what can be noted is that the Quebecois people are far from having the federal government dictate their province.