Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Fete Nationale

Today is Fete de Saint-Jean-Baptiste, a day for Quebecers to celebrate their identity. It is also pretty close to the 7th anniversary of when I established residency in Montreal. Which reminds me of how scholars can often fail to use their knowledge in their own lives, and I am referring not just to participating in collective action when free-riding makes the most sense.

When I got the job offer from McGill, I did not seriously consider the issue of Quebec secessionism. This is partly because I was so frazzled at the time due to the long hours inside the Pentagon, partly due to the deep desire to get out of Texas Tech and Lubbock, and partly because I never studied Quebec as it was never violent enough to be comparable to the cases of secession I did study.

We moved in 2002, seven years after the previous referendum, which only narrowly went to the No side (rumors of voter by the secessionist side linger). I guess that was long enough for me to think that the issue was dead. But, I know, given my work and my reading of the literature on ethnic politics, that plenty of incentives continue to exist to ensure the continuation of nationalist politics with separatism as the focal point.

These incentives include:

  1. A first-past-the-post system that exaggerates the share of seats the larger parties get, so one can get majority of seats despite only gaining a small plurality of votes. A classic recipe for ethnic outbidding, where one or more parties promises to be the best defender of a group's interests.
  2. A split between Montreal (which is underpresented in the provincial assembly) and the rest of the province, which varies in supposed substance (English vs French, immigrant vs pure laine, etc).
  3. A political party or two (Parti Quebec that competes within Quebec for the provincial power struggle and the Bloc Quebecois which competes for seats in Canada's Parliament) who owe their very existence to the separatist struggle and would probably cease to exist or at least split if either Quebec became independent or gave up the cause.
  4. Geographic and population circumstances that empower Quebec within Canada, so that the federal folks can never write off Quebec, one way (letting it go) or another (ignoring it).
  5. Following from the previous point, the threat of separation gives Quebec much bargaining power to extract resources from Canada. So much so that some folks suspect that the nationalist cause is popular not because people want Quebec to become independent but that they want to gain more concessions. My guess is that this might apply to supporters of sovereignty to a degree but not to supporters of independence.
  6. A political system where a winning referendum would only need fifty percent plus one vote. This, of course, drives me crazy since fundamental change should take more than that. One referendum could be followed by another with a completely different result, just due to a small shift in turnout or drunk frat boys. Also, the temptation to cheat in such circumstances is higher, and fears of such would be high as well. It was fun to watch Quebecers ignore the European Union's requirement for Montenegro's independence--55%--which would be clearly insurmountable here.
And, of course, the grievances, as we see from time to time, remain to provide enough fodder to maintain a nationalist discourse, even if these grievances pale in comparison to separatist causes elsewhere and do not provide enough enthusiasm to win a referendum decisively. Indeed, precisely because Canada presents no physical threat to the lives of Quebecers, because Francophones have largely won the battle for control of Montreal's economy, and because Quebecers can pursue their grievances through the courts, through the national parliament, and through their asymetrically-powered federal unit that support for real independence is half-hearted. This distinguishes Quebec from pretty much all of the successful secessionist movements of the past five years or so.

Now that I have spent seven years here, on Fete Nationale, I feel safe in declaring that the nationalist discourse will continue, despite the best efforts of some of its leaders to sabotage it (Parizeau), and, the outcome of the next referendum (yes, Virginia, there will always be another referendum) will hinge on how clear the question is. If the question is quite clear, as forces within Canada and Quebec have been pushing, then the vote will be no. If it is vague, then outcome is less predictable.

Good times! Well, for scholars of nationalism, not so good for those who care about their home values.


vladimir said...

Steve the Clarity Act tried to address the issues regarding a future referendum that you raised though the law is not viewed as legitimate by sovereignists. It was interesting also that you raised the case of Montenegro. The 55% figure I always assumed was arrived at to account for the votes of the ethnic Albanians which if memory serves are about a tenth of the country, therefore a simple majority of the ethnic Montengrin vote would be required for independence. Indeed part of the resentment of the separtists in Quebec is that even with a clear majority (close to 60%) of francophones they can still lose a referendum.

Francois Caron said...

The issues are not what they use to be, and the ones that people will care for the next referendum could potentialy not being known today. Sadly, most likely 'money' will be top on list. Yes, today people in Quebec minds more about their pennies than their self-respect. Parizeau simply said a fact, well-known but rarely exposed. For that part, he can't be blamed, the rest was not so good...

Anyhow, we have gained more control on most social and economy matter. Gradualy we respect more ourselves, and so other (like you) do. Quebec bashing of today is peanuts compare to before. It will take a lot of time to get to a fair point. Let's be what we are and let the home value be what it should be. Just let it be! We should not care how much better or worst we are. Not being, not existing and not being known is a terrible feeling. No one knows here about the 24th of June. No one knows we are proud of what we are, and we are the only one to blame. We'll get there one day.

I'm very okay with the fact that we lost the 1995 referendum. We were not all ready for that, us as much as the rest of Canada and other countries. Yes, a vast majority should be the threshold.

Enjoy our nation!

Steve Saideman said...

I don't know if it will make you feel better, Francois, but Americans are not aware of any other country's independence or national days. Americans don't know about Canada Day. Cinco de Mayo is not seen beyond the Latino community as having a particular meaning. So, it is no indicator of Quebec's standing in the world.

My basic stance is that the grievances that Quebec has would be enough for independence if it did not involve any significant costs. But such a significant change would be costly--economically, politically, socially and all the rest. Of course, last time around, the Yes supporters tries to make it appear that one could have independence and yet have Canada still cover much of the costs. Hence the Clarity Act.

Francois Caron said...

Didn't that reply... so, I'm late. But it's still in the aire anyway.

About the cost of independance, never it will be as much as the one the USA paid to be *one*. A society project should not have a price tag.

After a winning referendum, dealing the separation is the first phase. Canada's lawyers and negociators would certainly pay a lot of attention not to loose a penny. Most of the other province would win independance themselve; it's a win-win situation if only we all look it positively. A new confederation is needed, not just for Quebec.

You could see it the other way too; like Quebec intent to "invade" the constitution of Canada to rebuilt it better. We did brought it back from England (Trudeau), so why not moving forward again?