French Canadian Nationalism | The Canadian Encyclopedia


French Canadian Nationalism

French Canadian nationalism concerns a wide variety of manifestations of the collective will of much of Canada's French-speaking population to live as a distinct cultural community. Its innumerable ramifications have been not only cultural but also political, economic and social.
henri bourassa, publisher
founder of Le Devoir and opponent of Canadian involvement in foreign military adventures, Bourassa inspired the growth of a vigorous nationalism in Québec (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-27360/Henri Bourassa Coll).

French Canadian nationalism concerns a wide variety of manifestations of the collective will of much of Canada's French-speaking population to live as a distinct cultural community. Its innumerable ramifications have been not only cultural but also political, economic and social. Historians disagree about its beginnings. Guy Frégault suggests that the inhabitants of colonial New France in the early 18th century were sufficiently different from those of France for a distinct national sentiment to exist. Michel Brunet argues that the Conquest of 1760, by transforming the French in Canada into a conquered people, triggered a defence mechanism that has endured.

Others, such as Fernand Ouellet, are convinced that nationalism had its origin soon after 1800 when social strains and economic crises increased animosity between French and English inhabitants of Lower Canada. Political scientist Léon Dion distinguishes 4 types of French Canadian nationalism: conservative (dominant until 1960), liberal (post-1960), social-democrat (post-1970) and socialist (particularly during the 1970s).

Wherever the debate may lead, it is clear that French Canadian nationalism has been present for at least 200 years and that, because of its nature, it will probably endure as long as a significant number of Canadians continue to speak French as their first language (see Historiography in French).

For over a century, French Canadian nationalism was generally linked to conservative causes and to the perpetuation of a traditional society. For the clerical and professional elite, fidelity to language, culture and religion implied respect for the acceptance of the established social order in which the Roman Catholic Church dominated, agriculture was lauded as society's material and moral foundation, parish and family were the basic social institutions, commercial and industrial pursuits were disdained, and foreign influences were shunned.

To what extent was this concept of nationalism shared by common people? The very insistence with which the clerical elite defended its concept of society betrayed the existence of challenges to the social order, especially when nationalist credos seemed to conflict with conditions for individual material betterment. Although nationalists vigorously defended an agricultural way of life, by 1921 half of Québec's population was urban and migration to the cities showed no signs of abating, except during the Great Depression, when industrial jobs were scarce.

Nationalism between the 1840s and the 1940s also had important political aspects. It meant denying the conclusion of the celebrated Durham Report that the "inferior" French Canadian nation would be absorbed. It also meant struggling against the conditions imposed by the 1840 Act of Union which in 1841 joined Upper and Lower Canada into a single colony. It signified fighting for recognition of French and Catholic rights at Confederation, notably within Québec, and later in the English-speaking provinces in the face of attempts to abolish French or Roman Catholic schools (see Manitoba Schools Question). It encompassed Jules-Paul Tardivel's efforts to promote an independent French state in North America, a sort of reconstituted New France.

It also meant an unrelenting campaign, with considerable popular support, against what was regarded as British imperialism - political, economic and especially military. Henri Henri Bourassa's nationalist group led this battle, which culminated in the 1917 conscription crisis when French Canada massively refused compulsory military service overseas. This crisis was replayed during WWII, though this time with somewhat less dramatic political consequences.

After 1900 some nationalists became increasingly preoccupied with economic questions. Errol Bouchette argued that French Canadians must take hold of their industry and avoid yielding the province's natural resources cheaply to foreign control. In the 1930s, members of Action libérale nationale proposed nationalization of certain foreign-owned (ie, non-French Canadian) monopolies, such as the electricity trust. Others, in an effort to promote French Canadian commerce, led "Buy French Canada" campaigns and warned against the patronizing of Jewish establishments.

Following WWII, rapid changes in French Canadian society, characterized by increasing diversity, led to new expressions of nationalism (see Quiet Revolution). Economic and political themes became central and, particularly after 1960, the province of Québec became principal supporter of the French Canadian collectivity, or at least of those French Canadians (about 80% of the Canadian total) living within Québec.

For example, after the 1962 provincial election, in which nationalist themes predominated, the government nationalized private electric power companies, integrating them with the existing Hydro-Québec; in 1996 it ranked as Canada's second-largest crown corporation as judged by assets.

But the major debate centered on the place of Québec and French Canada in Canada. Daniel Johnson, Québec premier 1966-68, Claude Ryan, editor of the daily newspaper Le Devoir, and others favoured a new Canadian constitution that would expand Québec's area of legislative jurisdiction and establish a bilingual and bicultural Canada, ensuring the equality of the 2 founding peoples. Still others centered their nationalism squarely on Québec and attacked the Canadian dream as unrealistic. For them the solution was political independence.

In the early 1960s several parties and movements sprang up, preaching independence within a variety of social frameworks ranging from the extreme left to the extreme right. Of these, the Rassemblement pour l'indépendance nationale and the Ralliement national participated actively in the 1966 provincial election. In 1967 René Lévesque, a former member of Jean Lesage's Liberal Cabinet, founded the Mouvement souveraineté-association, transformed the following year into the Parti Québécois, which was elected in 1976 and again in 1981 and then regained power in 1994.

In 1977 that government adopted a French Language Charter (see Bill 101) which generally responded to nationalist language desires although its progressive weakening by the courts revealed anxieties. In May 1980 the government held a provincial referendum (see Québec Referendum (1980)) in which it asked for a mandate to negotiate sovereignty-association with the rest of Canada. Nearly 60% voted "No," although French-speaking Québecois were split almost evenly.

Canada's new Constitution, adopted Apr 1982, was vigorously denounced by most Québec nationalists, regardless of political affiliation, since it seemed to end, at least temporarily, their hopes to gain greater power for Québec. The failure of the referendum, as well as difficult economic and social conditions within Québec, seriously weakened the government's position and precipitated a dramatic upheaval within the Parti Québécois.

The PQ was defeated by Robert Bourassa's Liberals Dec 1985, ushering in an era in which Québec nationalists sought to redefine their goals and French-speaking minorities outside Québec continued their struggle for recognition of linguistic rights. The 1987 Meech Lake Accord (see Meech Lake Accord: Document) signed by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney as well as by the ten provincial premiers, seemed a possible compromise to conflicting agendas. By 1990, however, opposition to the Accord outside Québec had become sufficiently strong to prevent ratification by two provinces. The failure of the Meech Lake Accord stimulated a vigorous renaissance of French-Canadian nationalism as many Quebeckers concluded that constitutional renewal was impossible. One result was the election in 1993 of more than 50 MPs belonging to the Bloc Québécois, a separatist party at the federal level. A new referendum held in 1995 brought a very narrow victory to the "no" forces (see Québec Referendum (1995). While the Parti Québécois government then began talking of a third referendum, Québec's Anglophone minority as well as certain Aboriginal peoples lobbied for an eventual partition of Québec should the province ever gain independence. During the 1980s and 1990s French-speaking minorities outside Québec, their ranks depleted by increasing assimilation, continued their struggle for recognition of linguistic rights.

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