In “The Scottish Play” (September/October 2012), Charles King briefly distinguishes the separatist movement in Scotland from that in Quebec. “The Québecois quest for independence,” he writes, “involved a religious and linguistic minority seeking to secure its status against perceived English-speaking dominance.” In contrast, “not only is it difficult today to define an ‘ethnic Scot,’ but the SNP [Scottish National Party] has understood that its greatest hope for differentiating Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom is to embrace values, not nationality, as the region’s defining principle.”
But today’s separatists in Quebec may not be so different from their Scottish counterparts. Thanks in part to the changes King mentions -- the federal government’s increased commitment to bilingualism, economic growth, and immigration from Africa and Asia -- Quebec’s separatists have moved away from ethnic and linguistic arguments for independence. Instead, they have gravitated to strategies that are strikingly similar to those used by the SNP.
Since 2006, when Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a Conservative, was elected, Québecois separatists have insisted, like the SNP, that the federal government’s values are inimical to those of their region. The province’s separatist party, the Parti Québécois (PQ), has argued that unlike the Harper government, an independent Quebec would take better care of its underprivileged citizens, preserve social programs, and better protect the environment -- all similar arguments to those made by the SNP. Both the SNP and the PQ also assert that their new countries’ foreign policies would focus on peacemaking rather then military intervention; an independent Quebec, according to Pauline Marois, the leader of the PQ, would no longer spend billions of dollars to “buy war planes and war boats.”
For the last 40 years, Quebec’s separatists have steadfastly railed against the central government’s policies, brilliantly adjusting their criticism to the changing context. Those repeated attacks have changed most Québecois’ views of Canada for the worst, although not yet to the point where they consider separation worthwhile. Quebec’s federalists, meanwhile, have been singularly clumsy in their replies. King is right when he argues that “it would be a shame if the Scottish model became . . . a handbook for transforming muscular regionalism into territorial separatism” -- which is why, like many Québecois who oppose separation, I follow the situation in Scotland with interest and more than a little anxiety.
Chief Editorial Writer, La Presse