• Steve Boukhers

Is Quebec nationalism opposed to Canada federal politics of multiculturalism?


The province of Quebec has constantly been the land of unresolved and permanent tension over how national unity is best achieved. Because of its language, its culture and its institutions, Quebec is considered as a nation within Canada, resulting in the emergence of nationalism. How can nationalism be still round the corner in Quebec whereas Canadian multiculturalism, an experiment in nation-building launched more than four decades ago, has proven to be successful in attracting people of all ethnic groups and religious beliefs from across the world ? Why the ideology of a cultural mosaic and the definition of Canada as a multicultural country in the sense desired by recently re-elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, have never been well received in Quebec?


Multiculturalism: saris, samosas, and steeldrums?


In common discourse, multiculturalism has a great diversity of meanings. It may be seen as an ideal or conversely as a source of societal issue. In contemporary literature, multiculturalism is often reduced to a feel-good celebration of society, encouraging people to embrace diversity. British journalist and author Yasmin Alibhai-Brown calls this phenomenon the “3S” model, i.e. saris, samosas, and steeldrums. This model implies that multiculturalism takes these familiar cultural markers of ethnic groups and deals with them as genuine practices to be taken by other ethnic groups. Viewing multiculturalism through this celebratory lens is undoubtedly reductive and tends to trivialize its very essence. An additional complexity to map it relates to the idea that multiculturalism is opposed to assimilation. In fact, multiculturalism often refers to the idea of retaining some original culture by certain ethnic or minority groups. In Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory, Bhikhu Parekh distinguishes multicultural society from “the fact of cultural diversity” from multiculturalism as “a normative response to that fact”.


Multiculturalism in Canada


In Canada, multiculturalism has had an official basis with the Canadian Multiculturalism Act, passed in 1988. This Act seeks to “preserve and enhance the multicultural heritage of Canadians” and recognizes multiculturalism as a fundamental aspect of Canada as stated in Article 3. In essence, this Act states that Canadians are all equal regardless of race, ethnicity, language or religion. In other terms, multiculturalism guarantees equality before the law. Multiculturalism also implies sharing common grounds as defined in the Canadian Multiculturalism Act. Individuals can maintain their cultural heritage provided that they share basic democratic values, and use the national languages, i.e. English and French.


In an interview with Huffpost, philosopher Charles Taylor referred to Canadian multiculturalism as :

The whole point of Canadian multiculturalism is to produce equal citizenship. So it’s very much concerned with the integration of people from elsewhere, immigrants, into Canadian society and Canadian polity as equals. The move to multiculturalism is to cancel the assumption which everybody had 50 years ago or more that a Canadian was either somebody from the British Isles or from Normandy if you were in Quebec. But you can be fully Canadian if your ancestry takes you back to Poland, takes you back to Italy, takes you back to India, takes you back to China and so on. So it's an instrument of integration.

Cultural mosaic vs. US melting pot


While multiculturalism encompasses a wide range of prescriptive meanings, Canadian multicultural approach has often been described as a mosaic. As early as in 1938, John Murray Gibbon published Canadian Mosaic: The Making of a Northern Nation, which heralded a new way of thinking about immigrants. The idea of a mosaic of cultures as a nation was then adopted by Canadian sociologist John Porter in his study, entitled Vertical Mosaic: An Analysis of Social Class and Power in Canada long before being part of the nation DNA, with the Canadian Multiculturalism Act. As such, envisioning a nation as a mosaic seems to be in contrast with the US melting pot. In terms of immigration, the US ‘melting pot’ process has been equated with Americanization. In other terms, the melting pot, as adopted in the US, conveys a clear message to immigrants : no matter who they have been in the past, they are expected to adopt and follow the American way.

Sociology Professor Irene Bloemraad conducted a comparative study on how Vietnamese immigrants integrated in the USA and in Canada, namely in Boston and in Toronto. Both groups shared similar characteristics, including education, wealth and language skills, and arrived at the same time. And yet, the study finds that those immigrants have integrated into the political sphere more effectively in Toronto than in Boston. Is Canadian multiculturalism part of the explanation? Bloemraad thinks so.


Understanding nationalism


Capturing nationalism in a theory has proved to be challenging as there are evidently many forms.

According to Ernest Gellner, nationalism takes root in the contemporary period because industrial societies are looking for common languages and cultures to share. For him, nationalism is not the awakening of a latent, dormant force. It is instead the consequence of a new form of social organization. What Gellner calls nationalism is a new form of collective consciousness, the feeling of belonging to this innovation that is the nation-state. Yet, his theory fails to take into account the psychological/emotional aspect of nationalism. In Coherence in Thought and Action, Paul Thagard described it as:

Nationalism is clearly an emotional issue: many people feel very strongly about the nations and the ethnic groups to which they belong, and they often have strong negative emotions towards other nations and ethnic groups. According to the theory of emotional coherence, however, emotions are not inherently irrational, since they may be tied to coherence judgements that are rooted in evidence.

Thagard’s definition highlights the emotional dimension of nationalism, building a bridge between the individual and the nation. The individual identifies with the nation and hence tends to prefer it over other nations.


Quebec nationalism: the force awakens


Nationalism and the political frames that go along with it have taken different forms in Quebec since the British conquest of 1760.

Historically, the concept was associated with the survival of French Canadians in Canada as a means to safeguard French identity from British supremacy. By and large, the dominant form of nationalism was progressive, tolerant and inclusive at that time. After centuries of ups and downs, nationalism awoke in 2018 when Coalition Avenir Quebec won the general elections, giving nationalism a new flavor. Yet, are Quebec nationalism and Canada multiculturalism conflicting options?


Multiculturalism or interculturalism?


In Quebec where multiculturalism has commonly become a proverbial punching bag, interculturalism has been increasingly presented as an alternative. In the Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences, Gerard Bouchard worked hand in hand with Charles Taylor to compare the immigrant integration policies of Quebec and Canada: interculturalism and multiculturalism. They described interculturalism as a paradigm which emphasizes social cohesion and integration through communal values, as well as the respect of differences and diversity. On the other hand, multiculturalism favors bilingualism, the protection of multiple cultural identities and a mosaic vision of society. Bouchard and Taylor insisted that multiculturalism is inadequate for Quebec because it cannot address Quebec’s language concerns, its desire to preserve its fundamental culture, and its minority status in Canada.


At a federal level, multiculturalism was intended to preserve the cultural liberty of all individuals and provide recognition of the cultural contributions of diverse ethnic groups to Canadian society.

In Quebec, interculturalism as a policy was officially incorporated into a governmental document in March 2016. In recent years, Quebec has adopted a series of institutional measures and responsibilities associated to policies for tolerance and respect to the difference within a French-speaking social context.


A republican conception of society opposed to a liberal model?


The question of integration and what it means for immigrants differ dramatically from a liberal model to a republican one. On the one hand, states based on a liberal model encourage individuals to be autonomous and to pursue their own private interests. As such the host state guarantees immigrants equal fundamental rights and freedom. In return, immigrants agree to meet laws and policies.

On the contrary, integration based on the Republican model implies a more complex and demanding process, both for the host state and for its immigrants insofar as public policies must be integrative providing means of getting an effective command of the national language and cultural codes to be part of the republican societal dialogue. Immigrants, in return, commit themselves to accepting the societal norms of their host state. The popular idea that it is up to immigrants to adapt to their host society and not the other way around is a fairly good expression of this republican requirement and widely shared by Quebecers, and nationalists in particular.

As a consequence, integration in Quebec is seen as a more demanding process for both immigrants and the province than at a federal level which based its multiculturalism approach on retaining and embracing immigrants’ original cultures.


When it comes to secularism, the liberal approach promotes the principle of neutrality of the state in relation to the different religions of its citizens. In other terms, the state can not promote a religion or religious beliefs over others and must provide the greatest diversity of places to worship.

The republican conception of secularism is quite different as it does not only require state neutrality in religious matters, but imposes neutrality in the public space. While this republican model of secularism is widely accepted in Quebec, it is clear that when it comes to applying it to the Catholic religion, it is not subject to the same observation.In fact, Catholicism and its symbols are considered as an integral part of Quebec culture and heritage. In this respect, Quebec and Canada seem to have two irreconcilable conceptions of society. And, this is not without consequences on the ability to properly integrate immigrants into Quebec. How can immigrants truly integrate when they have to face two opposing systems which include conflicting societal norms and discordant social views?


Is multiculturalism divisive: current political debate


In January 2018, multiple synagogues and Jewish centers across Canada reported anti-Semitic hate mail. This threat happened roughly a year after the attack on the Quebec City Islamic Cultural Centre which left six dead and 19 injured people. Statistics Canada reported a 47 percent increase in hate crimes in 2017, when 2,073 such crimes were reported to police. Race or ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation accounted for the vast majority of the reported crimes. In addition, these trends largely occurred in Ontario and Quebec. In response to a mounting sense of nationalism, labeled as ultranationalism in the 2018 budget, the Canadian government allocated 23 million more Canadian dollars over two years for multiculturalism programming that includes the formation of a new, national anti-racism plan, but that will also be spent through community organizations to assist with integration efforts in tandem with the Liberals' decision to increase immigration levels over the next three years.


"The cult of diversity will divide us into little tribes"


When Justin Trudeau won the federal election in 2015, he inherited from Stephen Harper’s (progressive) conservative administration, specifically in terms of multiculturalism. By and large, under Harper, the Canadian model of multiculturalism returned to its basics with an important focus on integration and social cohesion. However, the Government neglected social inclusion. Mostly debated, Harper’s Cabinet flirted with pluralism as a substitute for multiculturalism before recognizing the long-standing value of multiculturalism.


Since then, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has championed multiculturalism with a dedicated program articulated around three objectives, namely to build an integrated, socially inclusive society; to improve the responsiveness of institutions to the needs of a diverse population; and to actively engage in discussions on multiculturalism and diversity at the international level.

In reaction, conservative MP Maxime Bernier, who lost the leadership of the Conservative party, openly blamed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for leading a radical multicultural policy.





Towards religious neutrality and secularism in Quebec: Is it constitutional?


The new Coalition Avenir Quebec government ousted the Quebec Liberals from power on October 1, 2018. The party, led by Premier Francois Legault, pledged to remove and ban religious symbols for certain public servants, including teachers, police officers and judges.


In November 2018, market-research agency CROP conducted a survey on secularism in Quebec and a majority of Quebecers support François Legault's proposals to ban public servants in position of authority from wearing visible religious symbols. Whether the ban would sound anti-constitutional, Legault promised to use the notwithstanding clause to bypass the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and amend Quebec’s Charter of Rights to ensure the legislation would remain in place. The problem with this religious neutrality and secularism as proposed by Quebec new government lies in fact that it didn't apply that standard at the national assembly. Though the controversial crucifix that hung above the speaker's chair in Quebec's legislature had been removed after years of debate over secularism, that ‘Catho-secularism’ approach seems to be a source of long-debated hypocrisy.



Quebec new immigration model: What’s in for the labor market?


Along with religious symbols, Legault also included new immigration polices in his plan, aiming at reducing immigration by 20 per cent and making immigrants pass a values test. He also highlighted that immigrants who don’t speak French within three years of being in Quebec would be expelled.

In early December 2018, Coalition Avenir Quebec moved forward with the immigration cuts it promised during the election campaign, bringing the figure down from an estimated 50-53,000 in 2018 to 40,000 in 2019. This plan inevitably poses questions about potential labour shortages in the province. Quebec's unemployment rate reached a historic low of 6.1 per cent rate last year. The Conseil du patronat du Quebec, a major labour group, stated that immigration was essential to the province's prosperity and that ‘reducing the volume only makes the situation worse.’ In the same vein, the Federation of Chambers of Commerce of Quebec said the province will need to find 100,000 workers to meet its labour force needs in the next decade.

In defending his immigration policy, Premier François Legault has repeatedly pointed out the unemployment rate is 15 per cent among immigrants who have been in the province for five years or less.

Such policies are bound to fuel further tensions with Ottawa all the more Quebec only has jurisdiction over economic immigration, while the family reunification and refugees programs are overseen by the federal government.


All in all, multiculturalism, as envisioned by Pierre Trudeau in the 1970s, was based on bilingualism, federalism and was used to counter a particular kind of nationalism in Quebec. Ironically, it hasn’t had the desired impact in the province and, conversely, was perceived as an imposed policy, which Quebec continues to reject the idea. Whether nationalism in Quebec has taken many forms, what nationalists claim today is more an ethnic French-oriented nationalism. The relationship of national identifications to preferences about immigration and religion have re-emerged as topics of controversy. Did multiculturalism fail in Quebec? Maybe not. But one thing is certain, Quebec and Canada are a single country where two nations exist.


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