Identity Politics and Multiculturalism in Quebec



Given the plight of most minority cultures today in resisting assimilation into the vortex of stronger, dominant cultures. French-speaking Quebecers - the Québecois as they are known - represent something of a success story. IN the last three decades, driven by a powerful and dynamic ethnonationalist pride, they have managed to tackle the stigma of colonial conquest and overturn more than two centuries of exclusion from Canada's major networks of social and economic development; they have come out of almost total political and institutional marginalization and succeeded in tending off near cultural asphyxiation. Although still unsuccessful in establishing themselves as a sovereign nation-state - largely because many among that it is the proper course of action to satisfy their national aspirations - they now exercise quasi - absolute control over a strong provincial state with extensive legal, administrative, and policymaking jurisdiction. The Quebec state has come to occupy a highlu significant place in the political culture of Quebec. It plays a central role in symbolizing and maintaining the cohesiveness of the nation québécoise against what Quebec nationalists perceive as the steamrolling and centralistic dispositions of the English-Canadian state. Quebec, many would argue, has become a virtual state within the state.

Among the other achievements that are often cited as the Québecois' coming of age is the emergence of a genuine, homegrown. French-speaking business elite with ever increasing socioeconomic clout. Artistic, literary, and scientific manifestations of their distinctive culture have won Québecois international acclaim within and outside the frasncophone world. Clearly, Québecois have developed and consolidated a vibrant culture of their own, solidly entrenched in the parameters of modernity.

Admittedly, the remarkable ascent of the Québecois bears few scars of brutal and unremitting oppression by a neighboring ethnic or cultural group. Theirs is not a story of overt victimization, genocide, dispossession, or persection. Unlike many other minority cultures, they have benefited from their inclusion in and acceptance of a modern, liberal, and democratic system of government. In this context, their demographic superiority (around 82 percent of the total Quebec population) has eventually played in their favor. Nevertheless, their record is, objectively, no less notable if one considers that hardly thirty-five years ago, they seemed condemned to being no more than a mere folkloric curiosity.

To the outside observer, Québecois may appear as having achieved ethnocultural and socioeconomic hegemony within the confines of their province. Given the demographic balance of power and the depth of the Québecois' historical attachment to their land, such a situation would seem quite normal in other national contexts. In Canada, their apparent hegemony is seem as an irritant and is often thought by members of other ethnic, cultural and linguistic groups to be detrimental to their own collective and individual self-realization.

Have Québecois really reached hegemonic status? In more ways than one, this question gives dramatic relief to the very complexity of the multicultural predicament in Quebec and Canada. To ask it is to strike at the heart of the issue of multiculturalism and pluriethnicity in that part of the world.

No one can deny that the rapid and at time radical socioeconomic, political, and institutional transformations that have marked Quebec society over the past thirty-five were largely aimed at redressing two centuries of second-class status, two centuries of injustice and inequality. Those transformations were animated by a strong nationalist determination to take full control of the nation's destiny and exorcise the inferiority complex which plagued the Québecois' collective imagination and social comportment for so long. Québecois have developed as a result a strong, forward-looking sense of themselves as achieves, fully entitled to claim the land on which they live as their own and as essential to their further self-development. The perception that other Quebeccers (anglophones, immigrants) have of them as an hegemonic group then it is not totally unwarranted.

On the other hand, the exercise of this so-called hegemony is not easily carried the administrative and political confines of the Canadian state. Manifestations of its will to self-determination, whether expressed in rallies for political sovereignty or in demands for administrative latitude, have always been interpreted as a direct threat to the integrity of the Canadian state. Even Quebec's insistence that Canada is best expressed in the idea of a compact between two founding nations. English and French, is seen as suspect in many quarters. Implicit in this ides is the claim according to which both English and French Canadians have equal say in the control f the machinery of government. Also implicit in this view of the Canadian federation is a justification for Québecois to aspire to a distinct society status and demand sociopolitical treatment at least equivalent to that enjoyed by the English-Canadian majority.

The making of Canada into an officially bilingual (English and French) country in 1969 was partly meant to address Quebec's understanding of the Canadian federation and correct, at least symbolically, some of the socioeconomic inequality historically suffered by all French-speaking Canadians (not only those living in Quebec). It implicity recognized the social and political importance of the French constituency in Canada by giving them the right to state services in their own language from Victoria to St. John's, However, it also implied that English-speaking Canadians should equally expect to have access to state services in their mother tongue in predominantly French-speaking Quebec.

Indeed the official bilingualization of Canada, just like the policies on multiculturalism that were to follow in the 1970s and 1980s, and the Constitutional Reform Act of 1982, were all premised on a narrow egalitarian conception of society and politics: Canada is comprised of a large variety of people with different ethnocultural backgrounds; they must cherish their different and distinct individuality, they must respect each other's right to express it but, at the end of the day, they are all Canadians and they must all be treated equally by the federal state, their ultimate representative.

Behind the apparent generosity and humanism of such an approach lies a strategy of containment of Quebec's administrative and political aspirations. The message is clear; Québecois are Canadians too, and they cannot invoke their being a "founding nation" of the country to claim special status or privileges within the Canadian federation. This message was repeatedly driven home in no uncertain terms by large segments of the Canadian population outside Quebec during intense public debates over the constitutional future of Canada between 1987 and 1992. Governmental attempts to accommodate some of Quebec's minimal demands were met twice with public reprobation: in 1990 with the demise of a federal government-initiated proposal for constitutional reform -the so-called Meech Lake Accord - aimed at appeasing Quebec's historical demands by entrenching its distinctive character and special status in the constitution, and aghain in 1992 at a national referendum on the Charlottetown Accord, a watered-down version of the Meech Lake package. Both the Meech Lake and Charlottetown acords were presented by their proponents as an ultimate effort to keep the country united. Both have had the dubious distinction of further exacterbating the senitment of exasperation which Quebec and the rest of Canada feel for each other.

By becoming the mainstay of national identity. Canada's "ina bilingual framework" has reinforced the identities of minorities that have no territorial base other than the Canadian political community. It lends support to a political cutlure increasingly bent on removing all references to duality, to the notion of two founding majorities, and to that of a distinct political community in Quebec. In the current Canadian political framework, one identity is worth as much as another: a hierarchy of identities, as the idea of two founding nations implies, can no longer be tolerated. Unsurprisingly, aboriginal peoples maintain today that they are the one and only original founding nation, and representatives of immigrant communities are making clear that they cannot endorse a two or even three-nation definition of the country.

The political and constitutional developments of the past fifteen years in Canada have led to the actual negation of Quebec's specificity and to the trivialization of the Quebecois aspirations. IN this sense, their so-called ethnocultural hegemony over Quebec is highly relative. The Québecois' will no nationhood and self-determination is constantly questioned and castigated outside and within their province.

Québecois are at a crossroads with regard to the future configuration of their polity. The long-established and still powerful anglophone minority, immigrants, and aboriginal peoples are pressing down on them to define the content of their sociopolitical project and explain just how all those who are not French ethnics figure in it. The task at hand is not an easy one and begs a heartwrenching question: how can Québecois make sure they will not lose out in the ongoing politics of recognition? To what extent should they aim for the establishment of a democratic, inclusive, pluriethnic, and multicultural society without jeopardizing their own identity and the fragile socioeconomic hold they have on Quebec, without, in other words, running the risk of being made culturally, socially, and politically irrelevant in the long run? Quebec stands as an interesting showcase of the challenges facing ethnic pluralism in modern democracies.


Although substantial numbers of immigrants have regularly landed in Quebec throughout the 20th century, the reality of immigration - the reality of "otherness," of social heterogeneity - did not hit the political and cultural imagination of Quebecers until they started to modernize and open up to the world in the 1960s and 1970s. Their social inwardness, maintained by a conservative and ubiquitous clerical elite, made them essentially oblivious to the surrounding social environment. English and French lived in separate social and institutional universes; so was it as well with the immigrants.

In the emancipatory and self-assertive atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s, immigration and interthnic relations took on a political salience that they never had before. At issue was the insertion of immigrants into they mainstream of the new Quebec society - a society in which French language and culture were to figure ads the principal and dominant sign-posts of interaction.

The language legislation enacted during the 1970s eventually made French the official language of the province and the only acceptable language of commercial signs and public transactions. New immigrants to Quebec were also forced to send their children to French schools. Such legislation caused much tension between the French majority and the anglophone and immigrant communities in those years. On the one hand, Québecois felt justified in imposing their language and culture for reasons of survival and development; on the other hand. Anglophones and other ethnocultural minorities vented their their frustration at being made to feel like strangers in a land where many of them had roots as far back as the 18th and 19th centuries. At stake was the historical and sociopolitical clout that the anglophone minority always had in Quebec society, but stood to lose - and indeed partly did lose - as a result of the language poliices.

In all fairness language policies and, more generally, the Québecois' manifest will to social power did not amount to the overt marginalization of ethnocultural minorities, however difficult and uneasy interethnic and intercultural rapport may be at times. A full range of health, welfare, and educational services financially supported by the Quebec state are accessible to the anglophone minority in its onw language. These include hospitals, schools, and universities whose working language is English Since the 1970s, the Quebec government has implemented a series of programs has implemented a series of programs designed to facilitate the integration of immigrants into Quebec society. Language courses, manpower training, antiracist and antidiscriminatory measures, as well as various forms of accommodation are regularly put into place. In the mid-1980s, the Quebec government officially recognized aboriginal languages spoken on its territory and the existence of the province's aboriginal communities as distinct nations.

In the face of such realizations, it could be easy to boast that Quebec's record in matters of multicultural and pluriethnic coexistence is an enviable, if not remakrable one. A 1993 survey commissioned by the Quebec Ministry of Immigration and Cultural Communities showed rather positive results regarding public opinion on racial and intercultural relations. It appears that in recent years, intercultural contacts have increased substantially. A majority of Québecois feel at ease with and support openness towards immigrants and other ethnocultural groups, and agree that their government should invest in a campaign to educate people about the reality of pluriethnicity and foster intercultural relations.

Yet in spite of what seems like encouraging results, a more circumspect analysis is needed. A more detailed examination of the global picture reveals gray zones. In that same survey, a majority of respondents confessed to feeling uneasy with members of ethnocultural groups with distinctive physical or vestimentary traits. Indians, Pakistanis, and West Indian Blacks were most often cited as examples. Two in three respondents also saw is insufficient efforts on the part of immigrants to integrate into the mainstream of Quebec society.

Clearly, even with the best of intentions, interculturalism does not go down easily, Acts of rampant racism in the predominantly white, male, and French-speaking Montreal police force, the increasingly vocal exasperation of growing segments of the population with aboriginal land claims and pleas for self-government, the high rates of unemployment among minority youth, public denunciations of civil authorities by representatives of ethnocultural minorities are all recurring indications that the reality and implications of pluriethnicity do not make for an easy fit between Québecois and immigrants.

Indeed, the situation is not any worse in Quebec than anywhere else in the Western world where generally white host communities have to grapple with the immigration question. In fact, compared to other countries, Quebec (and Canada for that matter) would seem to be a rather tolerant society well on the way to inter-ethnic and intercultural harmony. Since 1975, Quebec has had its own Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which explicitly protects and promotes the expression of ethnocultural differences (see sidebar at end). The Ministry of Immigration and Cultural Communities regularly works to find appropriate way to accommodate difference in public institutions and reduce public and private discriminatory practices; there are at least three government-funded major research units on ethnic studies and intercultural relations now in operation in Quebec universities, immigrants with political refugee status are fully supported by the state until settled, and various immigrant and anglophone lobbying groups receive financial support from the state and are generally consulted on policy matters regarding immigration and intercultural relations.

Still the prospects for a sound, convivial, and integrated multicultural society seem fraught with misunderstanding about what Québecois, on the one side, and Anglophones and immigrants on the other, should expect of each other. The bottom line question is: who are Québecois? Only the French ethnics, or every single resident of the Quebec territory regardless of his or her ethnocultural background? It is essentially a matter of inclusion - symbolic and real - and identity definition. It resonates with issues of citizenship and democracy.

Official rhetoric, even in nationalist/sovereignist quarters, calls for as inclusive a definition of Québecois as can be. Yet Jacques Parizeau, leader of the soverignist Parti Québecois and in all likelihood the next Premier of Quebec, declared at a political rally last year that Quebec's sovereignty could easily be achieved without the support of the anglophone and immigrant communities. Noting that in the 1992 referendum 67 percent of francophones rejected the constitutional offers but that only 8 percent of anglophones and allophones voted with them. Parizeau concluded: "Yes, we can get a majority to agree to the national cause we are promoting, even if nearly no anglophones or allophones are behind it.

What it means is that Québecois can attain the goals they set for themselves even if essentially it's almost exclusively old stock Québecois who'll vote for them."

Anglophones and immigrants have always been opposed to sovereignist objectives and are often considered major stumbling blocks in the democratic process toward Quebec independence. Parizeau's intimation suggested that the issue of sovereignty was for old stock Québecois to decide, and that other peoples' opinions were unimportant on this matter. His words stirred a wave of protest from spokespeople of anaglophone and immigrant communities. Parizeau remained undaunted by his detractors and publicly reiterated his position a week later, arguing that criticism of his "statement of facts" smacked of political correctness, hysteria and hypocrisy.

While Parizeau's view is not necessarily shared by all Québecois, it nevertheless elicits a sense of malaise which pervades anglophone and immigrant communities as to their role and place within Quebec society. A few years ago a survey by the Ministry of Immigration and Cultural Communities showed that three in four immigrants primarily identify themselves with their country and culture of origin and feel only marginal loyalty to Quebec, Language policies may have succeeded in making immigrants, use French as a language of everyday transactions but did not, however, elicit a deeply-rooted sense of belonging to their host land.

Part of the misunderstanding responsible for the distance between Québecois and other ethnocultural groups has to do with ignorance. Ninety percent of immigrants and member of ethnocultural groups other than Québecois live in the Montreal metropolitan area. This means that those who reside outside the Montreal region live in solid, white, homogenous, French-speaking social environments which hardly ever bring them in contact with minorities or cultural expressions other than their own. To them, immigration and pluriethnicity are almost an abstraction.

Fear is also part of the equation: an irrational, unavowable fear of what is foreign, unknown, and ill-understood. Until the 1970s Europe provided the bulk of immigrants settling in Quebec - white, Judeo-Christian, often highly educated and culturally similar to Québecois. They integrated with relative ease within the mainstream of society. Today, close to fifty percent of immigrants to Quebec originate from Asia alone. Large contingents of immigrants from Caribbean, South America, North Africa, and the Middle East have also made Quebec a land of predilection in recent years. Virtually half of all new immigrants speak neither French nor English. The signs of this diversity are everywhere in Montreal, which has become a truly cosmopolitan and multiethnic city. The pressure to adapt and grapple with this new reality is great on the host population which, by and large, is unequipped to develop a more inclusionary society. Issues of ethnic and racial discrimination in housing, employment, educational institutions, and in relations with the police force are constantly raised and create a sociopolitical gap between minority groups and the host society, which public authorities are often at a loss to address adequately. The unemployment rates of minority youth reach staggering high; sixty percent among Jamaicans; forty-five percent among Haitians; close to thirty percent for vietnamese and Cambodians; and over twenty-five percent for Latin Americans. By contrast, unemployment among young Québecois stands at seventeen percent. Systemic socioeconomic inequalities between minorities and mainstream populations are solidifying mainstream populations are solidifying and will be, as time goes by, very difficult to resolve.

Admittedly, Quebec is not unique, Other advanced capitalist countries also experience immigration from the Third World countries, but almost thirteen percent of Quebec's population were born outside the province. By comparison, immigrants make up only about six percent of France's population, eight percent of West Germany's, and six percent of the USA's. Historically, Quebec was but a land of passage for many immigrants; they would head to other parts of Canada, mainly Ontario, or the United States. Today, nearly three in four immigrants settle in Quebec permanently or at least for an extended period. Immigration is thus deeply inscribed at the heart of the social, political, and policy dilemmas now facing Québecois.


"No nation imagines itself conterminous with mankind," wrote historian Benedict Anderson in his admirable Imagined Communities. Québecois do constitute an imagined community in the sense Anderson has described; a community, a collective being, which imagines itself with reference to a common past, a common culture, and system of communication shared by all its members. Québecois, like all national communities, have a visceral perception of themselves, a perception which inevitably excludes others. The democratic framework of their polity makes them more open in theory, but the visceral mindset often finds its way to the surface. Jacques Parizeau's declaration best exemplifies this. In fact, the attitude of Québecois towards immigration and the manifestations of otherness are fraught with ambivalence typical of a nation whose own future is uncertain, whose minority status leaves it at the margins of history. It constantly oscillates between a laudable democratic impulse - which longs for sociopolitical inclusiveness and an en-larged citizenship - and the fear of losing parts of the historical identity, f seeing the imagined community fall into political irrelevance.

This ambivalence is entrenched in the whole set of policies devised by successive Quebec governments over the years with regard to the insertion of immigrants and the so-called "cultural communities" into Quebec society. The language legislation of the late 1960s and 1970s, premised on the will to protect and promote the language and culture of Québecois, ethnicized the Quebec state and unequivocally stated that Quebec was to be a francophone state and a francophone society. Throughout the late 1970s and the 1980s, other legislation and policies aimed at defining the conditions of immigration and the criteria of intercultural living in Quebec recognized the existence of so-called cultural communist. Paradoxically, those policies widened the divide between Québecois and other ethnocultural groups. Under the guise of fostering peaceful intercultural and interethnic coexistence, respect for cultural differences, and promotion of diversity, they contributed to formal cultural categorization and to identify formation outside the realm of Québecois culture. The policies implemented over the past decade or so have in effect dichotomized the Quebec population between the majority of Québecois (us) and a minority comprised of all other ethnocultural groups (them). In everyday life, this dichtomization may not be experienced by individuals in a conscious way, but in the public sphere it has created implicit boundaries along ethnic, cultural, and even racial lines. It is a rather pernicious process, for if the public discourse claims that being Québecois applies to everyone residing in Quebec, in reality access to Québecois culture is restricted to those who were born into it. Speaking French does not buy a membership into the imagined community.

The novel by LaQuébecoise by immigrant Quebec writer Regine Robin emphazies this reality quite forcefully. La Québecoise is precisely about the plight of immigrants in Quebec. At one point, the main character laments:

What anguish, some afternoons - Québécité - québécitude - I am other. I don't belong to the We so often used here - Us, "Nous autres" - the others,"Vous autres." We must speak to each other here at home ... Inecorable strangeness ... Other, apart, quarantined ... in search of a language, of simple words to represent otherness, the density of strangeness, of words, broken, undone, fragmented, desemanticized.

Quebec cultural and immigration policies are the products of a fundamentally contradictory and ambiguous approach while the state pretends to include, it excludes by pigeonholding people into ethnocutural categories outside which their existence seems unjustified. In fact, such policies proceed from an inrrevocable tendency to typecast ehthnocultural communities into static socioeconomic roles. In the final analysis, this tendency only fragments and divides society; it results in increased tensions between Québecois and others. This essentialism results in increased political tensions between Québecois and others. Strengthened by the official recognition granted them, cultural communities feel vindicated in questioning and even opposing the monopoly Québecois claim to have on the social and political definition of Quebec. While intercultural and interethnic relations in Quebec have not yet had disproportionate consequences, the potential for damaging, irremediable conflicts is real. The armed standoff of the summer of 1990 between the Canadian army and Mohawk Indians as Oka, just outside of Montreal, stands as a reminder of the fragility of pluriethnicity and pluriculturalism in Quebec. The sad, public displays of racial intolerance which became the trademark of the "Oka crisis" did nothing to alleviate mounting tensions between Québecois and Quebec's aboriginal communities.

Although pessimism is a poor advisor, one may legitimately wonder if there is a truly satisfying solution of Quebec's multicultural predicament. If the current international context of emerging national and paritularist identity claims is any indication, and in light of Quebec's own history of naitonalist affirmation, one is led to think that it is highly improbable that québecois will alter their conception of their national self in the short run. If anything, heterogeneity has become a permanent fixture of Quebec's socio-political landscape. The problem posed by multicultural coexistence may in fact only continue to fester in that Canadian province.

The liberal paradigm which underlies the political framework is incapable of adequately the issue of plurality. On the one hand, liberal political thought glorified subjective and individual identities underlying ethnocultural differences; on the other, it actualizes itself in political systems which emphasize formal equality and identical treatment of individuals and communities. It celebrates diversity but calls for the homogenizing fusion of all identities into one neutral system of government. Liberation is steeped in a highly contradictory political stance which in fact only complicates the management of ethnocultural diversity.

This is not unique to Quebec, but the Quebec situation may increasingly bear witness to the sociopolitical inefficacy of liberalism. The will no nation-state embodied in Québecois nationalism implied the leveling-off of ethnocultural differences, in spite of public discourses to the contrary. Indeed, it implies the eventual negation of all other cultural expressions in the public place. As such, it is painfully ad odds with the growing and irreversible heterogeneity of the current social fabric of modern Quebec. Unless a new ethics of interncommunal relations is developed, the construction of a truly open and accepting multicultural society in Quebec is nowhere near realization. To succeed, such a new ethnics would have to transcend the moral and sociopolitical parameters of liberalism. There is no sign that this is about to happen in Quebec and Canada.

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