AMANDA MARS – Washington 26 OCT 2019
The leader of the Bloc Québecois, Yves-Francois Blanchet, celebrating last Monday’s election results. ANDREJ IVANOV REUTERS
On Election Day in Canada, the last Monday, the leader of the Bloc Québecois, Yves-François Blanchet, took the stage exultantly and said, “I think we’re alive.” After eight years of crisis, news of the nationalist party’s death was somewhat exaggerated. A big winner of the night, the Bloc tripled its number of seats, from 10 to 32, after a campaign in which independence sentiment has been parked. “The Bloc’s voters know that we believe that one day—the sooner the better, but in due course—Québec should choose to equip itself with the attributes of sovereignty,” he said, while also admitting, “The scope of our mandate has limits.”
Québec has already held two independence referendums, one in 1980 and one in 1995, and in both cases won the no, but the last consultation came out with a difference of just a few tenths, just over 50,000 votes (he did get 49.4%). Still, support for sovereignty waned over the years and now only 35% of the Québec’s population is in favor, according to the most recent polls. Blanchet, former environmental responsibility of the regional government, decided not to wave that flag since taking over the leadership of the party last January and bet on increasing the region’s autonomy on immigration, language or taxes.
The secession, in short, is off the table or at least everything off the table that can be when a third of the population does want independence. Nationalist tensions, however, are redoubled. The Government of Québec defended for months the introduction of a law to force shops, restaurants or other premises to greet customers exclusively in French, that is, banish a formula very characteristic of the city of Montreal, in which it is usual that they receive one with a bonjour-hi, which mixes French and English. This expression, bonjour-hi, a hallmark of this diverse city, is a source of pride for some, but a nuisance to others. The Executive of Québec ended up discarding a proposal to veto the expression after the wave of criticism.
Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, also responsible for French protection policies, renounced “repressive action,” in his early October words. Jolin-Barrette, a member of Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), a conservative nationalist party, advocated promoting the greeting in French in the face of bilingual greeting through awareness campaigns. The National Assembly of Québec has already approved twice – once in 2017 and again last June – and unanimously non-binding motions favoring bonjour in front of bonjour-hi.
The historic Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, father of the current representative, told in his memoir that one could reach a business and that the clerk did not understand him in French. Bilingualism is now a reality, but always subject to debate.” Montreal is a French city,” stresses the minister, although 81% of the inhabitants of the city consider it bilingual, according to a survey this month prepared by Leger, a reference firm, collected by the CBC network.
The battle of language and identity continues to be rising. Analysts highlight the effect of “Bill 21,” which, in defense of Québec’s secularism, prohibits all religious symbols from teachers, police officers, and public employees. It has been driven by the CAQ conservatives, but it also has the support of the Bloc. In a country that has made multiculturalism its watchword, legislation has unraveled serious controversy and has already reached the courts, but for nationalists, stead of a religious battle, it is identity. For the newly re-elected prime minister, liberal Justin Trudeau has been a headache during the campaign. He has been opposed, logically, but has been evasive when asked whether the federal government will also be in the constitutional cause that several associations have opened. “At this point it would be counterproductive to get involved,” he said before the election.
For the political scientist Darrell Bricker, president of the Ipsos polling company, the “increase in nativism” in the province of Québec, in reaction to much of the migratory waves of recent years, changes the map of the situation for nationalism. In Québec, the only population group that increases their weight are so-called allophones (i.e. they do not have e-language or English or French) according to Census data.
Meanwhile, another independence movement makes its way into Canada, but from the other end of the country, Alberta’s rich oil province. Several polls point to this trend: one, at the beginning of the year, noted that 50% saw secession possible; last July, according to another study, 25% would vote for it. Wexit Alberta, a platform that promotes it, argues this rise of sovereignism to the economic consequences of falling crude oil prices and federal government locks on industry. It is another front Trudeau will have in his new mandate: the identity of oil.