Where the solitudes meet

It’s hard to tell Quebec’s responses from the national results

BENOIT AUBIN December 31 2001

Where the solitudes meet

It’s hard to tell Quebec’s responses from the national results

BENOIT AUBIN December 31 2001

Where the solitudes meet

It’s hard to tell Quebec’s responses from the national results


We wouldn’t always know it by listening to Bloc Québécois MPs or Parti Québécois stalwarts, but Quebecers are, in many regards, Canadians just comme les autres. Across a broad range of issues, the attitudes of Quebecers seem very much in sync with those expressed nationally. That holds true from their solid support for Ottawa’s antiterrorism legislation to their shared fears that security forces might one day abuse their new powers. Also held in common: a sense that Ottawa should reappraise its policies in the Middle East.

You can’t tell a typical Quebecer from an average Canadian by their positions on the American military action in Afghanistan (overwhelming support), or the idea of turning away refugee claimants arriving in Canada with dubious ID (solid approval). Similarly, Quebecers share with other Canadians a guarded optimism about the future, a confidence in their ability to look after their economic interests, an ambivalence about having a common currency with the United States, and a concern that the country is heading into a recession.

In our previous year-end polls, Quebecers have consistently demonstrated a great respect for the lifestyle and behavioural differences of others. Whether the issue is extramarital affairs, sexual orientation or simply smoking in public places, Quebecers are less likely to wag a finger than Canadians elsewhere. And again, this year’s survey reveals differences of attitudes within and beyond Quebec’s borders. But with a questionnaire focused on the aftermath of Sept. 11, those differences tend to be slight rather than radical—of the “somewhat more/somewhat less” variety, in pollster parlance. And in these discrepancies between Canadian and Québécois attitudes lies what has become of former premier Robert Bourassa’s cherished distinct society: the poll depicts Quebecers essentially as Canadians, although with a mind of their own on many issues.

Quebecers, for instance, are more likely than other Canadians to say they have become “more like Americans” over the past few years. They are also somewhat less hawkish. Canadians outside Quebec are more likely to agree to the need to increase spending on armed forces, support Canadian involvement in Afghanistan or give a nod to the political assassination of terrorist leaders. But Quebecers seem more jealous of their personal liberties. They are clearly less willing than the average Canadian to give up some personal freedom to combat terrorism.

To some extent, those attitudes may reflect that well-documented hedonistindividualist streak that Quebecers like to flaunt to the rest of the country. “Once, we submitted this proposition to Canadians: eat, drink, be merry, for tomorrow you may die,” pollster Allan Gregg recalls. “Quebec teenagers agreed to it to the tune of 77 per cent. In British Columbia, only 17 per cent of teens said they agreed.”

But there is clearly more than that to Quebecers’ responses about the world since Sept. 11. Following the attacks on New York City and Washington, Premier Bernard Landry was quick to snuff out any talk of a referendum on secession for the foreseeable future: no more direct confrontation with Canada. He also snapped up a full-page ad in The New York Times to express sympathy and solidarity. He signed that letter “Prime Minister of Quebec,” but Landry has otherwise undergone a significant shift in semantics since he took over government last spring.

Gone are references to le peuple québécois in official communications. The current flavour is la nation québécoise. “Nation,” it is thought, is more inclusive of all citizens of the province—non-francophones, federalists and sovereigntists—than the politically charged “people.” Nation also carries a stronger connotation of purpose and legitimacy—important characteristics for a wanna-be sovereign government. Landry, no doubt, has polls like this one, too.

For decades, the separatists’ doctrine was


Compared with other Canadians, Quebecers are... More likely to:

Support personal-identity cards

Feel Canada should re-evaluate its IsraeliPalestlnian policies

Less likely to: Support Canadian involvement in Afghanistan

Say they would give up some freedoms to combat terrorism

Think police should use all the force necessary to control protesters when world leaders meet in Alberta in June

Think Sept. 11 was an attack on all Western democratic societies, not just U.S.

Think Canadian Forces should be involved in fighting in Afghanistan

that Quebec could not develop as a “nation” unless it became independent from Ottawa—or, failing that, without acquiring a significant share of extra constitutional powers. But to this day, that dogma has proven to be a hard sell. Quebecers, especially the younger generations, have rejected the nationalist politics and the constitutional wranglings of the past— now widely perceived as a sterile baby boom thing. Instead, they have gone resolutely multicultural and global. And, to the separatists’ dismay, being part of Canada has not been an impediment.

Quebecers live behind a linguistic barrier that also defines their territory. They

have their own media, their own star system. Their own flag. Quebecers can find their own identity, a sense of collective self, in their own province. When they look beyond these confines, they are likely to adopt a continental or global view, quite often skipping the Canadian national step. Thus the “distinct” attitudes shown by Quebecers on several key issues of international interest.

Quebecers don’t just think they have become more like Americans. More poll respondents from Quebec than from elsewhere say the Americans are our best friends, and Canada and the U.S. are tied together economically. Canadians elsewhere, on the other hand, are more likely to say they share a common set of values and beliefs with the Americans. So, Quebecers are closer to Americans in their hearts and wallets, but they identify less than other Canadians with our neighbours to the south.

It is easy, then, to understand why Quebecers seem less in favour of spending more money on the Canadian Forces; are more likely to believe the attacks on New York and Washington were aimed solely at the United States, and are more likely to think the U.S. will step in and protect our interests when the heat is on.

In a changing world, the concept of sovereignty is shifting. The United States has declared war not against a precise country —with a border, a flag, a government— but against a movement that straddles borders. In Europe, sovereign countries have jettisoned their individual currencies, their borders becoming little more than symbolic. National air carriers are going broke fast. Globalization is eroding the powers and prerogatives of traditional nation-state governments. And many Quebecers like what they see.

Debating the opportunities and possible strategies of “small nations” (or, in Quebec’s case, a semi-nation) in the global village is all the rage in the province’s intellectual circles. In this shifting global environment, many in Quebec see an unexpected opportunity: a way out of the political dead end at which four decades of constitutional wrangling with Ottawa have left us. That may just be wishful thinking— time will tell. What the Macleans ICBC News survey seems to suggest, though, is that the Parti Québécois is scrambling to catch up to le peuple, sorry, la nation. Quebecers are looking outside the box. And thinking globally. ES!