Legault immigrants French

The Battle for Quebec’s Soul: The deevolution of Quebec nationalism

A new documentary tracks the seamless transition from the progressive Quiet Revolution movement to the CAQ’s right-wing populism.

“Sortons de votre salons, tabarnak! Allez-voir c’est quoi le Québec!” 

Quebec singer Émile Bilodeau’s cri de coeur during Francine Pelletier’s documentary film Bataille pour l’âme du Québec (The Battle for Quebec’s Soul) made me laugh out loud because I felt his frustration. It’s routinely how many of us feel when confronted with current Quebec government policies pushed through to tackle a reality that we don’t even recognize and offer up “solutions” to non-existent problems. 

Pelletier’s documentary outlines the story of Quebec nationalism from the late 1960s to the present day, and how said nationalism has gradually transformed from a progressive and “open to the world” movement to a much more conservative current, a nationalism that appears centred on the “historical francophone majority” while pushing aside everything else as secondary and not deserving of equal attention and respect. 

The documentary, by a journalist and filmmaker I have long appreciated as both a Quebecer and a feminist, comes at a good time. Quebecers are living through more linguistic and social tension than I’ve seen in years. Thanks to the CAQ’s constant overload of government-mandated fierté and legislation like Bill 21 and Bill 96 nurturing a populism that aims to garner effortless votes by pushing easy buttons among the francophone majority, Quebec’s minorities are feeling increasingly pushed aside as their rights, voices and concerns are marginalized.

Conditional acceptance

Quebec Quiet Revolution René Lévesque nationalism
Parti Québécois founder René Lévesque

“It’s difficult to feel like you belong in a society where you can sense your acceptance is conditional,” says Moroccan-born freelance columnist Manal Drissi, echoing what most allophones and children of immigrants such as myself routinely feel.

Via interviews with historians, political strategists and a variety of public figures and former politicians, Pelletier draws a portrait of a Quebec that is becoming increasingly focused on exclusion and identity politics to the detriment of social cohesion and successful immigrant integration. 

“I first arrived here in the middle of the Quiet Revolution,” says Pelletier, a franco-Ontarian. “It was a great time to be in Quebec. The movement was progressive and focused on human rights and women’s rights.” 

While nationalism was a dirty word in many parts of the world after World War II, in Quebec, nationalism has always been seen as a fundamental part of its history and necessary for its linguistic and cultural survival, always as a progressive, not regressive movement. With a focus on gay rights legislation and universal subsidized daycare, it practised what it preached. 

“Nationalism has always been so prevalent in Quebec,” says Pelletier. “As a result, many Quebecers haven’t noticed the seamless transition into a kind of ‘populisme de droite’ that’s been occurring. Many Quebecers buy François Legault’s line that this kind of nationalism is a continuation of the Quiet Revolution, but it absolutely isn’t.” 

How anecdotes become national crises

The alt-right in Quebec nationalism
The alt-right in Quebec

Francis Boucher, whose 2018 book La grande déception: Dialogue avec les exclus de l’indépendance (The Great Disappointment: Dialogue With Those Excluded From Independence) I continue to recommend to anyone who hasn’t read it, appears in the documentary talking about how two failed referendums and Jacques Parizeau’s ill-fated “money and ethnic vote” speech transformed the nationalist movement and opened the door to a kind of bitterness and — here Boucher quotes Spinoza — unleashing “les passions tristes.” 

As a lifelong sovereigntist, Boucher opposed the PQ’s proposed Charter of Values and later realized how it had contributed to Quebec’s linguistic and religious minorities and children of immigrants, no longer feeling part of the “nous.” 

“We transformed certain anecdotes into a national crisis,” says Boucher. Anyone following current Quebec news or reading its most popular French-language newspaper would have to agree that it’s certainly still the case. Day in and day out, single anecdotes that don’t truthfully reflect the daily reality of Montreal or even Quebec are brandished as weapons to be used by politicians or pundits with a very clear agenda.

Pelletier believes the turning point for the nationalist movement was the reasonable accommodations debate in 2007–2008. Then-Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ) leader Mario Dumont adopted a populist (often xenophobic) discourse that paid off for him politically. During the 2007 Quebec elections his party would come in second, ahead of the Parti Québécois, making Dumont the leader of the opposition.

As political scientist Maryse Potvin says in the documentary, “nationalism suddenly became about secularism.” 

“The PQ jumped on that bandwagon,” says Pelletier, “which coming from the party of René Lévesque felt like betrayal.” 

Quebec’s Charter of Values introduced by the PQ in 2013 under Premier Pauline Marois as an attempt to legislate the Quebec controversy on reasonable accommodations, would alienate many nationalists who no longer felt represented in these values. 

Former PQ member Louise Harel explains in the film how she left the movement when the charter was introduced, referring to it as the ‘Chartre des malheurs’

Former Bloc member Jean Dorion calls the charter a “pitiful act of affirmation” that was “cruel” by not even including a grandfather clause. 

Regressive, exclusionary movement 

François Legault and Simon Jolin-Barrette Quebec nationalism
François Legault and Simon Jolin-Barrette

The more the movement progressed the less it became this open and inclusive movement that fought against important foes like American imperialism, but instead became a series of superficial measures that marginalized minorities.

“We’re still not a fully mature society able to deal with some of these important questions,” says Pelletier. “Quebec has historically seen itself as oppressed, so it has a hard time seeing itself as a ‘société d’accueil.” 

A society that not only needs to welcome immigration for its own demographic survival, but also help them successfully integrate by making them feel like they belong. 

“At the same time,” Pelletier says, “the English community needs to understand that francophones have intense insecurity and feelings of vulnerability when it comes to their language and culture. It doesn’t take much to make us feel small and vulnerable.” 

It’s these insecurities most conservative populists like Legault depend on to amplify their own narrative and push through policies that infringe on minority rights. 

“Bill 21 particularly incenses me,” says Pelletier. “It’s clearly a violation of human rights and changes absolutely nothing other than making the francophone majority feel dominant.” 

Bill 96 while less egregious to her, also sends the message that immigrants better shape up if they’re coming here while not implementing any concrete measures ensuring that French will flourish. 

A society in transformation

Québécois pour Trump Facebook page 2016 Quebec nationalism
Québécois pour Trump Facebook page 2016

The regressive conservatist traditional movement that is anti-pluralism, anti-multiculturalism and aims for homogeneity is represented in the film by pundits like Mathieu Bock-Côté, who refused to be interviewed for the film. 

“He’s good at stirring up the pot,” says Pelletier. “He’s extremely polarizing.” 

Historian Jean-François Nadeau refers to this type of regressive nationalism as a Quebec-made version of “Make America Great Again.” 

But there’s no going back. Historian Pierre Anctil makes it clear in the documentary he believes the Quiet Revolution’s Bill 101, which utterly transformed Quebec society, was a true success story — a success story that would inevitably transform Quebec, too. 

“I wonder if the generation of René Lévesque truly understood what they were doing with Bill 101,” says Pelletier. “That legislation meant that Quebec’s identity would inevitably change. By sending immigrants’ kids to French schools, because it’s essentially the only way for the French language and culture to survive in Quebec, that meant Quebec would also change. It’s a two-way street. The goal should be to maintain Quebec’s identity while remaining open to the world.” 

A Quebec that’s becoming more, not less

Quebec nationalism The Battle for Quebec's Soul

Most minorities busy integrating fully into Quebec society while trying to maintain their cultures, languages and traditions already profoundly understand these challenges that Quebec’s majority is currently grappling with. Ask immigrant parents as they watch their children evolve and slowly become something “other than” while simultaneously finding their place in the whole; inevitably also shaping that whole. It’s a dilution of sorts, but it’s also an expansion into something more. It’s inevitable that anything that touches and interacts will both transform and be transformed. 

“Far from Quebec’s soul disappearing,” concludes Pelletier, “it’s expanding.”

Despite the cautionary tone, the documentary ends on a positive note, reminding us that a carefully protected and loved identity doesn’t just evaporate into thin air, it transforms into something else —perhaps, something even richer. 

Maybe that initial dream of a ‘model society,’ so integral to what fuelled Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, isn’t completely lost and will and can be championed by a new generation of Quebecers. All of them. ■

To watch the French documentary Bataille pour l’âme du Québec, please click here. 

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis here.