History of the Quebec sovereignty movement

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The History of the Quebec sovereignty movement covers various movements which sought to achieve political independence for Quebec, a province of Canada since 1867.


Sovereigntism and sovereignty are terms that refer to the modern movement in favour of the political independence of Quebec. However, the roots of Quebec's desire for self-determination can be traced back as far as the Alliance Laurentienne of 1957, the writings of historian Lionel Groulx in the 1920s, the Francoeur Motion of 1917, the flirt of premier of Quebec Honoré Mercier with this idea in the 1890s.

The Quiet Revolution of Quebec brought widespread change in the 1960s. Among other changes, support for Quebec independence began to form and grow in some circles. The first organization dedicated to the independence of Quebec was the Alliance Laurentienne, founded by Raymond Barbeau on January 25, 1957.

On September 10, 1960, the Rassemblement pour l'indépendance nationale (RIN) was founded. On August 9 of the same year, the Action socialiste pour l'indépendance du Québec(ASIQ) was formed by Raoul Roy. The "independence + socialism" project of the ASIQ was a source of political ideas for the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ).

On October 31, 1962, the Comité de libération nationale and in November of the same year, the Réseau de résistance were set up. These two groups were formed by RIN members to organize non-violent but illegal actions, such as vandalism and civil disobedience. The most extremist individuals of these groups soon left to form the FLQ, which, unlike all the other groups, had made the decision to resort to violence in order to reach its goal of independence for Quebec. Shortly after the November 14, 1962 Quebec general election, RIN member Marcel Chaput founded the short-lived Parti républicain du Québec.

In February 1963, the FLQ was founded by three RIN members who had met each other as part of the Réseau de résistance. They were Georges Schoeters, Raymond Villeneuve, and Gabriel Hudon.

In 1964, the RIN became a provincial political party. In 1965 the more conservative Ralliement national (RN) also became a party.

At the time many former European colonies, such as Cameroon, Congo, Senegal, Algeria, Jamaica, etc., were becoming independent. Some advocates of Quebec independence saw Quebec's situation in a similar light. Numerous activists were influenced by the writings of Frantz Fanon, Albert Memmi, Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor and Karl Marx.

In June 1967, French president Charles de Gaulle, who had recently granted independence to Algeria, shouted Vive le Québec libre! during a speech from the balcony of Montreal's city hall during a state visit to Canada for Expo 67 and the Canadian Centennial. In doing so, he deeply offended the Canadian federal government, which derided him. De Gaulle cut short his visit and left the country.

Finally, in October 1967, former Liberal cabinet minister René Lévesque left that party when it refused to discuss sovereignty at a party convention. Lévesque formed the Mouvement souveraineté-association (MSA) and set about uniting pro-sovereignty forces.

He achieved that goal in October 1968 when the MSA held its first (and last) national congress in Quebec City. The RN and MSA agreed to merge to form the Parti Québécois (PQ), and later that month Pierre Bourgault, leader of the RIN, dissolved his party and invited its members to join the PQ.

In 1970, terrorists kidnapped two government officials in a major event that galvanized support against violence.

The early years of the PQ[edit]

Jacques Parizeau joined the party on September 19, 1969, and Jérôme Proulx of the Union Nationale joined on November 11 of the same year.

In the 1970 provincial election, the PQ elected its first seven members of the National Assembly. René Lévesque was defeated in the Laurier riding by the Liberal André Marchand.

In the 1973 election, the PQ won six seats, a net loss of one. However, its share of the popular vote had significantly increased.

The referendum of 1980[edit]

In the 1976 election, the PQ won 71 seats, shocking both Quebecers and other Canadians. With one of the highest voting turnouts in Quebec history, 41.4 per cent of the electorate voted for the PQ. The PQ formed a majority government.

On August 26, 1977, the PQ passed two important laws: first, the law on the financing of political parties that prohibits contributions by corporations and unions and set a limit on individual donations and second, the Charter of the French Language.

On May 17, Robert Burns resigned, telling the press he was convinced that the PQ was going to lose its referendum and fail to be re-elected afterward.

At its seventh national convention on June 1 to 3, 1979, the sovereigntists adopted their strategy for the coming referendum. The PQ then began an aggressive effort to promote sovereignty-association by providing details of how the economic relations with the rest of Canada would include free trade between Canada and Quebec, common tariffs against imports, and a common currency. In addition, joint political institutions would be established to administer these economic arrangements.

Sovereignty-Association was proposed to the population of Quebec in the 1980 Quebec referendum. The proposal was rejected by 60 per cent of the Quebec electorate.

In September, the PQ created a national committee of anglophones and a liaison committee with ethnic minorities.

Despite having lost the referendum, the PQ was returned to power in the 1981 election with a stronger majority than in 1976, obtaining 49.2 per cent of the vote and winning 80 seats. However, they did not hold a referendum in their second term and put sovereignty on the back burner, concentrating on their stated goal of "good government".

René Lévesque retired in 1985 (and died in 1987). In the 1985 election under his successor Pierre-Marc Johnson, the PQ was defeated by the Liberals.


Meech Lake Accord[edit]

The Meech Lake Accord was a set of constitutional amendments aimed at convincing Quebec to become a signatory of the Constitution Act, signed in 1982. In 1987, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and every provincial premier negotiated the accord at Meech Lake, which satisfied all of Quebec’s demands and decentralized the authority of the federal government, allowing the provinces greater influence over policy-making.[1] Quebec’s five principle concerns that were addressed in the accords dealt with the constitutional recognition of Quebec as a ‘distinct society,’ a constitutionally protected provincial role in immigration, a provincial role in Supreme Court appointments, limitations on the federal power, to spend in areas of provincial jurisdiction, and an affirmed veto for Quebec in any future constitutional amendments.[2] Besides the Progressive Conservatives’ initiative in pledging to reach ‘national reconciliation’ through constitutional rapprochement and re-establishing harmonious ties in federal-provincial relations,[3] the Liberals and New Democrats supported the accord in a House of Commons vote.[4] Adhering to the procedure to ratify an amendment as outlined in the Constitution Act of 1982, the accord was sent to the ten provincial legislatures for approval.[5] However, the accord collapsed due to the failure of the Manitoba and also the Newfoundland governments required sanctioning of it by the three-year deadline of June 23, 1990.[6] The implications of the failed Meech Lake Accord were far reaching in causing a greater divide between French Quebecers and the English part of Canada.

There are several reasons attributed to the explanation of the accord’s downfall, including the indirect and elitist manner in which negotiations were handled, the lack of proper recognition concerning minorities’ interests, vague discussion about key issues, weak promotion by the federal government, and deliberate manipulation of the media and public by politicians supporting and against it.[7] Inside of Quebec, francophones responded with indignation at the failure of the accord, interpreting it as a rejection of French reality by English Canada.[8] Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa’s remarks that “English Canada should understand that no matter what is said or done, Quebec remains today as always a distinct society that is capable and free to assume its own development”,[9] which indicated the general consensus in Quebec after the failure of the accord. Other than the enthusiasm over the accord in Quebec, Canadians outside of the province expressed resentment towards the ‘distinct society’ clause. There was a widespread sense that only the French benefited from the accord and that it did not address other constitution issues.[10] Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells’ feared that Quebec would use the ‘distinct society’ clause to assert greater and special jurisdictional authority, over what would otherwise be under federal jurisdiction. This was reflective of the commonly perceived notion, held by English-Canadians, that the Meech Lake Accord would bring unevenness and difference, to rights and powers, where the intended effect was to introduce equality.[11]

Charlottetown Accord[edit]

The Charlottetown Accord was the second attempt by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s government in 1992 to bring Quebec into agreement with the constitution through reforms in a national referendum. Furthermore, the accord included a variety of provisions suited to deal with other diverse Canadian issues. The main terms included provisions on parliamentary reform, aboriginal self-government, a new division of federal-provincial powers, and a distinct society status on Quebec.[12] Regarding Quebec, the new accord set out to satisfy Quebec’s constitutional demands, drawing upon the same major elements presented in the Meech Lake Accord which provided assurances of Quebec representation on the Supreme Court, a veto over constitutional amendments on federal institutions, and a provision limiting federal powers concerning shared-cost programs,[13] allowing provinces to opt out with full compensation.[14] Quebec was also guaranteed twenty-five percent of the seats in the House of Commons of Canada.[15] The Senate would be restructured to have six elected members from each province and one each representing the territories. Each province would decide how the senators would be selected.[16] Additionally, the equally represented Senate for each province would have suspending veto powers that would cause a joint session with the House of Commons.[17] In the realm of provincial and federal powers, the accord outlined a transfer of jurisdiction over labour-market training and culture to the provinces as well as handing over authority, by provincial request, over the ministerial responsibilities of forestry, mining, recreation, tourism, housing, and municipal and urban affairs.[18] Another major aspect of the accord was the recognized right of Aboriginal self-government as an existing legal body of government.[19] Most of what was included in the Meech Lake Accord either remained intact or was expanded upon in the Charlottetown Accord.

On October 26, 1992, Canadians voted ‘No’ on the Charlottetown Accord in 6 out of 10 provinces, which included Quebec, by a margin of 54 percent to 45 percent.[20] The vote reflected not only the English-Canadians’ concern over provincial equality, individual equality, no unique status, and the inviolability of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but Quebeckers’ perception that the accord would only slightly affect Quebec’s place within Confederation while not doing enough to ensure Quebec’s autonomy within the federal government.[21] Despite the existence of more regulations concerning federal spending, the ‘No’ side in Quebec were convinced that the accord would legitimatize federal intervention in provincial affairs which could counter Quebec’s interests, create overlaps of federal and provincial influence on policies, therefore leading to inefficient copies of policies on similar subject matter.[22] For Quebec separatists, the failure of a further attempt at constitution reform affirmed their position that there were only two choices available in Quebec: the status quo or Quebec sovereignty.[23] Lucien Bouchard, leader of the Bloc Québécois, declared, “There were two roads before the referendum – profoundly renewed federalism and sovereignty. These two options must now find a convergence,”[24] though outside of Quebec, many Canadians saw the ‘No’ vote as an assertion of the status quo, not sovereignty.[25] One of the major effects that resulted from the failure of multiple attempts at constitutional reform was the massive upheaval of the traditional political party structure in the federal government after the 1993 election. The Progressive Conservatives suffered the greatest loss of seats in modern history of industrialized democracies, only winning in two seats, and two new parties, Bloc Québécois and Reform party, finished with the second and third highest number of elected seats.[26]

The referendum of 1995[edit]

The PQ returned to power in the 1994 election under Jacques Parizeau, this time with 44.75% of the popular vote. In the intervening years, the failures of the Meech Lake Accord and Charlottetown Accord had revived support for sovereignty, which had been written off as a dead issue for much of the 1980s.

Another consequence of the failure of the Meech Lake Accord was the formation of the Bloc Québécois (BQ) under charismatic former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister Lucien Bouchard. For the first time, the PQ supported pro-sovereigntist forces running in federal elections; during his lifetime Lévesque had always opposed such a move.

The Union Populaire had nominated candidates in the 1979 and 1980 federal elections, and the Parti nationaliste du Québec had nominated candidates in the 1984 federal election. Neither of these parties enjoyed the official support of the PQ; nor did they enjoy significant public support among Quebecers.

In the 1993 federal election, following the collapse of the Progressive Conservative Party, the BQ won enough seats to become Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition in the House of Commons.

Parizeau promptly called a new referendum. The 1995 referendum question differed from the 1980 question in that the negotiation of an association with Canada was now optional.

This time, the Yes camp lost in a very close vote, by less than one percent. As in the previous referendum, the English-speaking (anglophone) minority in Quebec overwhelmingly (about 90%) rejected sovereignty, and support for sovereignty was also weak among allophones in immigrant communities and first-generation descendants, while by contrast almost 60 per cent of francophones of all origins voted Yes (82 per cent of Quebecers are francophone).

In an ill-considered outburst, Premier Jacques Parizeau attributed the defeat of the resolution to money and the ethnic vote


The PQ won re-election in the 1998 election, which was almost a "clone" of the previous 1994 election in terms of number of seats won by each side. However, public support for sovereignty remained too low for the PQ to consider holding a second referendum during their second term. Meanwhile, the federal government passed the Clarity Act to govern the wording of any future referendum questions and the conditions under which a vote for sovereignty would be recognized as legitimate. Federal liberal politicians stated that the ambiguous wording of the 1995 referendum question was the primary impetus in the bill's drafting.

In the 2003 election, the PQ lost power to the Parti libéral du Québec. However, in early 2004 the Liberal government of Jean Charest had proved to be unpopular, and that, combined with the federal Liberal Party sponsorship scandal contributed to a resurgence of the BQ. In the 2004 federal elections, the Bloc Québécois won 54 of the 75 federal seats in Quebec, compared to 33 previously.

While opponents of sovereignty were pleased with their referendum victories, most recognized that there were still deep divides within Quebec and problems with the relationship between Quebec and the rest of Canada.

The Clarity Act[edit]

In 1999, Parliament, inspired by Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Stéphane Dion, passed the Clarity Act, a law that, amongst other things, set out the conditions under which the federal government would enter into discussions following a vote by any province to leave Canada. The act gave the Parliament of Canada the power to decide whether a proposed referendum question was considered clear, and allowed the elected representatives of all Canadians from all provinces and territories to decide whether a clear majority had expressed itself in any referendum. It is widely considered by sovereigntists as indefensible, and thus inapplicable, but, in fact, is sanctioned by the United Nations. A contradictory, but non-binding and symbolic Act respecting the exercise of the fundamental rights and prerogatives of the Québec people and the Québec State was introduced in the National Assembly of Quebec only two days after the Clarity Act had been introduced in the House of Commons.

Former Prime Minister Chrétien, under whom the Clarity Act was passed, has remarked that the act is among his most significant accomplishments.


"Sovereignty-Association" is nowadays more often referred to simply as "sovereignty". However, in the 1995 Quebec referendum, which was narrowly rejected, the notion of some form of economic association with the rest of Canada was still envisaged (continuing use of the Canadian dollar, for example). It remains a part of the Parti Québécois program and is tied to national independence in the minds of many Quebecers. This part of the PQ program has always been controversial since some Quebec federalists and Canadian politicians outside Quebec have argued that it is unlikely that the rest of Canada would make an association or partnership agreement with a sovereign or independent Quebec.[27] or that Canada would want to put on the negotiating table issues that the Quebec government would refuse to negotiate, such as the partition of Quebec.

In 2003, the PQ launched the Saison des idées (Season of ideas) which is a public consultation aiming to gather the opinions of Quebecers on its sovereignty project, the new program and the revised sovereignty project will be adopted at the 2005 Congress.


  1. ^ Jonathan Lemco, Turmoil in the Peaceable Kingdom: The Quebec Sovereignty Movement and Its Implications for Canada and the United States (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994), 19.
  2. ^ Richard Simeon, “Meech Lake and Shifting Conceptions of Canadian Federalism,” Canadian Public Policy/ Analyse de Politiques 14:1, Supplement: The Meech Lake Accord / L'Accord du lac Meech (September 1988), S9.
  3. ^ Simeon, “Meech Lake,” S9.
  4. ^ Lemco, Turmoil, 21.
  5. ^ Simeon, “Meech Lake,” S9-S10.
  6. ^ Lemco, Turmoil, 20.
  7. ^ Lemco, Turmoil, 20.
  8. ^ David R. Cameron and Jacqueline D. Krikorian, “Recognizing Quebec in the Constitution of Canada: Using the Bilateral Constitutional Amendment Process,” University of Toronto Law Journal 58:4 (Fall 2008): 392.
  9. ^ Rhéal Séguin, “Bourassa sees a redefined role for his provincle,” The Globe and Mail, June 23, 1990, A01.
  10. ^ Cameron and Krikorian, “Recognizing Quebec,” 392.
  11. ^ Robert Vipond, “From Provincial Autonomy to Provincial Equality (Or, Clyde Wells and the Distinct Society),” in Is Quebec Nationalism Just? Perspectives from Anglophone Canada, ed. Joseph H. Carens (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995), 108.
  12. ^ Lemco, Turmoil, 48.
  13. ^ Robert C. Vipond, “Seeing Canada through the Referendum: Still a House Divided,” Publius 23:3, The State of American Federalism, 1992-1993 (Summer 1993), 46.
  14. ^ Lemco, Turmoil, 49.
  15. ^ Richard Johnston, “An Inverted Logroll: The Charlottetown Accord and the Referendum,” PS: Political Science and Politics 26:1 (March 1993), 44.
  16. ^ Lemco, Turmoil, 49.
  17. ^ Vipond, “Seeing Canada,” 46.
  18. ^ Lemco, Turmoil, 49.
  19. ^ Vipond, “Seeing Canada,” 46.
  20. ^ Lemco, Turmoil, 53.
  21. ^ Lemco, Turmoil, 53.
  22. ^ Vipond, “Seeing Canada,” 49.
  23. ^ Lemco, Turmoil, 53.
  24. ^ André Picard, “Bourassa accepts sovereignty fight,” The Globe and Mail, October 27, 1992, A01.
  25. ^ Lemco, Turmoil, 53.
  26. ^ Lemco, Turmoil, 55.
  27. ^ See "Reform to be vocal on referendum". The Globe and Mail. (July 31, 1995)