The Trudeau Paradox - Part I

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The results of last year's provincial election in Quebec, which returned the Parti Quebecois to power, only reconfirmed the perceptions many Canadians in other parts of the country had of Quebec. They consider the province spoiled and entitled, still musing about separating from Canada despite having dominated the political agenda for nearly four decades and having received billions of dollars in transfer payments. Separation is seen simply as a way for Quebec to blackmail more power and money from the rest of the country. The province is also seen as intolerant because of language legislation like Bill 101, which many other Canadians believe restricts individual rights and freedom of choice, particularly the rights of its Anglo-Quebec minority. Past Prime Ministers like Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chretien are seen as having only cared about their own province, blowing off many of the concerns of other parts of Canada. All this, despite the fact that other parts of Canada have made an effort to accommodate Quebec by accepting bilingualism and enrolling their children in French immersion, which is what they thought Francophone Quebecers were looking for.

Despite these efforts by the rest of the country to accommodate Quebec, the federal government under Brian Mulroney continued to try change the Canadian constitution to that province's satisfaction with the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords. These Accords were fiercely opposed by Pierre Trudeau, and he was strongly supported by those Canadians who viewed the accords as further pandering to Quebec. The fallout from the failures of Meech Lake and Charlottetown led to the Quebec referendum of 1995, when Quebec very nearly separated from Canada. In the aftermath of this near-disaster, many Canadians concluded that there was no satisfying Quebec, particularly when the province came within a hair of seceding from Canada. They were opposed to any kind of concessions to Quebec nationalism, which they considered separatist in and of itself, if not racist and discriminatory.

This was because of the "Trudeau Paradox", where Pierre Trudeau's policies were meant to turn Francophone Quebecers away from their nationalism but ended up becoming far more popular among other Canadians than they were among Francophone Quebecers. What most Canadians outside Quebec don't realize is that the last four decades were not a continuous effort of trying to please Quebec and force Quebec's agenda on the rest of the country. Pierre Trudeau's time in office was dedicated to fighting Quebec nationalism.

Trudeau's policies of bilingualism and the Charter of Rights were meant to turn Francophone Quebecers away from their nationalism and undermine any particular recognition of Quebec as the distinctly Francophone province in Canada. Trudeau had an agenda, but his was very different from the one generally expressed in Quebec. Most Canadians outside Quebec didn't realize this and often assumed that his agenda was that of Quebec as a whole. They became upset when they saw that many Quebecers still wanting to separate, becoming convinced that nothing would satisfy them.

While Trudeau made many important and valuable contributions to Canada, he ultimately didn't succeed in his goal of trying to convince Francophone Quebecers to abandon their nationalism. The fallout from this was one of the factors that led to Brian Mulroney becoming Prime Minister, and the failure of Mulroney's efforts to accommodate Quebec nationalism came about in no small part due to Trudeau's fighting Mulroney's efforts. That, in turn, led to the re-election of the Parti Quebecois in 1994, and the near-catastrophe of 1995.

This article is divided into three parts. In this first part, I examine the origins of Quebec nationalism how it led to Francophone Quebecers seeing their province as a "distinct society" in Canada, and how it led to the desire to have that distinctiveness recognized in the Canadian Constitution. In the second part, I examine Pierre Trudeau and his response to the attempts by Francophone Quebecers to have their province recognized as distinct in the Constitution. I also examine many of the policies he implemented to undermine Quebec's distinctiveness, and his interventions in the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, which led to the Trudeau Paradox. In the final part, I examine the possibility of reconciliation and resolving the Trudeau Paradox, as well as the fact that Quebec has much more in common with the rest of Canada than most people realize.

The Trudeau Paradox, Part I: The Rise of Quebec Nationalism

The desire of Francophone Quebecers for their province to have its distinctiveness recognized runs very deep in Canada, and extends all the way back to Confederation itself. Some of the Anglophone Fathers of Confederation, such as John A. Macdonald and Charles Tupper, would have preferred to simply fuse all of the British North American colonies into one larger entity, erasing the colonial borders altogether. However, they knew that this was impossible, due in no small part to the presence of Lower Canada, later to become Quebec, as one of the colonies in Confederation.1 Indeed, George-Etienne Cartier and the other Francophone Lower Canadian Fathers, with support from the Maritimes, were adamant that Canada be a federal country, with particular powers reserved for the provinces.2 From there, a broader sense developed that the English and the French were Canada's two "founding peoples",3 and that Quebec needed to be recognized as a "distinct society" within Canada because the majority of one of its founding peoples was located in Quebec.4

Later generations of Quebec thinkers picked up on this theme. Early Quebec and Canadian nationalist Henri Bourassa spoke about a "double compact" between French-and English-speaking Canadians,5 while André Laurendeau,6 Claude Ryan,7 Christian Dufour,8 and Stéphane Dion9 all advocated the recognition of their province as distinct within Canada. The federal system was seen as extremely important by Quebec Francophones, particularly in that it allowed them to continue to maintain their Francophone character.10 This even extended to language, as Francophone Quebecers used the same term of "Prime Minister" to refer equally to provincial Premiers and the federal Prime Minister.11 Unfortunately, most of these developments were overlooked by Anglophone thinkers, who developed their own ideas of how Canada should evolve.12

This thinking developed against the backdrop of Francophone religious, educational and cultural rights, which were thought to be implicitly guaranteed in the original Confederation debates. George-Étienne Cartier, for example, specifically referred to how the educational rights of Ontario's Francophone Catholic minority would be specifically guaranteed along with the educational rights of Quebec's English-speaking minority.13 Unfortunately, many of these rights were systematically rolled back, opposed and reduced in other parts of Canada, such as with the passing of Regulation 17 in Ontario, the opposition to bilingualism and Francophone Catholic schools in the Prairie provinces and the hanging of Louis Riel (which was heavily marked by an anti-Catholic backlash, which the largely Catholic Franco-Québécois population took as an attack on their religion and community), which led many Francophone Quebecers to believe that they could only maintain their Francophone identity and language within Quebec itself. This, in turn, gave rise to Quebec nationalism,14 as Francophone Quebecers tried to maintain their province's Francophone character while also ensuring space for its Anglophone minority.15

In the 1960s, Prime Minister Lester Pearson set up the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, to study the various national unity questions raised by the rise of Quebec nationalism. Many of its Francophone members, especially Laurendeau, advocated the idea of "biculturalism", or "two founding peoples". These Francophone members felt that Canadian institutions needed to reflect the reality of the country's two national communities, including a recognition of Québec's distinctiveness. Areas where linguistic minorities were prominent could be recognized as "bilingual districts".16

When Quebec nationalism became a major issue in the 1960s, with Quebec nationalists believing that their province needed to be recognized as distinct in Canada, Pierre Trudeau came on the scene to oppose them. Trudeau's individualist beliefs led him to state that Francophone Quebecers, and by extension all Francophone Canadians, could get along just fine without any kind of distinct status for Quebec. To that end, he advocated extending language rights to English- and French-speaking individuals across Canada, which would strengthen national unity. In turn, many Canadians outside Quebec came to see Trudeau as the main speaker for his province, and his policies as what Francophone Quebecers were truly looking for.17

The resulting "Trudeaumania", as it was called, led to Trudeau becoming Prime Minister in 1968, and remaining in office until 1984, except for a brief period in 1979-1980. Trudeau would implement many controversial reforms during his time in office, and he would continue to influence Canadian politics for a long time after. This, and more, is the subject of Part II of this essay.


1 Tupper quoted in P.B. Waite, The Life And Times of Confederation, 1864-1867. Toronto, Ontario: Robin Brass Studio Incorporated, 2001. Page 222. Macdonald quoted in Alain Noel, "The Federal Principle: Solidarity and Partnership", in Beyond The Impasse: Towards Reconciliation, edited by Roger Gibbins and Guy Laforest. Montreal, Quebec: Institute for Research on Public Policy. Pages 241-265, quoted on page 241).

2 Kenneth McRoberts, Misconceiving Canada: The Struggle For National Unity. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press, 1997. Pages 10-11.

3 Paul Romney, Getting It Wrong: How Canadians Forgot Their Past and Imperilled Confederation. Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 1999. Pages 4, 138-139, 285-286. See also Claude Couture and Jean-François Cardien, with Gratien Allaire, Histoire du Canada: Espaces et differences. Saint-Nicolas, Québec : Les Presses de L'Université Laval, 1996. Pages 64, 215-216. See also Desmond Morton in The Illustrated History of Canada, edited by Craig Brown. Toronto, Ontario: Key Porter Books, 2002. Pages 504-505. See also Peter Russell, Constitutional Odyssey: Can Canadians Become a Sovereign People? Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 2004. Pages 35, 50-51.

4 Romney, pages 142-143 and 211-212. See also McRoberts, pages 17-24, 27-35 and 258-259.

5 Couture, Cardin and Allaire, page 95. See also McRoberts, pages 19-24, and Romney, pages 143 and 211.

6 See James Bickerton, Stephen Brooks and Alain G. Gagnon, "André Laurendeau: The Search For Political Equality and Social Justice" in Freedom, Equality, Community: The Political Philosophy of Six Influential Canadians. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1995. Pages 55-70, especially pages 61-69. See also Guy Laforest, Trudeau and the End of A Canadian Dream. Translated by Paul Leduc Browne and Michelle Weinroth. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1995. Pages 56-86, especially 67-73.

7 Claude Ryan, Regards sur le fédéralisme canadien. Montreal, Quebec : Boréal, 1995. Pages 229-233.

8 Christian Dufour, Lettre aux souverainistes et aux fédéralistes qui sont restés fidèles au Québec. Montreal, Québec : Les Éditions Alain Stanké, 2000. Pages 59 and 66.

9 Stéphane Dion, Straight Talk: Speeches and Writings on Canadian Unity. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1999. Pages 138-149.

10 Claude Couture, Paddling With The Current: Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Étienne Parent, Liberalism and Nationalism in Canada. Translated by Vivien Boisley. Edmonton, Alberta: University of Alberta Press, 1998. Page 81.

11 Dufour, page 107.

12 Romney, pages 210-222. See also Laforest, pages 56-86.

13 George-Étienne Cartier, "I Am Also A French Canadian." Quoted in Who Speaks For Canada? Words That Shape A Country, edited by Desmond Morton and Morton Weinfeld. Toronto, Ontario: McClelland and Stewart, 1998. Pages 36-38.

14 Couture, Cardin and Allaire, page 216. See also Romney, pages 203-204, 209 and 245-246. See also Alan Cairns, Charter vs. Federalism: The Dilemmas of Constitutional Reform. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1992. Page 36. See also Edmund Aunger, "Traffic Ticket Case A Truly Historic Decision." Edmonton Journal, July 9, 2008 and available online

15 Dufour, pages 51-54.

16 McRoberts, pages 88-91 and 117-120. See also Jeffrey Simpson, Fautlines: Struggling For A Canadian Vision. Toronto, Ontario: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993. Page 256.

17 McRoberts, pages 64-74, 169, 187.

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The results of last year's provincial election in Quebec, which returned the Parti Quebecois to power, only reconfirmed the perceptions many Canadians in other parts of the country had of Quebec.

It did? The election was preceded by a ton of stories about corruption and a ton of stories about protests against the policies of the Liberal government. And the PQ's victory was hardly overwhelming. I think those combine to make it difficult to draw any broad conclusions concerning what the election said about the residents of Quebec and their opinions. It didn't reconfirm anything for me.

Your intro has a number of broad statements about what "many Canadians" believe and it also tends to treat the population of Quebec as if they're all of the same opinion. Both of those are problematic.

Personally, I think there are important class issues in the earlier francophone nationalism all the way up to early PQ victories, and that since that time the issues have shifted rather. That is, francophones were definitely an underclass (or at least, anglos were an overclass, with a definite "glass ceiling" effect for francophones trying to rise in business) in Quebec itself right up to the seventies. This discrimination was always a very substantial beef for the francophone population of Quebec.

I think this is no longer true. I'm sure there are still some rich Anglos in Westmount, but rising in Quebec now if anything favours native francophones. While the Parti Quebecois never succeeded in separating Quebec from the rest of Canada, they did succeed in substantially redrawing the map of power and privilege in the province itself; some of the language laws in many ways were really less about culture as such than about who would have access to the best jobs, taking a playing field that had been skewed in favour of anglos with connections and re-skewing it in favour of francophones or, at a minimum, people who spoke fluent French. It's a form of affirmative action, and the rights-based complaints about it have often mirrored the complaints we see about other forms of affirmative action. But it's been much broader, more sweeping and more effective than most attempts at affirmative action.

One problem with that from a specifically separatist point of view is that they may have succeeded too well. Quebec grievances with Canada at this point are essentially the same as every other province's grievances with Ottawa: We don't get no respect, we don't get our share, those damned (Ontarians, Albertans) get shit that we don't get, the politicians in Ottawa are distant and unaccountable and they don't understand our unique situation here in (Quebec, Newfoundland, whatever). The fundamental class grievance, that (francophone) Quebecois were not "maitres chez nous", was once very real and very strong, but it is basically gone. There may well still be a cultural case for separation, but that carries less urgency, which I think may be part of the reason why, although general support for separation doesn't seem to have really gone away, it has become much more of a "Yeah, when we get around to it" kind of thing rather than a driving political project.

This may not be a problem from a broader "nationalist" but not separatist perspective, however. But it certainly means the questions driving francophone reflection about Quebec, what it needs, and what its place in or out of Canada might be have shifted a good deal since the PQ started winning elections.

One thing I do think might create a push for separation once more that would have greater urgency would be a continuation of what I see as political shifts in broadly different directions in Quebec relative to the rest of Canada. That is, if Canada continues to drift rightwards, electing right wing governments which impose neoliberal governance, dismantling social safety nets, reducing elite taxation and so on, while Quebec internally resists this tendency and blocks or even reverses the tendency to a rightward political shift, Quebecois might form a view, or rather strengthen and broaden a view I think already exists, that the broader country was undermining their attempts at maintaining an active, useful state which helps its people and gets involved in development. Which, again, would be basically true just as the class beefs in the old days were true. Although it would help if the NDP could form government nationally.

It did? The election was preceded by a ton of stories about corruption and a ton of stories about protests against the policies of the Liberal government. And the PQ's victory was hardly overwhelming. I think those combine to make it difficult to draw any broad conclusions concerning what the election said about the residents of Quebec and their opinions. It didn't reconfirm anything for me.

Let me explain. I'm not saying that these are what the election results actually confirm about Quebecers and their opinions. What I mean is (and perhaps I could have been clearer) is that many people in the rest of the country saw the PQ's re-election as proof that Quebecers were just lazy and entitled. I saw many of these comments on places like the Canada Kicks Ass forums, the CBC commentaries on the news articles, and more Sun Media columns and letters to the editor than I care to remember.

Those are the negative stereotypes about Quebecers, and the election results "confirmed" them for the people who believe them. Of course, as I touch on in Part III it's far more complicated than that. Support for separatism actually fell to 28% during the election. There's also a number of areas where Quebecers share a lot more common ground with the rest of us than most people realize.

Your intro has a number of broad statements about what "many Canadians" believe and it also tends to treat the population of Quebec as if they're all of the same opinion. Both of those are problematic.

Not all Quebecers or all Canadians in general have the same opinions, and that's not what I meant to say. My intent here was to summarize the beliefs many of the commentators I've seen over the years hold in regards to Quebec at the start of the essay, before I move on to rebut those stereotypes and try and show where many federalist Quebecers not named Trudeau are coming from.

The opinions of Quebecers I cite here are those I've gleaned from everything I've read, including works by prominent federalist Quebecers like Claude Ryan. They're also bolstered from a lot of the Francophone Quebecers I've known personally. I can count the number of them I've known or read about who actually like what Trudeau did on my hands, and still have fingers left over. The views I cite here obviously don't represent every single person, of course, but I think it's a good representation of what many people think.

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This page contains a single entry by Jared Milne published on January 21, 2013 9:16 AM.

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