The Evolution and Effects of Quebec Independence Movement

News & SocietyPolitics

  • Author Neaz Mujeri
  • Published September 16, 2021
  • Word count 2,937

The independence movement in Quebec is not really a recent phenomenon, in fact, nationalistic feelings in French Canadians in forming a nation of their own has its root in pre-industrial Quebec or New France, when the inhabitants there adhered on becoming ‘Canadienne’ – a single, unique group of people living separately with their own identity from mother country France. The fall of New France to the British in 1759 only amplified nationalistic feelings inside the inhabitants of New France who were being dominated politically, economically, and culturally by the British. Indeed, the modern history of the independence movement in Quebec began in the 1960s when “the people of the province began to question the assumptions on which their apparent placid, unchanging society was founded.” The movement slowly gained prominence in the following three decades until the sovereignty referendum of 1980. The eventual rise of the movement between the 1960s through the 1980s could be traced back through events in the following chronological order: the demise of Duplessis government and emergence of a liberal government under Jean Lesage ushering in the renewal of Quebec’s economic and social institutions, the emergence of Quiet Revolution in the early 1960s, the language movement, the surfacing of Parti Quebecoise as a political force in Quebec and finally the referendum on Quebec sovereignty in 1980. The movement and the referendum that followed have made us Canadians question the very basis of our Canadian society; it shook the foundation of the Canadian state with the very existence of the country being in question. Amongst the most profound effects of the independence movement of Quebec is the redefining of Canada as a federal state sponsoring the notion of being a truly bilingual yet a multicultural society and the transformation of French Canadian nationalism into Quebec nationalism.

The death of Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis in September 1959 marked the end of Grande noirceur – the dark age that had absorbed Quebec. “Down to 1959 or 1960 Quebec was governed through a deeply conservative political system that produced regular majorities for a premier, Maurice Duplessis, who proclaimed the superiority and the desirability of doing things the old way, preserving the old values of Quebec’s Catholic society.“ He ruled Quebec like a quasi-dictator in promoting and preserving the status-quo in Quebec. “No less than other societies Quebec was challenged by urbanization, industrialization, secularism and other facets of modernization. But to a greater degree than other societies, Quebec resisted thrust of modernization, fearing that accommodation with them would have grave social consequences, undermining its values and threatening the survival of its people.” The premier who succeeded Duplessis was Jean Lesage, who was a liberal and a top minister under Louis St-Laurent. Lasage is credited with moving Quebec forward after the ‘dark era.’

Under Lesage’s leadership, the Liberals had ended the sixteen-year rule of the Union National Party in Quebec promising sweeping reforms in government institutions such as education, healthcare, and social welfare etc. In fact, education, healthcare, and social welfare were controlled by the Catholic clergy largely prior to the revolution. The working class, as it became increasingly urban dwellers, felt that these public institutions under the Church were unable to react to and meet their needs. With the on slot of higher fertility rate in the general population after the Second World War and baby-boomers increasingly coming into the workforce, the Catholic Church was in lack of the resources and personnel in properly conducting these social intuitions with the altered demographic conditions. So they were forced to employ more laymen. Moreover, the change of values espoused by Quebecers which were increasingly liberal and secular, together with the decrease of religiosity in the mindset of ordinary people in Quebec resulted in reducing the role and authority of the Church in society.

The reforms undertaken by the state resulted in liberalizing and transforming Quebec society and ultimately ushered in the Quiet Revolution. According to William D. Coleman: “The independence movement was not the instigator of the Quiet Revolution or even part of that revolution, Rather it was a consequence, a product of the series of changes that began to be realized in Quebec late in the 1950s.“ The Quiet Revolution, heralded as the root of the independence movement, according to Herbert Guindon, lay in the modernization of Quebec which began with the large-scale involvement of the provincial government in Quebec society, in the early 1960s. But this does not tell the whole story, the Quiet Revolution was not just a change in government policy, instead, it was a change in spirit or atmosphere and a change in attitude in traditional Quebec society. “In ten years there was a radical change that affected ways of thinking, ideologies, culture… It was like a pot whose lid was kept in place by the Duplessis system; when someone dared to open it, it exploded.”

Through the Quiet Revolution, French Canada had united in a new re-invigorated form and the future of the nation seemed to be of enormous promise. It was short-lived though and when it disappeared some felt loss of self-worth and their disappointment fuelled the independence movement. The effect of the revolution became visible as the independent movement formed with the creation of the Mouvement Souverainte-Association (MSA), the predecessor of Parti Quebecoise in 1967. “In 1967, Quebec was catapulted onto the international scene by the Montreal World’s Fair (Expo’67) that drew hordes of visitor…and was a major milestone in rising Quebec nationalism…Sovereignists were ignited by [French President] General de Gaulles’ shout from the balcony of Montreal City Hall: ‘Vive le Quebec…libre!’ That Fall, the Parti Quebecoise coalesced under Rene Levesque.”

The commencement of the independence movement can be traced back to the labor dispute in Radio-Canada in 1959. The producers in the institution tried to start a labour union with the management strongly opposing such a move. The producers went on strike which lasted two months. In the end, the people blamed the Canadian Parliament and the Confederation itself for the wrong-doing, not the management of Radio-Canada or the Minister responsible. This highly symbolic event signifies the external political and economic pressure that is inflicted upon the development of Quebec society. Some fifteen years later, the Radio-Canada incident resulted in the election of Parti Quebecoise. The Radio-Canada incident influenced the people’s opinion in Quebec, made them feel alienated, and made them question the degree of participation of francophones in federal institutions.

Georges-Emile Lapalme, who was the leader of the Quebec Liberal Party from 1950 to 1958, is considered one of the fathers of the Quiet Revolution. In 1958 he wrote a manifesto in which he specified all the reforms necessary for the development of Quebec, which became the basis for the Quiet Revolution. He expressed a new role for the Quebec state which would lead the way for Quebec’s economic emancipation. To fight Duplessis’s policies, he put forward a notion of progressive nationalism. His ideas were taken up by Lesage in his election campaign. Through Lapalme’s ideas, Quebec nationalism became linked with social reform, a step forward from Duplessis’s nationalism that was based on conservative ideology. This new form of nationalism had its downturn as well as “this independence movement among French-speaking Quebecois is producing a new form of nationalism, one that often embodies a hostile and isolationist approach in pursuit of political, social and economic recognition. This new nationalism, along with multiculturalism, is affecting Canada's national identity as more people are unsure about their roots. These unexpected changes that have taken place in Canada have raised many questions about the country's future.” Lapalm intended to have the Quebec state play a much important role in the economic development of Quebec instead of waiting for Ottawa to take the initiative, but this had a negative consequence as this neo-nationalism made Quebec going in the direction of isolationism – Quebec government doing what is necessary for its socio-political and economic development paying no heed to Ottawa and the rest of Canada, for example, the inaction of the Bill 101 which exemplifies the whole question of the Language Movement in Quebec to which we turn next.

The Language Question in Quebec emerged as the next wave of political force behind the independence movement in Quebec. The French Canadians were the majority in the province of Quebec with their French language, but in the Canadian federation, they were the minority. The language question – the status of French in Canada was exemplified first by the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. “It examined income, occupation, and ethnicity, and revealed that in Quebec, the province where they were a majority, French Canadians were firmly at the bottom of the income and occupation heap. In federal institutions, French Canadians were simply not proportionately represented, and when they were, it was in low-status and low-paying jobs.” So the Quebec government enacted legislation to protect their language and culture and in the years that followed, Quebec increasingly demanded for control of its cultural institutions. Looking back at Jean Lesag’s slogan: ‘maitres chez nous’ (‘masters in our own home’), of Daniel Johnson’s ‘L’egalite ou l’independance’ (equality or independence) or the enactment of Bill 101, Bill 178 and the language police”- all these events point to the fact that Quebec’s survival as a nation are directly linked to French language regulations.

In 1974 the government under Robert Bourassa, a federalist Liberal, proposed to enact Bill 22, la loi sur la langue officielle that replaced a 1969 bill. Bill 22 established French as the language of workplace and government institutions. It also limited English education to only those Anglophone students who had prior education in the English medium. They had to take an entry test to attend English schools. Bourassa was unable to win the battle he had started; only Rene Levesque was trusted enough by the Quebecers to settle the language issue, as history demonstrated. “ Parti Quebecoise had become the only political force radical enough to make drastic changes without concessions to the English minority and credible enough to be trusted by a population who believed the traditional parties to be linked to the still-powerful English minority.” Rene Levesque acknowledged that it was deplorable that a nation had to legislate to validate the use of its own language in work and business, but he believed it had to be done, as a matter of survival for French Canadians who had been an enslaved race for so long.

The emergence of Parti Quebecoise (PQ) was the next major event that flourished the independence movement in Quebec. “Quebec was burning and by the end of turbulent 1960s, separatism had quickly gone from being a fringe ideology to become a feasible option.” It was a tumultuous time as a militant terrorist organization named The Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) emerged prior to the emergence of the PQ and bombed federal mailboxes, assassinated labour and manpower minister Pierre Laporte and kidnapped British diplomat James Cross. Events in the next two decades would rock the whole of Canada to its core. Bill 101, a brainchild of PQ government was “a deliberate attempt by Parti Quebecoise to create a symbol, to show the people of ‘the country of Quebec’ that the clock had been turned back, the battle of the Plains of Abraham had been won, after all, their struggle for survival was over, and that a new life – the one the fathers and mothers of New France would have wanted - was starting.”

The Parti Quebecoise defeated the Liberal government of Bourassa and came to power in 1976 which marked the renewal of the Quiet Revolution and its completion. It was a historic moment for the people of Quebec because the Quiet Revolution was brought to the front again with its nationalist dimension. But it was not a triumph for the sovereignists yet, as in 1976 the PQ did not run on the issue of separatism rather its campaign was on the issue of good governance. The Liberal Bourassa’s campaign was plagued by accusations of widespread corruption during its rule. PQ promised to bring the issue of independence only after a Quebec-wide referendum within five years of winning the election. In the 1980 referendum, Quebecers were asked to decide on whether to allow the government to negotiate sovereignty-association with Ottawa. “ This agreement would enable Quebec to acquire the exclusive power to make its laws, levy its taxes and establish relations abroad – in other words, sovereignty – and at the same time, to maintain with Canada an economic association including a common currency.” Finally, the province-wide referendum took place on May 20, 1980, and the proposal to pursue secession was defeated by a 59.56 percent to 40.44 percent margin. The yes side primarily lost because of the lack of support from the Quebec businessmen. Prior to the referendum, Levesque tried to woo the business community by reassuring that sovereignty would ultimately benefit everybody including businessmen, but the business community was not moved by the assurances. Maurice Seguin, a controversial and renowned Quebec historian doubts whether Quebec’s independence is even possible – “So on the one hand, he saw the tragedy of this conquered nation, in a minority position, for which independence was a desirable end. But on the other hand, he said: ‘It is so well kept, maybe the best-kept nation in the world, and these golden chains make its liberation difficult to achieve.” Since Quebec was so well kept by others in current federal Canada, he doubted whether Quebec could ever achieve independence.

The effects that the independence movement on Quebec and Canada between the 1960s and 1980s are: the redefining of Canada as a federal nation espousing a truly multicultural society- it is bilingual in orientation but multiethnic in composition. Another effect would be the evolution of nationalism in Quebec from French Canadian nationalism to Quebecoise nationalism. First, Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau was a powerful force on the ‘no’ side of the referendum. To contain the rising tide of Quebec nationalism, he implemented a number of strategies like promoting bilingualism with the Official Language Act of 1969, increasing francophone representation in federal government services, and increasing French language services of Radio-Canada throughout Canada. He termed ’Quebec Nationalism’ as being ‘dead’ and proposed a renewed and revitalized form of federalism in Canada. He also proposed more economic presence of the federal government’s in the province of Quebec only if the yes side was defeated. “Trudeau’s concept of Canada, while completely rejecting what he called Quebec nationalism, had this important aspect to it that is minority language rights across the country.“ Promoting bilingual services with minority French language established as one of Canada’s both official languages.

The second effect of the independence movement was the emergence of Quebec nationalism in place of the French Canadian nationalism – to have a clearer and precise identity – a Quebec identity. This new identity defined being a Quebecoise in territorial terms; it included people living in Quebec including non-francophone people who live here. Quebec has to become more multi-ethnic to keep pace with the globalized world with increased migration. “The idea of Quebec is not and cannot be an ethnic idea; it has to be a cultural idea, encompassing people of diverse origins.”

In conclusion, the rise of the independence movement is characterized by events such as the fall of the Duplessis regime and emergence of a liberal government under Jean Lesage, renewal of Quebec’s economic and social institutions, the emergence of the Quiet Revolution in the early 1960s, the language movement, the emergence of Parti Quebecoise as a political force in Quebec and finally the sovereignty referendum in 1980. Some might think that the Quebec independence movement lasted only a few decades, they are quite mistaken in understanding the history of Quebec nationalism. The roots of the movement went back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It may have increased in certain eras and abated in other times, but it came back again and again. The only constant in the history of Quebec is the rise in self-assertion and questioning its link with Canada and finding its place in the federal system. It may become a time when the Quebecers will completely assimilate themselves in Canada so that there would be no necessity for Quebec nationalism. Quebec nationalism may not be eternal but as long as there are people in Canada who speak French it will always come back to remind us of the struggle that has happened in Quebec through its independence movement. The contending fact is that without the rest of Canada acting as an increasingly bilingual buffer promoting bilingualism and biculturalism, Quebec would become more and more isolated from the North American mainstream.  


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Neaz Mujeri is pursuing his Executive MBA in Finance from Independent University, Bangladesh. He finished his Bachelor of Commerce from Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada majoring in Economics and Management Science. Right now he is working as the Executive Director of an organization in Dhaka named Center for Research Initiatives that carries out socio-economic research especially focusing on the rural development sector and development economics. Link:

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