History of the Quebec sovereignty movement

History of the Quebec sovereignty movement

The History of the Quebec sovereignty movement began in the late 1967, when René Lévesque formed the Mouvement Souveraineté-Association, or MSA.


"Main article: Quebec nationalism"

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 Lionel Groulx in the 1920s, the Francoeur Motion of 1917, the flirt of Honoré Mercier.

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 of 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" 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.

The early years of the PQ

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 provinical election, the PQ elected its first seven members of the National Assembly. René Lévesque was defeated in the Mont-Royal 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

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 afterwards.

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.

Repatriation, Meech, Charlottetown

The economic "association" part of the Sovereignty-Association concept was in some ways a forerunner of the later Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement of 1989 and the North American Free Trade Agreement. Perhaps for this reason, Quebec was one of the few regions within Canada where both sides of the political spectrum supported free trade with the United States.

The referendum of 1995

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 Meech 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"

In 1999, the government of Canada, inspired by Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Stéphane Dion, passed Bill C-20 (also known as 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, as opposed to the previously proposed Quebec piastre). It remains a part of the "Parti Québécois" program and is tied to national independence in the minds of most Quebecers. This part of the PQ program has always been controversial since no separatist leader has ever been able to convincingly explain why Canada would continue to extend any of the benefits of Canadian citizenship to residents of a separated 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.

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