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Quebec

Quebec almost deserves its own separate guide. As the only French-speaking region of North America, the province is quite unlike anywhere else in Canada or the United States. The majority of the population consists of French-Canadians, the descendants of 17th century French settlers who have resisted centuries of pressure to assimilate into Anglo society. That tradition continues to this day, and modern Quebec is a vibrant, fascinating place whose residents remain determined as ever to preserve a distinctive culture and unique values.

As Canada’s second-most populated province, the concerns of Quebec have played a large role shaping Canadian history, and continue to exert enormous influence on Canada’s culture, politics, and economy. The relationship between Quebec and the Rest of Canada (or “ROC”) has not always been easy, and over the last few decades the question of separatism — whether Quebec would be better off leaving Canada and becoming a separate country — has been one of Canada’s most difficult debates.

Note: This chapter provides a broad overview on Quebec. For information on things to see and do in Quebec, see the Quebec tourism chapter.

Quebec Geography

Quebec is Canada’s largest province in terms of landmass, but much of its territory is uninhabited — and uninhabitable. The province’s extreme north is a barren arctic wasteland similar to that of Canada’s three northern territories, inhabited by polar bears, caribou and arctic wolves, while the central region is filled with dense, boreal forest. As is in Ontario, early efforts to colonize the north were mostly unsuccessful due to the rocky soil and harsh climate that made farming impossible.

The vast majority of Quebecers have always lived around the vast St. Lawrence River that cuts into southeastern Quebec from the Atlantic ocean. This was the path the first European explorers used to enter North America, and both of Quebec’s major cities, Montreal and Quebec City, originally arose as coastal settlements. This region’s land is lush and fertile, with rolling hills, small lakes and arable soil that was ably tilled by early French-Canadian habitants, or sustenance farmers.

Quebec’s long, snowy winters are an iconic symbol of the province, and the massive outdoor Carnaval du Quebec in Quebec City, featuring skating, dog-sledding, ice-sculpting, and tobogganing is one of the highlights of the year. While Quebec has far flatter terrain than the mountainous provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, the modest Laurentian Mountains in the province’s south serve as the main mecca of eastern Canadian skiing.

Quebec Cities

About half of Quebec’s eight million residents live in Montreal, the second-largest city in Canada after Toronto. A modern, stylish, cosmopolitan city, Montreal is  home to many of the province’s (and indeed, the country’s) top cultural attractions including the Montreal Jazz Festival and the Just For Laughs stand-up comedy extravaganza. Historically, Montreal was known for being an oasis of English in an otherwise French-dominated province, due to its high population of wealthy Anglos — the descendants of British colonial settlers. For a variety of political and economic reasons many Anglos have chosen to leave in recent decades, however, and today only about 11% of Montrealers speak English as their first language, but their influence remains strong enough for over half of all residents to claim to be bilingual. While the city has always had a sizeable population of Jews, Italians, Irishm and other European communities, new waves of immigration from outside the western world have helped reshape the city’s demographics, cuisine, and culture.

Quebec City, which is confusingly often called simply Quebec by locals, is the province’s second-largest city and the provincial capital. Unlike multicultural Montreal, Quebec City is vastly more uniformly French, with much lower rates of bilingualism, English-Canadians, and immigrants. An older city than Montreal, it retains a very pronounced European flavour through its shops, architecture, and festivals. There are still enough remnants of the city’s history as an 18th century walled fortress to have earned it a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 1985.

Most of Quebec’s other residents either live in suburban cities close to Montreal, like Laval, Terrebonne, and Longueuil, suburbs close to Quebec City, like Lévis, or somewhere in the approximately 300 kilometre space between the two big cities, mostly the Eastern Townships area, which is located south of the St. Lawrence River and is home to the sizeable communities of Sherbrooke and Trois-Rivières.

"Settlers Camp Saint Maurice Valley" (1858) by Cornelius Krieghoff (1815-1872) a famed painter of early Quebec life.

History of Quebec

As the early history chapter discusses in more detail, explorers from France were the first Europeans to actively settle the land that is now Canada, forming an impressive colony known as New France along the St. Lawrence River in 1603, before proceeding to expand westward. Masters of the fur trade, early French colonists earned a reputation as rugged outdoorsmen, navigating the continent’s hostile terrain and forming productive alliances with aboriginal nations. Tensions between French and English interests eventually led to war between the two nations in 1756 (The Seven Years War, or French and Indian War), and the French were clobbered. New France was seized by the British, the French army was forced to abandon the continent, and all remaining French settlers were placed under English rule. This pivotal moment, dubbed simply “The Conquest” by modern Quebecers, forms the context for everything that came after.

Since the French settlers in North America greatly outnumbered the English, the victorious British quickly concluded that New France, soon renamed Quebec, could only be effectively governed if it was permitted to retain a high degree of cultural independence. A British law known as the Quebec Act (1774) explicitly allowed residents to keep speaking French and worshipping in the Catholic Church, and generally maintain the same way of life they had under French rule. Political and economic power, however, was concentrated in the hands of a small, English-speaking elite. Though the British eventually granted Quebec self-governance and the province joined Canada in 1867, Quebec remained a largely feudal society for two more centuries. Well into the 20th century, the majority of Quebeckers continued to live meagre lives as sustenance farmers, and the Catholic church continued to play an enormous role in education and politics. Deeply conservative and traditional, the exotic province remained culturally and economically isolated from the rest of Canada, which suited the interests of a narrow ruling class of conservative politicians, English capitalists, and fundamentalist priests just fine.

The two terms of the very right-wing Maurice Duplessis (1890-1959), who served as prime minister of Quebec from 1936-1939 and 1944-1959, are usually seen as the last gasp of this particular phase of Quebec life. The mid-20th century saw  a gradual rise in a more educated and secular Quebec middle class, and Duplessis’ death in 1959 allowed a more liberal government to take his place, ushering in a series of far-reaching social and economic reforms dubbed the Révolution tranquille or “Quiet Revolution.” Among other things, Quebec women began to go to work, divorce, and use birth control, while men moved their families to the cities, took up white-collar jobs and formed large and powerful unions. Within a generation, Quebec had done a complete flip; it had gone from being the most rural and conservative part of the country to one of the most urban and progressive.

Quebec Culture

Quebecers’ identity as a unique and special people is tied to their distinctive Francophone culture, often described as a blending of European traditions and North American attitudes. Though Quebec, like the rest of Canada, is becoming an increasingly multicultural place, particularly in its big cities, Quebecers have been the most aggressive in trying to preserve their historic identity in the face of considerable social and technological change.

The vast majority of Quebeckers, around 93%, speak French. Most can speak at least some English as well, with the city of Montreal — the historic home of Quebec’s powerful English-speaking minority — the most functionally bilingual place in Canada. More than anything else, protecting and strengthening the use of the French language has historically been the central cause of Quebec nationalism, and since the 1970s, the provincial government has passed a number of laws that limit the use of English in business, schools, and — most infamously — public signs and advertisements. The legal centrepiece of this is the Charter of the French Language, also known as Bill 101, whose strict rules have governed Quebec language policy for over 40 years.

Most Quebecers remain ethnic French-Canadians descendant from a fairly small group of 17th century colonial settler families, and many of the province’s most famous cultural tropes harken back to that community’s centuries-old shared rural past. Traditional French-Canadian meals remain hearty “peasant” dishes like pea soup, meat pie (tourtière), and cipaille, a kind of stew. The proud Canadian cliche of maple syrup originates from Quebec, where it was originally harvested by forest-dwelling farmers in cabanes à sucres (literally, “sugar shacks”). French-Canadian folk songs, such as Alouette or Les Raftsmen, are often about rural chores, exploring the wilderness, or farm life.

Partying at Quebec City's summer festival (Le Festival d'été de Québec).
Francis Gagnon

Quebec Separatism

The idea that Quebec exists as a unique “nation” within North America is quite old, but taking things a step further and arguing Quebec should leave Canada altogether and form its own country is relatively newer. This ideology, known as separatism, really came into prominence during the 1960s, when a poorly-performing economy coupled with the post-Quiet Revolution culture of self-empowerment made previously unthinkable ideas suddenly more attractive. Just as colonized peoples in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East were abandoning their imperial masters, many Quebeckers began to dream of completing their long escape from English domination.

A new provincial political party devoted to separatism known as the Parti Quebecois was founded in 1968 and elected in to power in 1976. Led by the charismatic Rene Levesque (1922-1987), who became Quebec’s first separatist premier, the Parti Quebecois’ philosophy was that Quebecers should have the right to vote on whether they want to stay in Canada or not. In 1980, the first such referendum was held, but Quebecers ultimately voted to stay.

Despite the defeat, the French-Canadian separatist movement only grew in power and size during the 1980s and 1990s. Several more separatist premiers were elected, the majority of Quebec’s representatives in the Canadian Parliament became separatists, and a second separatism referendum was held in 1995 — and only failed by a margin of less than one per cent. That loss was quite demoralizing, however, and since then the separatist movement has declined in popularity quite a bit, with many Quebecers now inclined to regard separation as a distraction from more immediate social and economic problems. Quebec’s most recent separatist government only held office for a year and a half (September 2012 to April 2014) and in the 2011 and 2015 federal elections, most separatist candidates for parliament were defeated.

"At a time when new countries are regularly born into the world, we believe Quebec must add its name to the great book of the history of peoples. The adventure facing Quebec is that of a nation that develops a relationship on equal footing with First Nations and the Inuit nation, where the Anglophone community has a place and where the contribution of Quebec immigrants is valued. We have a rendezvous with freedom and the country we have desired for so long."

Preamble to the Constitution of the Parti Québécois

Quebec Politics

Despite its traditionalist past, modern Quebec is said to be one of the most left-wing places in North America. Unions are large and powerful, there’s a generous cradle-to-grave welfare system, and public opinion remains almost universally supportive of controversial social causes like abortion, LGBT rights, and euthanasia. Politics in Quebec are thus not terribly ideological, and most politicians support broadly similar social-democratic agendas. The bigger source of polarization is the question of separatism.

Since the 1970s, Quebec has operated under a two-party system that pits the pro-separation Parti Quebecois against the anti-separation (or “federalist“) Quebec Liberal Party. Both parties are essentially nationalist, yet Liberals believe Quebec’s interests can be addressed by working within the existing Canadian system, while separatists believe only independent nationhood can give Quebecers the fair deal they deserve.

As the country’s second-biggest province, the politics of Quebec have large influence on the politics of Canada overall. Because Quebec separatism is considered a serious existential crisis to Canada’s survival as a country, the age-old question of “what does Quebec want?” is something that has been given a lot of attention by the Canadian political class over the years. Initiatives like enshrining French as an official language of Canada and providing subsidies for the Quebec welfare state represent significant efforts to quell separatist sentiment through conciliatory gestures, though they’ve also fostered resentment in other parts of the country, where Quebec outreach can be seen as simply “caving in” to French whining or extortion.

Links to More Information About Quebec