One could write a whole other guide just about Quebec. As the only French-speaking region in North America, a continent with over 300 million English speakers, Quebec is a place quite dramatically unlike anywhere else in Canada or the United States, and is, in some ways, the continent’s de facto third country. For the time being, however, it remains very much a part of Canada, and as the country’s second-largest province in terms of population, it’s influence on the nation’s politics, culture, and economy is second only to neighbouring Ontario.
Culturally, Quebec is a vibrant and interesting place, due to the successful efforts of the French-Canadian people to retain their language, values and traditions, even hundreds of years after their conquest by the British Empire. Yet, this fact also generates Canada’s biggest and most complicated political problem: can Quebecers survive as a distinct people in an English-speaking nation? Or would they be better off going it alone?
Quebec is Canada’s largest province, geographically speaking, but much of it remains uninhabited — and uninhabitable. The province’s extreme north is a barren arctic wasteland similar to that found in Canada’s northern territories, inhabited by polar bears, caribou and arctic wolves, while Quebec’s central region is filled by dense, boreal forest. As was the case in Ontario, early efforts to colonize the north were mostly unsuccessful due to the rocky soil and harsh climate that made it entirely hopeless for farming.
The vast majority of Quebecers have thus always lived around the vast St. Lawrence River that cuts into southeastern Quebec and connects the province to the Atlantic ocean. This was the route the first European explorers used to enter North America, and both of Quebec’s major cities, Montreal and Quebec City, originally sprang up as coastal settlements. The region is mostly 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 have long been an iconic symbol of the province, with the massive outdoor Carnaval du Quebec, featuring skating, dog-sledding, ice-sculpting and tobogganing being one of the highlights of the year. While Quebec is overall far flatter than Canada’s famously mountainous provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, the modest Laurentian Mountains of the province’s south serve as the main mecca of eastern Canadian skiing.
As the history chapter discusses in more detail, the French were the first Europeans to begin actively settling 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. Clashes between French and English colonial interests in North America 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 French settlers were placed under British rule. This pivotal moment, dubbed simply “the Conquest” by modern Quebecers, forms the context for everything that came after.
Since French settlers in North America greatly outnumbered the English, the victorious British colonial authorities quickly concluded that New France could only be effectively governed if the place was allowed to retain a high degree of cultural independence. So the Brits permitted their new colony to “stay French” to a large extent, and didn’t actively undermine the French language or Catholic religion of its residents. Indeed, the culture and values of 17th century France continued to thrive in Quebec far longer than they did in France itself; while the mother country would eventually experience a bloody revolution and become a scientific, secular, democratic republic, New France clung tightly to pre-revolutionary ideas of feudalism, hierarchy and religious and political subservience.
Even after New France gained the ability to self-govern (around the time it was renamed “Quebec”), and shortly after became one of the founding provinces of Canada, the region remained primitive and backwards for at least another century. Fearful of Anglo-American cultural influences, Quebec of the 19th and early 20th centuries was an extremely conservative, traditionalist society in which most citizens lived meagre lives as sustenance farmers and political power was controlled by a small, reactionary elite dominated by ultra-fundamentalist Catholic clergy.
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 hurrah of this particular phase of the Quebec identity. The mid-20th century had seen 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 180; it had gone from being the most rural and conservative parts of the country to one of the most urban and progressive.
Quebec Nationalism and Separatism
Like most defeated people, the French-Canadians have been nursing a grudge against their conquerors for quite some time.
Since early Quebec defined itself primarily as a rural, Catholic, French-speaking society, it was obviously quite easy for the province to find a lot to dislike and fear in largely Protestant, urban, English-speaking Anglo Canada — an attitude that helped justify the French-Canadian spirit of eager isolation from the North American mainstream for so many years. During both world wars, for example, French-Canadians were famously indifferent — if not hostile — to the Allied cause, unsure if liberal democracy was really the winning team. Even after the dramatic value-swap that was the Quiet Revolution, such feelings still persisted, though now the problem was that Canada was too conservative for Quebec’s newfound social-democratic values.
The belief that Quebec forms an independent “nation” within North America is quite old, but going one step further and arguing that 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 bad economic times coupled with the post-Quiet Revolution culture of self-empowerment made previously unthinkable ideas suddenly more attractive. 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 prime minister, 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 — and Quebecers 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 to pass by a margin of less than 1 per cent. That loss was quite demoralizing, however, and since then the separatist movement has declined in popularity quite a bit. Many Quebecers may now be inclined to regard separation as something of a distraction from more immediate social and economic problems, or even an ineffective way to protect French-Canadian culture. The late 1990s and 2000s saw a greater split between the idea of being a Quebec nationalist — as in, believing Quebec is distinctive and special place — and being an outright separatist, whereas in earlier times the ideas were often inseparably fused.
Today, Quebec is said to be one of the most left-wing places in North America. Unions are large and powerful, there’s a vast cradle-t0-grave welfare system, and public opinion remains strongly in favour of controversial social causes like abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia. As a result, politics in Quebec are not terribly ideological, since most politicians will support broadly similar social-democratic agendas with only small variations. A much bigger source of polarization is the question of separatism.
Since the 1970s, when the conservative political party of the late Premier Duplessis — the Union Nationale — declined into oblivion, Quebec has operated under a two-party system that pits the pro-separation Parti Quebecois against the anti-separation (or “federalist“) Liberal Party of Quebec. It’s hard to summarize things that neatly, though. Both the PQ and Liberals are undoubtedly nationalist parties, in the sense that they favour expanded powers for Quebec at the expense of the federal government, and reject the idea that Quebec is merely one of “10 equal provinces.” Where they differ is tactics: Liberals believe Quebec’s interests can be served within the existing Canadian system (albeit with some reforms), 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 noticeably influenced the politics of Canada overall. Because separatism is considered a serious existential crisis to Canada’s survival as a nation, answering the age-old question of “what does Quebec want?” is something that has been given a lot of priority by the Canadian political class over the years. Programs like national French-English bilingualism and subsidies for the Quebec welfare state represent significant federal efforts to appease nationalist sentiment through conciliatory gestures, though they also foster a great deal of resentment in other parts of the country, where such outreach is often seen as little more than “caving in” to French whining.
A famous Canadian once said that Toronto is a city of wealth and Vancouver is a city of style, but Montreal is a city of culture. The oldest of Canada’s three major cities, Montreal retains copious amounts of European charm, with Parisian bistros, neo-gothic architecture, fancy cuisine and ritzy boutiques that have made it a true tourist hotspot.
Historically, Montreal was known for being an oasis of English in otherwise French-dominated Quebec, due to its high population of wealthy Anglos — the descendants of British settlers from the post-Conquest times — along with Jews, Italians, Irish and other European immigrants. Though the Anglo population of the city has noticeably declined in recent decades, it remains a diverse and multicultural place where the larger “Frenchness” of Quebec is somewhat less pronounced.
The home base of indie bands like Arcade Fire, global festivals like the Montreal International Jazz Festival and avante-garde performance troupes like Cirque du Soleil, 21st century Montreal enjoys a reputation for being one of Canada’s hippest cities, and a hotbed for hipsters, artists, students and other members of the boho creative scene.