Earlier this year, Quebec’s National Assembly unanimously adopted a motion declaring the province no more racist than anywhere else. It was a strange move, as though politicians were magicians whose words sufficed to make theirs “among the most open and welcoming nations in the world.” Of course, this attempt to shield the population from slander was really a defence of state policy. The motion was proposed by Jean-François Roberge, the minister for secularism, and it contains a clause insisting that Bill 21, which prohibits certain public servants from wearing religious symbols, should not be called racist either.
This logic creates a discursive trap, whereby claiming a law discriminates against minorities is actually proof of prejudice against the people of Quebec. It makes me wonder if I should preface any reproach with a declaration of love or with my tax returns, dating history, library records, and family tree — whatever nebulous combination would qualify me as an internal critic. Perhaps writing in English dooms me already? After all, identitarian constructs are not meant to be appeased. They are exclusionary by design.
Francine Pelletier assures me it was not always this way. In Au Québec, c’est comme ça qu’on vit (In Quebec, that’s how we live), the journalist and filmmaker charts the rise of identitarian nationalism in La Belle Province over the past twenty-five years. She observes that Quebec “is built on a geological fault,” as the same protective impulse that has allowed its unique culture to endure also “encourages isolationist attitudes and mistrust of the Other.” Likewise, two strands coexist within the nationalist movement: a conservative one, concerned with the survival of francophone Quebecers as an ethnic group, and a progressive one that embraces diversity and defines belonging in civic terms. During the days of René Lévesque, this latter spirit dominated. These days, the pendulum has swung the other way.
This follow-up to Pelletier’s 2022 documentary, Bataille pour l’âme du Québec (Battle for the soul of Quebec), pays particular attention to the internal transformation of the Parti Québécois, which now campaigns even more strongly against immigration than the governing Coalition Avenir Québec. In the 1970s and 1980s, she argues, the PQ was inclusive in its orientation, thanks to “the spirit of its leader and the dream of a country.” Lévesque shared the postwar hesitancy to stoke xenophobia and insisted the term “Québécois” included everyone who lived within the province, regardless of culture, language, or religion. The project of independence was also well served by recruiting more allies against Anglo Canadian imperialism.
The dynamic started to shift after the 1995 referendum. Pelletier does not blame Jacques Parizeau, the premier who infamously declared that the motion for sovereignty had been defeated by “money and ethnic votes.” Parizeau had gone off script, and Pelletier attributes his outburst to an individual sense of shame. The real tidal change occurred years later, in the backlash against attempts by the PQ and the Bloc Québécois to compensate for Parizeau’s words.
The intellectual groundwork for a conservative reorientation was laid by the sociologist Jacques Beauchemin, who pushed for a positive re-evaluation of the grande noirceur, the period prior to the Quiet Revolution when Quebec was dominated by the Catholic Church. (Pelletier also points to Nous, which Jean-François Lisée published before serving as PQ leader.) But the main factor was political opportunism.
In 2007, a media spectacle arose over “reasonable accommodation” as some Quebecers asked whether Sikhs, Orthodox Jews, and, above all, Muslims were making too many demands on the majority. Action démocratique du Québec, a right-wing party, capitalized on the moment by attacking religious minorities and became the official opposition. According to Pelletier, the PQ jumped on the bandwagon to win back voters, pledging to protect Quebec’s identity as secular. She personally experienced the shift as a “form of betrayal.”
From that emerged a “Charter of Values,” introduced under the PQ premier Pauline Marois in 2013, which sought to ban all public servants from wearing ostentatious religious symbols, even though there had been no documented cases of proselytizing by provincial employees. What’s more, the PQ proposed the measure in the name of gender equality. Pelletier’s feminist credentials are ironclad; she co-founded the magazine La Vie en rose in the 1980s and was named by the perpetrator of the Polytechnique massacre as a potential target. And while she condemns the Catholic Church’s reduction of women to wombs, she denounces legislation that, though theoretically neutral, targets minority groups in practice. As she writes, “The Charter of Quebec Values is a crafty sleight of hand that serves to hide the discrimination suffered by some — principally Muslim women — via the discrimination previously endured by others — principally old-stock francophones.”
Marois’s proposal never became law, but François Legault’s Bill 21 borrowed key elements from it when it forbade a narrower subset of public servants, including teachers in public schools, from showing their affiliations. Meanwhile, the premier himself has connected immigration to violence and opposes multiculturalism as a threat to Quebec’s unique identity. Some of this resistance is old, picking up on a sense that Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s policy sought to reduce francophones from a founding people to a minority like any other. (Pelletier counters that multiculturalism originated from a desire to recognize the diversity of Western Canada.) But the arguments against multiculturalism have become increasingly absurd, as right-wing pundits like Mathieu Bock-Côté peddle alarmist visions of a world where new arrivals call the shots. White francophones have the highest salaries in the province; a nationalist government controls the state and uses the notwithstanding clause to evade the courts. Yet some would have the majority believe that they are in constant danger of being oppressed by the very people who are at their mercy.
Surprising herself, Pelletier proposes to combat these conservative trends through a renewed push for independence, because the ambition of such movements has historically resulted in inclusive agendas. She approvingly cites Lévesque’s praise for “that fantastic adventure that made for an America that was at first almost entirely French” and the “collective stubbornness” that has preserved Quebec. As a summary of colonialism, this vision is romantic to the point of self-deception. The French Crown may have claimed vast swaths of land prior to 1763, but these were Indigenous territories and the work of reconciliation is only beginning. What’s more, Pelletier observes that the “disappearance of francophone Quebecers’ status as victims” has made it harder to recruit them to the cause, given the success of the Quiet Revolution in raising the standard of living and changing the balance of power. In that case, why not remain in Canada and build a larger “model society”?
Of course, with this last critique, I am revealing myself to be instinctually federalist, like most of Quebec’s anglophones. Even Lévesque’s civic nationalism proposes French as a central pillar of belonging, which is a hard sell when the alternative is bilingualism. Still, for all the controversy around the language laws of the 1970s, they focused on the use of French in the public sphere. The current panic fixates on how many people speak the language at home. Following this logic, it’s not enough to learn or even to work in French; one must abandon other tongues to avoid being a demographic problem.
Pelletier’s vision is far more open. She grew up in the Ottawa region and studied at my alma mater, the University of Alberta, where she acquired a boyfriend from Medicine Hat. After a year in Europe, she insisted they move to Montreal, realizing that she could not “live exclusively in English.” While she frames this choice as the way to “save her soul,” I was struck by her reflection that she could have stayed out west, “carried away by love, by money, by, who knows, a horizon as far as the eyes can see.” She also describes how her Franco Ontarian accent sometimes barred her from the category of a “real Quebecer” and relates that her boyfriend, left outside the cultural mainstream, eventually returned to Alberta. The mechanisms of exclusion are more obvious to those who have experienced them.
When I chose Montreal some forty years after Pelletier, I imagined it less as a sacred homeland and more as Berlin: the artsy metropole where rent was affordable and careers mattered less than who and what you loved. Like her, I was ready to stop being “a free electron, a chameleon, capable of going anywhere.” After a decade on the move, I wanted to commit to a life in a place I would fight for. French was a major factor in my decision: I still relish the thrill of moving between languages, the intoxication of exploring two cultural systems at once. I can see myself in the young Pelletier who felt instantly at home in Montreal. “Look for them, cities in the world that offer such range, such a deep biculturalism,” she enthuses. To flatten that diversity would be a tragedy.
Perhaps it is the fate of port cities to resist those who dream of a homogeneous nation. Legault’s centre-right party and the revamped Parti Québécois were nearly shut out of Montreal in the 2022 election. Indeed, the island seems divided along the old lines, with the federalist, pro-business Liberals in the west and the pro-independence, left-wing Québec solidaire in the east. Political enemies during the 2012 student strikes, both parties voted against Bill 21, and they tend to echo each other on immigration. In Quebec’s transformed political landscape, our allies may not always be who we expect.