Mathieu Bock-Côté on identity politics in Quebec UPDATE -

Mathieu Bock-Côté on identity politics in Quebec UPDATE

Sociologist and columnist Mathieu Bock-Côté takes questions from Maclean’s


Click here to read Martin Patriquin’s feature story on the Quebec election.

What follows is a translated email exchange I had with Mathieu Bock-Côté for the piece I wrote about Parti Québécois and identity politics in this week’s magazine. A sociologist and columnist, Bock-Côté is a formidable voice in the debate over which way the Parti Québécois should move in order to achieve its ultimate goal. In Fin de cycle, published last year by Boréal, Bock-Côté argues the roots of the sovereignty movement’s demise lie in its backing away from the issue of Francophone identity in the wake of Jacques Parizeau’s infamous “Money and the ethnic votes” comment following the 1995 referendum.

The interview has been edited.

UPDATE: Mr. Bock-Côté objected to my categorizing his brand of nationalism as “ethnic” in the piece. To this end, I’ve added his response to a question about this, below.

In Fin de cycle, you write at length about the demise of the PQ (under André Boisclair) and the Bloc Québécois (under Gilles Duceppe.) The reason, if I understand it well, is that the two parties dropped the nationalist and identity issues in their platforms. As far as you’re concerned, why did the PQ “de-nationalize the sovereignist discourse to drain it of the dimension of identity,” as you write in the book?

I examined this question in my first book. In effect, the day after the [1995] referendum, traumatized by Jacques Parizeau’s words, sovereignists convinced themselves of the “historical guilt” of Quebec nationalism. We found our history to be cloistered, closed in on itself, xenophobic even. Wrongfully, of course. But that convinced sovereignists of one thing: the sovereignty project has to be disassociated from the historical identity of the Francophone majority. We then had a sovereignism that was spineless, bleached, paradoxically a stranger to the cultural and historical identity to the people it was meant to enfranchise politically. This movement culminated with André Boisclair. It started to reverse itself again after the 2007 election, and Pauline Marois looked to bring the question back to the PQ, with a certain success.

Is the identity component crucial to the sovereignty movement here in Quebec? If so, why?

You don’t build a country by evacuating it of its historical experience. You don’t build a country by washing it of its memory, by bleaching it of its identity. Once we disassociate the sovereignty movement from the history of the Québécois people, we are forced to justify it through weak arguments. We denounce the Harper government, its social policies, its conservative values. But we forget that all it takes is to replace Harper with a progressive government, and all of a sudden we have invalidated the argument for sovereignty. Or we promise that Quebec is going to be a little paradise on planet earth, which is obviously false. This country will have its qualities, its faults, it will have good years and less good years. Like all countries in the world. I’d add one thing: no country should neglect its history. I’m somewhat happy to see that English Canada is itself rediscovering its British heritage. I think that’s good news.

During his tenure with the Bloc Québécois, Gilles Duceppe spoke about ‘civic nationalism’; that is to say, the idea that a Quebecer is anyone who lives in Quebec. Yet given the fact that vast majority of immigrants identify as Canadian first, I wonder if civic nationalism is even possible in Quebec.

Civic nationalism is a legitimate goal. The question remains, though, if openness to diversity is part of an acknowledgement of the historical nature of Quebec identity, or part of its obliteration. I believe one thing: the more French Quebecers assume their identity, the more they will be attractive to new arrivals. But we can’t have any illusions about it: as long as Quebec isn’t an independent country, the immigrants will identify primarily with Canada. It goes without saying. It’s not politically correct to say it, but the project of sovereignty is a call primarily to the francophone majority of Quebec.

To what point has the PQ under Pauline Marois managed to retake the identity territory abandoned by the sovereignty movement?

I think she’s trying to do it. The PQ is rediscovering the fragility of the French language on the island of Montreal, it is more and more robust in its criticism of Canadian multiculturalism. It is trying to find new ways of integrating new arrivals to the Francophone majority. We are rehabilitating the role of history in the sovereignist discourse. It remains to be seen if this will last. But it seems that the sovereignty movement of today wants to close the doors on its denationalization.

I spoke to PQ immigration and language critic Yves-François Blanchet, who said that we should increase French language training of immigrants, and not necessarily decrease the number of immigrants Quebec accepts. Do you agree?

Obviously French language training must be reinforced, as should the teaching of history. Of course. I don’t believe, however, that the existing immigration rates are appropriate. It would be better to adjust them to our capacity to integrate them, here in a small, fragile Francophone nation in North America.

Who is nous [‘Us’]?

There is no nous in Quebec without an explicit reference to the historic Francophone majority. There is a limit to the disembodied and purely administrative version of a collective identity. It’s up to the new arrivals to integrate. From there, it will be possible to expand the limits of nous, as we say.

How is your stance different from ethnic nationalism?

Ethnic nationalism has nothing to do with the project of sovereignty as far as I’m concerned. Ethnic nationalism proposes a static, closed identity, that has as much to do with blood as it does culture and history. I wouldn’t want to have anything to do with that vision of identity. It would be stifling. We can perfectly integrate into Quebec’s culture without having ancestors from Ile d’Orléans. We can perfectly appropriate the collective Francophone memory and political range without being an “ethnic French Canadian.” Thankfully! A country isn’t a blank page. The history of France is not that of Germany or Slovenia. And what history is the basis for Quebec society, if not that of its Francophone majority?


Mathieu Bock-Côté on identity politics in Quebec UPDATE

  1. Excellent interview !

    It must be understood that the movement for independence in Québec is NOT at all against the Canadian people.

    The goal is essentially to attain a peaceful and friendly relationship between our two peoples, as there is, for example, between the Czechs and the Slovaks since they became independent. Or the Lithanians and the Russians.

    We have lost much too much time arguing about subjects which would be inexistent if we were good neighbours, as Canada and the U.S.A. are.

    • lolz, there IS a peaceful and friendly relationship between La belle provance (provence?) and the rest of canada. Just ask any country with a civil war going.Trying to separate is going to piss off a lot of people. Fact. And then you try to play the victim?

      • “lolz” you too.

      • Ni provance, ni provence, mais province. Ignare.

      • I just don’t get why you people are pissed off, seriously. We have very different cultures, most probably you feel very little attached to us already. Aren’t you pissed off that Quebec, because it wants to go in a different path, impedes the development of the Canad you want ? We are pissed off with that, Canada prevent us from doing what we want, to accomplish our full potential. It’s impossible to make an united Canada, because it has never been the geopolitical reality of this territory, never ever. I don’t understand why you still hook to that goal. Let it be ! Do what you want where you live and let us do as we want where we are.

    • Don’t assume that the borders of Quebec will remain unchanged. Sovereignists have done such a good job of only promoting the interests of the francophone newcomers that they have alienated many of the aboriginal Peoples of Quebec. Aboriginals have aspirations of their own: they would like to be considered a distinct society, they don’t identify with the charte de la cittoyennete quebecoise etc. So the northern portion of Quebec may no longer appear on new maps. You could call the new country Saint Laurent since it could be a narrow strip of land on each side of the Saint Lawrence River. Bonne chance! Atshuunai!

      • Ah, une bonne moitié du Nouveau-Brunswick, des parties de l’Ontario francophones rattachés au Québec ?

      • I would support the partition of the peninsula between the Quebecers and the eleven nations, but we would have many issues to discuss. Perhaps it would be good to create a Peninsular union that would allow the twelve nations to controls some issues together. However, I strongly prefer aboriginal independence to them staying in Canada. My vision of Quebec needs to keep the Abitibi, all of Montréal, the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean and of course the rest of the inhabited part. We could create enclaved states for the aboriginal nations that are very integrated inside of French Quebec, and we could negotiate extension of their territory. I’m thinking for instance of the Attikamewks. Crees could have their Eeyou Ischee and Innus their Nistassinan, and Inuits, their Nunavik. However, it’s important for Quebec to keep access to the northern barrages. Quebec is proud of its easy access to hydroelectricity, and we have great environnemental projects we’d like to accomplish thanks to it (monorail transquébec, electric stations in highways that goes as far as Vermont, etc.). It could be a shared possession of the Peninsular union. Quebec could also keep an harbour in Eeyou Ischee in exchange of a Cree harbour in the Saint Lawrence.

  2. What about the native people of Quebec? Why are they consistently ignored, forgotten,.excluded from the francophone version of Quebec s history? For God s sake, francophone quebeckers have been here for a measly 400 years compared to thousands of years for the Cree, Montagnais, Inuit, Naskapi, Algonquin, Mohawk, Huron, Micmac on Quebec territory. And the francophone get all upset about the language of Quebec, the culture of Quebec. It’s not french, it’s aboriginal languages and culture…. How about a bill 101 to preserve native languages in Quebec. You have to be proficient in one of Quebec s native languages to graduate from high school or run Scandalous, you say? Wake up to the reality of who invaded the land, the French and the English and to this day, they are still fighting over who should control things…

    • Quebec sovereignists like him are afraid of disappearing the same way
      the Amerindians have disappeared… I 100% agree with nationalists
      (Quebec sovereignists, the few survivors of the Amerindian populations,
      etc.) who want to preserve their identity (blood, culture, history,
      language, etc.) and ensure the survival of their ‘tribe’. If they need
      their own territory to be able to do that, so be it.

    • Quebec does not rule the linguistic rights of the natives, so it would not be possible, but you are right they should make a Bill 101 for their own languages, and the Inuits of the Yukon already do it, so why not.

  3. Ay, Kway
    Vocabulary lesson The historic majority of Quebec is native peoples. New arrivals include francophones and anglophones for the past 400 years. And so francophones and others in Quebec should adapt to the aboriginal culture and language. They get to stay if they learn at least one aboriginal language along with Quebec aboriginal history.Tchee emskem denNakurmik

    • Quebec sovereignists like him are afraid of disappearing the same way the Amerindians have disappeared… I 100% agree with nationalists (Quebec sovereignists, the few survivors of the Amerindian populations, etc.) who want to preserve their identity (blood, culture, history, language, etc.) and ensure the survival of their ‘tribe’. If they need their own territory to be able to do that, so be it.

      • Some seem to think that the word Quebeckers refers to francophones who live in Quebec. Once again, natives of Quebec are excluded from a definition that means to live in Quebec.
        Aboriginals of Northern live on a hugely uninhabited territory that they continue to hunt and fish on. If francophone so can decide to separate from Canada, these natives should be able to separate from Quebec. There’s the real double standard, francophones can decide their destiny in Quebec s territory but people forget that the same should apply to Northern Quebec at the very least.
        The oppressed oftenbecome the worst oppressors. Francophones feel that they were oppressed by the English. Blindly, francophone Quebec oppresses natives within Quebec. Why should these people have to speak French to run for office etc. Hence, the borders after separation could very well change. Like a lot of.people say inNorthern Quebec. Fine if they want to impose language laws, separate etc without consulting us:. Just leave them in their corner of Southern Quebec.

        • If you are familiar with Bock-Côté, you will realize that he does not advocate sovereignty based on the usual rhetoric of ‘Quebec needs to separate from Canada because Canada oppressed Quebec’. He advocates sovereignty for the reasons I listed before: to ensure the survival of his tribe and to preserve its identity. I think Quebec sovereignists like him and Amerindian tribesmen can understand each other and reach an agreement about territorial issues.

          • This rhetoric is less and less popular because the situation has much changed. We are no longer in the sixties. However, the independence project is a very modern one and it absolutely doesn’t need resent to be fueled, on the contrary. We independantists remember our history, we understand this legitimate resent, but we are even more motivated by the future potential Quebec has, rather than only looking at the past.

          • However, I only agree with Bock-Côté for the independance, cause otherwise, I think he’s too far in the rightwing.

    • I feel there is a double standard here. As true as it is that the native nations occupied this territory much before any french speaking people, that same argument is also valid to canadians and americans in general.

      Anyone saying that Quebeckers have no right to declare this land their own because of this argument, should consider dismantling Canada and give authority back to native nations.

      • Well, the first French who colonized America were almost asked to stay by the Wendat people, because of the strategic, military and commercial advantage it would give them over the Iroquois. I don’t suggest we had the “permission” to stay (especially not for each and every nation), but I rather say we co-existed with the aboriginals, and we lived in different locations. I don’t suggest either we always have been perfect towards them, however, we did nothing like the Americans and the British. The only “invasion” I can think of is the loss of the Anishnabe territory forced by French Canadians of that time over them (by forcing referenda), because of a over-zealous priest that wanted to colonize this territory.

    • So what is your point? if the native peoples had known then what they know now, what do you think they’d have done? Do you not think they would have made sure they never allowed the newcomers to stay? Do you think they would have said, well, que sera, sera?

  4. There seems to be an attempt to draw a distinction between ethnic nationalism’s perceived efforts to push people out if they are not of the same blood, and the “sovereignty project’s” willingness to admit newcomers only on the basis they adopt the culture of the majority. That’s a distinction without a difference, in my view.

    To answer the final question, “what history is the basis for Quebec society, if not that of its Francophone majority”, I would reply “the history of the people of Quebec”, which is not limited to its Francophone majority.

  5. The majority of Quebecers are not French. They have been
    force to take French because of the separatist.
    I used to be proud of speaking two languages, French and English. I have
    always been proud of being Canadian. Since bill 101 and the discrimination it
    imposes on Quebec population…. I hate French.
    They will never make anyone French Quebecer no matter how much they try to
    impose it. Who in the world would welcome a language and culture that is racist
    to the extreme. With Bill 101 we are being taken away our basic human rights!
    It is a horrible feeling. You have no idea!

    If anything they have
    turned the world against this language; As it is seen as a horrible racist
    culture. They took away Canadian human
    basic right away! They have French police that imposes this law which make us
    feel that we are dealing with Hitler. It is really unfortunate! I hate living
    here because of it but can’t convince my entire family to move. Quebec is all
    they have ever know and although it is horrible to live here with all this discrimination
    the fear of moving elsewhere and starting all over again is even more scary to
    them. I wish the Canadian Government
    could protect us from this discrimination and abuse. In this day and age , it is very unfortunate
    that the population of Canadian Quebec ers need to feel like they are in
    prison. That they have no way out of this horrible living conditions. The
    stress it creates is becoming unbearable.

    • I’m tired of this nonsense. Instead of repeating what you hear like a parrot, why don’t you go live in our “hell” for some years to see by yourself this so-called oppression ?

    • Even the English minority of Quebec born after the introduction of Bill 101 says it is nonsense the Quebec you depict. I rather think you are nostalgic of that time when English dominated everything in Quebec, the economy, the government (ministers and civil servants), all the signs in every city even without an anglophone population, the workplaces, etc. That era will never come back. I you can’t stand present-day Quebec whose lingua franca, common language is French, well I don’t understand why you keep living in this so-called “hell”.