An introduction to the new Quebec nationalism and the tricks it plays on federal leaders

The new nationalism in Quebec is a political mindset that has displaced sovereignty as the main alternative to federalism and, as the first week of the campaign has already made clear, will define how the leaders court votes in the province this fall. 

Quebec’s Bill 21 was a dominant theme in the first week of the campaign. Here’s why

The main proponent of this resurgent nationalism is the provincial government headed by Premier François Legault and his centre-right party, the Coalition Avenir Québec. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

The opening days of the 2019 election campaign have been marked, above all, by the attempts of federal leaders to navigate the new Quebec nationalism and its most potent expression, a law on secularism. 

The main proponent of this resurgent nationalism is the provincial government led by Premier François Legault and his centre-right party, the Coalition Avenir Québec.

And Legault didn't wait long before giving the federal leaders a taste. 

The campaign was barely a few hours old when he demanded they renounce support for legal challenges to the secularism law his government passed in June — not just "for the moment," as Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said he would, but forever.

It was a warning to steer well clear of a matter he considers to be solely within his jurisdiction, even though the law has raised constitutional concerns across the country, not to mention within Quebec itself.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau during a campaign stop in Trois-Rivieres, Que., on Friday. His party has enjoyed a lead in Quebec polls since the last election. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

"It's up to Quebecers to choose and Quebecers have chosen," Legault said Wednesday of a law that bans religious symbols in parts of the civil service. 

But the roots of the new Quebec nationalism go well beyond Legault's sweeping election victory last year. 

It's a political mindset that has displaced sovereignty as the main alternative to federalism and, as the first week of the campaign has already made clear, will define how the leaders court votes in the province this fall. 

Civic vs ethnic nationalism

The nationalism that currently holds sway is conservative. It is based on a holistic conception of Quebec society that prioritizes the historical experience of francophones.

It's mainly worried that the combination of immigration and official multiculturalism will make francophone Quebec culture more vulnerable in an increasingly interconnected world where English is the lingua franca.

No surprise then that cutting immigration levels and protecting Quebec's secular identity were the chief highlights of Legault's first year in office. 

He has sworn off sovereignty since his days in the Parti Québécois, but the origins of the conservative nationalism that his government espouses can nevertheless be traced to the movement's most decisive moment: the night of the second referendum.

That night, Jacques Parizeau, the PQ premier, opted to improvise his concession speech. "We are beaten, it is true," he said. "But by what, basically? By money and ethnic votes."

Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau giving the concession speech on Oct. 30, 1995, in which he blamed 'money and ethnic votes.' (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Already in crisis following the narrow defeat, the sovereignty movement was split in its reaction to Parizeau's comments. 

There were those who were horrified and spent the ensuing years trying to expunge the movement of any hint of ethnic nationalism; trying to promote a more inclusive, civic-style nationalism instead. 

And there were those who believed Parizeau was right, and sought to emphasize the history of French-Canadians in their version of Quebec nationalism.

At the outset, the civic nationalists had the upper-hand. 

"After 1995, because of Mr. Parizeau's comments, there was a tendency within the sovereigntist milieu to adhere to a Trudeauist conception of society," said Éric Bédard, a prominent Quebec historian whose writings helped spark the revival of conservative nationalism.

"Why claim a special status, maybe even Quebec sovereignty, if fundamentally we adhere to the spirit of Canadian multiculturalism?"

But the reasonable accommodation crisis, which lasted roughly between 2006 and 2008, tipped the scales in the other direction.

The 3 leaders at the 1st debate share their stances on Bill 21

4 years ago
Duration 2:38
Featured VideoThe three federal leaders who attended the first debate of the election were asked about Quebec's Bill 21.

The rise of the conservative nationalists

As debate raged in the province about whether minority cultural practices represented a threat to Quebec's secular society, conservative nationalists mounted a fierce attack on multiculturalism. 

Bédard and others argued the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and its application by federally appointed judges, was too accommodating of minorities, at the expense of a historically rooted Québécois culture.

According to a conservative nationalist reading of the past, this culture is defined by the solidarity forged among francophones fighting for their survival. And the legacy of this solidarity is a willingness to value collective rights over individual ones.

Legault's sweeping victory in the 2018 provincial election consolidated the rise of conservative nationalism in Quebec. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

That, they said, is what a secularism law could do: protect the collective rights of Quebecers to live in a secular society against individuals who use the charter to carve out space for their religious practices.

This argument eventually found a sympathetic ear in PQ leader Pauline Marois, who was desperate to restore her party's fortunes after a disastrous performance in the 2007 election.

Marois brought several conservative nationalists, including Bédard, into her inner circle. 

It was a collaboration that ultimately produced the Charter of Values, a proposed secularism law that would have banned religious symbols from large parts of the civil service.

The charter died on the order paper when the PQ lost the 2014 election. But conservative nationalists didn't blame the charter for the loss. They blamed Marois's focus on sovereignty. 

The CAQ's successful 2018 election campaign was based on a similar reading of the political climate in the province. 

"The CAQ is in the process of fostering a nationalism without sovereignty. And that's the winning formula at the moment," said Jacques Beauchemin, a sociologist and former adviser to Marois whose writings also played a big role in the nationalist revival.

"They are proposing a nationalism that suits Quebec of today; a nationalism that is not afraid of affirming things, like with Bill 21 (the secularism law)."

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, left, lauded Legault's nationalism in his opening speech of the campaign. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Of obstacles and opportunities

The federal election campaign thus opens in Quebec at a moment of deep suspicion about federal institutions. 

Legault, and other defenders of Bill 21, have actively sought to delegitimize the charter and the court system charged with upholding it, fearing their power to strike down the law.

His government, moreover, seeks not simply to defend provincial jurisdiction, but expand it in key areas, like immigration.

In the meantime, multiculturalism, as both a policy and a value, is cast in ever darker terms by government officials and popular columnists.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has been targeting former Bloc voters in Quebec. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

The grid laid down by the new Quebec nationalism offers different opportunities and obstacles to the three main contenders in the province. 

It helps explain why, when launching his campaign, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet began with a paean to the nationalism of the CAQ government. Sovereignty received only a second-order mention. 

It also provides an explanation for why Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has been more timid than Justin Trudeau in his criticism of Bill 21.

Now that conservative nationalism has been shorn of its sovereigntist trappings, the Tories are trying to win over voters who once backed the Bloc.

There is, however, only so much Scheer can offer without departing from his federalist bedrock and alienating supporters in the West. 

Of the three then, the Liberals would seem to have the most to lose from the present configuration.

Trudeau is seeking a delicate balance with his position on Bill 21, trying to present his pro-charter federalism as no immediate threat to the law without forsaking a document that's at the core of his party's identity.

But the Liberals, it bears recalling, have maintained a healthy lead in Quebec polls since the last election. Conservative nationalism may be ascendant in the province; it's not yet hegemonic.


Jonathan Montpetit is a Senior Investigative Journalist with CBC News, where he covers social movements and democracy. You can send him tips at

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now