Debate over ethnic nationalism sweeps through Quebec politics

Carlos Leitão, the Liberals' normally buttoned-down money man, tossed a match onto the oily rag of Quebec politics last week. He then stepped back and watched as the predictable happened.

The Liberals called out the CAQ for ethnic-nationalism. What's the big deal?

Quebec Finance Minister Carlos Leitão accused the Coalition Avenir Québec of engaging in 'ethnic-based nationalism.' (CBC)

Carlos Leitão, the Liberals' normally buttoned-down money man, tossed a match onto the oily rag of Quebec politics last week. He then stepped back and watched as the predictable happened.

In an interview with the West Island edition of the Montreal Gazette, Leitão said the Coalition Avenir Québec — currently besting his party in pre-election polls — engaged in "ethnic-based nationalism."

For good measure, he added: "I'm not afraid of the words. This is what it is. They view the French majority as being under attack from all those foreigners out there."

The CAQ did not take kindly to the comments. But neither did the two other opposition parties, the Parti Québécois and Québec Solidaire. All three backed a motion that declared "no party in the National Assembly advocates ethnic nationalism."

The Liberals refused to let the motion come to a vote, but that didn't prevent a bitter debate from erupting in the National Assembly on Thursday. Leitão sat impassively as the CAQ and PQ demanded he apologize. He didn't.

Leitão's broadside has since been the subject of much hand-wringing by Journal de Montréal columnists and private radio hosts alike.

So what's the big deal about ethnic nationalism anyway?

Good vs. bad nationalism

The term is often opposed to civic nationalism, which tends to be understood as the "good," cosmopolitan kind of nationalism.

As a sense of attachment to a community, civic nationalism is thought to be based on the voluntary support of certain universal ideals and institutions, such as the rule of law or the defence of fundamental rights. It is inclusive and rational.

Ethnic nationalism, on the other hand, is taken to describe the kind of attachment based on "common descent" or what scholars call ascriptive ties, that is, bonds about which you don't have a choice, such as race. It is exclusive and irrational.

Coalition Avenir Quebec Leader Francois Legault said last December he wants to temporarily curb immigration, boost the birth rate and encourage shop clerks to say 'bonjour' rather than 'bonjour/hi.' (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

When the former Yugoslavia erupted in civil war in the 1990s, it was popular to blame the conflicts on competing ethnic nationalisms. The current rise of populist far-right parties is also explained by their exploitation of ethnic, rather than civic, sentiments.

By describing the CAQ as an ethno-nationalist party, Leitão was attempting to link them to this "bad" form of nationalism. And this is not the first time the Liberals have done so. 

During his recent visit to France, which came as populist anti-immigrant parties made gains in Italy, Premier Phillippe Couillard suggested the CAQ was adopting similar strategies to woo Quebec voters.

"All democracies are experiencing this type of movement, which have as common characteristics proposing seemingly simple solutions to complex problems," Couillard told reporters at the Luxembourg Palace earlier this month.

He went on to say that a CAQ government would undermine the social, economic and political gains the province has made under the Liberals.

Pot and kettle politics

The CAQ, obviously, deny advocating ethnic-nationalism and accused Leitão of trying to paint them as a bunch of racists.

But CAQ Leader François Legault did no favour to his cause when he circulated, late last week, a video explaining his views on immigration and protecting Quebec values. 

In the video he defends his idea of forcing Quebec's immigrants to take a "values test" before they can qualify for Canadian citizenship, saying Germany and Denmark have similar tests. 

Legault then says he is "proud of the kind of society that my ancestors left and I think we have the obligation to protect this society." This kind of talk is uncomfortably close to the language of ethno-nationalism.

Scholarship on the ethnic-civic divide, though, has come a long way since the early 1990s when intellectuals like Michael Ignatieff lauded the latter over the former.

Civic nationalism is no longer treated as the angelic element of the dyad. As many have pointed out, civic nationalism is also perfectly compatible with exclusionary, anti-immigrant politics.

The U.S. and France were routinely held out as paragons of the civic model. Both have since tightened their borders drastically.

And the Quebec Liberals, too, have backed their own exclusionary policies, despite aligning themselves with civic nationalism.

Take for instance Bill 62, passed into law last year, which forces Quebecers to uncover their faces in order to give and receive public services. The law, as the Superior Court has pointed out, disproportionately affects Muslim women who wear the niqab, which is why parts of it are currently subject to an injunction.

By invoking the spectre of ethnic nationalism, Leitão was counting on a distinction that may exist more in theory than in practice.

The virtues of any given nationalism should be determined by how it deals with those who don't fit into its definition, but who share its space anyway — not just by a label.


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