Questions from Quebec

Flag-Pins-Scotland-CanadaLast September while newly elected premier Pauline Marois was giving her election night victory speech at a Parti Quebecois rally in Montreal, Richard Henry Bain was attempting to access the hall by a side entrance. He was wearing an ill-sorted bathrobe and a balaclava and carrying a semi-automatic rifle, a pistol, lighter- fluid and gas canisters.

He used the rifle to kill a stage technician and seriously injure one of his colleagues. It jammed, so he went to the back of the building and set it alight before being arrested. In the course of all this he yelled ‘The English are waking up’ (in French). And if that s not confusing enough, Google image ‘Richard Henry Bain’ and as well as finding him in his bathrobe, you will discover him in a kilt. Mr Bain fancies himself as a kind of Scot.

There is only so much you can deduce from the actions of a man like Bain, but it is worth noting that this wasn’t the first time that the issue of Quebec sovereignty had seen violence. In 1970 after a series of bombings (including one at the Montreal Stock Exchange) members of the Front de liberation du Quebec (FLQ) kidnapped British diplomat James Cross and Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte and subsequently killed Laporte. Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act and put troops on the streets.

Until the election of Marois and Bain’s murderous intervention, a lot of the heat had gone out of the Quebec sovereignty issue but it’s back now. Marois has two ‘hate’ pages on Facebook and you can pick just about any article on Quebec and be treated to some hair-raising commentary at the bottom of it (try this one for instance).

With language and the definition of nation as the main issues in Quebec, it is perhaps not surprising that ‘moderate’ Canada disappears on both sides when the matter of Quebec’s independence is raised. When then premier Jacques Parizeau conceded defeat in the second Quebec referendum in 1995 he said the Yes side were beaten ‘Par l’argent puis des votes ethniques essentiellement’. His reference to ‘ethnic votes’ haunts his party’s attempts at an ‘inclusive’ narrative to this day.

Scotland has no defining language issue, no serious debate about whether it is a nation, no hint of ethnic nationalism, no history of violent confrontation and (believe it or not) no comparable level of anger in public forums. Yet none of this has prevented Canadians from conflating Scottish independence with Quebec sovereignty.

The habit of viewing Scottish independence through the prism of Quebec has skewed the Canadian understanding of what is happening here, not least among Scots-Canadians. ‘The Scots in Canada’ is one of the nation’s founding myths. From the Highland and Orkney fur traders who opened up the north and west of the country, to the First Prime Minister John A. MacDonald (from Glasgow) who bound confederated Canada with his trans-national railway, to Tommy Douglas (from Falkirk) who distinguished it from its giant southern neighbour with his public healthcare system, Scots from the old country are commonly seen as the backbone of the new.

To confound this even further, it is not Quebec but Canada that is the obvious contemporary model for Scotland: at least the Canada that emerged out of the 1970s and prevailed until the dawn of its current right wing central government. That was a Canada that welcomed immigrants, saw multiculturalism as a good thing, emphasised healthcare, welfare and education and deemphasised militarism.

Scotland is hitting all of those same buttons and for the same reason. The 70s vision of Canada as a European-style social democracy is the one that Scotland is, for the most part, pursuing. The resemblance is as remarkable in detail as it is in principle. Scottish debates like those on the legalisation of gay marriage or the removal of nuclear weapons while remaining a member of NATO were settled some time ago in Canada.

Scottish politicians even have a habit of speaking Canadian, though often without realizing it. Common references include the injunction to ‘work as if you are live in the early days of a better nation’ (paraphrased from Canadian poet Dennis Lee’s 70s epic ‘Civil Elegies’) and the description of Scotland’s relationship with England as ‘sleeping with an elephant’ (from Trudeau’s description of Canada and the United States – the former affected ‘by every twitch and grunt’).

Looming over all this is Scotland’s Diaspora in Canada. For all the airy talk of a world-wide Scottish Diaspora that is anywhere from 40 million or 100 million strong depending on who is not counting, Canada’s is the only international census that clearly identifies and accurately enumerates its Scots population. In the 2011 census that there were 5 million self-identified Scots in Canada. The survey revealed where they live, what they do and the fact that, paradoxically, they are growing in number from census to census despite ever-diminishing first-generation Scottish immigration. In short, Canada is the one host country where the Scottish Government can locate its Diaspora if it wants to and mobilize it in support of its homeland if it can. First, though, Scots-Canadians need to be convinced that Scotland and Quebec are not synonymous.

So when Pauline Marois arrived at the Scottish Parliament at the end of January there was a lot at stake. She was accompanied by various heavyweights from the Canadian media who clearly expected a nationalist love-in or separatist summit. Instead, the Quebec Premier got a brief private meeting with Alex Salmond squeezed between votes in the chamber. He was gone in an instant (well 45 minutes) leaving her to make the best of it and firing words like ‘historic’ and ‘cooperation’ in the general direction of an unimpressed Canadian press core.

The meeting produced a series of gloating headlines in Canada with ‘snub’ and ‘flop’ in them. But it also saw the first recognition in the Canadian press that Scotland and Quebec should not be treated as if they are identical, that there is more going on over here than had been previously recognised, and that the Scottish situation requires a much more nuanced analysis.

Where does all this leave the relationship between Scotland and Quebec? Probably just about where Salmond and Marois left it – with a vague promise of future cooperation on climate change, renewable energy projects and commercial ties. Marois reportedly offered the Scottish Government access to Quebec’s 1995 referendum files – an offer that was politely declined. In truth, the main lesson of both Quebec referendums – don’t ask convoluted questions – has already been learned. The 1980 Quebec question had 108 words in it and there were 43 in 1995. Scotland’s has 6.

Ironically, the referendum files may have been offered to the wrong side. The great untold story of the 1995 Quebec referendum is that it should never have been as close as it was. The ‘No’ side possessed every conceivable advantage, but by running a relentlessly negative campaign managed to reduce a 20 point poll lead to a 1 point victory. Perhaps it is Alistair Darling who should be nosing through Marois’ files.


Comments (10)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. David McCann says:

    Thanks for this Harry. Very illuminating

  2. picpac67 says:

    Nuance is of the essence … no one-size-fits-all. Salmond was probably right to stay at arm’s length of Quebec politics. But there is one element of recent Quebecois political life that should be of interest to Scots – to all real democrats in fact – something that should be a core part of any future Scottish constitution: direct democracy.

    From a recent report in the Winnipeg Free Press (

    “For a number of politically cynical Quebecers the current provincial election isn’t about which political party they like best but about the legitimacy of representative democracy itself.

    Members of student organizations, citizen assemblies and anarchists are increasingly vocal in their criticism of a centuries-old form of government they consider insufficient.
    Such conversations grew during the Occupy movement, swelled with the student unrest, and are now transpiring on the fringes of the provincial campaign which ends Sept. 4.
    One idea would see elected officials consult with local assemblies before acting in parliaments. Another would see political parties disbanded. In the most extreme form, some anarchists would dissolve state institutions — including parliaments.

    Adherents of “direct democracy” have vastly differing visions. One thing they have in common is the belief that citizens deserve a more active role in the decision-making process.

    “I don’t think voting every four years and then shutting up is what democracy was intended to be,” said Alia Al-Saji, a member of a neighbourhood group that sprang out of the pots-and-pans protests in Quebec this spring.”

    Scottish political life would be energised by the kind of direct-democratic revolution which has taken place in Germany over the past 20 years or so – where every federal state has introduced binding laws of citizens’ initiative and referendum, inspired by the “More Democracy” campaign organisation.

  3. Scott Hames says:

    Great stuff — I get asked about this twice a week (by people in both countries). Will just send folk here from now on.

  4. Laurent Desbois says:

    Quebec sovereignty had seen violence. In 1970????
    War Measures in Time of Peace | October 1970
    By Guy Bouthillier and Édouard Cloutier,

    Forty years ago in the middle of the night the government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau proclaimed the War Measures Act following two political kidnappings by the FLQ. It thereby suspended the Constitution and all civil liberties, deployed 12,500 troops in Quebec—7,500 in Montreal alone— arrested 465 people without charges and detained them incommunicado without bail and without the right to legal assistance. It also entered and searched more than 10,000 homes without warrant.

  5. Laurent Desbois says:

    « Simplement, la question »
    Une question claire pour monsieur Dion de Aislin (alias Terry Mosher) en 1995.

  6. Laurent Desbois says:

    The great untold story of the 1995 Quebec referendum????

    Québec referendum, 1995 or how Canada broke every rule in the book.,_1995

    The 1995 Quebec referendum was the second referendum to ask voters in the Canadian province of Québec whether Québec should secede from Canada and become an independent state.

    The motion to decide whether Québec should secede from Canada was defeated by a very narrow margin of 49.42% “Yes” to 50.58% “No”. That is a majority of a few thousand votes out of 5 million!

    For more details see the book “Stolen Referendum” in French!

    Le Référendum volé

    Par Robin Philpot (2005) ISBN : 978-2-89549-189-7

  7. glynbeddau says:

    Option nationale i was founded in 2011 by Jean-Martin Aussant because he felt PQ were to soft an the sovereignty issue ,Aussant insists that economic fears propagated by federalists were responsible.
    for the referndunm defeats.

    That is the lesson the SNP must learn.
    One of the keys, Aussant stressed, is persuading Quebecers that sovereignty would be good for Quebec’s economy. , Aussant has an economics background that comes in handy when making that case.
    So Quebec would lose billions in equalization payments? Good riddance, says Aussant.
    He passionately argues that the current system is bad for the province. In another Youtube video, Aussant puts it this way: Imagine you have $50 to buy music you like. Your neighbour takes the $50, and promises to give you back $55 worth of tunes.
    “What he doesn’t tell you is that it’s music you don’t like — and there are $25 in administrative fees,” Aussant tells viewers. “So you started off with $50 and you ended up with $30 worth of music you don’t even like.
    “That’s Canadian equalization. We need to face the facts: We’d be better off keeping our money and choosing our own music.”

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.