What's Happening in Quebec

The Parti Quebecois wants to create a "new society". How free would its "free Quebec" be?


On November 15, 1976, a Quebec election brought the separatist Parti Quebecois ("Quebecer Party")* to power. Some people talked of a landslide: merely eight years old, and after only two unsuccessful electoral bids (in 1970 and 1973), the Party Quebecois had won 70 of the 110 seats in the Quebec National Assembly. Would Quebec secede from the rest of Canada and become a sovereign state?

Reactions in libertarian circles have been mixed. Some anarchists are looking forward to the disintegration of a big, socialist state called Canada and to the end of the imperialist oppression of the Quebec people. For other libertarians and many conservatives, especially the few of them who are living north of the 45th parallel, what happened was a major step on the road to serfdom; in some circles, the Parti Quebecois is even perceived as committed to a totalitarian society, if not run by the KGB "in person."

What is happening in Quebec? I believe that both the KGB hypothesis and the libertarian interpretation ("They have nothing to lose anyway, the poor things!") are based on intellectual shortcuts and plain factual errors. But they do raise what is the important question: How free would a "free Quebec" be?—which can only mean: How free would individuals be in a free Quebec? What would happen to individual liberty?


First of all, one must realize that what happened on November 15, 1976, was far from a landslide in favor of separatism.

The PQ was elected by a small minority: 41 percent of ballots cast, or 35 percent of registered voters. In terms of popular votes, the defeated Liberal Party did not do much worse with 33 percent of the ballots, although it was reduced to 27 seats in the National Assembly. The large parliamentary majority of the PQ was purely a product of a well-known phenomenon of electoral mechanics: the frequent amplification of popular vote by our single-winner, single-round, majority electoral system.

During this last electoral campaign, Parti Quebecois strategists downplayed the separatist issue. They insisted that Quebec's political sovereignty was to be accompanied by an economic union with the rest of Canada. Moreover, they promised that the whole constitutional question would be dealt with separately, in a referendum to be held before the end of their first term in power.

This was good strategy indeed. Although centuries-old nationalist feelings are running high in the country that Voltaire once called "a few acres of snow," opinion polls indicate that at most 20 percent of Quebec voters (that is, roughly the support marshaled by the PQ in the 1973 election) are actually in favor of political independence. It is true that a majority of Quebecers want a new, more decentralized Canadian federation, but it is no less true that the 1976 PQ victory cannot be interpreted as a vote for Quebec independence.

What then did Quebecers vote for? As usual in political majority choices, the preferences expressed by the electorate are ambiguous. There is no way to determine what the 35 percent who voted for PQ candidates actually wanted. The only thing we know for sure is that at least 59 percent (that is, the people who did cast a ballot for somebody else) did not get what they demanded.

Only a rare configuration of many heterogeneous factors, often unrelated to the separatist issue, can explain the Parti Quebecois victory. For one thing, their platform promised a host of social measures, "free" goods ranging from free dental care and day care centers to more public housing. What was the alternative? The ruling Quebec Liberal Party, the only viable alternative from an electoral point of view, was no real alternative. Ideologically inconsistent, but more socialist (or corporate-capitalist) than liberal, it was also perceived as a corrupt government. And do not forget that many voters must have yielded with great pleasure to the Machiavellian temptation of blackmailing les maudits Anglais into giving them a larger share of the state loot. Add to this, among yet other factors, the personal charm and popularity of Mr. Levesque, the PQ founder and leader, and you get enough ingredients for what they call "the people's choice."


It is misleading to suggest that French-speaking Quebecois (81 percent of a provincial population of six million) are imperialistically exploited by English-Canadians.

Although Quebec intellectuals liked to think of Quebec as an underdeveloped, colonial society, they now boast that, among the world's independent countries, today's Quebec would rank 23rd in GNP and 11th in per capita income. It is true that an unusually large chunk of Quebec industry belongs to foreign shareholders, that French-speaking Quebecers have been conspicuously absent from corporate boardrooms, and that their average incomes are somewhat lower than those of English-speaking Quebecers. But as imperialist scapegoats, Americans could qualify better than English-Canadians, and the Quebec Catholic Church better than the United States. Yet it is probably true that the remaining inequality is mainly the legacy of old, complex, and mostly impersonal historical circumstances.

However important the language and cultural issues are on the Quebec political scene, and although English has remained the language of big business, one cannot seriously argue that Quebec is a cultural colony of imperialist English Canada. The 1867 British North America Act, the basic document of the Canadian constitution, gave provincial parliaments a wide and clear jurisdiction over cultural matters. For more than a hundred years, the Quebec government has had exclusive jurisdiction over all levels of education in the province. It is therefore as patently false to suggest that the English language was forced upon Quebec schools as it is misleading to say that English was imposed on Quebec courts or government bureaucracies. Only in the federal public service did the Canadian state actually impose English as the working language. One grasps the extent of Quebec's constitutional leeway when one realizes that this province has its own French civil law system.

Most Quebecers certainly do not feel that they are a dominated and colonized people. There is plenty of evidence that nationalism, like socialism, is much more prevalent among well-to-do Quebecers than among the poorer.


"We need a real government," claimed the Parti Quebecois electoral slogan. And a real government they promised. Besides many social goodies and a great number of economic controls, their platform included nationalization of automobile insurance, the pharmaceutical industry, and, progressively, of all urban land. They have a standing commitment to finance free education by establishing a compulsory civilian draft—and this is in a country that has never known military conscription in peacetime! (What is bad about a military draft, they believe, is not the draft but the military.) Many Parti Quebecois supporters argue for outlawing private schools. The ultimate goal, as often expressed in public debates, is to "invent a new society." It is in order to achieve this that they want all the power of the sovereign state.

What the new ruling gang of Quebec has been doing during the past 18 months shows that, like other states, they already have far too much power. They have nationalized part of the automobile insurance industry and are now proceeding to "buy," willy-nilly, one asbestos producer. Their new language legislation has (among other things) severely restricted access to English minority public schools. They have passed new labor legislation that outlaws "scabs." They have increased the minimum wage to $3.27 (compared to $2.65 in the United States) and indexed it. (No wonder Quebec unemployment now exceeds 11 percent!) They are considering more direct protection of Quebec publishers against foreigners (and foreign ideas?). And to make sure that nobody spends too much money criticizing them, they have adopted amendments to the Election Act that drastically limit private contributions to political parties—to the point where it would now be virtually impossible to start a new one. In the same spirit, they have introduced new legislation that would tightly control political contributions and activities of private citizens, as well as groups, during future referendum campaigns. And so forth.

Social democracy, Swedish-style, is the official ideology of the Parti Quebecois. Now, this is just another brand of socialism and statism. There lies the main significance of November 15, 1976: the advent of an official social-democratic government in Quebec. It is unfortunate that, seen through the average commentator's glasses, this crucial fact has been blurred by the more flashy, but rather unimportant, vision of a new flag in the United Nations. (Similarly, most foreign commentators have neglected the crucial fact that Quebec terrorists—except perhaps for the very first waves in the early sixties—were primarily socialist extremists.)

It is true that social democracy represents a relatively mild form of socialism. In principle, social democrats are willing to tolerate a nominally private economy, provided that they have enough power to impose an egalitarian redistribution, to oversee the whole economy, and to intervene in society whenever required by "the public interest"—any time, any place. So what's the difference between social democracy and the welfare-state capitalism that our "liberals" have already imposed on us? Isn't Jean-Francois Revel, a mild French social-democrat, entitled to argue that the United States is becoming a model social-democratic state? These questions apply, a fortiori, to Quebec, where the previous so-called Liberal government had been implementing mild socialist ideas with growing enthusiasm. Why, then, is the advent of an official social-democratic government in Quebec of any significance?

Granted that there is only a difference of degree between the degenerate "liberal" state and its social-democratic heir. But this difference nonetheless represents a big move toward the totalitarian state. This is only too well illustrated by Parti Quebecois policies.

The 1976 Quebec election is an important step on the road to serfdom. This becomes even more obvious when one realizes that it is on the more openly authoritarian range of the (wide) social-democratic spectrum that the PQ is browsing.

One must be simpleminded or completely ignorant of Quebec politics, however, to imagine KGB manipulations or some other diabolic conspiracy. The statist trend in Quebec (and in Canada) has been fueled by well-meaning but naive politicians like Mr. Levesque (and his Canadian counterpart, Mr. Trudeau). In Quebec as in other countries, the state is like a cancer: it does not need a conspiracy to grow.


One factor that makes the situation of liberty in Quebec worse than, say, in the United States, is that Quebecers seem to lack any libertarian (antistatist) tradition that could be relied upon against statist invasions.

Remember that the French colony was a product of l'ancien regime and absolute monarchy. It was conquered by a new master in 1760, 29 years before the French Revolution. A representative assembly conceded by the British in 1791 spent much of the next half-century trying to substitute its own brand of authoritarianism for that of British administrators. If the "Patriots' Revolt" of 1837-38 and its aftereffects carried any ideology other than nationalism, it would appear to be closer to Rousseau's absolutism than to any real libertarian concern. This armed uprising was followed by the Union of the two Canadas (English and French) under a single government in 1840 and, as a consequence of this new threat of cultural assimilation, by the withdrawal of Quebec society under the skirt of its Church and its elite. By the time the 1867 Confederation had largely dissipated the threat, the Catholic Church continued for a long time to appear opposed to government intervention, but mainly because it claimed the exercise of state power for itself.

The only libertarian moments of Quebec's political history were probably during the early 20th century, when the Liberals (the "Reds") were in power. The party that defeated them in 1936, l'Union Nationale, was a coalition of conservative elements (the "Blues") representing an anticapitalist, corporatist, and nationalist reaction backed up by the Church. ("Do not forget that heaven is blue and hell is red," was already a well-known admonition of clergymen in times of election.) Led by an autocratic, simpleminded, populist politician named Maurice Duplessis, l'Union Nationale was to remain in power for most of the 1936-59 period. It is tragically ironic that this long reign, la grande noirceur ("the deep darkness") as the period has been labeled, also came to be associated with liberal capitalism and libertarian ideals.

If the government of l'Union Nationale did not meddle more with the economy, it is partly because they just did not like change and because they shared the Church's disdain of economic activity, and partly because it was not yet so fashionable for Western governments to intervene in everything and because Duplessis simply did not know how. Yet, remember that this government introduced minimum wage laws, planted the seeds for the nationalization of hydroelectric companies, and generously subsidized agriculture and its rural constituencies as well as church organizations ("The bishops eat from my hand," said Duplessis). Observe how little these rulers cared about individual rights, civil and economic, especially when their authority or the Church's mission was deemed to be involved. The famous and infamous 1937 "padlock law" (struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1955) forbade an individual to use his own property for disseminating communist propaganda on the free market. It is this same government which, in its drive against the Jehovah's Witnesses, struck one of their contributors, a restaurant owner named Frank Rocarelli, by revoking his alcohol license! (The case was brought to court, and in 1959 the Quebec government was condemned to pay damages of $30,000 to Rocarelli.) No question that the Duplessis government was an authoritarian, antilibertarian regime.


Mistaking this for free-market capitalism, progressive intellectuals thought that socialism must be the cure. This is why the new intellectuals of the fifties and the Liberal Party turned more and more to the panacea of state intervention. Among them were Robert Bourassa (the Liberal prime minister defeated by Rene Levesque), Rene Levesque himself, and Pierre Elliot Trudeau.…To a large extent, Quebec politicians are authoritarian products of an authoritarian tradition. Think of Bourassa's Liberals boasting about having adopted 526 new pieces of legislation in six years of government! Or think about Trudeau proclaiming the War Emergency Measures Act in October 1970—suspending habeas corpus just as British Governor John Colborne had done in 1838.

It is probably significant that Rene Levesque is the one who, as Liberal Minister of Natural Resources in the early sixties, completed the nationalization of hydroelectric power. What has been called the "Quiet Revolution," starting with the 1960 victory of the Quebec Liberal Party, was mainly a replacement of traditional authoritarianism by "progressive" authoritarianism, of the Church by the State: a hocus-pocus of power aggrandizement.

It is true that mentalities were changing. There was a blooming of expression, creativity, and the arts. But instead of being satisfied with the dismissal and noninterference of former authorities, the new intellectuals and politicians called on the new secular state to guide, underwrite, and often impose a social progress for which they claimed paternity. From the creation of a centralized and monstrous Department of Education to the formation of numerous state companies, what they proudly called l'Etat du Quebec meddled with virtually everything. A decade later, some estimates put at nearly 50 percent the share of government (all levels) in Quebec's national income.

The Catholic Church soon boarded the new bandwagon of power. Under the guise of an old friend, the third option between "ruthless capitalism" and "atheist Marxism," the Canadian bishops' conference has been advocating nothing else than state socialism. Sauve qui peut!

One would look in vain for a libertarian intellectual tradition in Quebec. Even in the (very politicized) academic and educational circles, virtually nobody is aware that there exists such traditions distinct from the different brands of socialism. The French libertarian economists and publicistes of the 19th century (B. Constant, J.B. Say, Molinari, Dunoyer, etc.) were not heard across the North Atlantic and remain unknown. It is probably an understatement to say that the great Tocqueville himself is not widely read. From the Anglo-American classical liberal tradition, a few ideas filtered through British legal institutions and American connections, although free-market doctrines appear to have been imported only recently by a few Quebecers who were exposed to Chicago School economics while studying abroad. This small-scale bootlegging did not make headlines, and the current renaissance of libertarian ideas, from Hayek's and Mises' Austrian economics to Nozick's minimal state and Rothbard's anarcho-capitalism, has not touched Quebec's intellectual scene. Like the Catholic Church, Quebec tends to remain always a few decades behind in the stream of ideas.


Another reason Quebec's cavalcade down the road toward statism is especially frightening lies in the dangerous, albeit natural, alliance between nationalism and socialism.

Statist nationalism leads to socialism. National rights are nothing but collective rights in disguise. And what are "collective rights" if not a statist fiction against individual rights? The nation-state is still a State; nationalist statism is still statism. And, as a French Academician wrote, "The statist is a man who is becoming socialist, and if he dies still a nonsocialist, it is simply because he has not lived long enough"(Emile Fagut, Le liberalisme, Paris, 1902).

Conversely, socialism usually finds nationalism to be a useful ally. For, contrary to socialist hopes, socialist programs must have a geographical locus; and the nation-state is the most easily available alternative. It is easier to take over the government that is closer to the people! Although there may be exceptions (for instance, a nationalist reaction against a centralized socialist state), one would normally expect nationalism and socialism to be mutually reinforcing.

Quebec provides a good case in point. Most socialists (of the fifties and of later generations) have become Quebec separatists or nationalists. The ones who have not are still working hard to find a Canadian nation: Aren't we all exploited by American capitalists from coast to coast? From their side, nationalists have smoothly glided into socialism. Consider the evolution of the contemporary separatist movement: born in 1957 with a right-wing, elitist, nearly theocratic organization, l'Alliance Laurentienne, and after having subsequently gone through a dozen different organizations from the extreme left to the inconsistent right, the movement was finally consolidated in the left-wing, elitist, secularly theocratic Parti Quebecois.

And only with the glamor of socialist rationalizations was the Quebec separatist movement able to achieve some success. Conversely, official socialism could never make it alone, without the emotional support and pretext of nationalism; the Canadian social-democrat party, the New Democratic Party, was never able to elect a single candidate in Quebec.


To be free or not to be free, that is the question. What kind of State would an independent Quebec have? Concerning the future, including the "economic future," of an independent Quebec, this is the important question. The more State you have, the less freedom. We must not forget how unfree a so-called free Quebec could be. The considerations sketched above certainly do not indicate much of a prospect for liberty in a sovereign Quebec.

Of course, Quebec's independence has not been proclaimed yet; and one cannot be sure it ever will. But one must not discount that possibility. Within a decade, the proportion of Quebecers favorable to political independence has probably doubled. Although it seems to have remained stable for the last few years, a new rise may well be around the corner now that separatists have access to the powerful propaganda instruments of the Quebec government. And even if the promised referendum (expected sometime in 1979) turned down separatist proposals, there is nothing to prevent the Parti Quebecois from trying again as long as it remains in power.

I have argued elsewhere (Montreal's Le Devoir, September 20 and 21, 1977) that, from a libertarian point of view, the Canadian alternative is preferable. One should choose the lesser of two states, and it appears that the statist trend would be more irresistible in an independent Quebec than it is in a federal Canada with some common-law tradition. I would maintain this position, although I would still stress its contingent nature.

Whichever way one looks, the future of liberty in Quebec does not look rosy.

A few intellectuals and politicians are starting to realize that what remains of liberty is threatened. An important convention was held by the Quebec Liberal Party last November under the theme of "Freedoms in Quebec," and the proposals submitted to the membership revolved around a refreshing, albeit often inconsistent, free-market manifesto project. Unfortunately, and despite the apparent enthusiasm of the membership, the overall outcome of the convention was no less timid than the original project. Like the fragrance of an unfamiliar woman, the perfume of liberty is fugacious.

Perhaps one should not yield to pessimism but should instead trust that Quebecers would make the right choices if only they had a real alternative. But this does not change the fact that what is now happening in Quebec does not augur well for the future of liberty. Quebec separatists have nothing in common with the Boston Tea Partiers. In the kind of free Quebec now being planned, only the Monster State would be free.

Born in Quebec, Mr. Lemieux is an economist. His book on economics and political philosophy will be published in France this fall. He makes his home in Montreal.

* The noun and the adjective Quebecois refers to an inhabitant of Quebec. The name Parti Quebecois pretentiously implies that this party is the only genuine Quebecers' party.