Ethnic Nationalists Won the Quebec Election. What Fueled Their Rise?

Don't mistake this election for a Trump-inspired victory - Quebec's toxic anti-immigration politics are home grown.


Francois Legault (CAQ), the province's premiere-designate. Mathieu Belanger/Reuters/Newscom

To the surprise and chagrin of multicultural Canada, it turns out that Quebec separatism, long thought a dead movement, was actually in hibernation. The Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) won a majority government, ousting the immigrant-friendly centrists and trouncing the establishment separatists. The victory marks the first time since 1966 that the province won't be governed by either the left-leaning Liberals or the social democratic separatist Parti Québécois.

The CAQ is only seven years old but its agenda should have a familiar ring to Americans. The party combines populism and center-right economic policy prescriptions with a brand of hardline ethnic nationalism that would make Stephen Miller blush. Premiere-designate Francois Legault aims to cut immigration by 20 percent, strengthen the province's existing ban on face covering, and expel newcomers who fail a test of French literacy and "Quebecois values."

Why is this happening in Canada? Wasn't Canada supposed to be a gentle haven of multiculturalism with a bilingual, bhangra-dancing prime minister, that opened its borders to 55,000 Syrian war refugees and a steady stream of American exiles self-deporting from Trump's America?

The temptation to see Trump as a bellwether for La belle province should be resisted. Nor can we blame Canada for Quebec's nationalistic turn. Though it's known as the Great White North, Canadians overall have maintained positive attitudes towards immigrants of every hue and shade for the last 20 years, even as the numbers of foreign born have swelled to over 20 percent of the population.

No, the forces bringing the caquistes to power in Quebec City are home grown and they've been a long time in the making. Hostility toward immigrants is deeply embedded in Quebec's separatist political culture, predating Trump's candidacy by decades, traceable to the failed 1995 referendum on Quebec independence.

The separatists lost that contest, which would've redrawn the map of North America, by the agonizingly close vote of 50.58 percent to 49.42 percent. When the final results were tallied, and it became clear to all that Canada would not break apart, Quebec's separatist Premier (and Captain Kangaroo lookalike) Jacques Parizeau infamously pointed the finger at immigrants for shattering the dream of an independent, French-speaking nation.

"It's true, it's true we were beaten, basically, by what? By money and ethnic votes, essentially," ("C'est vrai qu'on a été battus, au fond, par quoi? Par l'argent puis des votes ethniques, essentiellement") said a belligerent Parizeau, going off script, to an audience of his howling supporters at the Palais des Congress in Montreal.

Many understood "money" as a rhetorical jab at Montreal's Jewish community. As a culturally distinct minority of English-speaking Canadians, Jewish Quebeckers overwhelmingly opposed nationhood. The premiere's raw remark so succinctly summed up the post-referendum resentment that it's still periodically revived, 23 years later, whenever Canadian pundits wish to remind readers how ugly nationalist politics can be.

Ugly though it was, Monsieur Parizeau had a point. Immigrants who've chosen Canada as their home have never been persuaded to abandon it. And while most of Quebec's immigrants are native French speakers, few take interest in the acrimonious language wars that animate the separatist cause. With the 1995 referendum decided by a single percentage point, immigrants are arguably the reason why Quebec remains a Canadian province today.

Separatists didn't always see immigrants as an obstacle to nationhood. Gérard Godin, a poet-politician, and the first immigration minister of the Parti Québécois, argued in the early 1980s that foreign-born citizens were essential to the project of francophone sovereignty. Immigrants, he hoped, would be welcomed on their arrival in the province; in time, they would come to self-identify as Québécois and then they would vote for independence.

Godin's 1983 ode to immigrants, "Tango de Montréal," is written in brick outside of Montreal's Mont Royal metro station.

Seven thirty in the morning in the Montreal metro
it's full of immigrants
they get up early
in that world

so if the old heart of the city
is still beating
it's thanks to them.

Mont Royal metro station, Montreal. Photo by on flickr.