Fragments of a Revolution, Part V: Francization, Quebec Nationalism, and Sovereignty-Association

Part V: René Lévesque – Francization, Quebec Nationalism, and Sovereignty-Association

The exercise of self-determination is absolutely necessary to the maturity of a society which possesses its own identity…If a society which is conscious of its identity, which really feels itself to be a cohesive group, and therefore different from the others, does not go through at least a certain part of its history with the attributes of sovereignty, it will always remain a tainted society. It will be subject to a form of dependence in relation to the colonialism which formed it, and which is in fact preventing it from reaching maturity. Quebec must break this vicious cycle. – 1979[1]

Like Trudeau, René Lévesque had travelled extensively during the 1940s and 1950s,[1] becoming known publically in Quebec as a commentator on the international affairs program Point De Mire.[2] As a public intellectual and a contributor at Cite Libre he strongly opposed the corruption and conservatism of the Duplessis government, hailing its fall as “deliverance to our generation which had been held back for so long”.[3] His liberalism was no less modern than Trudeau’s and his commitment to an activist democratic state as the agent of development and civic solidarity in opposition to clericalism no less pronounced. Conservatism was keeping the province economically backwards. Quebec had been “held back” and needed to find salvation in rattrapage.

Despite the changes that had occurred in Quebec…yesterday’s nationalists were locked into economic conservatism…[looking for] their deliverer [in] Mussolini, Salazar, and De Valera, [and preferring] corporatist representation to democratic election.[4]

In this vein, Lévesque dismissed the nationalism of Duplessis as “a nervous conservatism…part and parcel of the colonized mentality”.[5]

During his tenure as a minister in the Lesage government – as Minister for Hydroelectric Resources and Public Works (1960-1961), Minister for Natural Resources (1961-1965), Minister for Family and Welfare (1965-1966) – Lévesque’s rhetoric acquired progressively deeper nationalist undertones. Breaking with his former colleagues Trudeau, Marchand, and Pelletier, who all travelled to Ottawa to join Lester Pearson’s government in 1965,[6] his economic modernism increasingly emphasized Quebec’s self-assertion from within. The precondition for this self-assertion was self-ownership. Lévesque declared his objectives as Minister for Hydroelectric Resources and Public Works to make every citizen a “shareholder in the exploitation of the immense national wealth of which Quebec is blessed”. Rattrapage required French Canadians to “use the state to pull themselves up from their position of servitude”.[7] As such, measures like nationalization were required to “counter a well-implanted colonial system, the second-class status of the francophone majority, and a systematic remote control of major decisions by Ottawa and the head offices of foreign corporations”.[8]


By the mid-1960s, Lévesque’s socialism had become inextricable from his nationalism. The departure of the likes of Trudeau, Pelletier, and Marchand for Ottawa therefore disturbed him profoundly. Epanouissement was for him an internal phenomenon that implied Quebec’s self-mastery through a nationally oriented democratic socialism; any renewed form of federalism was merely a reaffirmation of the old colonial relationship. This attitude was at least partly shaped by his experiences elsewhere in Canada. As part of its early efforts to secure a foothold among Quebec’s left wing intellectual class the newly formed NDP had offered Lévesque membership, which he declined. Remarking later on the decision, he spoke of feeling increasingly “cut off” from Canada as he came to know it better. Each time he left Quebec he “had the impression of going into a foreign country, where my language was not understood, where my outlook and my way of working seemed ‘foreign’”.[9] As early as 1963 he declared “Canada [is] made up of two nations, not ten provinces…I felt like an Indian leaving his reserve each time I left Quebec”.[10] The pan-Canadian socialism sought for by the NDP was therefore not an adequate alternative to liberal federalism.

The federal government became the principle adversary of Lévesque’s blossoming nationalism. It was a “monster…growing out of all proportion”[11], the quiet revolutionaries who had travelled to Ottawa complicit in its expansion and, by extension, in Quebec’s continued servitude. In his memoirs, published shortly before his death in 1987, Lévesque did not restrain his criticism and disdain for the agents of French Power:

The new Quebec bothered [Anglo Canadians]. It was beginning to make them frightened. [What] was being asked of the ‘French Power’ that had taken over the reigns in Ottawa was that it make the province that was getting a bit too uppity step back into line.[12]

The reality of an anglophone majority in the rest of Canada thus made alternative forms of federalism unpalatable to Lévesque. Quebec’s distinctive character made it more than one province among ten and the efforts undertaken by Trudeau’s Liberals in Ottawa were dismissed as superficial, foremost among them the Official Languages Act which Lévesque referred to scathingly as “wicket bilingualism”. As long as the character of the rest of Canada remained so predominantly anglophone, the francization of federal offices was an inadequate defence of the French fact.[13] By the end of the 1960s, sovereign independence had become the only recourse for Lévesque’s hardening nationalism. Attempts to advance the policy of “sovereignty association” (a form of independence, which we will return to shortly) within the Quebec Liberal Party were rebuffed by Lesage. The minister who had overseen the nationalization of hydro that had been so central to the Quiet Revolution abandoned the party most synonymous with it and established the Parti Quebecois.[14]

The victory of the PQ in the 1976 Quebec election was the first step towards the new relationship between Quebec and Canada for which Lévesque hoped. In government, it pursued a policy of “francization” – what was, in many respects, the inverse of Trudeau’s bilingualism policy. Bill 101 imposed unilingualism on all Quebec signage[15] and was understood by its architects to be a further step in the decolonization of Quebec. Remarking on its success some years later, Lévesque referred to Bill 101 in this vein:

In Montreal especially…we must never again let the city centre take on that bastard look we tolerated far too long with servile passivity…the policy of francization must be maintained in all important enterprises.[16]

Though the subsequent plans to achieve Sovereignty Association via a referendum were defeated in 1980, it hardly needs saying that the vision at its core did not depart from the national scene. As the genuine and natural outcome of the Quiet Revolution, Lévesque had imagined Quebec entering into a new relationship with Canada in which it “repatriated” control of the key levers of political and economic power.[17] Such measures would complete the decolonization of Quebec and allow it break with the prevailing liberalism of North America and move towards a socio-economic model resembling Swedish social democracy.[18] Nevertheless, Lévesque imagined the newly independent country maintaining a cooperative relationship with its neighbors. It would obtain seats on international bodies like the United Nations and would enter, with Canada and the United States, into continental defence arrangements like NATO and NORAD.[19] It would also keep the Canadian dollar.[20]

Lévesque’s constitutional vision imagined a Canada without Quebec or, perhaps more precisely, a Quebec that was freed from its existing political association with Canada. While French Power had been content to project itself into the federal government, Quebec Nationalism believed emancipation to be incomplete without independence. During the 1970s and early 1980s, Quebecers asserted one vision at the federal level by voting overwhelmingly for Trudeau, and another in their own province by supporting Lévesque.[21]

Fragments of a Revolution so far 

Part I: 1759

Part II: Postwar Quebec – Conservation and Contestation

Part III: The Quiet Revolution

Part IV: Pierre Elliot Trudeau – Federalism, French Power, and Canadian Nationalism


[1] Ibid. 6.

[2] Dufour. 95.

[3] Lévesque (1979). 10.

[4] Ibid. 9.

[5] Lévesque. 180.

[6] English. 416.

[7] Lévesque (1979). 12.

[8] Ibid. 18.

[9] Ibid. 15.

[10] Ibid. 19.

[11] Ibid. 19.

[12] Lévesque. 228-229.

[13] Lévesque (1979). 92.

[14] Lévesque. 217.

[15] Dufour. 95.

[16] Lévesque. 290.

[17] Lévesque (1979). 81.

[18] Ibid. 135.

[19] Ibid. 68-69.

[20] Ibid. 73.

[21] Dufour. 76.

[1] Lévesque (1979). 74.


How to win at Twitter

I spend a lot of time on Twitter. And let me tell you folks: it’s a great place to expend a few thousand of the finite number of hours any of us has on this lonely little blue sphere. From the subversive politics of the most recent Marvel flick to the relative merits of the latest celebrity commencement address, to the sheer offensiveness of the latest offensive thing, it’s truly a place where important debates are happening!

Unfortunately, many of these conversations are not as productive as they could be. This is because many of you still do not understand how to best make use of this new digital domain. As a grizzled veteran, I’d like to offer a few tips which will help you make every interaction as constructive as possible.

  1. Whether you’re out to initiate an argument or just joining an existing one, make your entry or lede as hostile and abrupt as possible. There is no time for equivocation, nuance, or becoming educated about a thread or all sides of an issue before jumping in.
  2. All conversations on Twitter should be understood as open, unrestricted warfare. Your goal should be nothing less than the total defeat and decimation of anyone who challenges or questions your position.
  3. When responding to your opponent’s tweets, do not answer directly. Instead, use the Quote feature to add your own comment as an addendum to whatever it is they have said. Think of it like you’re talking about someone right in front of you as if they aren’t actually in the room, just like you’d do with a friend, partner, family member, or co-worker. Where possible, lead with a rhetorical question written in ALL CAPS that calls out your opponent’s last tweet. “SERIOUSLY?!”, “WTF?!”, “IS THIS A JOKE?!”, “HAVE WE REACHED PEAK HYPOCRISY?!” are all effective in this regard. In doing so, you are not being passive aggressive: you are being dominant.
  4. A good way to throw a prospective challenger off of their proverbial toes is to be as hyperbolic as you can be right out of the gate. DO escalate the thread as quickly as possible and DO NOT back down, regardless of how your titular nemesis responds. Be sure to tell them how wrong they are and look for any misuse of language and/or spelling errors which you can call out in a carefully orchestrated fit of histrionics designed to instantly rally anyone observing the scene to your cause.
  5. Assume from the outset that your opponent has only the worst intentions in engaging you. A person would not be disagreeing with your latest Hot Take unless they harboured a sinister agenda designed to obstruct progress or were born with some essential piece of their soul missing.
  6. If you find yourself on the defensive, feel free to undermine your interlocutor’s sincerity or intellectual credibility by any means necessary. Do this by quickly skimming their Twitter feed and look for anything which may help you impugn their motives or virtue. Absolutely nothing is off limits.
  7. All attempts at conciliation should be regarded as signs of weakness. In the event that your opponent concedes a point you’ve introduced, in whole or in part, use this as an opportunity to strike with as powerful and incendiary a broadside as you can muster.
  8. If, following said broadside, your opponent still refuses to stand up again and fight, segue as abruptly as possible into a debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
  9. Never feel guilty about hurt feelings. Your interlocutor’s injured sense of self worth is but the first birth pang of the new civilization.
  10. Remember that the only valid mode of argumentation is individual anecdote. If you feel something strongly, that means it must be true. Anyone saying otherwise is trying to undermine your right to free speech.
  11. The best resources for bolstering your argument will always be whatever your talking head of choice has most recently said about the issue at hand. Nothing is required to establish validity, beyond their sheer self-righteousness which you should feel free to ride like a majestic creature of the sea rides the surf.
  12. Make copious use of unverified blog posts and websites, mined from the deepest crevices of the internet which you can excavate. This will demonstrate that you are not victim of establishment thinking.
  13. Having followed the above, and inevitably triumphed, give your opponent a few days to cool off. Having done this, wait for the opportune moment to remind them of the conversation and your astounding victory in the battle of wits that was. If they happen to follow you, try doing this by subtweeting regularly until they are provoked into taking the bait.
  14. Repeat steps 1-13 as needed.

You’re welcome!


Social media and the end of nuance

I spend a lot of time on social media for someone so irritated by social media. Here are a few observations:

-The default tone of social media isn’t so much outrage as it is hyperbole. People tend to communicate from the extreme poles of emotion. We’re likely to be either very angry about things most of the time or relentlessly gushing about the sheer wonderfulness of everything. Measured perspectives are less common, in large part because they don’t attract as much attention or get as many likes/favourites/comments.

-Social media has made the boundaries between our public and our private lives very porous, because it is both private/voluntary and a constant public performance of our identities, thoughts, and emotions. As a result, fewer and fewer things are truly public or private. We aren’t witnessing the “privatization of public space” so much as we’re observing the relentless publicization and politicization of private space.

-Social media has become a powerful tool for political and social organization, but it has simultaneously debased both. We are much more likely to assert our moral perspectives as a given, without feeling the need to substantiate or found them upon anything beyond our own presumed rectitude. The communal spaces we exist in – which historically have been shaped by the overlap of material and social forces like class, religion, race, gender, etc. – are increasingly becoming spaces of our own choosing and creation. This may be welcome, but one consequence is that our horizons are constantly shrinking, and that we exist in smaller and smaller spaces of greater and greater agreement.

-Because much of social media, Twitter especially, is completely public and global we are losing any sense of locality or context. A remark made in one context is increasingly treated as a kind of world-historic event which is taken to represent anything and everything about a particular issue, conflict, or incident.

-And because social medias like Facebook and Twitter allow for extremely precise micro-targeting and segmentation, we now find ourselves in a paradoxical situation in which we’re simultaneously addressing smaller and smaller audiences whilst also speaking to everyone in the world at once. The result, at least as far as politics is concerned, is a kind of pickled moral and ethical lexicon that tries to strain itself of any specificity or ideology. Yet, at the same time, both corporate bodies and political parties are using social media as a tool to quantify and communicate preference-specific messaging to smaller and smaller sections of the electorate/market audience (same thing now, really).

-The end result is either a smarmy zealotry about X or Y that tells consumers/voters/tweeters/audiences/etc. that their individual preferences, tastes, identities, and perspectives are supremely important and valuable OR a completely homogeneous language strained of any clear commitments or proclivities. In either case, the end product contains zero nuance and makes a virtue of doing so.


Against aspiration

I’m fed up with hearing the soundbite “aspirational middle class”, which has become something of a meme in the British press over the past several days. The analysis of Labour’s defeat [see my previous post] already emerging from the Blairite wing insists that the party’s campaign rhetoric was perceived as anti-business and, more specifically, as anti-aspiration. I very much like this response to that talking point, aimed at Labour leadership candidate Chucka Umanna, from one Margaret Morris of London. She writes:

Could Chuka Umunna please explain who exactly are the “aspiring middle classes” whose interests have been neglected by Labour, as opposed to the “squeezed middle” whom Ed Miliband wanted to protect? And what exactly are their special aspirations, different from those of the rest of the population, all of whom want a good future for their children? The growth of the middle classes last century was mainly brought about by a rise in the number of “middle-class” jobs in the public sector – doctors, teachers, administrators etc. Their particular “aspiration” in recent years has been for the services in which they work to be adequately funded and, individually, not to be made redundant due to cuts. This was at least partly addressed in the Labour manifesto.

Small businessmen, a key middle-class group, who aspire to grow their businesses, have been held back in recent years by problems obtaining credit from our inadequate, publicly subsidised banking sector. That was addressed in the manifesto. In terms of simply aspiring to get rich, the biggest single group now is probably private landlords, especially buy-to-let ones owning a substantial proportion of what used to be publicly owned housing. Is this the group Umunna is worried about? We have just had an election dominated by soundbite propaganda, not serious analysis of policy options. Will the election of a new Labour leader follow the same course?

The “aspirational middle class” is a soundbite engineered to be maximally inclusive and minimally concrete. It is Britain’s post-Thatcherite/New Labour analogue to “the American Dream” – that mythical journey of growth, personal prosperity, and self-creation which is theoretically open to all and practically open to few. The superficial elegance of this vision is that we all ostensibly have access to it, if we choose. The reality is that people belong to different classes, both social and economic, and aren’t more or less “aspirational” because of it (at least not in the commonly understood meaning of the word). Conceptualizing social disparities and economic structures in terms of personal aspiration is a convenient and very deliberate way of ignoring how these structures benefit some and constrain others. The built-in myth of self-sufficiency, in which the individual is always solely and completely responsible for her own outcome, also very deliberately neglects the inherently social nature of our lives: the schools which give us education, the libraries which give us books, the communities in which we are raised, the parents and others who give us care, the roads and transport networks on which we travel.

Neither Britain’s benefits claimants (the majority of whom are in work, contrary to popular belief) nor its poor need a Labour Party that offers them sermons on how to be a better version of some idealized and thoroughly non-existent aspirational middle. What they need is protection from the rapacious landlords and energy barons who keep raising their rates; new housing which the market has steadfastly refused to create; a tax system which asks Russian oligarchs and people living on landed estates to pay into the system like everyone else; educational institutions to which everyone has equal access; regulations which prevent employers from paying starvation wages in exchange for back-breaking hours. In extremely modest fashion, Ed Miliband’s election platform recognized this reality – the fashionable idea that such things are “anti-business” or “anti-aspiration” is only true insofar as they contradict a very narrow and particular version of it.

Relatedly, it bears worth asking why we should privilege a particular kind of personal aspiration which mostly or wholly aspires to make and keep a small number of people extremely wealthy and which elevates the acquisition of personal wealth to the status of cardinal social value.

If this is what “aspiration” now officially means then I, too, am against aspiration.


The strange death of Labour Britain

It’s hard to get any work done today, with the results of last night’s UK election still swirling around my head. They’re deeply depressing for many reasons, not least because the most disadvantaged people throughout the British Isles are going to suffer at least four more years of brutal austerity and cuts while the plutocrats and their political wing – the Tory Party – continue to laugh all the way to the bank.

But I also can’t help thinking about what’s ahead for the Labour Party now that Ed Miliband’s modest flirtation with a social democratic program has produced a failure. The old Blairites, who never really went away, will doubtless seize upon this opportunity to ditch even tepidly egalitarian language and thinking and return to their old, wretched neoliberal line. In some ways, Labour’s defeat has its origins in 1992 when Neil Kinnock lost to John Major, thus paving the way for Tony Blair and the total eradication of socialism from Britain’s socialist party. In another way, the defeat originates in 1979 after the ejection of the last Old Labour government led by James Callaghan. During the 1970s there was arguably an opportunity to save British socialism by radicalizing it. Instead, the radicalization came from the right and Britain’s Labour movement has never really recovered. The strange death of Labour Scotland also arguably has its origins in the Thatcher era.***

(***The SNP surge, which wiped out all but one Labour seat in Scotland, is an important lesson in political alienation and mobilization. Unfortunately, the large SNP contingent – the third strongest at Westminster – won’t be in a position to do much except protest.)

As far as I can see, most of the leading candidates to replace Miliband are relatively young career politicians who are not particularly committed to social democracy and are unlikely to seriously challenge Tory narratives around taxation, spending, and inequality. Labour’s left will mount its perennial challenge to the establishment and will doubtless be shut out again. Meanwhile, things in the country are going to get steadily worse and UKIP – a fake populist party led until this morning by a privately educated ex-banker – may become the principal beneficiary.

The Conservative Party fared badly last night too. As others have noted, a 36% vote share would have relegated the Tories to the opposition benches in many other elections. The coming referendum on EU membership and the possibility of Scottish succession mean that the Conservative Party is also, potentially, facing a serious crisis. To beat Labour, the Tories and their allies in the press deliberately stoked some of the most vile and chauvinistic English nationalism and they will now have to pay the price. With only a small majority, their situation is more precarious than it appears – this is, perhaps, the only redeeming thing I can find in last night’s results (though I suppose the very satisfying destruction of the backstabbing Liberal Democrats also counts for something).

I care about Britain for reasons which are both personal and political. Studying the history of its Labour, socialist, and radical traditions has been a huge source of intellectual inspiration and it hurts to see what’s become of the party of Clement Atlee, Michael Foot, Anuerin Bevan, Keir Hardy, and Tony Benn. The idea of vulgar toffs like Boris Johnson and David Cameron continuing to squat in Downing Street makes physically sick, but not as much as a Labour Party which contributes to the demonization of immigrants and people on welfare. Nostalgia really serves no one interested in progress, but it’s hard not to think about the spirit of hope that prevailed in 1945 when Labour won a landslide, created the NHS, nationalized coal, rail, and steel, and built the welfare state out of the rubble of the Second World War and wonder where it went.

Forgive me for being sentimental, but it’s hard not to feel like a beautiful idea, real or chimerical, has slipped away and that it may be gone forever.


Alberta, the morning after

I’m as pleased about what happened last night as anyone, but it must be said that the weeks and months ahead will not be easy. While being optimistic and hopeful, we should be mindful of what happened in Ontario between 1990-1995 – shades of which have already been repeated in mid-campaign salvos by members of Alberta’s business community and all of its leading newspapers.


If oil prices continue to fall, it will doubtless be said that the NDP’s minimum wage and tax policies are to blame; the business community will call for austerity and try to force the government to make cuts and freeze public sector salaries. I’m afraid we can probably look forward to every divide and conquer trick in the book, particularly once the PC and Wildrose parties have successfully dusted themselves off.

One trump card held by the new government is that the province’s principle resource is buried deep in the ground – the oil industry, unlike others, can’t simply withdraw investment because it doesn’t like who won the election. But it certainly can (and almost certainly will) make trouble, particularly if the NDP’s promised review of royalties doesn’t turn out favourably.

Despite these notes of caution, it must also be said that Alberta’s unthinkable election result opens up a new and exciting realm of possibilities: One of the economic heartlands of Canada, and the spiritual home of Harperism, has just elected a majority social democratic government (Harper’s own riding of Calgary Southwest is now represented by an NDP MLA) committed to raising the minimum wage, corporate taxes, and those on high earners. In what could prove a hammer blow to Alberta’s patrimonial style of politics, the NDP has also pledged to eliminate corporate (and union) donations to political parties meaning that the province’s plutocrats will have to walk into the legislature through the front door like everybody else.

Congratulations for achieving the impossible, Premier Notley. Now comes the hard part.


Freedom for whom?

I’ve been thinking about this old post of Corey Robin’s in relation to the recent developments in Indiana. In 2012 campaigners in Washington, including both leftists and libertarians, won a major victory and secured the legalization of marijuana. The first person to legally purchase it was promptly fired – having fought for marijuana legalization in the name of “freedom”, many libertarians would also defend the “freedom” of an employer to fire someone under these circumstances.

So what does “freedom” really mean? Is a person free to consume marijuana voluntarily without fear of persecution or termination from work, it being legalized on the grounds of extending liberty? I think in contemporary political discourse we often fall into the trap of thinking that the so-called “left/right divide” is a division about equality versus freedom, with the left championing the former and the right the latter. This just isn’t the case. The question isn’t about whether we emphasize *more* freedom or *more* equality. It’s about understanding that the two are deeply interrelated, and that “freedom” without equality is license and not liberty.

The central question of democratic politics isn’t about balancing this or that amount of freedom against this or that level of equality. It’s about whether we want a society in which employers are “free” to exploit their workforce; shareholders are “free” to lay waste to entire communities by relocating to where labour is cheaper at the drop of a hat; shop owners are “free” to persecute someone because their sexual identity makes them uncomfortable or conflicts with their private religious beliefs – or one in which people are free from alienating work and poorly-paid jobs; free to develop their capacities and use their time towards voluntarily chosen ends; free to exist without fear of persecution or poverty; and free to love or have sex with whoever they damn well please.

The central question, in order words, is: freedom for whom?


Fragments of a Revolution, Part IV: Federalism, French power, and Canadian nationalism

Part IV: Pierre Elliot Trudeau – Federalism, French power, and Canadian nationalism

We want to bear witness to the Christian and French fact in America. Fine; so be it. But let’s get rid of all the rest. We should subject to methodical doubt all the political categories relegated to us by the previous generation; the strategy of resistance is no longer conducive to the fulfillment of our society. The time has come to borrow the ‘functional’ discipline from architecture, to throw to the winds those many prejudices with which the past has encumbered the present, and to build for the new man. Let’s batter down the totems, let’s break the taboos. Better yet, let’s consider them null and void. Let us be coolly intelligent. – Cite Libre, 1950[1]

Pierre Trudeau’s contribution to the inaugural issue of Cite Libre presaged much of the kind of politics that he would later champion in his political career: first as an MP and, shortly after, as Justice Minister and then Prime Minister. Like Lévesque and his fellow contributors at Cite Libre, Trudeau drew heavily on the self-assurance and zeal for modernization upon which the Quiet Revolution had been built. Though his exposure to Keynes, Locke, Mill, and Marx at Harvard had not caused him to abandon Catholicism, he had returned to Montreal in 1949 with a firmly secular view[2] that privileged the rational over the spiritual and development over tradition in the political sphere. This is implicit in many of Trudeau’s writings throughout the 1950s and 1960s in which he repeatedly prefaces arguments with statements such as “the function of a state is to endure the establishment and maintenance of a legal order that will safeguard the development of its citizens”[3] or “a fundamental condition of representative democracy is a clear allocation of responsibilities”[4]: his starting point always being the role of states or democracies as such rather than those presently existing. For Trudeau, the modern democratic state and its machinery were constructions that rested solely upon reason, the realm of the spirit being a completely private matter. His approach to politics, then, was overwhelmingly that of a self-conscious modernist with a firm belief in material and social progress, rationalism, and liberal egalitarianism. It was a thoroughly “functional discipline”.

This philosophical grounding governed his trajectory in politics from its earliest days, when he developed a profound hostility to the “Maitres chez nous” nationalism of the Quiet Revolution. In a Cite Libre editorial that appeared just before the toppling of the Union Nationale in 1960 Trudeau offered only a grudging endorsement of Jean Lesage’s Liberals, whose neo-nationalist campaign emphasizing provincial autonomy and special status made him profoundly uncomfortable.[5] In an editorial for Le Devoir that same year, he wrote pessimistically of Quebec’s prospects for modernization pronouncing “I’m confident French Canadians will once again miss the turn…At least, they’ll miss it if their political authorities continue to cultivate mediocrity”.[6] In the forward to his compiled work Federalism and the French Canadians, Trudeau wrote that his entry into politics in 1965 was a direct response to the “Lesage government and public opinion in Quebec [magnifying] provincial autonomy into an absolute” and was an act aimed at defending federalism from the forces of nationalism.[7] The substitution of socialism for nationalism was a line Trudeau was not prepared to cross.

But his hostility to nationalism did not amount to a denial of the French fact in Canada. In a 1965 essay written at the University of Montreal, he wrote that bilingualism should become a national fact in the face of a pluralist reality, reasoning that “the [Anglophone] majority [must stop] behaving as if it held…exclusive rights, and [must accept] the country’s federal nature with all its implications”.[8] In a subsequent address to the Canadian Bar Association he argued that reforms of this nature – aimed at recognizing and institutionalizing the country’s plural character– must ultimately be realized at the constitutional level such that they are free from the prospect of statutory encroachment and enshrined as supreme law.[9] Importantly, like his contemporaries at Cite Libre and the ministers in Lesage’s government, he called for Quebec to pursue a program of rapid economic expansionism:

Quebec must assert itself as a province that fosters moral, intellectual, artistic, scientific, and technical values. When Quebec has produced or attracted a sufficient number of real philosophers, real scientists, real film directors, real economists, real experts in computer technology, and a large number of true statesmen, the ‘French fact’ will prosper in North America, and will have no need of the separatist crutch.[10]

Rattrapage and epanouissement were thus as central to Trudeau’s political project as they were to Lesage and Lévesque. But his conception of Quebec’s modern self-assertion saw a French fact that preserved itself through cultural achievement within an improved federal framework, rather than one that succumbed to the nationalist demand for autonomy. In contrast, he called for the Quebecois to “abandon their role of oppressed nation and decide to participate boldly and intelligently in the Canadian experience”.[11]

The revised federal arrangement envisioned and campaigned for by Trudeau was not one of increased centralization, but rather of more concretely distinguished jurisdictional responsibilities. His defied expectations by siding with conservative nationalists in the late 1950s to oppose postsecondary subsidies offered by the government of Prime Minister Saint Laurent, arguing that Canada’s bifurcated form of sovereignty needed to keep areas of provincial and federal responsibility discrete if it was to remain successful and accountable.[12] Appropriating an idea championed by the federal CCF (of which Trudeau was then a member)[13] and a number of Quebec trade unions in the 1950s he called for a form of fiscal federalism built around the principle of equalization, by which the federal government would redistribute national wealth among the provinces to ensure comparable fiscal capacity and service provision across the country as a whole. Such a model of federalism, he asserted, would preserve provincial autonomy and democratic accountability in the context of a cooperative and cohesive political enterprise.[14]


As we have seen, the federalist model of intergovernmental relations developed by Trudeau during the 1950s and 1960s had as its primary goal the promotion of a liberal egalitarianism in which provinces were yielded their distinct areas of jurisdiction within a framework that treated them as equal partners within a cooperative arrangement. The cultural pluralism of Canada was to be protected by legal reforms that entrenched bilingualism in federal institutions and transformed their exclusively anglophone character. Nevertheless, this vision was aggressively distinguished from the nationalism, which, by the mid-1960s, was strongly on the ascendancy in Quebec. The nationalism of self-determination, by which a particular ethnic group asserted sovereignty through its own state, was not simply an incorrect formulation, but a profoundly dangerous one.

To insist that a particular minority must have complete sovereign power is to pursue a self-destructive end. Because every national minority will find, at the very moment of its liberation, a new minority within its bosom which in turn must be allowed the right to demand its freedom. And on and on would stretch the train of revolutions until the last-born of the nation-states turned to violence to put an end to the principle that gave it birth.[15] 

For Trudeau the nation-state was a remnant of prewar myopia, an obstacle to modernization that had to be condemned to the dustbin of history.

Trudeau’s tenure as prime minister was overwhelmingly spent promoting this vision of federalism. The Official Languages Act of 1969 guaranteed the equality of the French language with English in the federal government and succeeded in bringing a much greater share of francophones into the civil service.[16] His controversial National Energy Program, with its emphasis on fiscal redistribution from richer provinces to poorer ones[17], built on the theory of cooperative federalism he had developed during the 1950s. What was undoubtedly his greatest political achievement, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, embodied the liberal egalitarianism he had once promoted on the pages of Cite Libre in opposition to the more communitarian outlooks of many of his colleagues.

While he may have rejected the atavistic relation between nation and state that came to be championed by Lévesque, the residual traces of the Quiet Revolution’s rattrapage and epanouissement were transmuted into Trudeau’s overall constitutional vision for Canada. Christian Dufour has importantly observed that, given this fact, Trudeau’s federalism can hardly be separated from a kind of nationalism. The essential difference was that, while his “French power” projected itself outside of Quebec and onto a Canada which it sought to make newly assured and self-confident, Lévesque’s nationalism asserted itself inwards. In this sense, “Quebec Nationalism and French Power were two means for the Quebec identity to assert itself.”[18] Through Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the Quiet Revolution became a pan-Canadian phenomenon. But his French Power substituted the communitarianism of the Canadiens for a rationalist liberalism in which individuals rather than groups would form the basis for legitimacy and a constitution that enshrined it, rather than an ethnic identity, would serve as the icon of collective identification.

Fragments of a Revolution, so far: 

Part I

Part II

Part III


[1] Trudeau’s editorial was originally published unsigned.

[2] English. 149.

[3] Trudeau, Pierre E. “Quebec and the Constitutional Problem.” 1965. Federalism and the French Canadians. English ed.: Macmillan, 1968. Print. 21.

[4] Trudeau, Pierre E. “Federal Grants to Universities.” 1957. Federalism and the French Canadians. English ed.: Macmillan, 1968. Print. 79.

[5] English. 336-337.

[6] Ibid. 338.

[7] Trudeau, Pierre E. Federalism and the French Canadians. English ed.: Macmillan, 1968. Print. xix.

[8] Quebec and the Constitutional Problem. 5.

[9] Trudeau, Pierre E. “A Constitutional Declaration of Rights.” 1967. Federalism and the French Canadians. English ed.: Macmillan, 1968. Print. 54-55.

[10] Quebec and the Constitutional Problem. 34.

[11] Ibid. 31.

[12] Federal Grants to Universities. 79-80, 87.

[13] English. 261.

[14] Trudeau, Pierre E. “De Libro, Tributo…Et Quibusdam Aliis.” 1954. Federalism and the French Canadians. English ed.: Macmillan, 1968. Print. 71-76.

[15] Trudeau, Pierre E. “New Treason of the Intellectuals.” 1962. Federalism and the French Canadians. English ed.: Macmillan, 1968. Print. 158.

[16] English, John. Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 1968-2000. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2010. Print. 129-130.

[17] Ibid, 483.

[18] Dufour. 76.


Fragments of a Revolution, Part III: The Quiet Revolution

Part III: The Quiet Revolution, Rattrapage and Epanouissement

The death of Maurice Duplessis in September of 1959[1] was followed by the election of Jean Lesage’s Liberals and the ouster of the Union Nationale on June 22 1960.[2] Re-elected two years later on the nationalist slogan “Maitres chez nous” (“Masters in our own house”) the new government implemented a radical program of economic and social reforms with the nationalization of hydroelectricity at the centre of its agenda. The Quebec Liberal Party’s 1962 manifesto argued…

 [the] unification of Quebec’s hydro networks – the key to the industrialization of every region of the country – is essential as the first condition for economic liberation [emphasis added] and a policy of full employment.[3]

René Lévesque, who served as a minister in both of Lesage’s governments and oversaw the nationalization of hydroelectricity, later wrote that the Liberal Party’s program was “necessary to make up the time Quebec had lost”. Its victory in 1960 symbolized “the moment when the development of the province could open the way for a real awakening of the conscience of the Quebec people”.[4]

At the heart of the Quiet Revolution, then, were the themes of rattrapage (catching up) and epanouissement (blooming). While the first of these belonged to liberalism, the second belonged to socialism.[5] The nationalism of Lesage, Lévesque, and the Liberals understood Quebecois society to have been held back from modernity, in a long slumber of conservatism and colonization from which it had to “awaken”. It was thus necessary to “make up the time Quebec had lost” through a program which, among other things, placed the production of energy under public ownership. By “catching up” – a phrase which suggests the realization of something hitherto repressed or constrained – it could “bloom” – a word which implies actualization and coming into one’s own.

The strong sense of particularity that had been a feature of Quebec’s distinct society since the conquest was thus far from absent during the Quiet Revolution. Instead, its alliance with a conservative clerical authority was swiftly replaced by a new and modernist ideology of nationalism in which the principle icon of cultural identification was no longer the church, but rather an activist and expansionary democratic state. The insular social solidarity around which the partially defeated society of New France had rallied and which Duplessis had sought to preserve now reasserted itself under the banner of economic development, modernization, and democratic socialism. While the influx of liberalism in the postwar period had been a catalyst for this change, the residual social collectivism of the Canadiens averted the atomized individualism of traditional liberal societies. As Nelson Wiseman observes, “After 1960, Quebec’s collectivist communitarianism – now welded with liberalism – persisted in a transmuted, sublimated, semi-socialist form.”[6]

Sociologist Marcel Rioux distinguishes between three ideological eras in postwar Quebec history: the era of Duplessis, which was characterized by “the ideology of conservation”, of conservatism and insularity; the liberally-oriented “ideology of contestation and recoupment”, which emerged in the late 40s and came to power through the Quiet Revolution; and “the ideology of development and participation” which began in the 1960s and identified with global socialist movements for decolonization and national liberation. As Wiseman observes, the third synthesizes, “in Hegelian dialectical fashion”, elements of the other two, preserving their essential contours but also radicalizing them.[7] In this way, the nationalism of the Quiet Revolution represented continuity as well as change.

But Quebec’s reconfigured nationalist consensus – built around rattrapage and epanouissement – was not to last for long, as its principle intellectual and political architects soon radically diverged on the true meaning of their new identity. Should French Canada’s “blooming” lead it towards a new and more assertive role within the federation, or was the inevitable outcome of its modernization the building of an independent sovereign state? Did its distinct society require a new relationship with Ottawa in order to thrive? What was required for its decolonization to really be complete? The remainder of these posts will explore three competing answers to this series of questions, all of which crystallized into constitutional visions that would shape the political debate in Canada for the next three decades and ultimately represent three distinct theories of democratic politics and the modern state.

Part I:

Part II:


[1] Lévesque (1979). 9.

[2] English. 337.

[3] Lévesque, René. Memoirs. Toronto, Ont.: McClelland & Stewart, 1986. Print. 179.

[4] Lévesque (1979). 9.

[5] Wiseman. 174.

[6] Ibid. 170.

[7] Ibid. 173-174.


The weirdness of “anti-Americanism”

In Jonathan Kay’s first note as EIC of The Walrus we find him trotting out the chimera of “anti- Americanism” – something which he says the Canadian left has in abundance but which is also (break out the tissues, comrades!) present on the right.

The phrase “anti-Americanism” is one I remember hearing a lot of around the time of the Iraq war. Then, it seemed to denote anyone who thought the invasion and occupation of Iraq – premised as it was on a combination of malicious lies and utopian fantasies – was wrong, and said so. A few years later the National Post ran a thinkpiece on “the Golden age of Canadian anti-Americanism”, accusing figures in the 1960s intelligentsia such as George Grant and organizations on the left for promulgating this insidious yet almost completely undefined disease. During the 1988 federal election, in which the issue of free trade with the United States was front and centre, the phrase “anti-American” had another renaissance – this time describing anyone who thought the distinctiveness of Canada as a social and cultural entity would be threatened or compromised by the unrestricted access of American companies to our economy.

As you may have noticed, I find the construct of “anti-American” irritating. For Kay, it appears to be motivated by a mix of provincialist prejudice, conspiracy theory, and fear of the modern. Stephen Harper, he suggests, has instilled our meek little backwater with a bit of confidence and ambition (he can’t count the number of times Canada now appears at the top of surveys! *international* surveys, for that matter…).

Several things are curious about the phrase “anti-Americanism” and its frequent appearance in the lexicon of our political right. The first is simply that anyone would characterize something like opposition to the War in Iraq or Free Trade as the product of a prejudice. George Grant’s “anti-Americanism” consisted of an opposition to the placement of American nuclear weapons on Canadian soil, and the belief that the preservation of a society distinct and separate from the United States on the North American continent was something to fight for (even though he thought that fight was doomed to fail).

This brings us to the second and more decisive reason why the phrase “anti-Americanism” is a curious construct on the Canadian right which is that conservatives, having founded the country with the explicit intention of building a society with different values from those of the radical liberal tradition in the United States, now frequently decry expressions of that very same effort.

This gets at the subtext lingering behind the phrase “anti-Americanism”, which is that Canadian conservatives now ultimately want Canada to be more like the United States and others, particularly though not invariably on the left (and not because of anti-modernism, conspiracy theories, or fear) want it to be something different.