147 Years Since Its Birth, It’s Still Fleur-de-Lis and Maple Leaves for Canada

Today is Canada’s 147th birthday and as a present to itself, the country might finally be putting its national identity crisis to rest. Since its birth, America’s northern neighbor has been grappling with a conflict between its British and French roots. The residents of its French-speaking province, Quebec, have by and large felt no great ...

ANDRE PICHETTE/AFP/Getty Images
ANDRE PICHETTE/AFP/Getty Images
ANDRE PICHETTE/AFP/Getty Images

Today is Canada's 147th birthday and as a present to itself, the country might finally be putting its national identity crisis to rest. Since its birth, America's northern neighbor has been grappling with a conflict between its British and French roots. The residents of its French-speaking province, Quebec, have by and large felt no great deal of affection for their English-speaking countrymen, and have several times attempted to secede. But now, on the occasion of Canada's birthday, that split appears to be healing -- at least in the minds of Quebec residents.

According to a new poll from the Association for Canadian Studies, a Montreal-based think tank, some 64 percent of Quebecois, as natives of Canada's predominantly French-speaking province are known, say they no longer feel the need to choose between allegiance to Quebec and Canada, perhaps signaling the end of Canada's cultural divide.

Quebecois separatism and nationalism have long been defining features of Canadian politics, and Tuesday's finding marks a significant milestone for a region that has often resisted being part of Canada and has agitated for independence. Canadian territory was first colonized by France in the 16th century and remained under the French colonial yoke until 1763. Ever since, New France, now called Quebec, has existed as a distinct culture within Canada. This separate identity has often clashed with the rest of Canada, with its roots as a British colony. That conflict has spawned two popular referendums for independence, in 1980 and 1995, both of which failed.

Today is Canada’s 147th birthday and as a present to itself, the country might finally be putting its national identity crisis to rest. Since its birth, America’s northern neighbor has been grappling with a conflict between its British and French roots. The residents of its French-speaking province, Quebec, have by and large felt no great deal of affection for their English-speaking countrymen, and have several times attempted to secede. But now, on the occasion of Canada’s birthday, that split appears to be healing — at least in the minds of Quebec residents.

According to a new poll from the Association for Canadian Studies, a Montreal-based think tank, some 64 percent of Quebecois, as natives of Canada’s predominantly French-speaking province are known, say they no longer feel the need to choose between allegiance to Quebec and Canada, perhaps signaling the end of Canada’s cultural divide.

Quebecois separatism and nationalism have long been defining features of Canadian politics, and Tuesday’s finding marks a significant milestone for a region that has often resisted being part of Canada and has agitated for independence. Canadian territory was first colonized by France in the 16th century and remained under the French colonial yoke until 1763. Ever since, New France, now called Quebec, has existed as a distinct culture within Canada. This separate identity has often clashed with the rest of Canada, with its roots as a British colony. That conflict has spawned two popular referendums for independence, in 1980 and 1995, both of which failed.

But even as residents of Quebec are feeling less of a divide between their Canadian and Quebecois loyalties, they aren’t exactly rushing into Canada’s embrace. When the ACS pollsters asked Quebecois how attached they feel to the rest of Canada, they found that their level of attachment has remained mostly the same over the last 10 years.

For now, Quebec has largely put its ambitions for independence on ice. In April elections, the separatist Parti Quebecois, the main political vehicle for Quebecois nationalism, lost control of the provincial government to the more federally-minded Liberal party. Many observers saw it as a sign of a newfound fondness for Canada among the province’s historically antagonistic residents.

Moreover, Quebec’s young people aren’t hankering for independence. According to the ACS poll, 65 percent of Quebecois between the ages of 18 and 24 say they are strongly or somewhat strongly attached to Canada. This finding is in line with a June poll from ACS that found 61 percent of Quebecois were not interested in separating from Canada.

Though Quebec’s independence movement isn’t gaining much traction, nationalist sentiment in Quebec is being channeled toward other expressions of the province’s French-inspired identity. During its time in power from 2012 to 2014 at the provincial level, the Parti Quebecois pushed projects promoting the French language and religious secularism. Though it died in the provincial legislature, Bill 14 would have mandated that Quebec’s business owners advertise in French and restricted the use of English in the workplace. The Parti Quebecois also tried to promote secularism through such things as the Quebec Charter of Values, which, if approved by the legislature, would have banned public employees from wearing religious symbols, such as the Muslim veil, at work.

Despite the dissipation of Quebec’s identity crisis, there is still appetite for similar legislation. Among francophone respondents, 54 percent would like to see the charter become a topic of public debate once more after it effectively died with the Liberal party’s electoral win.

That public sentiment is having an impact on Quebec’s Liberal government. This fall, Premier Philippe Couillard is planning to introduce a diluted version of the charter at the provincial legislature.

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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